Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Opinion

Column: What I learned as a teacher

Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes, spent most of his working life as a high school English teacher. In Teacher Man McCourt recalls — one notable scene among many — the end of a school year.

Walking home from the subway to the small apartment he shared with his wife, weighed down in more ways than one by a satchel full of ungraded essays, McCourt stopped in front of a large dumpster. Looking at the garbage bin and looking at the ungraded papers, McCourt threw the stack of essays in the trash and continued, much relieved, his walk home.

Any high school teacher who told you he or she hasn't thrown ungraded work away at the end of a semester or year at least once in his career is probably lying. This honest fact has motivated me throughout my career to pull the curtain back on my own beliefs and practices relative to teaching and learning and to do that for my colleagues as well.

As a result, I've adopted a few principles for assigning work and grading. Most of these principles were inspired and/or developed while I was teaching at Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale, a school and faculty that deserves far more credit than it has ever gotten for excellence, access and innovation.

The first principle I learned while teaching at Stranahan was inspired by the work of Phil Schlechty: Work assigned to students should be worthy of students' time and talent. In other words, teachers ought to be designers of content-based, rigorous work that students would volunteer to do.

The second principle introduced at Stranahan was that if work was worth assigning, then it was worth every single student doing to a level of mastery.

From these two principles many of my colleagues at Stranahan, and even more since, have adopted a number of important teaching and learning practices. For example:

• Rather than focusing on small, individual assignments, we focused on collaborative projects that invited students to apply their learning in bigger, relevant and more public ways. For example, for several years my students wrote 15-page essays answering an essential question for the year using the literature we read over the course of the year. It was daunting and rigorous — and imminently worthy.

• We eliminated the use of zeroes. We found that zeroes served teachers more than students. Zeroes allowed teachers to give students "feedback" on noncognitive skills like time management, work ethic, etc., and we thought there were other ways of giving that kind of feedback. Furthermore, zeroes obscured a real picture of student mastery by lowering an overall percentage somewhat capriciously. The lowest percentage on a scale of 1-10 for me is a 5; on a scale of 1-100 it is a 50. Anything below a 5 or 50 needlessly and harmfully gives a false impression of what students do and don't know overall — which is self-evidently the only purpose for grading.

• We used the official term "Incomplete" as a way to indicate to students and families that work wasn't done — or wasn't done to an acceptable standard. This showed students that they could still do the work they were assigned or do it better; it also showed we weren't giving up on them — that the high standard we had for their learning wasn't going to change.

• Students could rework something as much as they liked in order to demonstrate mastery. That this might also improve their grade was incidental to us, though often not to them, as our real aim was to improve the level at which they were mastering the content — to make learning the constant and time the variable.

• If a student wanted to or was ready to push herself toward an honors or advanced level, then she could do so regardless of past "recorded" achievement. Fixing courses to a full-year standard and determining enrollment by past achievement instead of interest or will, we thought, was less important than recognizing that grit and tenacity resulted in far more success than intelligence or past achievement.

As yet another school year comes to an end in the Tampa Bay area and beyond, some teachers somewhere are considering — understandably perhaps because if it isn't worth grading than it wasn't worth assigning (or for students doing) — the dumpster as their filing cabinet for student work. Many educators know that it doesn't have to be that way, and there is abundant evidence of what classrooms and schools can look like when it isn't.

Brian Dassler serves as chief academic officer at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts; he is a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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