Bumper Cars and Laser Tag: The Last Week of School

It’s the penultimate day of school and I’m staring out my classroom window. This morning, like every morning (unless it’s raining or the temperature drops below 33 degrees), a gaggle of students push and jostle each other around.  One large group of popular kids dominates the corridor leading up to the double doors entrance. The abundant shade and benches make this spot prime real estate. Down a slight hill on both sides of the main strip are “the pits,” small concrete courts bordered by a series of wooden planks. The pits are dominated by boys who alternate between whacking each other with sapling twigs and tossing semi-deflated footballs at each other. Other kids, mostly girls, run messages back and forth between various groups. 

Where would I have been in all of this? Not the popular group. And for sure not down in the pits. I probably would have hung out in one of the peripheral groups, the smaller masses of kids hovering in and just beyond the popular group’s center of gravity. This sort of comparison to my own middle school experience isn’t common, but isn’t unheard of, either.

“Don’t regress. Just because you’re teaching middle schoolers doesn’t mean you become one again.” This is one of the few pieces of advice I remember from my teacher training. It seems foolish, but regression is easier than you might think. 

To celebrate the end of the year, my team is taking a field trip to one of those combination amusement parks/arcades that seem to exist only in industrial parks around the exurbs. After an hour on a bus, my team and I “lead” a throng of middle schoolers into Fun Place/Zone/Land. The building’s atmosphere of recycled body odor and repressed hormones is the kind of smell that’s somehow timeless. 

Without thinking, I latch onto Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher. The two of us get along well, and I know I can count on him for a steady stream of Dad jokes and enjoyable silliness. He’s “fun” in a way I could never be. We spend fifteen minutes wandering through the epileptic cacophony before settling in at a Terminator arcade game. It’s fun, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong; I’m nervous. Of making a mistake, of not being funny, of saying something clumsy, of being rejected. My nerves twitch from memories of my own childhood. 

After the Terminator eats our money, Mr. Carter asks if I want to play a round of laser tag with him. My response is immediate: No thanks. I was spared any noteworthy humiliation during my teenage years, but I’ve always been awkward, perfectionistic, and “eccentric”. “Okay!” he replies affably. 

As Mr. Carter wanders off into the laser tag area, I sense a galumphing that can only mean teenage boys. I turn around to see Jason and Jorge in front of me. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Come do the bumper cars with us!” 

“Uhm, yea, sure! Let me just check out laser tag with Mr. Carter first,” I reply unsteadily. Unfortunately, he’s scooted off and can no longer provide me with an excuse to decline the invitation. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that interacting with anyone outside of a classroom is unnerving. Within the borders of my classroom and the standard 42 minute class period, I’m unstoppable. My purpose is clear. Outside those boundaries, however, is another story. When it comes to just sort of hanging out, my brain hiccups. I don’t enjoy small talk and I prefer to chat about lessons than weekend plans.

Without a solid reason to decline, I follow Jason, Jorge, and a handful of others to the line. I let Jason explain to me how to operate the cars. Jorge already told me while we waited in the line, but Jason was visibly excited to let me know what to do. Besides, there’s something sweet in these small moments of relationship building.

“How do I get my seatbelt on?” I ask no one in particular as I flail my arms around.

“Mr. Anderson! Look!” Jason replied as he took his own seatbelt off and demonstrated the simple process. “Just lift your arms up and let it fall into place.” I’d already figured it out, but again, moments like this make my heart sing.

The operator turned the cars on and everyone immediately smashed into each other. Cackling, we spent the next five minutes caroming around the course, ricocheting off one another and weaving serpentine paths to set up sneak attacks. There was no malice or latent aggression, just fun. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Look! Spin some wheelies!” Jason shouted to me. I looked over at him and saw him spinning in place with Jorge. I cranked one lever back and pushed the other one forward, causing my bumper car to revolve around and around. In that moment we spun as one, howling together as the rest of the kids continued smashing into each other around the periphery of the track. This continued until the operator ended the ride and we poured out of our bumper cars and gave each other daps.

Jorge and Jason ran off to annoy some girls who had congregated near the photo-booth, leaving me alone and fulfilled. Buoyed by the bumper car success, I hazarded a walk past the laser tag area. “Anderson! Laser tag game. Teachers vs students. You in?” My team leader called out from the arena’s vestibule. After a split second of hesitation, I stopped and turned towards the group of teachers and students gathered together. One of my favorite things about teaching is are the endless opportunities it presents for practice and improvement.

“Come on!” Jason yells, hopping up and down.

“You gonna get CRUSHED!” Jorge hollers, aiming an invisible gun at me and firing off a few rounds.

“Absolutely,” I reply. “Let’s do this.” 

 

 

 

The Limits of Community and the Future of Going Gradeless

This is the second in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom. Read the first post here

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The Limits of Community and the Future of Going Gradeless

Teaching can be a lonely profession. Even though I come into contact with 120 people every day, most of the interactions are asynchronous. The relationships I have with my students are authentic, and I do my best to build reciprocity and trust, but I’m in a different place than them. -To restrict our focus to matters of measurement is to miss an opportunity not just to reimagine education, but to reimagine our place within education. o circumscribed by centuries of hierarchical teacher/student dynamics. On the other hand, my peers and I are on equal footing. But the demands of the job keep a tight leash on what we talk about and when we talk about it. When I meet with my fellow 7th grade English teachers, for instance, we’re expected to follow the district’s meeting template. And when it comes to instruction, the three of us are expected to maintain a certain level of consistency in what we teach and how we assess it. This creates a fixed community, a group of teachers bound by shared purpose, goals, and ideally beliefs.

My coteaching community hummed along until I started changing my beliefs about grades. As soon as I started questioning the role I wanted grades to play in my classroom, I began drifting away from the group. Every question I raised about the purpose of our common assignments sent me farther away from my coworkers. The disintegrating kinship I was experiencing had little to do with conflicts of personality or a lack of professionalism. A series of systems all pointing in the same direction can’t accommodate someone being at cross purposes with the flow. I wasn’t a wrench in the system, just an outcast.

Our biweekly meetings stopped being productive. The three of us came to an unspoken agreement that our time together would be spent on filling out IB unit planners for units we would never teach. The unwieldy and overly complex unit template made it easy to spend 45 minutes working on it without actually accomplishing anything. The unit planners became a way to keep up the facade of being on the same page. By the end of the year, the assistant principal was in every meeting to help make sure we were creating common assessments and focusing on similar skills. The situation wasn’t anyone in particular’s fault; none of us wanted to compromise. I was alone, a prisoner of my dogmatic beliefs.

PLNs, Social Media, and Belonging

Fortunately, the demise of my coteacher community was offset by the discovery of an online network of like-minded educators. Frustrated at having no one to talk to, I began reaching out to the academics I’d been reading: Paul Thomas, Alfie Kohn, Maja Wilson, and Lawrence Baines. I asked all of them if they had ever found themselves on the wrong side of their respective communities. Much to my surprise, each of them responded. It was like shouting into the void and receiving an invitation to a secret club filled with the coolest and smartest people ever. Kohn’s response has stuck with me. With his permission, I’ve reprinted it below.

I can certainly sympathize; taking unpopular stands has a way of making folks, well, unpopular.  Naturally it helps to find a kindred spirit if there’s one in your area. Otherwise you have to decide whether to reach out to others — perhaps by sharing books, articles, and videos — in the hope of persuading some of your colleagues to question the conventional wisdom and thereby *creating* some kindred spirits to connect with.

The alternative is to push on alone and connect with colleagues around other stuff so you don’t feel completely isolated.  How best to proselytize, or to sustain friendships in spite of divergent views, depends on your personality and values, their personalities and values, and various details of the situation in which you find yourself — all matters on which I can’t advise you, of course.  

Taking his advice, I decided to search for kindred spirits on Twitter and Facebook. My first discovery was the Teachers Throwing Out Grades community. I was surprised to see a lot of resources about standards-based grading, proficiency scales, and single-point rubrics. All of the talk seemed to revolve around perfecting the measuring of student learning. For me, this is the least interesting part of education. My brain recoils the second I ask it to focus on learning outcomes or to disaggregate state standards. Rather than offering me a safe space to connect with others, the TTOG community kept my attention trained on the very thing I was escaping. On top of this, a few big names seemed to dominate the discussions. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the group was little more than a chance for the big name members to push their books, consulting services, and brands. I lurked for awhile, but I knew I had to keep looking.

Around this time I attended a standards-based grading seminar led by the outstanding Rick Wormeli. I was ecstatic. These could be my people! Indeed, many of Rick’s points, such as eliminating zeroes, questioning the efficacy of homework, and allowing for retakes, fit easily into the definition of teaching and learning I was developing. I knew by the end of the seminar, however, that the SBG community wasn’t for me. Standards-based grading’s emphasis on content mastery and tracking student progress of state standards was a turn-off. So was what I felt to be an obsession with self-assessment. I value self-reflection, and I spend considerable time every year working with students to build their capacity to accurately and honestly evaluate their work. But I’m not interested in linking their self-reflections to rubrics or asking them to rate themselves. To me, this is another example of the managerialism that I’m trying to avoid. There’s nothing particularly interesting or liberatory in asking students to pick apart everything they do, and the majority of self-assessment practices I read about strike me as extensions of the teacher-led grading.

Becoming Something More

I gave up actively searching for a community that would support who I was becoming as a teacher. Anything that dealt with the removal of grades seemed to focus on other stratified systems of measurement. And websites and Facebook groups devoted to pedagogy and improving instruction always discussed traditional grades. So when my colleague Arthur Chiaravalli told me he was forming a new group with Aaron Blackwelder devoted to teachers going gradeless, I was hesitant. Once the Facebook posts and blog pieces started flowing, I started disengaging. It was just too much. Don’t misunderstand me; the quality of the posts and the nature of the questions were fantastic. I just don’t want to talk about grades. That’s why I stopped using them. I’m done with them. Nor do I care about what to use in place of grades. The whole situation can lead me to endlessly compare myself to others, too, a sort of meta-commentary about grades and competition and our culture’s relentless drive to be the best. 

Students should be receiving feedback from teachers and peers. It should help students see what they’ve done well (so they can keep doing it) and what they can improve. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the extent of it. Lots of feedback given by lots of people combined with lots of chances for revision. Feedback comes in many forms, and it’s important to find a method that works, but I think something valuable is lost when a community does nothing but showcase different systems of measurement.

In my own practice, removing grades has given me the opportunity to focus on the stuff that I think matters: building relationships, creating meaningful lessons, and providing a safe space for students to stretch, fail, and grow. For me, this is the work of teaching. This is what I want to talk about and puzzle through. To that end, the gradeless community can function more as a station than a destination, a launching pad for educators to come together before heading off on their own individual paths. The topic of removing grades also feeds into many of the education issues of our time: personalized learning, ESSA, equity, and policy.

I can feel my desire to align with Teachers Going Gradeless and to place the corresponding hashtags on my social media bios. But at the same time, I’m wary of becoming entrenched in any one community. This has more to do with the idiosyncrasies of my personality than it does TG2 (or any community). The relentless drive to connect my heart with my instruction is restless. Perhaps it sees within any community the threat of calcification and the gravity of consensus. I remain confident, however, that restricting our focus to matters of measurement misses an opportunity to rebuild and reimagine who we are as educators.

 

To Change Everything While Changing Nothing: Going Gradeless

This is the first in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom.

Grades

The first thing I tell teachers about removing grades is that it changes everything while simultaneously changing nothing. Students still come to class, complete assignments, and receive feedback. Hyper-students, kids who have successfully mastered the convergent thinking and mimicry of traditional schooling, continue their institutionally and culturally-sanctioned quest to acquire as many points as possible. Students who struggle to play along with the game of school’s idiosyncratic and often artificial demands continue to struggle. Students might report an atmosphere of reduced classroom pressure, but for the most part everything functions as it always has.

From my perspective, the decision to remove grades, quizzes, and tests led to two major changes in how I operate as a teacher. First, I had to learn to manage student behavior without using grades as leverage. No longer could I “remind” a disengaged student that the end of the quarter was coming up and that their parents were expecting honor roll. Without that leverage, I was forced to rethink every assignment. Each lesson needed to serve a specific purpose, something larger than the acquisition or maintenance of a number. This was the second shift. I needed to be able to articulate a convincing and meaningful answer to the ubiquitous student question of “Why do I have to do this?” Authentic learning and grades aren’t mutually exclusive, but the absence of the latter heightens the teacher’s responsibility to foster the former.

The first time I told my students I would no longer be grading any of their assignments, it did not go as I had planned. In my mind, I expected to be greeted as a hero, a classroom revolutionary fighting against punitive systems of assessment. Having just read books and articles by Alfie Kohn, Mark Barnes, and Paul Thomas, I delivered a sermon to my first period class on the tyranny of numbers and letters. No longer would students need to worry about the pressures of report cards or quarterly honor roll lists. Beaming, I faced my students, eager to celebrate what was sure to be a new era of unencumbered learning and intellectual freedom.

Instead, I was greeted by blank stares and barely contained rage.

Some students stood up from their desks and berated me, their small hands balled up at their sides. Others glanced at each other and exchanged looks of “This guy can’t be serious.” Most students, however, responded with indifference. At the time, I didn’t understand. Everything I had read about de-grading the classroom stressed the importance of transparency. Of speaking with your students about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Yet the more I tried to explain myself, the more upset students seemed to become. Stumbling over my words, I attempted to mollify the room by explaining how everyone would be responsible for coming up with their own grade. This didn’t help. Grades rewarded good behavior, many protested, and allowing the kid who rarely turned in work to end up with the same grade as the student who dutifully completed every assignment was unfair. The picture at the top of this piece comes from one such student.

Looking back, I now realize I was experiencing what Paul Thomas described as students’ disconnect between “their behavior as students as opposed to learners” (246). By removing the dominant motivator and purpose of school without warning, many students understandably felt cheated and betrayed. I had done little to foster dialogue around issues of assessment and equity with my classes. If anything, I had gone in the opposite direction; I just wanted everyone to think exactly like I did, an irony lost on me at the time. Rather than encouraging students to discuss issues of assessment, grades, and equity, I was attempting to indoctrinate them with my own ideology. Despite the rocky start, I was able to stumble through my attempts at quarterly portfolios and individual grade conferences.

I took a similar approach with my administration. I decided to wait until I had removed every possible grade, quiz, and test from my classroom before bringing it up to my evaluator, one of the assistant principals. I was terrified. I had no clue what I was doing, and I didn’t want to derail the process before I was able to work some things out for myself. The day I introduced the first quarterly portfolio assessment to the students was also the day I revealed everything to my administration. That morning before classes had started, I shuffled into my administrator’s office. Eyes glued to the carpet, I unloaded a stream of consciousness speech about everything I had been doing. As penance, I begged him to come and observe my portfolio roll-out. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either.

With most of my students and administrators cautiously on board, I was set. As the weeks went by, I realized what Paul Thomas meant when he wrote, “Non-traditional practices in any classroom make direct and indirect commentaries on other classrooms, the practices in those classrooms, and the teachers/professors leading those classrooms” (248). Over time, I came to feel like the entire school building was against me. Honor roll lists and admonitions to “do your best on the test!” plastered the halls. Students were routinely told that school was their job and that grades were their paycheck. Parent-teacher conferences were shackled by a language of learning that emphasized measurable progress and little else

I became known as the easy teacher among some students and even a few colleagues. I don’t blame them. As Karen Surman Paley writes, “Any pedagogy that results in grading students, ranking them in their class, and providing the basis for records…is part of capitalist relations of power and authority” (26). Without points to fight for and assignments to dominate, it’s easy to paint my class as “soft.” I’ve come to accept that regardless of how hard I push my students to read, write, think, and speak critically, a certain segment of the school population will always think my class is easy because students don’t receive marks.

My district does, however, require me to input at least one grade for every quarter. I’ve handled this a few different ways. For instance, students and I have worked together to create criteria that they use to assess themselves during the portfolio process. Most students give themselves B’s. Anything higher risks extra teacher scrutiny, while anything lower has the possibility to cause parental strife. I’ve also tried limiting final grades to only A’s, B’s, and C’s. Most recently, I’ve experimented with giving everyone an A. The less thought I devote to parsing out who deserves what, the more time I can devote to planning meaningful lessons and providing effective feedback.

Now, the only time I discuss my grading policy with students and parents is during back to school night. I explain to families that their students won’t be taking any quizzes or tests, but that they will receive constant feedback about their performance. I hold up a couple of old student portfolios, go over feedback protocols, and try to do everything I can to convince families that their children are in good hands. The only question that continues to stump me is when parents ask how they’ll be able to stay on top of their child’s performance. I have a difficult time answering this question without launching into a diatribe about how traditional grades offer only an illusion of reporting. I want to ask families if they interrogate quiz and test grades with the same level of skepticism. But this is only because I’m self-conscious about my inability to provide a clear and direct answer to the essential and timeless question of “How will I know how my child is doing?” Since dropping grades, I’ve implemented assignments such as Family Dialogue Journals to try and keep parents informed of what’s happening in the classroom, but the situation remains far from perfect. Like everything else, this is a process, and I’m in it for the long haul.

 

 

 

You May Now Begin: Reflections on Testing

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During testing week at my school, students show up dressed in their finest sleeping apparel and rocking their favorite bedtime accessories. In an endearing trend I began noticing two years ago, students walk into their testing rooms loaded down with blankets and pillows of various sizes, shapes, and patterns. They use them to turn their desks into pop-up sleeping quarters when they’re finished testing. Since they can’t go anywhere, speak to anyone, or listen to anything during exams, many have taken to curling up beneath the room’s glaring fluorescence in order to nab a few Zs.

Although I suspect comfort is the primary reason for the bedtime theme, I can’t help but wonder if ornate sleeping masks and emoji pillows are also a quiet form of rebellion. When it comes to the do’s and don’t’s of testing season, student apparel is just about the only area Pearson and the state have yet to dictate.

During testing week, children and teachers are subjected to a draconian set of restrictions. Students spend roughly four hours every morning hunkered down in front of dusty laptops, clicking through absurdly boring reading passages and math problems. The monotony is crushing. They aren’t allowed to chew gum or eat food, and any trip to the restroom or a water fountain requires waiting outside the room until a hall monitor is available to escort them to a restroom. This can take a while because during testing only one student is allowed in each bathroom at a time. For teachers, our four hours are spent tracing and retracing serpentine paths up and down rows of desks. Just like the students, we aren’t allowed any distractions. There can be no reading, writing, or planning. Just continuous motion. So today, for the third day in a row, I walk and they click.

There’s something disarming about watching a student in an Eyore onesie focus intently on a high-stakes exam.

My group starts off strong. Except for an unfortunate bout of hiccups, the first two hours glide by in silence. Every kid is in the zone. Students who are allowed to use bilingual and English dictionaries during the exam put them to work, flipping between page and screen for what seems like every question.

Cracks begin to form during the third hour. Feet start to tap. Exaggerated sighs and poorly muffled coughs ping pong around the room. Students begin squirming in their chairs as if the hunks of faded plastic were covered in ants. At this age, students are 95% arms and legs, and it’s charming to watch them contort their ungainly limbs in an endless (and futile) quest for comfort.

When a kid drops his calculator and everyone whips their heads around to stare at him, I know students have hit the wall. From that point forward, sounds that would have been ignored earlier become the subject of intense scrutiny from everyone in the room. All it takes is a single automatic pencil click to cause half of the room’s heads to whip around and glare at the source. Kids are now raising their hands to go to the restroom at a fever pace.

A girl in the back of the room takes off her oversized sweatshirt and drapes it over her testing shield (a cardboard trifold blocking a student’s primary lines of sight). I watch as she tries to push herself into the plush cave. A boy in the back of the room is about to make a farting noise on his arm, but I glare him down.

With only twenty minutes until lunch, kids who haven’t finished yet begin speeding through the remaining test questions. They don’t want to consult any dictionaries or highlight any evidence, they just want to go to lunch with their friends. Because when you’re in 7th grade, the possibility of missing out on treasured, unfettered social time easily outweighs some test.

I’m not allowed to make any comments other than “Please click on the ‘submit test’ button” or “Be sure to use the pointer tool to select the correct answer,” so I simply continue pacing. Finally, the bell rings. I collect everyone’s materials (any scratch paper is collected and shredded) and dismiss them to lunch. I’m exhausted. I cannot imagine what this feels like for the kids.

And just like that, the moment is gone. Although test results begin rolling in immediately, we refrain from telling the students their scores for a few days. And even then, we only reveal whether they passed or failed (versus the common performance categories of below basic/basic/proficient/advanced).

After lunch, the schedule goes back to normal. I tell the students in my three afternoon classes that they can do pretty much whatever they want. They play Uno, take silly Snapchat pictures, and write on the whiteboards. I play a few hands with them and photobomb their snaps.

Next week we’ll be back to academic content, so on these days I try to give them as much space as possible. The summer itch is real, and I’ll need my strength to lead them through one final (and short) unit. So for now I sit on top of my desk and laugh with them, marveling at the hyperbolic existence that is life as a middle schooler.

“Wait. You’re a Gamer?” Building Relationships with Students

David Foster Wallace once wrote “The vapider the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.” As far as education bromides go, ‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care’ is pretty bad. But for the most part, it turns out to be true. A teacher’s ability to form relationships with their students sets the tone for the classroom.

I sometimes like to imagine that every student has a giant padlock on their chest. This is where a student’s motivation, empathy, and trust live. The only way to access these qualities is to find the right key. Some students make it easy, entering the classroom already unlocked. Others keep their key in easy to find places; revealing its location through their words and actions. Some students keep their key hidden away, hesitant to open up for a variety of valid reasons. While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level.

While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level. Building relationships with students can be challenging. Our default collection includes our personality traits and hobbies. For me that means hyperactivity, goofy faces and voices, video games, and guitar-based music. Over time I’ve come to fashion crude keys from hip-hop, popular apps, and young adult literature. They’re never a perfect fit, but I know enough to apply pressure to a lock. Having the right key can make a big difference in building a relationship with a student.

I have a student who spent the first two quarters sleep-walking through my class. He’d never enjoyed English, he told me. It just wasn’t his thing. I tried jokes, letter-writing, and music, but nothing seemed to fit. Then, during the brainstorming phase for our last unit (critical reviews), he asked me if he could review For Honor, a recent video game. My face lit up; I had my key.

Lots of students play video games of some sort. A stroll through my school’s cafeteria during lunch reveals plenty of kids glued to their iPads, tapping away at Clash of Clans, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, or whatever app the hive mind has become obsessed with that month. But this kid asked me about For Honor, a brutal, team-based game that requires a decent gaming computer or a current generation Playstation/Xbox to play.

The switch in demeanor was immediate. The kid strutted into class the next day, eager to tell me about For Honor’s DLC and recent patch update. From that point forward, I tried to touch base with him about video games at least once every few days. Sometimes that meant willfully ignoring other students so I could ask him what he thought about the game’s declining popularity.

Now that the relationship has been established, I’ll need to spend the rest of the school year keeping it kindled. Today, for instance, I asked him what games he was looking forward to playing this year. This ends up being quite a bit of work. The nature of my job requires me to allocate every spare minute to a task, so building relationships can take some strategic planning. I’ve been known to call students to my class during other periods in order to secure a few minutes of one on one conversation. Sometimes these go well, and sometimes they end up being exercises in futility.

There are plenty of students with whom I will never form a relationship. During the beginning of the year, a student told me he likes to write fanfiction on Wattpad. As a writer who loves pop culture, I jumped at the student’s admission, demanding to read some of his writing. “Nope. I like to keep those worlds separate. School is school, and outside of school is outside of school,” he said. “No offense.” No matter how hard I tried to convince him otherwise, he wasn’t having any of it. As is his right. We get along in class just fine, but our relationship exists firmly inside the comfortable teacher/producer – student/consumer dynamic.

Plenty of students excel in school regardless of how they feel about their teachers. These hyper-students have internalized the game of formal schooling. They know the language of worksheets, assignments, and points, and simply want to be told what to do and how to do it. As is their right. But these students aren’t as fun. I like kids who make me work for it. Who make me stretch and try new strategies and get outside of my comfort zone. These are the kids who help me evolve as an educator.

“Have you READ their writing?” Resisting the Obsession with Mechanical Correctness

Listening to teachers complain about student writing is exhausting. They can’t write; they don’t know where to use commas; they don’t capitalize every i; their spelling is atrocious. When this sort of narrative pops up in mainstream discourse, it’s often to complain about education’s failure to prepare kids for the workforce and to provide a platform for ‘back in my day, teachers made us diagram sentences/memorize parts of speech/etc.’ bloviating.

When these sentiments appear inside a school, they take on a slightly different tenor. Behind every complaint about a kid’s writing seems to be an underlying message about the failure of that child’s previous language arts teacher(s). It’s as if the teacher is throwing their hands up and proclaiming ‘Look at the mess I inherited! What am I supposed to do? How can I teach my content when these kids don’t even understand the basics!’

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, this nagging is counterproductive and can build resentment among teachers. Schools have more than enough finger-pointing as it is; engaging in ego-driven grandstanding serves no one.

To the teachers who regularly engage in this sort of carping, please stop. If you don’t like what your students are producing, then address it in the classroom. Regardless of content or grade, helping children learn to read, write, speak, and think is everyone’s responsibility. These complaints also elevate surface features (spelling, grammar, basic syntax) above all else.

The notion that mechanical perfection is the goal of writing instruction is deleterious to good teaching. It reinforces a deficit view of student writing by focusing on what a child did wrong. It trains us to approach student writing as something to be endured, some sort of gauntlet all language arts teachers must go through. It also encourages teachers and students to see writing as a series of levels to be mastered. Writing doesn’t care about scope and sequence documents or district-wide vertical alignment. It grows in fits and starts, evolving through recursive spirals of progress and regress.

Historically, evidence shows that teachers have been complaining about student writing since the first American universities. In The Rise and Fall of English, Robert Scholes examines primary documents such as university syllabi and commencement speeches to conclude that

English teachers have not found any method to ensure that graduates of their courses would use what were considered to be correct grammar and spelling. A number of conclusions can be drawn from this situation. One is that the good old days when students wrote “correctly” never existed. A second conclusion might well be that two hundred years of failure are sufficient to demonstrate that what Bronson called beggarly matters (spelling, grammar, capitalization, punctuation) are both impossible to teach and not really necessary for success in life. (p. 6)

This isn’t all to say that mechanical correctness doesn’t matter. The above notion that grammar and spelling are not “necessary for success in life” should be followed by “for certain people.” I’m reminded of an anecdote from Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. Emdin recounts a conversation with a white teacher about the role of appearance. The teacher doesn’t understand why her students of color seem so focused on fashion and style. What do these things matter? After all, she says, she comes to school every morning in casual dress. Emdin replies that the ability to be treated professionally regardless of dress is a luxury many people of color can’t necessarily afford.

So of course grammar and spelling matter. Certain errors like nonstandard verb forms and incorrect subject/verb agreement can carry serious connotations of race and class. The legacy of mechanical correctness is steeped in racism, xenophobia, and class anxiety (for more on this, check out Mechanical Correctness and Ritual in the Late Nineteenth-Century Composition Classroom by Richard Boyd and The Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Grammar Teaching by William Woods). As teachers, we have the responsibility to help students understand the intersections of power and literacy. But this doesn’t mean chastising students for every mistake they make in their writing. Nor does it mean requiring every student draft to be mechanically perfect.

My go-to authority for how to treat errors in student writing is Constance Weaver. She urges us to see errors as a necessary component of growth. The following chart, taken from her Teaching Grammar in Context, sums up what a more compassionate and purposeful approach towards errors might look like.

Along with the solid tips outlined above, remember that students should focus on superficial edits using their own writing, on a topic they care about, during the final stages of the writing process.

If nothing else, stop complaining about student writing. It’s counter-productive to our mission and makes an already exhausting job that much more draining. If you’re not enjoying yourself, neither are they.

 

Structure Speaks: Exploring the Difficulty of Scholarship in the Middle Grades

I spent the last few weeks co-writing a couple of articles on writing instruction and critical pedagogy. The process was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. I somehow managed to sucker two infinitely more talented educators into letting me write with them, and I didn’t want to disappoint. By the end of the process, I felt hollowed out.

The cognitive demands required to engage in serious reading and writing after a day of teaching took me by surprise. I’m a teacher and a writer. So why was this so hard for me? For sure, writing is complicated, and I’ve spoken about my ADHD before. But my struggle to complete two articles suggested to me that something else was going on, something deeper than just feeling tired or having a hard time focusing.

On a lark, I went through the four recent issues of Voices from the Middle, NCTE’s middle grades journal, and performed a quick tally of the authors. I placed each author into one of three categories: P-12 teachers, academics (professors, think tank/policy people, and education scholars who were not currently working at a P-12 school), or both. Out of the 37 articles I checked, 25 (68%) were written by academics, eight (22%) were collaborations between P-12 teachers and academics, and only four (11%) were written solely by P-12 teachers.

My sample size was small, and my methodology simplistic, but it’s hard to imagine that a more thorough analysis would yield dissimilar results. So what’s up with the under-representation of primary and secondary teachers? I’ve come to the conclusion that the structures comprising P-12 public education actively discourage scholarship. For the sake of this post, I define scholarship as any sort of self-directed intellectual activity existing outside the immediate sphere of P-12 schooling. Publishing, speaking at academic conferences, engaging in intellectual discussions on social media, and maintaining meaningful professional correspondences are all examples. Additionally, for the remainder of this post, I’ll be using “middle school teacher” as a stand in for P-12 teachers.

Structure 1: A Teacher’s Day

The first set of structures working against middle school scholarship are those governing the average teacher’s time. Every day I have two planning periods. One of these planning periods is always eaten up by mandatory meetings with my grade level team or my content level team. The other planning period is by necessity a dumping ground for everything else: administrative work, meetings with students or parents, email, responding to student work, trips to the restroom, and if I’m lucky, actual lesson planning.

The day to day structures governing my behavior leave little time for off the books intellectual activity. Everything I do during my planning periods revolves around the quantitative, rational, and standardized nature of teaching. Discussions about assessments deal with the how, rarely the what or the why. Lesson planning is firmly yoked to standards, assessment data, and measurable skills. While these activities are of course important, they are primarily technical in nature and insular in focus. There is no time for building intellectual networks with colleagues when every moment of collaboration is funneled through corporate models of efficiency and outcomes.

Structure 2: A School’s Expectations 

The next structures problematizing teacher scholarship are a school’s expectations. I have never worked at a school where teachers were encouraged to engage in intellectual activity beyond the occasional reading group for admin-approved literature. Or where teachers were celebrated for undertaking scholarly pursuits. In my experience, when teachers are celebrated, it’s for having children or getting married, planning student-teacher conferences, completing various rounds of testing, helping out with after school events, etc. I mention these activities not to disparage them, but to use them as evidence of what is expected and what is celebrated.

In my experience, professional development typically deals with the technical aspects of teaching, as well. In the last few years, I’ve attended trainings on thinking protocols, rubrics, and using technology to support struggling students. I’ve enjoyed many of these sessions, but they’re showcases for technique. Outcomes are already determined, tools are already assigned; all that’s left is to show up and absorb.

Structure 3: The Ontology of the Profession

Growing up, I don’t remember any of my teachers discussing intellectual pursuits or recent publications. Did I see them as good teachers? Yes. Masters of their craft who could make me work harder than I thought possible? Of course. But not intellectuals. Everything my teachers said or did fit into the insular and artificial world of schooling, assignments, metrics, and rankings. Years later when I became a pre-service teacher, I spent most of my time reading articles on various instructional strategies and then pontificating on how I might use each strategy in my imaginary class. There was no talk of reading or writing outside the transactional nature of the assignment.

The situations I’ve outlined are not new. Historically, morality, patriotism, and self-sufficiency have always been more important to American public education than intellectualism or scholarship. Policy elites, philanthrocapitalists, and politicians have been dictating what’s best for teachers and students since at least the late nineteenth-century. Combined, these structures play an essential role in determining who teachers are, what they do, and what is expected of them. Scholarship and critical discourse have never been part of a teacher’s subject position. We are continuously being spoken for.

Final Thoughts

We function within a set of structures discouraging organic, intellectual pursuit. It’s not that teachers are unintellectual. It’s that our intellectual resources are trained forever inward, focused on the narrow and technical aspects of our craft. These are important issues, but they represent only a sliver of what it means to be an educator. There can be no discussion when outcomes are planned in advance. Productive and informed discourse cannot exist when there is no time to think, read, write, and learn.

Although the structures discussed throughout this post aren’t going away, they can be loosened and expanded. As teachers, let us begin this process by telling our stories and continuing to connecting through social media. Pick one or two academics to follow and communicate with. Link up with other educators and seek out conferences and journals to participate in and write for. Form your own reading groups. Figure out what absolutely must be done and what you have some wiggle room with. Over time, our individual actions will accrete. The structures won’t crack, but they’ll expand.