Friday, November 2, 2012

More Committed Than Ever

As we near the end of the trimester - next week is the last full week, with final exams the following Wednesday and Thursday - it never fails that there are some students who, having come to the realization that the grade they had hoped for is probably out of their reach, begin pass through what are commonly referred to as the "five stages of grief". All five of the stages were on full display in the journals from the students this week. Before I get into this, however, a few disclaimers:

(1) There are only a few students each term that go through this. The vast majority of the students are comfortable with or have an understanding about their grade, and what follows in no way applies to them. In fact, many of the students mentioned in their journals this week that they have learned the importance of consistent, daily effort this trimester in my class courtesy of Harkness. They mentioned that missing a homework assignment or a day of class has never had the kind of negative impact on any other class in the past. In addition, they mentioned that they understood more acutely the need to get the notes from and discuss the material with another student if they had to miss class. One more positive, unintended consequence.

(2) In what follows, every time I mention "grade they want", it means "A". I am teaching nothing but honors pre-calculus this year, and for many of the students "pass=A" while "anything else, including A- = fail". As a teacher, I can't stand this attitude for several reasons, not the least of which is that it takes the focus off of the learning and puts it on the grades. However, as a student, I remember this attitude all too well, so I do feel some empathy. Now then..

Stage 1: denial
These are the students who ask if there is any possible way, if they do well enough on the remaining assignments, to earn the grade they were looking for when the term began. Since we're talking about a math class, my first instinct is often to give them a list of the remaining assignments and tell them to go make the calculation. However, it always seems mean-spirited no matter how I say it, and so I grab my calculator and normally we figure out that if they get a perfect score on all of the remaining assignments, including the exam, that the grade they want is in fact possible. Of course, this is not what they want to hear, and that leads to...

Stage 2: anger
This could just as well be labeled "blaming", since the anger tends to be channeled away from the student and against anything else available, from extracurricular activities taking too much of their time to excessive pressure from their parents to requirements in other classes to how horrible the teacher get the idea. This year, of course, there is an easy obvious target: Harkness. In fact, one of the students who has earned an A- to this point wants to go back to a lecture-mimic because of her low, I'm not kidding. Note that this is all about the grade and not about how much the students have learned. That theme is continued in...

Stage 3: bargaining
These are the students who are willing to do absolutely any extra assignment you put in front of them, so long as there is a promise that they will receive the grade they want if they complete the assignment. Notice this doesn't say "earn" the grade, nor does it say that they do well on the assignment. The students' part in this bargain is nothing more than completion of the assignment - it's all about effort, and not much more. If I decide to give an extra credit assignment, there are two important guidelines: (1) any student who has not completed all of the "regular assignments" is not eligible for "extra"; and (2) the "extra" assignment is available to all of the students others than those noted in (1), not just the ones who are struggling (very loose definition on that term). Of course, the extra assignment is no more nor less difficult than the other assignments during the trimester, and I actually grade it. To me, it's not about's about showing me you've learned the material. As I said above, for the most part this is not what the students had in mind when they mentioned extra credit, and this leads to...

Stage 4: depression
This is the one that can have a devastating effect. Lingering at this stage too long can result in not completing the extra assignment, or not putting the effort into the remaining "regular" assignments, rendering the extra one meaningless. These are the students I honestly worry about, not just for the sake of my class and not just for the sake of the other classes they are taking, but overall. I understand the quest for perfection, and I understand the thrill in attaining it, even if it's just one test and not an entire course. However, I also understand that perfection is fleeting, and that when it comes to academics, focusing exclusively on grades and not on learning is far more devastating than an A- on a transcript. I also understand that perfection is rarely a solo performance. Ask a pitcher who has thrown a perfect game how much the other eight players had to do with the achievement, and he'll tell you it's a lot. That being said, these are the students with whom I try to have a conversation, with the intended outcome being...

Stage 5: acceptance
By this I don't mean acceptance of an A-, or a B+, or whatever. I mean accepting that they have made a lot of progress during the trimester, that they have learned a lot of material, and that like the team that loses the Super Bowl or the World Series, there is still a lot to be proud of. This acceptance does not come easily, but it is quite possibly one of the most important lessons they can learn. State championships are rare for a reason. But there is no shame in being knocked out of the playoffs after winning the district championship. There should, instead, be pride in the accomplishment, and an understanding that the district title was earned through the same kind of hard work and dedication, both on and off the field, necessary to win a state championship. Academically, this means there should be pride in giving consistent, complete effort both in and out of the classroom, and an understanding that actually learning something and earning a B+ really is better in the long run than learning little to nothing (other than how to memorize something for two weeks and then forget it) and receiving an A.

So we enter the last week of the first trimester dedicated to having a Harkness classroom...dedicated to real, lasting, meaningful learning. And as I said, the overwhelming majority of the students have figured out that they really are learning and retaining more this year than they have in the past, and that there really is a reason to put forth a consistent, complete effort. These are not empty words, as I have seen the struggle and the success they are having because of it. This year more than ever before I have seen the "light bulb" go fact, it happens pretty much every day in every class, and it has reminded me why I got into teaching in the first place. Or rather, it has introduced me to what is possible if the focus in on the students and their learning, and not just on their grades and how well those grades reflected the degree to which they could mimic the way I do mathematics. There is an ever-growing list of reasons why I am dedicated now more than ever to having a Harkness classroom, but this focus on what is really important is way, way up there.

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