Friday, July 29, 2005

Letter Grades Must Have Purpose

Last year while speaking to the parents during open house, I was explaining that I teach through grading. I mark up their papers with minus fives and comments like why, explain this, how do you know this, prove this, and many others. I point out their mistakes based on the guidelines.

When they rewrite the assignment, they fix their mistakes and then make new mistakes and fix those mistakes and then make new mistakes and so on. So it is like climbing a staircase; they must continue to learn from their previous mistakes in order to build and reach the next platform.

I realized early in the nine weeks, however, that kids were getting back their papers and only seeing the letter grade. They were not interested in why they earned the letter grade, so the rewrites showed no improvement; the students began to feel helpless and hopeless in class.

Soon after, I took the time to show them the process that a writer must go through. I returned a set of responses and asked each student what grade they got and why they got it. First, the response was, “I don’t know.” I asked if there were any minus fives, and the student said yes. So each student read the errors that they had made aloud. Once they realized that each error had been previously discussed and reviewed in class, they rewrote the papers for homework.

Since then, students have begun analyzing their assignments in greater depth. When I return papers now, students carefully read every comment, and the complaints over their grades have dwindled. As the graded rewrites are given back, students are audibly and visibly excited to receive A’s and B’s. They have begun to feel a greater sense of pride and accomplishment over their better grades. They are earning them.

It is the idea of learning from their mistakes that I am convinced is part of the solution to the system at hand. Children are growing up in an age where everything completed receives a positive grade. Parents, teachers, and society are overly concerned with children’s self-esteem, so their errors and mistakes are ignored in favor of positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, it is through our mistakes that we learn the greatest lessons. Learning from our own errors creates self esteem, empowers students to experiment, and creates a deeper sense of success. When the rewards for overcoming errors are received, students now believe that the system is working.

Through rigorous grading, objective guidelines, and rewriting of work, students are learning that it is a positive to make mistakes, that high grades have to be earned, and that only through experimentation can real learning take place.


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