I had a great discussion with my students today. A couple of them asked me why I don’t grade participation in Socratic seminars. I used to. I stopped because I find that grading participation is slippery. If you quantify it, you run the risk of encouraging shallow participation for points. In their reflections, students share what they have learned as a result of the seminar. I think part of the concern the students shared is that their reflection must include a summary of ideas discussed in the seminar, and the students who raised the concern did not earn full points for their summaries. They argued that if they are trying to capture the discussion in their notes, they will not be as present in the discussion.
What I told the students is that grading is a means of communicating their learning, and if they would prefer to be assessed on participation because it helps them learn, then I will do what helps them learn. I asked that we have a discussion about it as a class. We had that discussion this morning, and I was really impressed with how the students were able to articulate what works for them in assessing seminars and why. They have a strong sense of what kind of assessment feels equitable and what does not. They were able to articulate why setting goals and assessing progress toward the goals was helpful, and why grading participation didn’t work for most of them.
I pointed out that the skills of note-taking and listening are important for success. Students need to listen to their teachers and peers—now and later in college—and be able to take notes on what they hear, so my rationale for assessing these skills is that they are skills that are important to practice. Yet, I understand their arguments as well. We cannot have a good seminar if students do not participate. On the other hand, their classmates insisted that participation was not a problem in our first seminar. At one point, they asked me to display our discussion map from last time (thanks, Equity Maps!). Did we actually have a problem that needed solving, or was our discussion working without grading participation?
The class consensus was to leave the assessment as is, particularly as they have only experienced one seminar so far and judgment based on one experience would not tell the whole story. I don’t think everyone was happy, and frankly, the discussion did become a bit heated. I don’t think that made the students feel comfortable. I asked them if they felt heard—not agreed with, because that’s not the same thing—but heard. I think the net result is that students appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas. I was super impressed with them, and I shared that feedback with them.
We have our second seminar tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see how this debate informs the discussion. In the end, the compromise/consensus seemed to be that students want to be assessed on making progress on their goals. Part of their reflection is to identify their goals for the next seminar. This means I need to go back into their last reflections and refresh my memory about what their individual goals are and ensure I give them feedback on their progress toward meeting their goals. They also asked for feedback on their contributions, though they recognized that one person’s idea of an insightful comment may differ from another’s.
The bottom line is that it’s important to engage students in the assessment of their learning. Some of the best discussions I have had with my students have centered on grading and assessment. They have a lot to say about assessment, but they are not always a part of the conversation about how they’ll be assessed. It was a good exercise for my students today to hear others’ perspectives on this topic and take those perspectives into consideration.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 1919, Clint 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.”
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.
My ambition got away from me. I have continued to read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity, but I haven’t been posting reflections here. I will, eventually. I just need to finish a project I’m working on before I post here.
In other news, a manuscript I submitted to English Journal was rejected with encouragement to revise, and I just don’t have time to revise right now. I think the peer reviewers’ comments were helpful and would make the writing a stronger piece, but it’s just not going to happen. Instead, I plan to post the article here, perhaps in three or four parts, so that the ideas might be something you can implement in your classroom (if you are so inclined). I had good reviewers, and I appreciate the time they put into the manuscript. I know that’s a lot of work.
I’m a researcher and graduate student, and the power of feedback to make your writing and thinking better cannot be overstated, but sometimes you need to put the rough ideas out there anyway, so that’s what I plan to do.
What is this article about? Here is a little hint.
I have a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary from 1893-1894, which I transcribed. It’s a fascinating window into history for many reasons, one of which is that while Stella was writing the diary, she was a teacher. She married in May 1894, after which she had to quit teaching and keep house.
Her primary concerns as a teacher seem to center around keeping order in her classroom. She remarks very little on what she actually taught her students, but she mentions whether or not class was unruly a few times. I also have a copy of a letter she wrote my great-uncle Alvin, who must have been assigned to write to grandparents and ask what school was like when they were little. Stella’s letter is wonderful (I reproduced it on this blog about 14 years ago).
I think I have always found the history of education, particularly schools, fascinating. I really enjoyed reading Joe Feldman’s chapter on the history of grading in Grading for Equity. Much of it was material I already knew, as one of his sources, Schneider & Hutt’s (2014) article “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme” was one my own sources as well. If you can get your hands on this article, I highly recommend you read it (the full citation, including DOI, is at the end of this post). I learned some really interesting things from it, particularly the fact that the A-F grading system is not really that old. It quickly became entrenched in schools, and it seems nearly impossible now to imagine schools with A-F grades, but they actually didn’t become entrenched until about the 1940s. My grandparents were still in school in the 1940s, though my grandfather would have graduated in the very early 1940s. The history of letter grades as a method for communicating learning isn’t that old.
First, yesterday I promised to continue reflecting on Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” for chapter 1 today; however, on reading them more closely, I’m not sure you care over much why I am reading this book or who I’m reading it with, so I’ll skip those, except to say that I’ll reconsider anything I’m doing if it means my grading practices will be more equitable. Chapter 2 dives into the history of schools and grades a bit more.
How do schools in the first half of the twenty-first century—their design, their purpose, their student—compare with schools in the first half of the twentieth century?
I have actually sat in desks that were bolted to the floor. Have you? I find that the design of classrooms, at least in schools where I have taught, is much more fluid. Desks are mobile, sometimes even on wheels. Students sit in a large circle or square in my classrooms. My classroom looks different from the classrooms I sat in and from the images of vintage classrooms (like the one at the beginning of this post). We also have projectors and computers. My students learn from viewing images and watching videos in addition to reading. Most stakeholders would probably agree that my school’s purpose is to prepare students for college. I don’t think that was the goal of most schools in the early 20th century.
Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to propose schools as we might describe them today? In his Notes on the State of Virginia (which isn’t read enough and is why people don’t realize how complicated and problematic Jefferson’s ideas could sometimes be), he wrote (emphasis my own, spelling his):
This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor, who is annually to chuse the boy, of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters); and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall chuse, at William and Mary college, the plan of which is proposed to be enlarged, as will be hereafter explained, and extended to all the useful sciences. The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to: the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated at their own expence.
Pardon the long quote, but I find it worth quoting at length because it several ideas come into focus if you read the whole thing:
School was never envisioned to be equitable, not even the mind of the guy who wrote that “all men are created equal.” It was made to sort people, which is why tracking is still so common.
The language Jefferson uses is telling: he describes students as “rubbish.” He didn’t include girls or BIPOC in the calculation at all. It’s a pretty classist idea even if you remove the sexism and racism. You know the boy children of poor farmers weren’t going to college.
If you’re struggling to parse the language, the proposal is as follows:
Send one boy per “hundred” to a grammar school. The remaining students would end their schooling after three years in the “hundred” school.
Of those boys sent to grammar school, competition for continued education would be fierce: Jefferson suggests one or two years of grammar school to separate the wheat from the chaff, after which one of those grammar school students could continue his education for six more years.
Half of those boys lucky enough to continue their education past grammar school would then be able to go to college after that six years of education.
The competition among students was baked into American education early on. My great-great-grandmother Stella describes such competition when she describes spelling class: “We sat on long benches and a class would go up to the teacher to recite and sit on a long bench, only the spelling classes would stand in a row and “turn down”, when one missed a word.”
I would argue school has changed a great deal since the early 1900s but some aspects of school haven’t changed much. I have cited studies ranging from 1888-2019 in my research that document traditional letter grades’ issues with reliability, consistency, motivation, and self-concept. Grades seem to be the one aspect of school we are resistant to changing, in spite of a large body of evidence supporting change.
Once again, I’ve gone on too long and you’re probably not reading anymore. More tomorrow on how I see ideas and beliefs of the early 20th century at work in schools where I have taught.
Citations for further reading:
Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.
Back in the day, I sometimes reflected on professional reading on this blog, and sometimes, book clubs resulted. Blogging has fallen by the wayside in favor of Twitter, which makes me sad because sometimes the long-form reflection is better than a tweet thread. The UbD Educators wiki grew out of the reflection I did, and until Wikispaces went defunct, it was a promising project, though I confided to Grant Wiggins that it was hard to find teachers to commit to adding to the wiki. He wasn’t surprised because lack of time makes it difficult. I always say that we make time for the things that are important to us, and this blog is pretty important to me, but I hadn’t made a lot of time for it for some years. I’m going to try to change that, and one thing I want to do is document my thinking as I read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. I joked to a couple of colleagues that I am finally making time to actually read this book, which has been on my radar for a long time, and I realize I should have made the time to read it as soon as it was released because Feldman is citing much of the same research as I am citing in my dissertation. I could have saved myself a lot of searching through the library database!
First of all, I encourage educators to take the quiz How Equitable is Your Grading? on Feldman’s website. If, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, you are examining your curriculum’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that’s great. I think it’s great if you are engaged in movements to #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets. You also need to take a hard look at your grading practices, too. If, as Feldman says, you are implementing some equitable practices, such as “responsive classrooms, alternative disciplinary measures, diverse curriculum—but meanwhile preserve inequitable grading,” you are perpetuating inequity in schools.
I’m going to start by using Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” at the end of chapter 1. I’ll just answer the first two and update tomorrow with responses to the remaining three questions. Otherwise, this post will be way too long. Maybe it already is!
What are some deep beliefs you have about teenagers? What motivates and demotivates them? Are they more concerned with learning or their grade?
After over 20 years of teaching mostly teenagers, I have concluded that a lot of adults expect them to be more “adult” because they tend to look more adult. What I mean is they expect teenagers have developed an internal locus of control. Not even all adults have an internal locus of control. Teenagers tend to still mostly have an external locus of control, which means they are more likely to attribute a poor grade to a teacher’s lack of regard for them instead of a lack of proficiency on their part. I think we need to remember that when we are grading. As such, they might be motivated to earn good grades (carrot) or avoid bad ones (stick), but grades in an of themselves don’t motivate them to learn. I think they do help give students some kind of yardstick they can use to judge their performance, but I didn’t think grades had even this utility until I started doing research. Grades might not communicate what we think or wish they would, but they communicate something. I think students are much more concerned with grades rather than learning when they are in classes in which all high-stakes assessments result in grades that cannot be improved through revision and in which all earned grades are averaged together. If, however, they are in a classroom that encourages revision and focuses on proficiency, they focus a lot more on learning. Teenagers actually love to learn things, but the trick is that teachers need to communicate the relevance, and the wrong answer is “I’m the adult, so I say it’s relevant.” And if what you are teaching isn’t relevant, you need to figure out how to Marie Kondo the curriculum.
What is your vision for grading? What do you wish grading could be for students, particularly the most vulnerable populations? What do you wish grading could be for you? In which ways do current grading practices meet those expectations, and in which ways do they not?
Before I started my research, I wanted to eliminate grades a measure of student learning. There is a movement to do just that, and many schools successfully use other methods for reporting learning, and yes, their students still get into college. I no longer think grades are entirely useless. I think we have just perpetuated inequitable grading for so long that I couldn’t figure out another way aside from burning the whole system down. Now I advocate for proficiency-based grading, and that means that students might revise their work, sometimes several times, in order to reach a level of proficiency in learning content and skills. In almost any aspect of life, we have chances to practice a skill until we master it, and no one says it is unfair. There was a time when every musician we know didn’t know how to play their instrument, when every athlete didn’t know how to play their sport. But we don’t judge their current competence by where they started. I think grading based on reaching proficiency, whenever it happens or however it happens, is much more equitable.
My dissertation is a dissertation in practice, meaning I need to take an action step and evaluate its success. My action step is to create a proficiency-based grading and authentic assessment guide for a pilot group of faculty, to implement the practices therein (along with a focus group), to evaluate the guide’s success and revise it accordingly, and to present the findings to my colleagues. Feldman’s ideas will be invaluable in framing the guide, grounded also in my own research. I am hoping implementing this action step will make grading less of a chore for me, too—I related so much to Feldman’s argument that teachers don’t like grading (p. 5).
What I need to do is figure out a system that is more mathematically sound and use it. I am doing fairly well on most equitable grading practices according to Feldman’s quiz, with the exception of that one. For example, I already:
Don’t weigh homework much. Homework is preparation for class, such as reading and writing. I don’t even really use the homework category in my online grade book for graded work.
Don’t calculate behavior and executive function skills in my grade.
Allow students to revise their work and replace the grade entirely with the new grade.
Don’t subscribe to the idea that grades need to fall on a bell curve or that I need a certain distribution of grades.
Don’t count participation as a grade category. It is part of the rubric in a Socratic seminar.
I do not have students asking me to create homework assignments, and they mostly do the preparation I ask them to do. Students sometimes turn work in late for me, but it doesn’t bother me. Other than that, I don’t feel I miss anything by excluding executive function skills. Students actually work harder knowing the grade can entirely be replaced if the work improves. I don’t subscribe to fears about grade inflation or worries that students have too many high grades, and I find conversations with others who are still hung up here to be maddeningly frustrating. I have long felt participation was too slippery to calculate, and sometimes students are super engaged but don’t say as much. I still get excellent participation from students without grading it.
More tomorrow on the first chapter reflection questions. Let me know if you want to “book group” this book.
The thing I hear most in Johnson’s voice is her exhaustion, the sense of knowing there is no way her White friends can truly understand and empathize with her. This post on Buzzfeed with photographs of people holding up signs of microaggressions they often hear is a good example of the kind of tired Norma Johnson is talking about. It makes me sad. It makes me want to be a better friend. It makes me want to be a better ally, accomplice, and co-conspirator.
Part of what makes it difficult to talk to White people about racism is that they are not affected by it, certainly not in the same way as BIPOC. Racism definitely harms White people in many ways (honestly Google how racism hurts White people and look at a few things), but it can be hard for many White people to acknowledge and understand there is a system at work because many White people feel like they worked hard and maybe didn’t have certain advantages, so everyone should just be able to do it (whatever “it” is). Honestly, this is an opinion I held in the past because I did have a hard time. I didn’t have a hard time because of my race, though. That’s the difference.
As I have said recently, I believe the path to becoming antiracist is like an asymptote. I will strive toward it for the rest of my life (understanding that I will never be fully antiracist) because I think that kind of love for myself and for my fellow human beings is worth striving for. People are not perfect, but we still strive to be better and to do great work. Since I started working on unlearning racism several years back, I am so much happier. I have deep, rich relationships with wonderful people that I might have missed out on due to fear or prejudice. I am so much less afraid. I feel a greater understanding—not only of the society I live in, but also of my role in it. I’m also frustrated a lot of the time because I know the pain people cling to because of racism. As James Baldwin says in his phenomenal book The Fire Next Time: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I think Baldwin is right that deep pain lies underneath hatred. We don’t have to live with that hatred, and we don’t have to live with that pain.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.
The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.
This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.
What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.
As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.
I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)
Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.
When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.
This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”
Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.
My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.
I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.
One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”
The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.
Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York TimesBestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.