This is a bit of a personal post. I’m currently reading Mark Barnes’ Assessment 3.0, and of course it’s stirring all kinds of things up in me, so I’m going to reflect on my own life and experiences. There’ll be nothing in this entry about my current practice, failures and successes, etc. This is more about how I got to this point.
I’m very, very good at taking tests. I took the SAT without preparation and scored a 1250 before they nerfed it. I took the GRE without preparation and got a 6/6 on the writing part, plus easily passed the rest. I didn’t study for the CSET in social studies or English, and I’m betting I could pass the ‘fundamentals of science’ one without studying. I once audited a Mexican History class and took the midterm having done nothing but read the material once in preparation for class. I answered 30 questions in 5 minutes and got 4 wrong–two because I went too fast, and two because I genuinely didn’t know the answers. I don’t have to study for tests and I rarely get less than an A on them.
I’m intelligent, but I’m not a genius. I read voraciously. I reflect a lot. I am curious and creative and I’m not afraid of looking like an idiot in front of my classmates, so I raise my hand when I have a question. I absorb information quickly. My teachers liked having me as a student.
With all that, I still graduated high school with a 2.7 GPA and I graduated college with a cumulative GPA of 2.58. I had to petition to get into my teaching credential program.
So what happened?
My childhood was spent in varying degrees of poverty. We hit some real low points. Two summers we were homeless. Like, living in the car, or living without plumbing and electricity five miles off the road in the middle of the wilderness-level homeless/destitute. My parents used to bury the perishable food in a styrofoam cooler a good 4 feet down to keep it cool. I didn’t learn to read until somewhere around the end of 1st grade or the beginning of 2nd (I don’t quite remember), and while my grades were decent in elementary school, the poverty we lived in set me up for a lot of bullying in middle school.
There I transitioned into algebra. I well remember my math teacher, Mr. Jamison, who thought it was cute to nickname kids. All the nicknames were horrible and demeaning and made his class an unsafe place to be. On top of that, I was a year younger than all the other students, so my brain was underdeveloped in comparison to theirs, and as a result I had tremendous difficulty understanding the concept of x. The end result was that I learned that I was bad at math. Only in my 30s did I discover that I’m good at math in general and simply not that great at algebra, and I could be better if I tried again.
I struggled through high school math, finished Algebra 2 with a C-, and dropped out of trigonometry. I didn’t understand any of it. I knew that if I continued taking trig, my low grade would jeopardize my GPA and I might not get into college. So in order to keep my GPA high enough, I stopped learning math.
I did the same thing with physics, which was taught Senior year to kids who were in trig or calculus. I understood the concepts better than anyone else in my period, but the math killed me. My first physics test was so overwhelming I put my name on it and turned it in with the rest of the paper blank. My second test, I tried every problem but finished none of them. My third test, I finished every problem. None were correct, but I got a 58% on that test. None of my friends understood why I was so happy to get an F, but to me it meant I was learning. I was growing and achieving. But I had to drop the class and stop learning physics because of my GPA, even though I was improving and could show I’d learned something.
Meanwhile, life wasn’t going so well. Because my mom–a single mom and the first in our family to go to college–was still in school and couldn’t work during her student teaching year, I supported the family with my fast food job. On most weekdays I worked 5-10 PM and on Saturday I worked 12-5. On top of that, I walked a mile to the bus stop, then took the bus to school. Classes started at 7:30, which meant that I woke up at 5:45 every morning. I started my homework at 10:15 every night and worked until midnight. I also typed up all her homework, made her worksheets, took care of the house, cooked half the dinners, and raised my little brothers. The end result of all of this was that I was overworked, exhausted, and hungry. Looking back on that, probably the fact that I test well was the only reason I got a 2.7 GPA and didn’t fail high school.
By the way, none of my teachers knew this was going on in my life. To them, I was a bright kid who was lazy, or undermotivated. They never asked and I never told.
When I moved away to college, my grandfather, who had some money, put me in the dorms specifically so I could focus on school and not have to deal with all the stuff at home. I did okay. I had a lot to adjust to during my freshman year. I was a biology major for one semester, but I couldn’t pass my math class, so even though I was extremely good at biology I had to change majors. I became an English major because it was easy, though I thought it was boring. I also got married, and then got divorced.
My fifth year of college was a disaster. I was going through the end of my marriage, and I was so depressed and overwhelmed that I stopped going to school without formally dropping my classes, so I got Fs in all of them. I signed up for another semester of college and the same thing happened. My GPA ended up being 1.77 with 120 semester units. And I realized it wasn’t going to get any better, so I dropped out of school.
I took about 18 units at the community college after that but dropped them too and got more Fs. And there I was, at 24 years old, a total and complete failure. I wasn’t lazy. I wasn’t unmotivated. I enjoyed and valued receiving an education. I wanted to be in college. But I couldn’t do it. Depression and the intense feelings of failure that accompanied my divorce literally got between my love of learning and my ability to achieve at school, and the more I failed at school, the worse I felt. Even though I learned a lot in every class I attended.
Several year passed. I recovered. I decided I wanted to go back to school to finish my degree because I wanted to be college educated. I went to the local university (I’d since moved to the Bay Area, which is lousy with colleges) and asked them what I needed to do to graduate. They said I could go back to HSU right away, or I could apply for a different CSU and start over as a Junior. In order to do that, I needed a 2.0 GPA.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to raise a 1.77 to a 2.0 when you already have 120 semester units? But it was too expensive and difficult to move back up to HSU, so I stayed down here and decided to go to community college and start over.
I took an “easy” class to get back into the swing of things (Radio and Television Broadcasting – really fun!), applied the heck out of myself, and got an A. Once I knew I could get a good grade, I started a 4 year process of signing up for classes, attempting them, and either dropping them with W grades (which don’t count toward your GPA) or getting an A. I quickly learned that history is awesome and decided to become a history teacher. Since I could take literally anything–the point being to raise my GPA–I took every history class they offered at night. I got the history major/history teacher requirements from SFSU, where I decided I wanted to go, and followed that for my undergrad work. At the end of four years of night school I’d raised my GPA to a 2.01, applied for SFSU, quit my day job, and got accepted. I spent the next 2 years getting A and A- grades in every class I took. I graduated with a 2.58. However, my department chose me to be the undergraduate honoree (one per department per year), accepted me as a graduate student, gave me a huge fellowship, and my school gave me lots of scholarships. I went through grad school in 2 years, learned some Spanish, and was a distinguished scholar/joined Phi Alpha Theta upon graduation. Honors tassels and all.
Sounds like a success story, right?
No. First, the only reason I could do any of that was because I had a friend who was willing to exchange room and board for house care. He had lots of money but kept getting his power shut off because he forgot to pay his bills. If I’d had to work while attending SFSU I could not have gotten As in my classes. Poverty really does affect grades, and not everyone is as fortunate in friends as I was.
Second, I developed a full-blown case of anxiety while I was in College 2.0. When your education becomes all or nothing, you can develop a mental illness. I would get panic attacks if I thought I wasn’t understanding something and it would affect my grade. Grad school was so stressful I put on 60 pounds in 3 months. I had a prescription for Ambien, and I used to shave an Ambien pill with a razor to determine how much sleep I wanted. In November and April, that was about 4 hours a night. I’d get up at 4 AM and ride a series of sugary drinks throughout the day, drinking one right before the crash from the last one hit, until I could allow myself to sleep at midnight. My personal relationships suffered. I lost friends. I almost lost my boyfriend. Over the 4 years I was at SFSU, I gained a total of 100 pounds. I read so much my entire body rebelled and I cried with exhaustion. I loved my program and every teacher I had at SFSU, but the stress of having to get straight As in a very short amount of time damaged my health. I’m still recovering seven years later.
And the whole time, I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A. I knew I had to work my hardest and make my education my top priority, but there were times I thought I was working 30% harder than other students who got As, and I had no idea how much less work I could do and still get the A.
Parallel to all of this, I began to seriously write fiction. I started writing when I was 8 and wrote steadily until I was about 23. After that, I wrote sporadically until I was 39 or so. Then, once I got tenure, I started to write again. That was three years ago. I had always gotten As on my papers and I thought I was a really good writer.
Boy was I wrong.
I joined a website for writers called Scribophile. Several thousand writers (including lots of traditionally published ones) use Scribophile to post writing and get feedback. The feedback on my work was alarming. I had a lot to learn. Likewise, I left feedback and my first 2 years of crits (critiques) weren’t that great. Everyone was extremely encouraging, told me to stick with it, and said that the things that improve a writer most are a) writing a lot, b) reading a lot, and c) critiquing a lot. And they were right. My crits became better. More importantly, my writing improved. When I critted the works of others, I was forced to articulate the problems in their writing, which helped me figure out how to prevent those problems in my own work. After three years of critiquing the writing of others on a weekly basis, I can point to how much growth I’ve achieved as a writer and as a critic. Far more than if I’d only ever received critiques or just wrote every day without sharing it with others.
And, on top of all of that, I began to read about failure. At first it was because there were memes of Facebook, but then I read a little bit more into it. I thought about all the examples I’d had from history classes. I thought about my own F in physics, about how ecstatic I’d been to get that 58%. I thought about friends I’d had who were so afraid of failure that they never tried anything new. I thought about moral fear of failure. I thought about my own teaching, about how I was so afraid of receiving a low performance review (IE grade) that I wasn’t trying anything new. I thought about all the mixed messages out there–failure drives ingenuity. Failure can be unexpectedly beneficial, like when you fail to make one thing in science and discover something completely unexpected and valuable as a result. I thought about the time my grandfather failed to make strawberry jam and made a delicious strawberry syrup instead. I wanted to encourage my students to take risks and chances, but they’re so paralyzed with fear of failure they don’t try. And (this was last year) I determined that I needed to make some sort of change. There had to be some way of encouraging risk-taking and experimentation without punishment. Some way I could indicate to a kid that they had failed without crushing them, without destroying their grade, without jeopardizing their ability to attend promotion ceremony (I teach middle school), without them risking being beaten by their parents. I wanted to make it safe to fail. But how do you do that when you put a number on a paper, then add them up and compare them to a scale?
And that is why I’m here. Because I failed, and recovering from it cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages, delayed retirement, and tuition. Because I failed, and I had to jeopardize my health, lose friendships, and nearly lose my boyfriend to recover. Because I failed, and I gained 100 pounds I can’t lose as a result. My failure had nothing to do with my intelligence or my willingness to learn. And as I love my students I do not want that to happen to them.
There are things you shouldn’t fail–landing a plane, performing heart surgery, etc. But school? That is precisely where you should take risks, where failure should be celebrated as a chance to learn. Where else do we allow people the freedom to sit in a classroom, with relatively few other responsibilities? We want to prepare them for the real world? Okay. How to deal with failure is a part of the adult experience. Allowing kids to fail and recover without damaging their lives will help them build resiliency. Allowing them to try something new without worrying about getting beaten (verbally, mentally, spiritually, or physically) if it doesn’t work is crucially important. And no one grades me now. I don’t take any more standardized tests. Those are not a part of the adult world. I’m evaluated. My performance is reviewed. But I’m not graded or tested. When I worked in the corporate world I wasn’t either. (And even pilots and surgeons fail, which is why they have long apprenticeships; backups and/or teams to catch them; and why people rigorously dissect their failures to see what can be learned.)
I’m now in Week 6 of going gradeless and my kids are just as engaged in my class as they were four months ago. They’re still learning. I don’t have to “point a gun at their heads” (ie threaten them with a graded test) to get them to read the textbook. I’m no more engaging than the next teacher and I’m definitely no superstar of education, but I have not noticed any lessening of motivation, interest, or enthusiasm. In fact, a handful of kids are doing much better. (The majority are doing about the same.)
Grades are poison. They disrupt lives. We need to get rid of them.