I remember walking home from school, knot in my stomach from the report card that lay in my backpack. I knew what it said and I knew what would happen when my mom saw it; what I didn’t know was what to do about it. Back then, report cards were on several sheets of thin paper and for each class, the teacher gave you a grade and some checks and stuff, and it was all hand written. Of course, when my teacher handed us the envelopes that held these reports inside, they were given with the ubiquitous saying “don’t open these, give them to your parents”. Oh sure Mrs. Welsh, no problem ma’am. Of course, like any other kid, we ripped these envelopes open on the walk home and quickly skimmed for any letters that could induce rage in our parents. And there it was, an “F”, in all its red inked glory, and it was on my report card. The worst part was, it was in health…in fifth grade!!! What in God’s name could I have been doing to get an F in health in the fifth grade? Obviously I was doing nothing, but now I needed a plan. It seemed brilliant, the health page was the last one stapled on my report card, if I simply tore it off, no one would be the wiser. I’d rip off this thin sheet of paper, crumble it up, and toss it in the back of my already cluttered closet. Brilliant plan I thought. This plan was also hatched by a ten year old girl who failed health, so you can see where this story is going.
Anyway, my mom got home later that day and my nerd ball sisters quickly ran to her with their Manila envelopes dangling from the eager fingers, “Here Mom, look at my report card!!” These geeks were so excited and proud that I hoped their enthusiasm would distract my mother long enough to not even realize she hadn’t gotten the third envelope placed in her hands yet. “Where’s yours?” I think she even said it in a way that sounded sarcastic. Like, I know you’re trying to avoid it and I know that nothing good is in it. I hesitantly got up and handed her mine. She scanned all three of ours and seemed happy. Now I’m sure my sisters grades were better than mine, and the letters that were scattered on theirs were likely the first two letters of the alphabet, but all in all, things were going smoothly; and then she noticed. Now I can’t recall exactly how she noticed, maybe she saw my sisters had an extra piece of paper attached to theirs or, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, that my sister would’ve said “hey Ma, do you like my Health grade?” while shooting me a side smirked evil grin. But however it happened, she noticed, and I had to give up the goods. The goods being a crumpled up slip of paper that revealed my inadequacies in a course that should’ve been my “easy A”. My mother was instantly disappointed in me. I don’t remember much after that. I don’t know if I was punished. I don’t remember if that grade ever got better over the year. All I remember is that grades and report cards came to be the days that I dreaded the most.
As an educator I was responsible for providing grades to my students four times a year. These grades were calculated using assessments given in class, student work, participation and any other factors that lead to a valuable assessment of the student. I worked on grades for a long time and spent countless hours on the comments section, detailing every aspect of the student’s progress and goals. What I failed to remember was the 10 year old girl who panicked over these reports. The girl who dreaded the look on her moms face when she handed these over. This girl’s value lie in those reports, even if for a mere moment, and that bothers me.
Grades are important. Please don’t misunderstand the point of this post. I think we need them and I think parents and students have to be aware of them. The point of grades is to truly assess “hey, are you getting this stuff or not?” And not “you are not smart or not good enough”; and that notion is the reason for my post.
Since the beginning of time, children have been “afraid” of report cards. Whether or not they receive good or bad grades, there is a negative connotation that comes with the idea of your teacher handing you an envelope and saying “give this to your parents”. I hate this and I believe the idea of grades needs to be rethought.
I remember giving a test in Social Studies to my students in September. It was one of the first tests we took and any teacher will tell you, kids typically do poorly on these tests. I don’t know if it’s summer brain or not being used to studying for a test but most students don’t do well on their first test. Needless to say, on this particular test, the majority of my kids failed it. I remember even grading them and thinking “What’s going on? What am I missing?” As I handed the tests back, my kid’s faces began to change. Some of them had tears welling in their eyes, others had looks of fear, some even put their heads down, covering the tears that streamed down their face. And then it happened, something in me started to look at these grades and think “no, this isn’t the point. This isn’t the purpose of that assessment”. I said to my kids, “let’s throw the tests out and do it again”. They looked at me confused. I explained to them that the goal of this test was to see if they understood the colonization of America; If they knew why John Smith had come here, and what the heck happened to Jamestown; the goal of the assessment was not to put a big letter on the top that changed their mood. They didn’t get the topic and that meant one thing, I needed to reteach it. I decided to rethink grades. The purpose of them is to assess if the student is truly grasping the information that is being given. If not, what can I do to make it better?
Grades should not be a surprise to a student. In fact, I think kids should be a part of the process of grading. We should meet with them frequently, look at the curriculum taught and together make the decision of how they think they’re doing. Did you understand the math lessons this week? If not, what can I do to help u get there?
If a child and teacher give an honest look at what they were supposed to learn versus what they actually absorbed this could be a life changer for both of them. Kids would always be aware of how they are doing, as well as teachers would always be aware of how they’re teaching. The learning process is a partnership between teacher and student. It is not a dictatorship.
My health teacher should’ve sat down with me and said, “Health is important and you don’t seem to be grasping it, what can we do together to change this?” I know this seems like a utopian idea and maybe it is, but it is something we need to consider. Letter grades on report cards are affecting our children and causing some of them to place a value on it that is far greater than it should. No letter grade can assess my daughter’s behavior when she visits my father in law in the hospital. You can’t grade my daughter on how well she handled my father’s funeral or how she put her hand on my sisters back while she cried over my dad. Grades are not our kids. Grades are simply a road map that lets us know where they are and guides us in figuring out where they need to be.
When my daughters bring their report cards home, I glance at them to see how they’re doing and then I toss them aside. I say “good job” no matter what letters cover them. Grades are not my kids. I want my children to want to excel. I want them to be excited to learn and realize that what they are being taught in school is important. But I want them to have a part in it. Giving them the power to assess themselves and knowing that their teachers are as invested in them as they are.
When my daughters get handed their report card in a week or so i don’t want that to change how they feel about themselves. I don’t want it to change how I feel about them, not even for a mere moment. They’re just silly old letters, but that doesn’t mean I won’t check their closets for crumbled up pieces of paper.