Sunday, December 5, 2010

Why Top Down isn't Always Bad

This letter is part of a series of letters taking place between  Jeremy Macdonald @MrMacnology, a 5th grade teacher in Oregon, and Pernille Ripp @4thgrdteacher, 4th grade teacher in Wisconsin; two educators who for the first time are attempting a no grades classroom, as well as limited homework.  We share our thoughts and struggles with creating the best learning environment for our students so that others may learn something as well.  To see the other letters, please visit us here or here.

Hello again,
Initially I was going to start out with more questions in reply to your post, and yes, it is a total reflection of my personality, and then I thought why not reflect a little and then bombard you with questions later?
So I get the time restraint when it came to sharing student grades with them before report cards went home.  I send mine home tomorrow and getting to all 25 students last week was a stretch but I am so glad I did.  Each child was asked to reflect on their own grades - I have to give letter grades - and then meet with me.  The scale is simple A = Secure, B = developing and C = Beginning.  You know how I feel about students failing in 4th grade so that simply is not an option for a grade.  And besides, aren't we so vigorously trying to push our students further away from equating learning with a grade?  Anyway, this format turned out to be informative and wonderful.  Most students rated their knowledge level at the same point as I would have, some were way too harsh on themselves leading to in-depth conversations about self-esteem and math, in particular.  Some, of course, were not even quite sure what the grades meant and had therefore thought A's looked pretty good.  There were tougher conversations but in the end I felt good and I think the kids did too.  See, there will be no ugly surprises tomorrow.  No hiding report cards from parents.  Or pretending to not care about that stupid thing anyway.  I remember feeling like I betrayed the kids on their report cards in earlier years; where was their warning before this had to be taken home?  Instead, the students feel that they know why they are getting the grade they are getting and also that they have the responsibility for that grade.  No longer is the grade the final product of the trimester but rather the beginning of the next one.  What do we know and where do we need to go with it?  Relief...
Ok, I get the learning is learning and we must be excited about all of it.  But can't we just admit to ourselves that bringing technology into the room does appear more exciting than just plain old paper and pencil?  Of course, this is a broad generalization fore there are times when paper and pen are best, but come on, let's be honest here; those kids light up when they can incorporate anything tech into the lesson.  Perhaps in 20 years, paper and pencil will be the novel thing to do and will reclaim some of its lost glory.  
My final point about setting students up for disappointment leads me to another falsehood that we as teachers love to repeat to ourselves when we worry about passing students on the following year.  "All students will adapt and grow to love that classroom and learning environment!"  We pacify ourselves with that statement enough to where we can find ourselves repeating it when having discussions about different learning environments.  I think it is bogus.  I remember years that I hated going to school simply because the learning environment was stodgy and boring and nothing like what I was used to.  Of course, students are adaptable and flexible and all that, but shouldn't we have some sort of technology consensus or minimum of integration at a school at least?  And yes I am dreaming for I know what I am up against but sometimes top-down decisions can prove to be a blessing in disguise.  Now who to persuade on that?
And hey, Macdonald,"Ripp" is what one of my favoritest students on the spectrum calls me.  No titles, no formalities, just a name.  I wouldn't have it any other way.



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