Grades: the Sequel

As promised, a little more on grades.

The thing I wanted to write about, but didn’t get around to, was my own experience-as a student -with an  alternative  grading system.

When I was a senior in high school I had a teacher (Mr. Williams) who did not give grades. Ever.

Not only did Mr. Williams not give grades, he did not give “praise”. He taught Literature and Philosophy, which meant that on every paper I wrote for his class I not only received no grade, but no comments that told me what I was doing well at, only comments about what I could do to improve and questions that my writing had raised.  This was not a welcome state of affairs. By my senior year I had become a grade junkie. I was used to getting good grades and getting positive feedback on my work. Mr. Williams’ class was a shock to my system.

But, like any junkie, I needed to face the cold hard truth of my addiction. I needed to suffer through the pangs of withdrawal, so I could emerge on the other side a more sane person. Throughout the course of the semester, I went through the classic stages of grief over my grades. I started off in denial (he wasn’t really going to do this terrible, horrible thing after all). Then I moved on to anger (who did he think he was to not give me my grades? Eff him!). There was some bargaining (okay, If I write this paper then at least I’ll pass this class), a little depression (poor Bree, she must not be a very good writer after all) and finally acceptance (I’m going to write about what I want to write about and who cares what stupid Mr. Williams thinks). Perhaps I never made it entirely out of anger…

It took me a little while, with some floundering along the way, but I came to a place where I actually appreciated what Mr. Williams was trying to accomplish. I felt strong in my writing because I believed I was writing well. And I was writing about things that I was interested in, things that puzzled me or that I wanted to explore. Mr. Williams’ lack of praise and grading allowed me to go into a project with no sense of expectation looming over me. I didn’t need to do well. I just needed to show up at the page. He gave me a sense of freedom with my work.

I don’t know if I would have taken such a strong message away from this experience if Mr. Williams hadn’t goofed up at the end of the class. One day, after class was over, he asked me to stay for a minute, which of course I did. And then, he did something he had promised not to do: he praised my writing. I didn’t know what to say. I think I stammered out a “thanks” or something. And then I left.

That night, when I sat down at my computer to start my final paper for the class I thought about what he had said. That he liked my writing. And I froze. I couldn’t write a word. I felt the burden of his expectation weighing on my shoulders and I couldn’t get started. What if it wasn’t any good? What if I just blathered on for five pages about something stupid? I had been crippled by praise after I had reached a point where I no longer needed it.

The next day, in front of the class, Mr. Williams apologized to me and another student who he had also spoken to. He recognized that his words had set up this expectation and that he had probably made it difficult for us to proceed in our work. I was impressed by that in a few ways: first, because it was one of only a few times I’d heard a teacher apologize to his students, and second, because he understood what his actions had done to me. He got it.

I finally managed to reach a place where I told the mental Mr. Williams sitting on my shoulder to screw off and I wrote the paper I wanted to write. I got an A in the class–Mr. Williams did have to give grades in the end–but the best thing I got out of that class was the knowledge that I didn’t need to be graded to know that I was successful. For the most part, that lesson has stuck with me. Though like any recovering addict, I continue to have my moments of backsliding.

I aspire to Mr. Williams-ing my grading system.


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