Some Things I Missed This Year

I am a high school teacher, and during a normal year, the May insanity is, well. . . insane. I teach in a performing arts program, and there’s a whirlwind of end-of-the-year ceremonies, performances, shows and showcases. 

In the first week in May, for example, my seniors’ parents host a literary arts banquet. We go somewhere special, eat a tasty meal together, and after dessert, all the seniors read a piece of their work. I give out awards, make a sappy speech, and we watch a slide show designed to make parents cry. We take pictures and go home satisfied that this is just the first of many good-byes before the final one.  

Around the third week in May, we have another banquet for all the arts areas. It’s a giant, swanky affair at the Hyatt Regency downtown. The seniors and their parents dress up, we eat a great meal, and after dessert, two students, chosen by the faculty, give the keynote addresses. Then, we give out the SCAPA medallions, our director gives a sappy speech, we take pictures and go home satisfied that this, too, is another step toward the final goodbye. 

In my class, we have another tradition: they sign the podium. I bring donuts for one last time, and they stand around the podium, reading what other writers have written in years before them and trying to sum up their experience in a witty epigram.

And then there’s prom. And the final play. And the final dance performance. And the final recital. And with each one of these ceremonies, it moves the seniors closer, bit by bit, to the one with pomp and circumstance, the final walk toward graduation. 

In the week before graduation, our seniors practice their walk-in, sitting in the gym in rows, memorizing their assigned seats. Our principal and class officers write their speeches, the chorus and band practice their final performance, the senior class advisor and the counselors check and recheck the diplomas, stacked up in some secret location until they’re loaded up and transported to Rupp Arena.  

And on that day, all the Lafayette seniors arrive in the back parking lot of Rupp off Manchester Street.  Most get there early, ready to line up. Faculty, armed with bobby pins to secure mortar boards, take selfies and give out high fives. Then, in the hot, dark tunnel below the arena, the students wait for their turn to walk up into the light.    

The faculty, in our black gowns and stoles, start the procession, leading our students in. There’s such a feeling of elation, a nervous, joyous chord that binds us all. When the graduating class steps onto the floor of Rupp, family and friends in the stands erupt into applause, screaming and cheering, amid screeching air horns. 

If the high school experience is about anything, it’s about traditions, the familiar unfolding of the school year. And there’s that familiar assurance that after Spring Break, we’re hurtling toward the end, accelerated with each ritual, toward the passing of another class. Another crop of citizens is turned out into the world. In a normal May, there’s an approaching finality. We know it’s coming. We see the last day as it arrives. 

For seniors, it is all held preciously in their hands. For teachers, who participate in this protracted goodbye every year, it is bittersweet, but it’s part of the rhythm of our world. The passing of another year is a comfort, an assurance that the world is tripping along as it should. 

But this year none of that has happened.

None of it. 

This Friday, under the slim overhang of the bus entrance sheltering us from a cold spring rain, I stood with the ten other SCAPA teachers and our director, masked, gloved and six feet apart, ready to see our students. Our seniors had been told we would be there to give out their graduation goods.    

The first car appeared, and then another and another. Students and their parents lined up in their cars. We brought them their packets, stood outside their windows and posed for pictures. We clapped and waved. In the rapidly dropping temperature, we passed out yard signs, senior awards, medallions, scholarship checks, and diplomas. For two hours, we cheered and laughed and cried. 

And then they drove off into the rain. 

When I think of the countless hours of practice, the rehearsals, the drafts written, the feedback given, the early mornings and the late nights that artists and performers give to their craft, this ending—all our ceremonies stripped down to a hastily- snatched picture, a wet yard sign, a tearful goodbye through a car window—fills me with grief.  

I grieve they were not just denied a graduation, but that their final build up was interrupted, their final bow never taken.  One of my seniors recently wrote, “This was not the senior year we expected, nor the graduation we had hoped for, but in the end, it isn’t the graduation ceremony that matters. It’s the friendships we made, the lessons we learned, the community we built together over the last four years.”  

I hope she’s right.

Because tonight I’m grieving. To those not involved in education, graduation and its loss may not seem profound; it’s just a long, drawn out ceremony after all. But it is much more.

It’s the opportunity to say good-bye. In a dozen different ways.

I wanted the Class of 2020 to have the chance to be bored by sappy speeches and eternal picture taking and crying parents and graduation practices and screeching air horns. I wanted them to have had the joy of enduring the May insanity, that I will never again take for granted. 

No Grades: A Twelve Week Commitment to Ourselves

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms, says “students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply.”

Recently, I decided to embark upon a test of this theory. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am no fan of grades. I am disinclined to grade my students’ creative efforts as their writing is always plodding somewhere along Wallis’ Model of Creativity between preparation to incubation to illumination to verification. Some students move through these stages at lightning speed and start other projects; some nurse their projects along for months, deliberating and considering every step in one stage before bursting forth into another.

However, teachers in our district are required to update our online grade books weekly, so I’m required to record something.  After a particularly ugly round of reading quizzes dropped my A-addicted students into the B category, the natives were restless. I proposed to my students a radical system:  what if I gave you an A, so you could stop obsessing about your GPA and concentrate on writing instead?

“Is this some kind of mind game?” said Blair, a whip-smart cynic in the front row.

“Not at all,” I said.  “I’m going to give you an A, so we can get on with the greater business of Art.”

Grades, unfortunately, are often used as goads to motivate the academically inert.  But unlike the majority of classes I’ve taught in a general education population, I don’t have to convince these kids that writing, reading, or learning are worthwhile endeavors. My students have chosen to be in this program. They auditioned and were selected from dozens of applicants seeking a spot in the Literary Arts program, and they have the drive, talent and zeal to write that goes beyond a mere grade.

That being said, I’m still a little leery about embarking on so radical a stance since my students are products of nearly a decade of being told that grades were somehow representative of their mastery of a subject.

 

I have put this theory to the test before.  Eighteen years ago, I was teaching AP Lit in a rural public school in eastern Kentucky. My students felt the pressure to keep their grades up was interfering with their ability to enjoy, engage and commune with, and ultimately understand the literature we were reading.

I drew up a contract granting them a 98% for one six weeks period; I would continue to teach, issue tests, assign essays, and give students real and meaningful feedback on their mastery of the subject, but no test they took or essay they wrote would be given a numerical score.  They already had an A.  With the grade question effectively settled, we could embrace quality learning, driven only by curiosity and intellectual engagement.

The first two weeks after the contract was signed, I thought I had hit upon the elusive educational magic bullet; my students were on fire.  We read Crime and Punishment. We had brave discussions. We scribbled out lusty essays on themes and motifs and symbol.  But, as we continue through the unit, I noticed a decided flagging of enthusiasm.

By the middle of the unit, only two kids read Sons and Lovers, and by the time we got to Jude the Obscure, I carried the discussion, all of them looking forlornly at the floor, ashamed at their lack of motivation.  They reported later that their other classes that were still demanding grades took their attention. They stated honestly they didn’t have the maturity to learn without grades.  Ultimately, they needed something external to motivate them to stay on track.

At the time, I concluded learning must be somehow linked to a measurable product, and I parlayed this experience into a nice article (Mandrell, Liz. “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation.” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28-31). I resumed my regularly scheduled programming the following six weeks, but I never forgot about the nascent experiment that had lost its brilliance in the waning days of my students’ senior year.

 

I was 29 then; I’m 47 years old now, and I hope this experiment will be different for a variety of reasons.  Different classroom culture, different season of my teaching career, and a different grade level.  My current guinea pigs are freshman and sophomores, not seniors who check out by March anyway.

This time, I let the students vote on this experiment.  In a class of 21, eight students wanted grades, and thirteen students did not.   The students who did not want grades, however, were convinced by the effective arguments of the thirteen, and all 21 students signed contracts that granted them a 98% for the progress period.

This time, I also let students set their own group norms, so that the group—

instead of the individual student working up singular motivation to stay on track without grades—could encourage, support, and ultimately, police each other.  Their norms are:

  • Participate in workshop and feedback
  • Best effort always
  • Respect the community with support – Golden Rule
  • Productivity
  • Hold each other accountable
  • We are All Leaders
  • Prove Ms. Prather wrong!
  • Be mature human beings.
  • Keep on keeping on.
  • Set personal goals to keep individuals motivated.

 

And so it begins… I will be blogging throughout the next twelve weeks on their progress. I am as excited as they are about the possibilities of this brave new classroom!