5 Myths About Grading

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In June I successfully defended my dissertation at Northeastern University. My research focused on grading and assessment, which will likely not surprise anyone who has been reading this blog for a while, as I have written about grading and assessment frequently.

My dissertation was qualitative action research, a dissertation in practice grounded in the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. Grading and assessment are ripe for qualitative action research because we have over a century of quantitative research in grading and assessment, and not as much positive change, at least with grading, as we might like to see. I might argue we are seeing more authentic assessment in schools, but grading remains, well, stuck. One of the reasons I think we’re stuck is that we believe persistent myths about grading.

Grades Communicate Students’ Proficiency

One of the most persistent myths about grading is that we agree on what grades mean. As long ago as 1888, researchers were raising questions about inter-rater reliability (Edgeworth, 1888). Study after study indicates that grades are highly inconsistent measures of students’ learning. Starch & Elliott (1912) conducted a study that examined consistency among graders and found that scores on student writing varied by 30-40 points out of 100, or a probable error of 4.5. You might be thinking, “yes, but isn’t writing a little subjective anyway? I’m sure that doesn’t happen in, say, math.” Well, the following year, Starch & Elliott (1913) found that scores on a geometry exam varied even more widely—as much as a probable error of 7.5. They ascribed the difference to several factors: the possibility that graders differently evaluate the students’ methods for reaching the solution, that they assess quality of the students’ drawings, and that they assign different values to problems.

Naturally, things have changed in a hundred years. What do more recent studies say? Brimi (2011) sought to answer that very question. Brimi (2011) engaged 73 participants working for the same school district trained to use the 6+1 Traits of Writing Rubric developed by Education Northwest to score the same argumentative essay using the rubric. The participants’ grades ranged from an A to an F on the traditional grading scale; furthermore, the range of scores assigned to the essay spanned 46 points (Brimi, 2011).

Grading is inconsistent for many reasons, but one of the chief reasons is that teachers evaluate different things when they grade. Some teachers offer extra credit or give students points for bringing supplies (Townsley & Varga, 2018). Teachers can be highly individualistic in selecting criteria for students’ performance (Bloxham et al., 2016). Other factors also impact how teachers evaluate students’ performance. For example, Brackett, et al. (2013) found that a teacher’s mood while grading can impact students’ scores—teachers in a bad mood tend to rate students’ performance lower. This holds true even when grading more objective criteria such as correct spelling (Brackett, et al. 2013). Think what this means as we are teaching in the midst of a pandemic and during a time when it feels as though teachers are being attacked from all sides.

One of the reasons traditional letter or number grades emerged is due to perceived inconsistency, inefficiency, and complication involved in narrative grade reports (Feldman, 2019). It was thought that letter grades could communicate learning both efficiently and plainly (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). By the 1940s, the A-F letter grade system had become the most popular grading system (Schneider & Hutt, 2014).

Traditional grades tend to be derived by averaging the performance on all assessments during a grading period; this average may not capture students’ eventual proficiency in learning and can place undue emphasis on performance anomalies rather than tendencies (Feldman, 2019). In addition, traditional grading sometimes incorporates assessment of student behaviors, such as participation, engagement, and effort (Feldman, 2019).

We might think that grades communicate students’ proficiency in learning, but there are simply too many variables to say this definitively.

Grades Motivate Students

One fear many educators express is that if students are not graded, they will not be motivated to do the work. At best, grades serve as extrinsic motivation for learning. When students care more about the grades than the learning, they are more likely to resort to academic dishonesty. In fact, pressure to earn high grades contributes to academic dishonesty and mental health problems (Rinn et al., 2014; Villeneuve et al., 2019). Grades affect students’ achievement, self-concept, and motivation (Casillas et al., 2012; Pulfrey et al., 2011). Students who earn low grades tend to achieve less and feel lower self-esteem over time (Klapp, 2018).

Fear of earning low grades or focus on earning high grades both serve as extrinsic motivators for learning rather than intrinsic motivators, which demonstrate more effectiveness in supporting learning (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Intrinsic motivation is positively associated with both engagement and achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Helping students develop their intrinsic motivation to learn may increase students’ achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016). Extrinsic motivation to earn good grades or avoid the negative consequences of poor grades drives many students rather than the desire to learn, and over time, extrinsic motivation decreases students’ achievement (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). In addition, the reward of good grades tends to decrease motivation for otherwise engaging learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

It’s worth noting that motivation appears to change depending on the grading system used. When students are graded using a 100-point system in which the sum of all student work is worth a total of 100 points, students tend to view each point deducted as a loss (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies-Hernandez (2012) describes such grading systems as “loss-framed grading” (p. 179). However, when students are graded using a total points system tallying all points earned, they tend to view grades as opportunities to improve and build toward a desired grade (Smith & Smith, 2009). Students who are graded with a system weighting assignment categories by percentage fell in between students in the other grading groups (Smith & Smith, 2009). Even if controls ensure that the resulting grade is the same regardless of the calculation system, students’ responses on a Likert scale questionnaire indicate they still perceive greater risk in 100-point systems and were less motivated and self-assured (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies- Hernandez (2012) replicated these findings and further found that students’ performances in courses with a loss-framed grading system also decreased. Thus, the framing of the grading system not only has an impact on students’ perceptions of their performance but also on their actual performance (Bies- Hernandez, 2012). The implication is that teachers’ approaches to grading may affect students’ academic achievement (Brookhart et al., 2016).

However, proficiency-based grading (sometimes known as competency-based grading, standards-based grading, or mastery-based grading) has the potential to make grades more meaningful and purposeful (Buckmiller et al., 2017; Guskey, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also lead to greater academic achievement, particularly if the grades are paired with formative feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also foster more cooperation and less competition (Burleigh & Meegan, 2018). Taking academic risks, weighing differing conclusions, and considering varied points of view are all necessary for developing critical thinking skills, but if students must risk failing grades in order to do so, they are much more likely to take the safer route to earning a higher grade (Hayek et al., 2014; McMorran et al., 2017). Knowing that they could continue to learn, revise, and reflect on their work may increase students’ motivation to learn (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; McMorran et al., 2017).

100-point Grading Scales are More Precise than A-F or 4-Point Grading Scales

Do you know why we use the 100-point scale? It’s not because it’s more precise. It’s because it’s the scale in the gradebook software (Guskey, 2013; Guskey & Jung, 2016). The 100-point scale is terrible, and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. The 100-point grading scale has become one of the most common scales for reporting students’ grades, but it is one of the most unreliable scales in use (Guskey, 2013).

The 100-point scale is inaccurate and inequitable because the scale is skewed toward failing grades (Feldman, 2019). Passing grades comprise only 40 points of the grading scale, spanning typically from 60 points to 100 points (or from 70-100 points in some systems!), while failing grades comprise the remaining points possible spanning from 0 to 59 (or even 0-69). Serious mathematical errors arise when teachers input zeros in the gradebook when students are missing work (Feldman, 2019). While this practice ostensibly holds students accountable for handing in work, it can make it impossible for students to recover academically (Feldman, 2019). The literature suggests that teachers may compensate for the 100-point scale’s mathematical errors by artificially raising grades in a number of ways (Schneider & Hutt, 2014), including grading formative assessments and executive function skills (Bowers, 2011; Brookhart et al., 2016; Townsley & Varga, 2018).

Unfortunately, a lot of educators perceive the 100-point grading scale to be more accurate (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019; Feldman, 2019). While using 100 points as opposed to four or five points may seem more accurate, it results in a probable error of five or six points; teachers find it difficult to distinguish levels of performance on a 100-point scale (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019). Some grading reformers advocate for the use of minimum grading, or inputting a minimum grade such as 50 percent, rather than inputting zeros for missing work; this practice reduces mathematical error (Carifio & Carey, 2013; Carifio & Carey, 2015; Feldman, 2019). Essentially what educators are doing when they use minimum grading, however, is compensating for the deficiencies of the 100-point scale by converting it to a rough approximation of the 4-point scale. In a four-point scale, failing grades span from 0-0.99 of a point, while passing grades span from 1-4 points (or 2-4 points in a system without a “D”).

Grades Reduce Bias

Variable and unreliable grading practices also introduce equity problems. Black students have less access to AP courses all over the United States (Francis & Darity, 2021). Schools that use gatekeeping methods (Francis & Darity, 2021), such as teacher recommendations and prerequisite grades, may be basing their decisions about students’ fitness for advanced coursework on subjective measures common in traditional grading (Feldman, 2019). Students of color are most impacted by teachers’ implicit bias (Feldman, 2019), especially if subjective, non-academic factors are included in assessment (Cvencek et al., 2018). Implicit bias may especially play a role in lower grades assigned to students of color when the criteria for proficiency are unclear or undefined (Quinn, 2020). Traditional grading’s subjectivity can harm all students, but students of color may be most impacted due to implicit bias (Feldman, 2019; Quinn, 2020).

However, proficiency-based grading can make grades more equitable and more reflective of students’ actual learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Proficiency-based grading may include using practices such as rubrics for evaluating student work and student-generated portfolios; however, it may also include traditional assessments such as tests (Baete & Hochbein, 2014; Buckmiller et al., 2017; Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Students’ grades are tied to their mastery of content, such as standards, knowledge, and skills, as opposed to an average of all the grades earned during a grading period or course (Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Teachers using proficiency-based grading typically provide students with feedback on formative assessments (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Students may revise and resubmit work in order to demonstrate their proficiency in learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Through revision, students demonstrate their learning of the content and skills. As a result, proficiency-based grades may more accurately reflect what students have learned rather than a snapshot of their performance on a single assessment.

We Have to Use Grades

Grades have actually not existed, at least not in the form we’re familiar with, for a very long period of time (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). One of the worst reasons to perpetuate any system is the notion that we’ve always done it that way, especially when it’s not even true that we have always done it this way. The A-F grading system gained popularity as late as the 1940s—as I mentioned before—as educators saw a need to establish more uniform methods for determining students’ proficiency (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). For many years preceding the establishment of “traditional grading,” we used all sorts of other systems (good and bad) for measuring learning. This system is entrenched, but it’s not as old as people might think, and if we decided, collectively, that it no longer worked for us, we could find a better system. The problem is, well, that it’s a system, and systems are notoriously hard to change.

I have heard many educators express anxiety that students will either not be prepared for college or will not get into college unless they are graded. Many schools, however, have successfully eliminated traditional grades. Colleges understand the transcripts these students send them, and these students are able to go to college. For example, the Watershed School, a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, does not issue traditional letter grades or test students through final exams and has a 100% college acceptance rate (Plaskov, 2019). A college counselor I worked with told me anecdotally that “colleges are fine with grading that’s ‘non-traditional.’ Parents usually get very concerned about going off the A-F standard, but college admissions folks are experts on grading scales, and what I’ve consistently heard from them is that the most-accurate/least-translated reporting is what they like.”

My own personal experience is that some schools’ grading practices are more entrenched, and while another system of evaluation would work, it wouldn’t be politically feasible. Proficiency-based grading shows additional promise here. Attaching grades to standards or competencies can make grades more accurate reflections of students’ proficiency in learning. Proficiency-based report cards have the potential to be more useful in understanding students’ learning than traditional report cards including only a letter grade (Blauth & Hajdian, 2016; Swan et al., 2014). Swan et al. (2014) found that parents and teachers generally find proficiency-based reports more helpful and easier to understand, in addition to having more and better information about students’ progress.

It’s worth noting that one study I examined indicated parents reported feeling less confidence in the standards-based grade reports because they were unfamiliar and felt the school had not taken their feelings as stakeholders into account before implementing standards-based grade reports (Franklin et al., 2016). These parents also reported finding the grade reports unclear (Franklin et al., 2016). Importantly, Franklin et al. (2016) indicate the parents in their study were all dissatisfied with standards-based report cards; these parents also described themselves as strong students who enjoyed school. Their study did not include parents who expressed satisfaction with the reports. (Franklin et al., 2016).

The Bottom Line?

I think it’s important for teachers to open dialogue with students and parents, read the research on grading and assessment, and work within the system they’re in to make grades more accurate and meaningful. I highly recommend the works referenced in this post, which is derived largely from my dissertation. For a good deep dive, Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity is excellent.

References

Baete, G. S. & Hochbein, C. (2014). Project proficiency: Assessing the independent effects of high school reform in an urban district. The Journal of Educational Research, 107(6), 493-511. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2013.823371

Bies-Hernandez, N. J. (2012). The effects of framing grades on student learning and preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 176-180. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312450429

Blauth, E. & Hadjian, S. (2016). How selective colleges and universities evaluate proficiency-based high school transcripts: Insights for students and schools. New England Board of Higher Education. https://www.nebhe.org/info/pdf/policy/Policy_Spotlight_How_Colleges_Evaluate_PB_HS_Trans cripts_April_2016.pdf

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. https://doi.org/10.1080/020602938.2015.1024607

Bowers, A. J. (2011). What’s in a grade? The multidimensional nature of what teacher-assigned grades assess in high school. Educational Research and Evaluation, 17(3), 151-159. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2011.597112

Brackett, M. A., Floman, J. L., Ashton-James, C., Cherkasskiy, L., & Salovey, P. (2013). The influence of teacher emotion on grading practices: A preliminary look at the evaluation of student writing. Teachers and Teaching, 19(6), 634-646. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Brimi, H. M. (2011). Reliability of grading high school work in English. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 16(7). http://pareonline.net/getvnasp?=16&n=17

Brookhart, S. M., & Guskey, T. R. (2019). Reliability in grading and grading scales. In T. R. Guskey & S. M. Brookhart (Eds.), What we know about grading: What works, what doesn’t, and what’s next (pp. 13-31). ASCD.

Brookhart, S., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., Stevens, M. T., Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316672069

Buckmiller, T., Peters, R., & Kruse, J. (2017). Questioning points and percentages: Standards-based grading (SBG) in higher education. College Teaching, 65(4), 151-157. https://doi.org/10.1080.87567555.2017.1302919

Burleigh, T. J. & Meegan, D. V. (2018). Risky prospects and risk aversion tendencies: does competition in the classroom depend on grading practices and knowledge of peer-status? Social Psychology of Education, 21(2), 323-335. https://doi.org/ 10.1007/s11218-017-9414-x

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2013). The arguments and data in favor of minimum grading. Mid-Western Educational Researcher, 25(4), 19-30.

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2015). Further findings on the positive effects of minimum grading. Journal of Education and Social Policy, 2(4), 130-136.

Casillas, A., Robbins, S., Allen, J., Kuo, Y. L., Hanson, M. A., & Shmeiser, C. (2012). Predicting early academy failure in high school from prior academic achievement, psychosocial characteristics, and behavior. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 407-420. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027180

Cvencek, D., Fryberg, S. A., Covarrubias, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2018). Self-concepts, self-esteem, and academic achievement of minority and majority North American elementary school children. Child Development, 89(4), 1099-1109. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12802

Edgeworth, F. Y. (1888). The statistics of examinations. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 51(3), 599-635.

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Francis, D. V. & Darity, W. A., Jr. (2021). Separate and unequal under one roof: The legacy of racialized tracking perpetuates within-school segregation. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 7(1), 187-202. https://doi.org/10.7758/RSF.2021.7.1.11

Franklin, A., Buckmiller, T., & Kruse, J. (2016). Vocal and vehement: Understanding parents’ aversion to standards-based grading. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 4(11), 19-29.

Froiland, J. M. & Worrell, F. C. (2016). Intrinsic motivation, learning goals, engagement, and achievement in a diverse high school. Psychology in the Schools, 53(3), 321-336. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21901

Guskey, T. R. (2007). Multiple sources of evidence: An analysis of stakeholders’ perceptions of various indicators of student learning. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 26(1), 19-27.
https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-3992.2007.00085.x

Guskey, T. R. (2013). The case against percentage grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.

Guskey, T. R. & Jung, L. A. (2016): Grading: Why you should trust your judgment. Educational Leadership,
73(7), 50-54.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487

Hayek, A., Toma, C., Oberlé, D., & Butera, F. (2014). The effect of grades on the preference effect: Grading reduces consideration of disconfirming evidence. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36(6), 544-552. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2014.969840

Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2), 1-11.

Klapp, A., (2018). Does academic and social self-concept and motivation explain the effect of grading on students’ achievement? European Journal of Psychology of Education, 33(2), 355-376. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-017-0331-3

McMorran, C., Ragupathi, K., & Luo, S. (2017). Assessment and learning without grades? Motivations and concerns with implementing gradeless learning in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(3), 361-377. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2015.1114584

Miller, J. J. (2013). A better grading system: Standards-based, student-centered assessment. English Journal, 103(1), 111-118.

Plaskov, J. C. (2019, October 23). Reimagining college admissions season. The Mastery Transcript Consortium. https://mastery.org/reimagining-college-admissions-season/

Pulfrey, C., Buchs, C., & Butera, F. (2011). Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(3), 683-700. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023911

Quinn, D. M. (2020). Experimental evidence on teachers’ racial bias in student evaluation: The role of grading scales. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(3), 375-392. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373720932188

Rinn, A. N., Boazman, J., Jackson, A., Barrio, B. (2014). Locus of control, academic self-concept, and academic dishonesty among high ability college students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 14(4), 88-114. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v14i4.12770

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

Smith, J. K. & Smith, L. F. (2009). The impact of framing effect on student preferences for university grading systems. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 35, 160-167.

Starch, D. & Elliott, E. C. (1912). Reliability of the grading of high-school work in English. The School Review, 20(7), 442-457.

Starch, D. & Elliott, E. C. (1913). Reliability of grading work in mathematics. The School Review, 21(4), 254-259.

Swan, G., Guskey, T., & Jung, L. (2014). Parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Accountability, 26(3), 289-299. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-01409191-4

Townsley, M. & Varga, M. (2018). Getting high school students ready for college: A quantitative study of standards-based grading practices. Journal of Research in Education, 28(1), 92-112.

Villeneuve, J. C., Conner, J. O., Selby, S., & Pope, D. C. (2019). Easing the stress at pressure-cooker schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 101(3), 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0031721719885910

Rumination Essays

A few years ago, I had the great fortune to be able to attend Kenyon College’s Writing Workshop for Teachers. My instructor was Dr. Emily Moore, who teaches at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She shared a writing assignment with us that Stuyvesant English teachers use. It’s a form of writing that marries the literary analysis with the personal narrative, and she referred to it as a “Rumination Essay.”

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

The instructions are as follows (very much adapted from those shared by Dr. Emily Moore):

  1. Choose a single quotation from the text—about 1-3 consecutive lines [note: this is negotiable, but the point is to choose a short passage rather than a really long passage]. You might choose a passage that captured your attention, moved you, or felt connected to an experience or emotion in your own life. You might reflect on a key message or theme, conflict, or character from the play as a starting point, and look for a quote based on that.
  2. Begin your rumination by discussing the context of the quote clearly, but avoid unnecessary plot summary. Instead, simply give the reader enough information so the quote will make sense. What situation has led up to the quote? Who is speaking?
  3. Introduce the quote smoothly with a strong transition, so that it is incorporated into your own writing. Make sure you format the quote correctly and cite it properly. Don’t forget a Works Cited page.
  4. Analyze the quote. What is its significance in the play up until this point? How does it help us understand a message or theme emerging in the play? What does it suggest about the character’s experience, or the conflicts and characters that drive this story?
  5. Next, transition into personal writing. In this section, you will write in the first person about an experience of your own that relates to the quote you’ve chosen. The experience doesn’t have to be exactly the same—these characters have their lives; you’ve had yours—but there should be a connection. Your personal experience will reflect something about the quote you’ve chosen, and it will echo an idea that stayed with you from your reading.

Note: In this section, you’ll write in the first person. Work like a storyteller, and think about the techniques storytellers use. In particular, you’ll want to do more than just tell us what happened.Use details (concrete imagery, dialogue, character, etc.) to show us something about your experience, and reflect on it as well.

  1. Now that you’ve considered how the message or themes suggested by your chosen quote connect to your own life, reconnect to the literary work in your last paragraph. How does the experience you had help you understand the work? Your understanding of the quote and key message or theme you’re discussing will be deeper now, because you’ve enriched it with a story from your own experience. Use that to conclude your rumination.

This assignment can be used with a variety of texts. I have previously used it with teaching King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have also allowed students to select a work of their choosing.

Students generally enjoy this assignment and find it engaging because it asks them to make a direct connection to a work of literature. However, they also find it challenging to use first person, mainly because somewhere along the line, someone told them never to do that. The structure is a bit different from what they’re accustomed to.

I usually save the exemplars from each year and share them with students so they can get the idea. I am embedding an example of the instructions I share with students. You can use the instructions and modify them for your own texts and needs.

Walking

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Last November, what with the pandemic and all, my weight reached a point that made me pretty unhappy. I could usually get a little bit of exercise by walking back and forth from my office to my classroom, but when we moved entirely online, there were days when I hardly moved at all. Truthfully, however, I’ve been fairly sedentary most of my life. I’ve never exercised very much, and I typically gave up when I tried an exercise regime and didn’t see any results. After I had my third child, I developed hypthyroidism, but I didn’t know I had it until a physician ordered routine bloodwork and immediately called me to tell me she had prescribed medication for it. A host of issues I didn’t know were related suddenly improved.

About a year and a half ago, I wondered if I needed a higher dosage of the medication because I couldn’t seem to lose any weight, and I had heard that the medication I was taking was supposed to help with that. However, my thyroid levels were fine, according to my doctor. She suggested I check out Noom, and I was pretty skeptical, but I finally signed up in November 2020. I honestly don’t use many of Noom’s features. The accountability of the coach and the group don’t help me much, but I can see how they might help others. I find logging my meals and water intake extremely helpful, and I also discovered walking because of the app. Noom encourages users to meet a step goal, gradually increasing the number of steps each time you meet your goal. By January, I was up to 10,000 steps a day, which I have maintained so far every day this year. I use another app called Pacer to track my steps because it gives me badges for completing challenges, and that kind of thing is weirdly motivating for me. For the record, I’ve lost about 40 pounds, but more importantly, I’m actually fit for maybe the first time in my life—fitter even than when I weighed less than I do now. I’m happier with my health and body now than I have ever been, even when I was thinner than I am now.

I can usually meet my step goal if I walk for at least an hour every day. I can break it up into shorter chunks of time, but dedicating that hour has become an important part of my self-care routine. When I walk, I listen to audio books, podcasts, music, or whatever is moving me at the moment. I don’t let weather get in my way. If I can’t walk outside, which is my strong preference, I walk on the treadmill at the gym, but I’ve walked in snow and rain on occasion. The cold doesn’t bother me, but the heat does, so if it’s too hot, I tend to go to the gym instead. I find the treadmill extremely boring, but it’s better than not walking at all. 

It seems like a really strange thing to have found this outlet so late in life. I remembered my grandmother loved to take short walks, and there was a period in her life when she lost a good deal of weight doing so. I’m not sure if she ever found it meditative the way I do, but when I walk, I just walk. I don’t check emails. I try not to read anything at all off my phone—maybe just an urgent text message. That hour of time is my time to be alone. Sometimes my husband walks with me, too, and we talk about all kinds of things. On a few rare occasions, my son has also asked to go. It’s best when I can go outside. Even though I live in an urban environment that’s not the best for walking, I still enjoy getting outside in that environment. I check out everyone’s flowers. I observe the trees and the sky. I feel the breeze. It makes me feel grounded and alive and perfectly happy.

I had a moment last week, ironically on the treadmill rather than outside, where I was listening to some music I love, and I was struck by how happy I felt to be moving and enjoying living in that moment. That’s what mindfulness is—taking the time to appreciate the present moment entirely rather than thinking about the past or the future. and pulling yourself entirely into the current moment.

In spring 2020, when the pandemic started raging, I collaborated with our other AP Lit teacher to give students an outlet to talk about how they were feeling. We read Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” and discussed the “best laid plans” the pandemic had ruined and how they were coping. Time and again, students mentioned taking walks. Students are wise. I wish I could say they inspired me, but it probably took another six months and change before I started walking myself.

It’s been a hard year and a half living with this virus. I caught it myself in January of this year, and I was so afraid. I think the main reason I managed to get through it relatively easily was the walking. I had become healthier just in time. 

Teachers get very busy, and it’s important that we make time for our health. Walking works for me, but you may find something else works for you. In any case, find an activity that works for you to have some meditiative time and take care of yourself. It’s important to find a way to move that brings you joy. Teacher friends: find a way to take care of yourself. This year looks like it might be a challenge, too, and whatever can help ground you and give you some happiness and peace is critical for your wellbeing.

How I Start the Year

It seems strange to me that we’re talking about returning to school, but some of my friends in far-flung places are already back. 😳

I’ve seen a few tweets about ideas for starting the school year, and I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing the last couple of years to kick off the school year. I currently teach AP English Literature and Composition and an elective called What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History.

At the Multicultural Teaching Institute, I learned about a fun icebreaker assignment called the Top 25. The idea behind it is to list 25 facts about yourself (the more random, the more interesting). As a model, I share my own Top 25. Sometimes I learn some really interesting and important things about my students because thinking of 25 things can be hard.

  1. I am a member of the Beyhive.
  2. I am always losing my phone and my keys. Tile is a game-changer.
  3. I earned a Doctorate in Education at Northeastern University. My dissertation focused on grading and assessment.
  4. I have a black cat named Bellatrix.
  5. My favorite color is light teal (close to Tiffany blue, but a bit greener).
  6. I am notoriously bad at taking care of plants. If you know of an impossible to kill plant, I’ve probably killed it.
  7. I moved around a lot as a kid. I went to three different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and three different high schools.
  8. My all-time favorite musicians are U2, and I get really sensitive about how much people criticize them. I actually subscribed to Sirius XM Radio just for their channel.
  9. You’d think I’d be in Hufflepuff, but no, Ravenclaw.
  10. I love traveling and going to concerts, and now that the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be waning, I really want to do both more often.
  11. I do not like football, but I am a huge fan of the Red Sox, and my favorite player was Mookie Betts. I’m going to stay salty about the Sox trading him.
  12. I love Polar Seltzer, especially flavored seltzer. I swap out my favorites all the time.
  13. I love a nice cup of hot black tea, but I’m not much of a green tea fan. However, I really love coffee. I drink two cups every morning.
  14. I buy way too many books, so I’m trying to use the library more.
  15. I played flute when I was younger and have very basic guitar skills.
  16. I have a sister who currently lives in Texas.
  17. I don’t have a single favorite book. I have many favorite books. My reading interests are wide.
  18. I am not scared of spiders or most bugs, but rodents and roaches terrify me.
  19. Pumpkin spice season is my favorite.
  20. My favorite TV show is Doctor Who, but I haven’t been able to watch the most recent seasons. David Tennant is my favorite Doctor.
  21. The first time I ever visited Massachusetts was because I won a trip to Salem. My husband said we would move to Massachusetts one day, but I didn’t believe him. About two years later, we did.
  22. I love baking bread, canning and preserving, and making soap. It’s 2021.
  23. I love history and sometimes think I would like to teach it as much as I like teaching English.
  24. Please call me Dr. Huff. I worked so hard to earn it. I know it’s hard for folks who knew me as Ms. Huff.
  25. I knew all four of my great grandparents on my mom’s side, but I never even saw my grandfather or step-grandmother on my dad’s side before they died.

In my AP Lit class, students read Clint Smith’s poetry collection Counting Descent over the summer. We begin our discussions of his work by watching this video of “The Danger of Silence.”

We re-read together the poem “Something You Should Know” from Counting Descent. I ask students three questions. Students can be given time to write, or the questions can be used purely for discussion. I do a mix of both. Hint: if you’re virtual, you can do these questions with Mentimeter.

  1. What did you notice? What resonated?
  2. What connections do you see to the all-school summer read (this year it will be Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram)?
  3. What questions do you have? / What do you want to know more about?

A great activity for “Something You Should Know” is to use it as a mentor text for students to write their own poems about themselves.

The first homework assignment is to read over all the policies, course outlines, and other stuff that many teachers spend the first day of class going over. I used to do that, too, but I’ve come to realize that class time is too precious and relationship-building is too critical to spend it going over policies. Some folks might argue that the students won’t read that stuff if we don’t go over it in class.

The Social Justice class is a cross-curricular class that I team-teach with a wonderful colleague from my school’s History/Social Science Department. (He’s truly one of my favorite people.) His idea was to frame the beginning of the year around understanding what social justice is. We use some of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Students in this class also create a Top 25. However, on the very first day, we ask students to think (do a chalk talk) on the question “What is justice?” For their first homework assignment, they read “Jorje” by Jorje Chica, and students write a reflection on the reading using the following prompt: “Why is Chica’s name so important to him? What connections does Chica make between his name and his identity?”

What sorts of activities do you recommend for the first day? Feel free to share in the comments.

Is Frankenstein Good?

Obscure Podcast Image

If you haven’t checked out Michael Ian Black’s Obscure podcast (see bottom of the post for subscription links), you really should. Michael models exactly what I try to teach my students to do when they read: he talks back to the text, he looks up information that he doesn’t know, he reads the footnotes or endnotes, and he thinks about how the book connects to other books, life, the universe, and everything else. 

My husband and I support Michael’s Obscure podcast on Patreon. As part of the deal, we participate in regular book club discussions about the  book with other folks, and I have had a lot of fun in our discussions. The book club group is funny, smart, and engaged. One thing that came up in our most recent book club discussion last night is just why Frankenstein, the book Michael is currently reading on the podcast, is considered a classic. Why do people think it’s good? Michael admits he’s struggling a bit with the book, and some of the rest of us chimed in with our thoughts about it. For example, the framing device of the letter seems confusing and unnecessary. There is a lot of build-up to something big which then happens offstage, where the reader can’t see it; the two examples that came up in discussion were actually creating the Monster and Frankenstein being jailed for suspicion of Clerval’s murder in Scotland. I don’t know why, but I didn’t notice these things when I first read the book, and I didn’t think much about them when I taught the book in the past either. 

I told Michael he’s making me wonder why we consider it a good book, too. I mean, I feel a bit sheepish admitting I didn’t think about these things before, but I think that’s one reason why discussing books with others is so great. In this case, it’s making me aware of Mary Shelley’s writing quirks in a way I hadn’t considered before. We had a bit of a lively conversation in the Zoom chat about how sometimes books are required reading when we’re not interested or ready for them (Jane Eyre came up as a summer reading book for high school). I think there are a lot of reasons why we might cling to books in the classroom, but it’s important that we consider whether they are serving the purpose we hope. When I select a text, I think about the following things:

  • How does it fit with the themes and skills I am teaching?
  • How do I think students will engage with it?
  • What sorts of things can students learn from it (writing moves, history, or human nature and character—among other things)?

Frankenstein is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel. In addition, it’s one of the earliest popular novels, written in a time when novels as we conceive of them were, well, new (hence, “novels”). Depending on what you’re teaching, Frankenstein could be a good fit. For example, if the focus is on the development of science fiction.

But I’m increasingly wondering as I listen to the podcast if it’s good. I am also recalling a class I had some years back who were struggling with the novel when I taught it, and it occurs to me that maybe they were not really into it, and I wasn’t engaging them in a way that worked. As Michael points out things that bother him in the book, I can’t help but feel he has a valid point. 

I might argue what’s really happening in the book is more of a philosophical argument: what does the creator owe their creation? Perhaps the plot itself is not why we might teach the book. Maybe not character development either. But I could see a case for the novel’s philosophical questions being a good rationale for teaching it.

That doesn’t really answer the question about whether or not it’s good. 

You might want to check out Dr. Kat’s video about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein. She makes some really valid points about the novel’s philosophy.

Full disclosure: Michael is a friend, but I’d recommend his podcast in any case. It’s excellent.

Sixteen Years Ago

Sixteen years ago today, I started this blog. My hope was that I could share my thinking about educational issues and perhaps share some of the curricular and teaching resources I created. I haven’t done much writing about either of these topics in some time, but I long ago decided that rather than feel pressured to blog consistently that I would blog when I was moved to blog. 

I have some recent good news to share with anyone who might not follow me on social media. I’m now Dr. Huff. 

Me and my dissertation committee

I successfully defended my dissertation on June 1. My topic is assessment, which will probably surprise no one who has been following this blog for a long time. In fact, I concluded my dissertation with reflections on how much my exchange with a student changed my thinking about assessment and grading.

I’m excited to see what is next for both me and this blog. Thanks to those of you who have stuck around over the years.

One-Pagers

I shared some student work on Twitter, and it seemed as though some folks were interested in learning more about the concept. First of all, I didn’t come up with this concept at all. I’d seen one-pagers floating around for a while. Some time back, I tweeted asking for help with instructions, and Dianna Minor and Glenda Funk graciously shared their instructions with me. I also found Betsy Potash’s instructions via Cult of Pedagogy and these instructions at Ms. D’s English Fury helpful. I adapted my instructions from these sources. All credit goes to the fine educators who generously shared their ideas and their students’ work. I am indebted to them, and I’m sharing what I did only as a means of paying it forward in case it helps other people. 

You can use one-pagers to assess lots of things. I am an English teacher, but I imagine they could be used in just about any subject and at pretty much every grade level, with some adaptations.

What is a one-pager?

A one-pager is a kind of project in which you share your most important takeaways from a text on a single page using text and artwork. You take what you have learned from a text and put the highlights on the page accompanied by art that represents, sometimes symbolically, these highlights and themes.

Why create a one-pager?

One-pagers allow you to mix media, text, and images, which helps you remember details better. It’s brain science. According to Allan Paivio’s dual coding theory, the brain has two ways of processing: the visual and the verbal. The combination of the two leads to the most powerful results. You will remember more when you’ve mixed language and imagery. One-pagers also offer variety—another way to share your interpretation and analysis of a text. You might be surprised what you will come up with! Plus, they’re fun. [All credit to this rationale goes to Betsy Potash.]

But I am not good at art/don’t like art…

I will share some templates with you that may help, but the important thing to remember here is that you ARE good at art. You might want to draft your one-pager in light pencil before coloring it in, but you will create something pretty amazing. I feel it in my bones. Also, do not use clip art or computer art. Trust me. One-pagers look so much better when they’re your own art.

Okay, so what are the parameters?

  • A single piece of letter-size paper (or A4 if you can’t get letter where you currently are located). You may use colored paper if you have access to it and want to, but it is NOT required.
  • Work only on one side of the page in portrait or landscape mode. 
  • Include color and patterns*. Think symbolically here. Texture is fine, too.
  • Fill the entire page with your work. If you have blank space, repeat an element or fill it with one of the optional elements (see below).
  • Put your first and last name on the back.
  • Try to be neat with lettering. It helps to draft first. Definitely make sure handwriting is legible.

*I had markers and colored pencils to lend students who needed them.

What kinds of elements should I include?

The following elements are REQUIRED:

  • The title and author of the book.
  • Illustrations or symbols that represent the reading. This could be a character, a scene from the text, symbols that convey ideas expressed in the work.
  • Choose two or three notable quotes that stand out to you from the text. It could be quotes that make you think or wonder or remind you of something important from the text.  Write the quotes on your paper using different colors and/or writing styles. Include the page number and a short analysis of the quote.
  • Make a personal connection to what you read. What did it mean to you personally? (Examples: “I feel…I think…I know…I wonder…”).

The following elements are options, but pick at least 2:

  • Create a border that reflects a theme. This can include words, pictures, symbols, or even quotes.
  • Draw a word cluster around your image. Use these words you highlight the importance of your chosen image. The word cluster may also artistically symbolize the subject matter.
  • Write a poem about the book, a character, or the theme. If this is particularly challenging, you may choose to compose an acrostic poem using a one-word theme.
  • Create a hashtag that relates to the text.
  • Explain how the setting shapes a character in the text.
 

Rubric

Skill

Exemplary

Proficient

Developing

Emerging

The extent to which the one-pager demonstrates textual analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers insightful interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes well beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers clear and explicit interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers partially explained and/or somewhat literal interpretations and understanding of the text with some analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers few or superficial interpretations and understanding of the text with little analysis.

 

The extent to which the one-pager follows the “rules.”

All the “rules” are followed: the work is on a single side of letter or A4 paper, the page is filled, color is used, first and last name are on the back, and the lettering is neat and legible.

Most of the “rules” are followed: one or two minor omissions (see exemplary column).

Some of the “rules” are followed. There are two or more omissions (see exemplary column).

Few or none of the rules are followed. There are more than three omissions (see exemplary column).

The extent to which all required elements are included.

All required elements are included and addressed in a thoughtful way that demonstrates symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and thoughtful interpretation of the text. Two or more optional elements add depth to the piece.

All of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements add depth to the piece.

Most of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate developing symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements are included.

Some of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate emerging symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Optional elements may be missing or incomplete.

Recommendations

Sid, who tweets @ThatTeacherSid on Twitter, posted the following tweet a few days ago:

I need to do some work on my dissertation, so I’m hoping a reply here on my blog will limber me up for writing.

Is that possibly a form of procrastination? 

Maybe, but here are my recommendations, and you might consider teaching them, or you might just enjoy them on your own.

Essays

One of my all-time favorite essays is Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s seminal work, “The Case for Reparations.”  It’s well-researched and persuasive. I particularly appreciate that Coates doesn’t become bogged down by the “how,” which is what stops many people from considering reparations for slavery. Instead, he focuses on “why,” and once the “why” is compelling enough for the majority of Americans, I think we will find the “how.” I also highly recommend Coates’s essays “My President Was Black” and “The First White President.”  “The Case for Reparations” and “My President Was Black” were both collected in his book, We Were Eight Years In Power, which I also highly recommend. In this collection, Coates discusses the writing and his process. His critical reflection on his own work is really fascinating.

A more recent essay I read in The Atlantic was “History Will Judge the Complicit” by Anne Applebaum. What I loved about this essay was the historical study of two figures in East Germany, Wolfgang Leonhard, who defected to the United States after growing disenchanted with the East German Communist Party, and Markus Wolf, who remained loyal to the party even after gaining an intimate knowledge of its worst violence. Applebaum compares the two men to Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. I found the essay to be a fascinating discussion of party versus principles, and the comparison is a master-class in persuasive writing.

I first read James Baldwin‘s essay “A Talk to Teachers” after seeing Clint Smith mention it in a tweet. Smith mentioned that he returned to it each year while he was teaching. I’m not sure if he still re-reads it each year, but I have now read it twice, and if anything, it becomes more relevant as time passes. It’s hard to believe Baldwin didn’t pen this essay just last week. Baldwin underscores the urgency of social justice and why teachers cannot wait to make critical changes in how they teach their students of color. Baldwin opens his essay:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.

The essay was originally a speech that Baldwin delivered in 1963!

Poems and Poetry Collections

I have written previously that we’re in the midst of a poetry renaissance right now (subscription to English Journal required). I still believe that is true. This list has the potential to be extremely long, so I’m going to limit it to my current favorites.

Maggie Smith‘s “Good Bones” is a poem I turn to often. These days seem so bleak, and they feel like they only become bleaker. But Smith reminds us that this old planet does have “good bones,” and we can make something beautiful with it.

Jericho Brown invented the form “duplex,” a combination of a ghazal, a sonnet, and the blues. This poem, titled “Duplex,” is one of my favorite examples of the form. I particularly love the line, “A poem is a gesture toward home.” For a birthday gift to myself, I attended a poetry-writing masterclass taught by Brown through the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Poetry Festival programming (it was free, but the gift was giving myself the time to do it). What an amazing teacher! I loved it! His collection The Tradition won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I highly recommend it. Also, check out Brown’s pandemic poem, “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.

Speaking of collections, a few of my favorites are Eve L. Ewing‘s 1919Clint Smith‘s Counting Descent, and Fatimah Asghar‘s If They Come for Us are three of my favorite collections.  Ewing’s book focuses on Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot, and she experiments with a variety of forms and ideas, using quotes from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. I’m telling you, really need to hear Ewing read aloud her poem “Jump / Rope,” which she reads in this interview with Terry Gross.

Clint Smith’s collection has too many favorites to count. Some poems that I particularly enjoy, however, are “Counting Descent,” “Counterfactual,” “When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come on in My House,” “Playground Elegy,” and “Ode to the Only Black Kid in Class.” I also really like Smith’s poem “History Reconsidered.”

His performance of “When They Tell You the Brontosaurus Never Existed” is another favorite.

Some favorites in Fatimah Asghar’s collection include “Microaggression Bingo” and “If They Come for Us.”

Speeches

Some of my favorite speeches in recent years are actually speeches by young people. I found Emma González‘s speech at a press conference following the Parkland Shooting particularly moving.

I also enjoy any time Bryan Stevenson speaks, but this TED Talk is a place to start.

 

I also really like this older speech by Sir Ken Robinson, whom we lost this year.

And finally, this speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my “why” for teaching English.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 4

If you missed the first three posts in this series, click the link(s) to access Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. This post is the final post in this series. It seems an appropriate time to share given the current administration’s attempts to prevent educators from teaching Critical Race Theory.

During the course of our study of Song of Solomon, students also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay for Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”

Using this essay along with Song of Solomon and Lemonade, students created questions for discussion. One class generated the following questions: “Why are the struggles of the Black community so consistently talked about and struggled with? Why hasn’t there been a solution? Why is this problem still persisting no matter how much we talk about it?” In preparing for discussion, one of my students connected Beyoncé’s reference to “Becky, with the good hair” to Milkman’s distant relatives, the Byrds, who “pass” for White in addition to Hagar’s belief that Milkman is more attracted to women with lighter skin. She felt that colorism was a pervasive issue, as demonstrated in these examples. Another student mentioned the doll tests used to demonstrate Black children’s internalized feelings of inferiority in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Supreme Court case. Our class watched a film by Kiri Davis that replicated the doll test in the 2000s with similar results.

One student reflected that all of these texts together helped him understand the implications of the novel’s themes with greater clarity, and he set himself the goal of looking for these connections for future seminars.

Students also generated essay topics and brought their ideas to writing workshop for feedback before beginning their essays. Many students connected Lemonade to the novel or even centered Lemonade as the primary text for discussion in their writing. One student applied a feminist lens and explained how both texts explore the oppression of women. The next year, I emphasized Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theoretical framework of intersectionality and Alice Walker’s concept of “womanism,” and students quickly identified how intersectionality and womanism worked in both texts. This topic came up in our Socratic seminars as one student brought in both ideas, prompting another student to reflect,

Originally, when I prepared for the seminar I thought of Guitar and Milkman’s lives and how systematic oppression has stripped them of hope and opportunity, but I had not thought about how the same systematic oppression affects the women in the novel such as First Corinthians and Hagar. This idea pertains to the idea of “womanism” and how the women in the novel, such as First Corinthians and Hagar, not only have to deal with the implications of being African-American, but also the implications of being a woman.

Another student reflected that “it made me realize that these life controlling actions still occur today; not only do White people work to assert their dominance over minorities, but this could also occur between genders. This idea further supports the Womanism movement because Black women have a greater likelihood of facing more inequalities and oppression.” One student remarked that studying Lemonade with Song of Solomon made the latter text more “relevant” because she could see how “themes presented in the novel are present and have evolved in today’s society.” Another student added simply that she “could [better] understand Solomon with the explanations within Beyoncé’s videos.” One student concluded, “I will remember this unit well because it made me reflect on the society I live in today… Not only did watching Lemonade help me understand Song of Solomon, but the novel also helped me identify symbolism and themes in Lemonade that I missed initially.”

The pairing of Song of Solomon and Lemonade presents many opportunities to integrate music into the ELA curriculum. In the second year pairing these texts, I noticed that students integrated music in their projects more often. For an independent novel selection, I asked students to create a project that demonstrated what they took away from their chosen book. One student wrote a classical composition based on the themes in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, while another composed a three-song cycle based on characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. While it’s possible that students may have been inspired to create music based on literature without studying Lemonade in conjunction with Song of Solomon, it is clear that Beyoncé’s film helped them see music as a viable medium for understanding literature and culture as well as a literary vehicle of its own.

References

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299.

Davis, Kiri. “A Girl Like Me.” YouTube, 4 May 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyI77Yh1Gg, Accessed 29 Jun 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Mariner, 2003.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 3

This post is the third in a series about teaching Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade album in conjunction with Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. You might want to read the first post and second post first.

Guitar advises Milkman, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (Morrison 179). Before Milkman will be able to fly, he will have to give up everything that prevents him from becoming free (Foster 135). Over the course of his journey, he loses all of his possessions: his car, his shoes, and finally, his watch (Foster 165). Part of what weighs Milkman down is his father. Milkman has learned unhealthy lessons from his father, who taught him to value money and possessions as a marker of his worth. His father insists the only way to freedom is to “own things” (Morrison 55). Macon Dead, Jr. believes that Pilate has nothing useful to teach Milkman, which turns out to be false (Morrison 55).

Like Milkman, Beyoncé has learned some unhealthy lessons from her father in “Daddy Lessons.” In order to understand the “generational curse” of “the historical impact of slavery on Black love,” Beyoncé must “[reckon] with her partner’s betrayal” to understand “how familial, historical, and societal forces have shaped his behavior and [take] action to heal these wounds” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). Cuchna and Shodiya argue that the thesis of Beyoncé’s film is “the past and future merge to meet us here” (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”).

In order to become free, both Beyoncé and Milkman will need to confront this past and shed the “Daddy Lessons” passed down from their fathers. In Beyoncé’s case, these lessons include suppression of emotion as a sign of strength (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). In the middle of this song, Beyoncé includes a home video of herself and her father cut with a clip of her daughter, Blue Ivy, jumping on the bed. As Cuchna and Shodiya argue, Blue Ivy’s appearance underscores the importance of Beyoncé breaking the curse—her daughter’s future happiness is at stake (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). A funeral takes place, symbolizing the metaphorical death of this curse with the fictionalized death of Beyoncé’s father (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). Milkman has to contend with the fact that his father’s treatment of his mother impacted his own relationships with women. He wonders, late in his journey, about his mother: “What might she have been like had her husband loved her?” (Morrison 300). Milkman begins to realize that Macon, Jr. loved “property… to excess because he loved his father to excess” (Morrison 300). Macon, Jr. saw his own father killed in a property dispute in which his father was clearly in the right, and it has affected his entire outlook on life. Like Beyoncé, Milkman must contend with a generational curse before he can become free. This freedom is represented in the novel by flight.

Milkman discovers that his great-grandfather, Solomon, was “one of those flying African children” (Morrison 321). In this clip, Toni Morrison talks about using this myth in the novel:

This myth likely arose from the story of the Igbo Landing which was the site of a mass suicide of Igbo people who were taken from what is now Nigeria to Georgia’s St. Simon’s Island (Momodu; Powell). Beyoncé also alludes to the Igbo Landing in her song “Love Drought,” which features Beyoncé leading a group of eight African-American women to wade into the water. The group, however, does not drown themselves, but rather engages in a form of baptism to “be born again into a life of healing from the pain of racial injustice that was outlined” earlier in Lemonade (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé”).

This song appears in Lemonade’s chapter “Reformation,” as Beyoncé “band[s] together” with the group of women “to create new lives for themselves,” an act accomplished through joining and raising their hands “in unity, suggesting the communal power of Black women” to effect miraculous changes (Cuchna and Shodiya, ‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé”).

This baptism sets the stage for the next chapter in Lemonade, “Forgiveness.” Like Milkman, now that Beyoncé has come to terms with the truth and understands how history has impacted her, she can become free. While Beyoncé accomplishes this freedom through creating community with Black women, past and present, Milkman accomplishes freedom with the healing assistance of a woman. As Pilate presciently declares early in the text, “it’ll be a woman save his life” (Morrison 140).

Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman enters into his first reciprocal relationship with a woman, a prostitute named Sweet. Sweet bathes Milkman both literally and spiritually, after which, he bathes Sweet (Foster 166). The two then engage in domestic tasks of the sort that Milkman has never done, according to his sister Magdalena called Lena, who charges Milkman with “never pick[ing] up anything heavier than [his] own feet” (Morrison 215). One of the tasks Milkman does is to scrub Sweet’s bathtub; earlier, Lena accused Milkman of never “wip[ing] the ring from [his] tub” (Morrison 215). Clearly Milkman has become a new person. In “Freedom,” Beyoncé sings “I’ma rain, I’ma rain on this bitter love / Tell the sweet I’m new” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

In this song, Beyoncé declares freedom from the “chains” of the “curses [she has] inherited” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Freedom’ by Beyoncé”). Similarly, Milkman’s flight represents his attainment of freedom (Foster 136). However, Milkman does not fly until after he realizes that “without ever leaving the ground, [his aunt Pilate] could fly” (Morrison 336). In order to attain his own freedom, Milkman must “surrender to the air” (Morrison 337).

When Beyoncé reconciles with her partner in “All Night,” our class discussed how the healing accomplished through intimacy compared to Milkman’s relationship with Sweet. I suggested that some critics argue that the album should have ended with this song rather than “Formation” because it signaled reconciliation. Before I had finished the thought, one of my students interjected, “No.” I asked her to elaborate. She said that “Formation” is necessary because it declares Beyoncé’s intention to join with other women to stop racial injustice and gender inequity. This intention is not only displayed in the chorus of the song when Beyoncé sings, “Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation” but also in the lyric, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

 

These lyrics announce Beyoncé’s intention to “affirm her daughter, just as she is” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Formation’ by Beyoncé”). Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman holds Pilate in his arms as she dies and says, “There must be another one like you… There’s got to be at least one more woman like you” (Morrison 336). At this moment, Milkman’s “symbolic acceptance of an alternative African-American beauty ideal,” represented by Pilate’s rejection of White beauty standards pursued by her granddaughter Hagar, finally gives Milkman the freedom to fly (Ashe 589).

Morrison says in her foreword, the flights of the men in Milkman’s family “are viewed differently by the women left behind” as evidenced by the “Sugarman” / “Solomon” song passed down to Pilate (xiv). As Morrison says, “to praise a woman whose attention was focused solely on family and domestic responsibilities, Milkman summons a conundrum: that without ever leaving the ground she could fly” (xiv). Because she accepted herself, as she was, she has always been free. The cryptic final sentence of Morrison’s foreword reads, “My father laughed” (xiv). I asked my students why they thought Morrison’s father laughed, reminding them she wrote the novel to explore what the men he has known “are really like” (xii). One of my students said, “I think it’s because even though she was writing about men, she still managed to make this book about women.” We laughed, too.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll move from analysis of the texts’ connection to what activities and assessments we did in the classroom.

Works Cited

Ashe, Bertram D. “‘Why Don’t He Like My Hair?’: Constructing African-American Standards of Beauty in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. African American Review, vol. 29, no. 4, 1995, pp. 589-592.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 19 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/4o4BiQlgkVPAC7ORLK115t?si=CpbfA7d0TmCyrqYblnf5ng, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Freedom’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 16 Jun. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/73TaovV5bMxDMICYqnvlTe?si=jLafOY69Rp2u4iIH7JcWdQ, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 26 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/1DGACEEJICFbSYCF3RVJZX?si=gpBgSsdjQp2rd6dNWdFeMw, Accessed 27 Jun 2020

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Revised ed., Harper Perennial, 2014.

Momodu, Samuel. “Igbo Landing Mass Suicide.” BlackPast, 25 Oct. 2016. www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/events-african-american-history/igbo-landing-mass-suicide-1803/, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Powell, Timothy B. “Ebo’s Landing.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2004, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/ebos-landing, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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