For Parents—A Dad (also a School Head) Wondering About Grades

Parents can get a bad rap because we come across as obsessed with our children’s grades, while neglecting a far more appropriate concern with our children’s learning and critical skill building. Perhaps we are simply misguided as to how to best express our interest in what is happening at school and its relationship with the value a school is delivering for our child. No matter our intent, it washes away in the eyes of the folks who empty our refrigerators and refuse to greet us and look away from their phones at the same time when we limit our questions about school to grades. A number of conversations are likely to follow such lines of questioning—none of which are likely to recommend us to the Parenting Council (which evaluates a parent’s every move, of course). In short, we tell our kids it is not all about the grades and then we make it seem as if it is indeed all about the grades. Teenagers in particular have a finely tuned talent for smelling out duplicity. We end up sounding like parents we didn’t want to become, and our kids end up confused about what the real purpose of their education might be (HINT: it is not about grades in and of themselves—rather grades are the highly imperfect way we try to gauge the learning a school seeks to provide).

With all that in mind, I have an idea about a smarter path, one that might allow us to communicate our real interest in a way that allows us to be good partners with both our child and the school. First, the Change: move the conversation with your child about an important evaluation before the evaluation rather than having it only after the fact. Instead of just asking, “How did you do?” or “What did you make?” after an assessment, parents get to ask smarter questions in advance of an assessment, such as:

  • Did you do your work all along with your best effort?
  • Do you feel prepared?
  • When you struggled, how did you seek help if you needed it?
  • How did you prepare?
  • Are you planning on changing your approach next time?

Second, the Commitment: let your kids know you are making a change and explain why. Make them partners in the shift in your approach to discussing academic work. Don’t be a mystery to your kids. Try this approach long enough to see whether it works well for your family. Third, the Best Part: you will get to express your high expectations in the context of how your child is going about doing his or her work instead of simply through the lens of the grade itself. It also allows us far better perspective on the meaning of the grade when it is returned, thus putting us in position to be the educational partner our child needs. This is important: not all As or Bs or Cs or Ds or even Fs are alike, and if you know more in advance of the assessment’s return, you will be best aligned to be parents your child needs. For instance, the conversation with your child is different after the assessment is returned depending on answers to questions you may have asked before the assessment like, “when you struggled, how did you seek help?”

Students want expectations—high ones. However, our high expectations too often have been the wrong ones based more on the grade itself than the learning it represents. By moving our conversations in front of an evaluation, we hack into a potentially unhealthy cycle that hyper-inflates the meaning of an individual grade and diminishes the emphasis on learning. The change I suggest is likely to result in a healthier conversation with your child that will bear fruit in both learning and the academic reflection of it.

While I hope the idea that I just named is helpful to some (particularly perhaps students in grades six through ten), it is a small step compared with the moment of reckoning overdue for traditional assessment models in secondary education. A far more significant hack into the grade obsessed culture we have made over the last century plus is increasingly necessary. I focused my wondering in today’s blog narrowly on the relationship between parent and child. What if we thought bigger? Wider?

A number of people and entities are asking exactly that question. Tired of feeling like helpless inheritors of a flawed approach to assessment where what we seek to evaluate and what we actually evaluate are not always well-matched, the idea of finding a better way may not be as far out of reach as we may have thought. At my school, we have become members of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group of schools across the country whose vision is reflected in this statement: “the MTC hopes to change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.” While I do not know where this conversation will lead (and we are not making precipitous moves to leave our current transcript and approach to assessment behind), I am excited for our school to be at the table for this fascinating conversation. If there is a better way, I want us to find it and be bold enough to pursue it. Our kids deserve nothing less.

[Here is a more complete idea of the MTC: “The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.” For more go HERE.]

Snow Day (!) and an MLK Talk that didn’t happen

The author with Mic on a Memphis-style snow day

After being lobbied by everyone–including my daughter who was superstitiously flushing ice cubes down the toilet (apparently taking this action ensures a snow day), I made the decision to close school for a snow day today just before 5:00 a.m. this morning. It was not a hard call—ice was building up and more icy, snowy weather was on the way. Right now in fact, I am looking out the window at hard snow blowing quickly by. Such decisions are not easy—every school head seems to have stories about such a decision going wrong. When bad winter weather comes calling, a snow day can be an easy win though—everyone, most everyone, loves a snow day.

While the Snow Day (!) decision was not difficult, it meant I would not to be able to give a talk I had been planning for some time to mark Martin Luther King Day (given that we have a day of service on Monday, my talk was set for today). St. George’s Independent School draws from around fifty zip codes, and we have students of a wide array of economic, geographic, and racial backgrounds. I believe the Martin Luther King holiday is not only a remarkably important date on our national calendar, it is a particularly important one for our school. Given the fractious socio-political environment in which we find ourselves nationally, this date has even greater significance. That said, it is not easy to stand in front of a large and very diverse group of thoughtful and inquisitive young people and speak any message of meaning in the face of an environment where our national dialogue has devolved into profanity and name calling, ad hominem attacks and school yard posturing. Have no doubt—our kids are paying attention.

Have no doubt—our kids are paying attention.

They hear us yelling back in anger at the television news; they notice us feeling more and more powerless against the rip tide of national bi-furcation.

So today I was going to speak about Zacchaeus, a Jericho tax-collector Jesus calls toward a different life path and James Brown, who after initially doubting Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach became a man who helped calm the water in Boston in the aftermath of King’s assassination. I had the music all queued up (I have linked the songs I was going to play as kids entered and departed below—it was going to be loud and awesome!).

I will admit, however, that I was reconsidering the content of my talk based on current news, which I am certain have disquieted many in our school community. As a result, I started to think about revising my plan. Not to recognize and name the real issues of cultural division in our nation fails our kids. The problem: I don’t know how to do it well.

With that in mind I scanned what I had written for bits and pieces that might be particularly relevant. Here is what I found (please forgive the lack of cohesiveness):

  • We have just finished a year where so much news was stuffed into every day that it seemed to be more of a decade than a year. If you say you kept up, you are either superhuman, dangerously sleep-deprived, or a liar. No one could read enough, watch enough, reflect and analyze enough to make sense of it all.
  • We tend to look at current events and our current specific moment in history as if we invented complexity, that everyone that lived before us lived in simpler times. I do not believe this is true—I believe it is convenient. It is a convenient way to find comfort in imagining the past—almost any part of it—was somehow better, easier, simpler.
  • While we can’t avoid crucibles in history, we can determine who we as individuals will be as we traverse them.
  • James Brown and Simon Peter and Ross Peters and each of you are deeply flawed, at least somewhat broken, and yet we can each make decisions to try to make the world a better place, to try to help a broken world heal.

I am ambivalent about missing my opportunity to speak today. Obviously, there will be other chances, other moments to have the microphone when the weather is not likely to intervene; however, I hate to miss any opportunity to call our students to hold themselves to a higher mark than is represented in blockbuster stories and screaming headlines ticking across the bottom of our television screens.

“I hate to miss any opportunity to call our students to hold themselves to a higher mark than is represented in blockbuster stories and screaming headlines ticking across the bottom of our television screens. “

Perhaps the best answer to my quandary about what to say to our students is best handled through action, not words. On Monday, our students and families will have a number of opportunities to participate in community service. Maybe it is time to stop simply reflecting on and analyzing what ails us and get to work. For now check out the Godfather of Soul, James Brown:

Parenting in the Wake of the Paris Terrorist Attacks

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As our thoughts have been drawn today to France and to Paris in the wake of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks yesterday, I feel a bit ill-equipped as a parent. My daughter is in sixth grade–old enough to have some understanding of the scope of the event, of the larger global context, and of the anxiety such attacks produce in the free world.

However, the graphic nature of the news reports makes me uncomfortable allowing her to watch much on TV or on through her iPhone or computer. In the advent of HD, and of uncut, live-feeds, I worry about both parenting that would allow us to let her see too much AND that would push us to let her see too little.

My instinct is to make sure that:

  • we reassure children that that they are safe.
  • what we watch and read, we watch and read together.
  • we limit exposure to media, particularly repetition of dramatic and graphic video.
  • we discuss what we watch and read without the TV or device running concurrently all the time.
  • we do things together away from media that represent a maintaining of our routines and connectedness to each other. This afternoon, we are going hiking.
  • we don’t oversimplify, minimize, or exaggerate the situation for her.
  • when we don’t know an answer to a question from our child, we don’t pretend we do. Instead we seek an answer together.

Some questions I have:

  • where can parents find appropriate resources to support our kids in moments where global uncertainty is in ascendency?
  • what signs of anxiety should we be aware of in our children in such moments?
  • where are the media sources that, while maintaining the highest standards of journalism, produce content consistently appropriate for younger audiences?

In the end, it is our loving connection to our children that provides them comfort. They need to voice their questions, worries, and opinions in a safe environment.