Neatness Counts?

honeybearI was frustrated lately by an assignment my son had to complete.  They are studying ancient Egypt and had to create a sarcophagus for a stuffed animal they were going to embalm in class.  It was a very involved project that included making a box colored to resemble a sarcophagus, in addition to making the four canopic jars, a scroll of some sort, a hieroglyph of the stuffy’s name (Cal Bear), and some other doo dads as well.  We spent maybe 8 hours over the week creating this thing (note the honey bear likeness), and when I say we, I mean we – my husband, my son AND myself. The project was worth a lot of points, and my son really wanted it to look nice.

You probably already know the question I am going to ask.  Why?  Why did my son, diagnosed with ADD and seriously lacking in the “neat” and “organized” categories, spend 8+ hours of his home studying time making a sarcophagus for his history class?  Especially because as we were creating the pieces I kept asking him about them – and he already had the knowledge about embalming, the after life, and other Egyptian facts.  The creation was not solidifying the learning, nor was it helping him learn anything new (we won’t even go into the debate about the essential components of a history education are).  He LOVED using the gold spray paint, and he likes artwork, so that was a good thing.  My problem was that it was a history project, designed to help him learn history, but graded on neatness and components of what was basically an art project.  We are already pressed for time at our house.  This did not work for me!

There is also the fact that to be successful in school – and indeed in life – my son will have to learn to take greater care in things like neatness and attention to detail.  In the meantime, however, he continues to have “disorganized” stamped on his B- and C grades, while “understands the content well” is written in narrative reports.  This experience highlights for me the case for standards-based grading in which my son could have an accurate reporting on his knowledge and skill in the content, as well as in larger “life” skills such as organization and collaboration.  It also highlights the case for meaningful homework that will allow my son do delve deeper into important questions rather than will assess his ability to spray paint a shoe box.

Teachers – even if you think you’re not one of them, ask yourselves this – is this homework I’m assigning meaningful to the deep understanding of the larger goals of the learning for students in my class?  And if it is not, how can I change what I assign to ensure that it is.

The Wisdom of Students Part 1: A teacher’s epiphany

UnfairJPEGI received this email from English teacher Steve Hettleman after his AP language students researched education policy and wrote essays about their perfect school.  I served on a panel of experts who listened to the presentations and asked questions.  I will write Part 2 about their ideas next but this email speaks for itself:

“I love when my students make me see things in ways I never considered them before. This from one of today’s Ideal School presentations in AP.

Our current grading practice treats two people who are farther apart in achievement more equally than it treats two students who are closer, even almost identical, in achievement.

“If we stuck strictly to our scales, a student who earn a 79.5% would earn the exact same GPA as the kid who earned an 89.4%, but the kid who earned an 89.4% would earn a completely different GPA from the kid who earned an 89.5%.  In a semester where kids can potentially earn a total of 1000 points, the first scenario says that the kid who earned 99 points more than his peer is closer to that peer than he is to the other peer who earned 1 single, measly point more. (Even if you account for the fact that some of us bump a kid on a borderline grade, the basic fact holds true.)

“In what world other than a school would this make sense? It seems to me that the only reason we translate from a percentage to a letter grade/gpa– hell, the only reason we translate from meeting a standard to a percentage grade in the first place—is to satisfy colleges.

“In essence, we create MORE work for ourselves, and that ADDITIONAL work results in a system that is ILLOGICAL and UNFAIR. This seems to be the definition of madness.”

What do you think about our current 100 point percentage based grading scale?

Next: The students’ ideas on how to make great schools.