Grading Metaphanalogies [Guest Post]

My wise and well-spoken colleague, Erica Speaks, keeps the conversation going this week with another guest post, while I work on Kenan stuff.  Yet again, she makes a strong case:

You know, someone pointed out to me that anyone who reads our online debates from afar would think Paul and I don’t get along at all and must spend every opportunity finding something to ferociously debate. Well, that last part may not be far off, but overall, we actually agree on most things – pedagogically and otherwise. Honest.

We often discuss, debate, and think of things in terms of metaphors and analogies. Paul coined the term “metaphanalogies”. I like it – it’s how things make sense to me. So, when there’s a topic like grading where we have gone round and round about it, you can imagine we’ve used several. Well, he’s offered several, and I’ve shot them down. I’ll explain.

SPORTS: “The scoreboard reflects the game, not the practice.” Paul has pointed out that we judge players based on their performance in a game, not how they do in practice.

My problem with this metaphor is that in it, we the teachers are not fans, but coaches. Coaches of course judge players on their practices. In fact, players are denied playing time or even cut from teams. In the pros, players are fined or suspended from games, based on things that may happen in practice. Imagine, “If you don’t do your homework all week, don’t even bother showing up to third period.”

Also, in sports kids try out and are placed in classes or teams by their ability levels. (I don’t teach in leveled classrooms, but if you do, perhaps this aligns more for you.) Understand that I’m not arguing public school classes should have these things in common with sports. I believe in equal access to learning. And luckily, no one has to turn a cartwheel or throw a perfect spiral for success in life. They do, however, probably have to get through middle school. Again, more reasons the sports metaphanalogy doesn’t really work for me.

MEDICAL: Paul discusses here adjusting a patient’s temperature to encourage arriving to the appointment on time. This came up again in our discussion where he was “air quoting” me here.

As for temperature, I have a problem with comparing grades to something which student have no control over and can exert no effort to change. While I agree a grade is a measurement, I don’t agree that it is only a measurement. Height is only a measurement. If only people over 5’8” were allowed in college, I’d view this as a prelude to pessimistic resignation for many students.

So, what “metaphanalogy” correctly reflects grading? Throughout our discussions, I’ve really wrestled with this question. I knew when I answered it, I’d be able to get my head around the work that grades should reflect and the message they should send.

I realize it looks like I’m writing to a recurring theme, but I’ve determined that weight is not a bad analogy to grades. When this clicked for me, I had to concede several things to Paul’s arguments, but I think he owes me a few in return as well. 🙂

Even when one carefully follows a diet and exercises, the pounds on the scale do not always respond. Yes, you hope that effort yields results. Logic even suggests it; however, it cannot be guaranteed. For example, some people have conditions, like diabetes or a slow metabolism, that (much like a learning disability or lower IQ) make it an unequal playing field.

So, Paul, I hereby publicly acknowledge that the practice, the effort, should not be expressly configured in results. (Would that it were – many a time I have been faithful on my diet but not a pound has left me.) We don’t just read the scale differently because we put in the effort.

However, my resistance to discount effort lies in having experienced how hard it is to keep trying when results don’t come as easily as they might to others. (And yes, I am admitting that in this analogy, I am the equivalent of the “slow learner”.) I worry about that frustration point with our students. I fear those who need encouragement the most will simply give up because they will never measure up.

This issue is intensified by the reality of a fixed point of mastery for all. You could take me down to the skeleton, and I’d still be larger around the middle than the eighty-pound four-and-a-half foot teacher at our school. The level of mastery (in standardized tests, for a passing report card grade, or for the cutoff for honor roll – wherever one draws a line) is the equivalent of saying, “To be healthy, everyone will weigh 125 pounds, regardless of height, gender, age, etc.” Some could eat junk all day, smoke, use illicit substances…and still make that mark. Others could do everything ‘right’…and never make it.

“Grades shouldn’t be a motivating factor. Find other ways to motivate them.” Paul says this too, but what “other ways” should teachers try? Rewards, stickers and prizes? (Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards anyone?) Research aside, extrinsic rewards don’t seem to be an organic way to foster what we want, anyway. Don’t give me stickers for completing a workout. Value the change made, the weight lost, ie: the growth in learning. However, growth-alone models are flawed. Just like the students who score the highest on our standardized tests have a hard time showing growth, that 80-pound teacher would have a hard time in a model of “whoever loses the most weight wins.”

This “metaphanalogy” works for me for one last reason. While we can boil them down to a convenient, single number (the grade, the pounds) this can be dangerous, even though it is so simple to do. (Or maybe because it is.) Weight is an indicator of health, but not the “be all end all”. There are many other numbers to consider – and other factors not expressed in neat, mathematical digits. We have SAT scores and standardized test scores that are supposed to be cut-and-dry measurements of mastery. Should none of the averages in a class value the journey? And if not, where should it be valued and counted?

Paul & I agree that sweeping changes are needed, and that it will involve a re-education of all stakeholders. For me, we could start with: change the notion that all mastery should look the same. Perhaps a child that makes one year’s growth on the standardized test would be marked as “passing” – regardless of where s/he is in comparison to peers? Should a child with a 70 IQ perhaps get an A if s/he earns 70% mastery?


A Teacher’s Reflection [Guest Post]

I am lucky to teach on a middle school multi-disciplinary team with some of the most talented and exciting teachers I have ever met. One of them, Erica Speaks (who often comments here as “Last Teacher Standing”), has been my frequent sounding board and occasional Devil’s Advocate for many years. I’ve asked her to write a guest post for Scripted Spontaneity, so make her feel welcome.

from Flickr user Barbara.Doduk

I have no idea first hand, but I’ve heard it said that when an anorexic looks in the mirror, regardless of reality they still see an overweight person reflected back. I’ve been told this is a fairly accurate metaphor for how I view my own accomplishments. Ever since toddlerhood, I’ve always had a razor sharp self-critical eye.

There’s a line in the poem Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann that reads:

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

This is most certainly also true for teachers. If you want to stretch and grow, you aspire to learn from those like the great Mr. Paul Cancellieri here. If you want to feel good about yourself, well… I’ll bet you know who to compare yourself with on your staff.

When you want to get a fair assessment of how you measure up, you look to peers who are similar to you. Paul and I are the same age. We’ve taught almost the exact same number of years. We both hold National Board Certification and advanced degrees. However, teaching next to Paul’s shining example can sometimes feel like standing next to the fun house mirror that makes one look two feet tall.

It’s important to note that I fully own this as internal. Paul does not make me feel small or insignificant. On the contrary, I’ve found few people who are better at finding the positive energy in my ideas and efforts. My perception of myself, how I see myself reflected back, is what sometimes comes up short. And to me, not to him.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this concept: how my perceptions of other people make me perceive myself. It’s as if they are holding up reflective surfaces that bend and distort my image according to their own strengths and weaknesses. A teacher’s unruly class returning from lunch reminds me that I am good at managing a group of thirty-two thirteen-year-olds. A peer’s organized desk whispers to me that I often can’t find the surface of mine.

Two weeks ago, a student teacher started her internship with me. It was the week after our heavily emphasized standardized tests and three weeks from the end of the school, so it’s an interesting time to start an internship. In fact, her very first day resulted in the meeting that brought mild-mannered Mr. Cancellieri to his rare frustration point.

Just her presence in my classroom forces me to see myself through her young, naive, doe-eyed new teacher’s perspective. Well, maybe not her perspective, per se. In reality, she’s been nothing but complementary. However, reflected back in her quiet, shy demeanor, is the weight of what I perceive the first-year teacher me would think of the eleven-year veteran teacher me.

Yes, I have been met with professional success. I have thank you notes from parents, formal evaluations from supervisors , and hundreds of informal interactions with students that each point to why I’d even have a student teacher placed with me now, bringing with her the hefty obligation to help shape who she will be as an educator.

However, I also know in my heart: I’m more jaded now. I’m less patient. The reality of mandates and lack of funding seem more insurmountable today. I have lost some of that “change-the-world” idealism I used to hold dear. Novice me would be both impressed with and disappointed in veteran me.

I know it is more valuable to compare one’s achievements with one’s own goals, rather than comparing one’s achievements with other peoples’. However, isn’t it ever healthy for those same goals to come from looking at others around us? Isn’t one of the very goals of a PLN to set the bar higher for yourself by learning from and seeing what others are accomplishing?

You, too, must be one who also strives for pedagogical excellence in part by reading about what other educators are doing, as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this. What factors do you allow into your psyche to shape how you perceive yourself as an educator? Maybe it’s just my over-critical perception again, but how do you strike a balance between learning from those who are exemplary teachers, and feeling like you’re just not doing enough by comparison?