Stickers and Grades

I’ve had a few garage sales in my time. When I move from one place to another, I’m always surprised by how much junk I’ve accumulated. Selling my junk to people who consider it treasure is a good solution for everyone.

It is harder to sell things I no longer need, but am still sentimentally attached to. I can’t keep everything; there isn’t room. Even in the house where I now live, which is huge, space is running out. I’ve lived here over ten years, longer than any other house, and the extra space has somehow become packed with both junk and treasure.

It’s not hard to put stickers on things I have no attachment to – books I didn’t care for, old VHS tapes I can’t play anymore, kitchen gadgets I can’t remember why I bought, clothes that I don’t like wearing.

But putting a value on the guitar I’ve had since seventh grade, or my son’s saxophone (no longer played), or anything I spent a lot of money on is more difficult. When a man picked up my guitar and offered me 50 cents for it, I knew I could never recover what it was worth to me. I kept it.

If I held garage sales more often, I might be able to figure out what I really value.

This is what I hate about grading papers, too, except I’m not trying to sell. I’m the picky buyer looking at a beat-up guitar that someone has loved, trying to decide what I ought to pay for it.

At the same time, I’m intensely aware that some of the papers I have to assess are valued highly by their authors, who may have spent a lot of time and effort on them. They may have proudly shown them to a parent who told them it was good. When I offer them a C, they may be crushed.

This is the dilemma for me: kids are not good judges of their own stories and poems – no more than I’m a good judge of my own writing. This story I’m reading may be the best thing this child has ever written. This child may never have written a poem before, and their limping attempt at iambic pentameter, though awful, may have opened their eyes to new possibilities. They may have learned something, and that is, after all, the whole point.

It’s easy for me to assess a work that its author clearly didn’t value — hurriedly done at the last minute, un-proofed, showing no sign that they have learned anything about writing from me or even care. If I offer them a D for their work, they are well-satisfied.

But to offer a D for something that the author values as treasure is painful. Education is a delicate balance of reality checks and encouragement. Mistakes have to be corrected if learning is to happen, but a learner can be shut down by harsh criticism.

I have seen it happen. One terrible test grade, one D- on a paper they’ve worked on for weeks can make the entire year go down the drain. They stop trying, ensuring that their output is worthless. It’s better to fail for not trying than to try and end up with a D.

This weekend I’ll be evaluating a semester’s worth of work written by thirty students. I’m not ashamed to say that sentiment will play some part in my assessments. If I’ve seen any progress, I will value it. If I’ve seen even a tiny spark of creativity ignited, I will fan it.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jschwamm
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 13:37:26

    I love the metaphor of valuing things in this post … and the way you’ve developed the implications when the teacher and <b?student value the work so differently. I suppose in a perfect world we’d have time to sit down with our learners, have a conversation with them, and find out what value they put on their work. But how do we make that happen in the imperfect world where we actually live?
    Over at the Joyful Latin Learning blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue. Perhaps one key is to encourage students to do more self-assessment, using the same criteria we, their teachers, will use to assess their work. But to do this, we have to be clear about our own criteria, and we have to communicate clearly.
    What do you think?


  2. escher dax
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 23:30:22

    I agree: criteria + communication is where it has to begin. But we will have to teach self-assessment; students aren’t used to being brought into the discussion and tend to think their opinions aren’t valued. But once they understand what really matters, it could make a big difference in how they view learning.


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