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.]

The Head’s Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Carson's Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2014. "FIGHT LIKE A KID"
Carson’s Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2024. “FIGHT LIKE A KID”

The Head’s Letter is a monthly newsletter largely for heads of independent schools. Published by Educational Directions Incorporated, it focuses on topics of particular importance to school leaders. They were nice enough to ask me to write the piece I copied below as the cover of their December edition.

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The topic I discuss in The Head’s Letter should be no surprise to people with whom I have worked or who regularly read the blog: I have been writing about Progress Culture for years now, and I have been highlighting the need to learn from and create partnerships with entities beyond our schools for almost as long. As we look to move our schools’ ability to deepen learning for our students forward, it is imperative that we lean into the learning we can do beyond the confines of our respective campuses and curriculum.

At St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) we are energized by this aspect of our work–we call it SG901. So far the most visible artifact of this effort is the St. George’s Bunkhouse, which represents an unprecedented partnership with Memphis’s City Leadership and Serve901. You can read about the October 2016 opening and ribbon-cutting of the St. George’s Bunkhouse HEREIt is worth reading particularly for the remarks of one of the members of the Class of 2017, Alton Stovall, who spoke at the ceremony.

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Over the weekend the SGBunkhouse, located in the Historic Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood, served as a great location from which to go cheer on runners in the St. Jude Marathon. SGIS’s relationship with the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is profoundly close due to two SGIS students–Carson Head, Class of 2024, who passed away in the summer of 2015 as a result of childhood cancer and Adam Cruthirds, Class of 2016 who continues his cancer fight now as a freshman at Rhodes College. (You can read a talk Adam gave exactly one year ago in an Upper School Chapel Service HERE). Supported by faculty and Upper School student volunteers, around sixty members of the SGIS Lower School community, families and students from both our Memphis and Germantown campuses, spent the night in the newly renovated SGBunkhouse space. On Friday night they made posters to cheer on the runners, and they played games, ate pizza, and watched movies. On Saturday morning they ate pancakes before heading out to cheer the runners. Many more members of our school community–students from each campus and division, alumni, parents, and faculty–participated on Saturday as runners, walkers, and cheerers.  It is an example of a kind of community engagement we would like to see growing through the SGBunkhouse: an opportunity to connect with each other AND with the community where we live. 

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St. George’s Bunkhouse Opens! A Video and Two Talks from the #SGBunkhouse Celebration

Ribbon-Cutting with L. to R. Alton Stovall, David Skudder, Ross Peters, Beth Skudder, Jere McGuffie, John Carroll, Jeff Riddle
Ribbon-Cutting with L. to R. Alton Stovall, David Skudder, Ross Peters, Beth Skudder, Jere McGuffee, John Carroll, Jeff Riddle

In partnership with Serve901 and Living Hope Church, St. George’s Independent School opened the St. George’s Bunkhouse on Mclean Boulevard in Memphis, TN on Tuesday. The beautifully renovated space can sleep up to over 110 people provides access to the church’s sanctuary spaces. Located between Rhodes College and the Crosstown Concourse, the school will use it for many purposes, largely focused on community engagement.

The SGIS Board of Trustees met in the well-designed and appointed break-out room for their meeting late yesterday afternoon before joining well-over 125 guests who were there to celebrate the ribbon-cutting, eat some fantastic Gus’s Fried Chicken and tour the space. As that gathering ended around 8:00 p.m., members of SGIS’s Class of 2017 began arriving to enjoy a sleepover in the Bunkhouse. The event was fantastic–it is great to reach this point and turn to the exciting work to begin to make great use of the space. Below I have included the introductory video,  my remarks, as well as Alton Stovall’s remarks from the ceremony. Alton is a member of the Class of 2017 who has played a vital role in helping us get to this point. Alton’s words brought the house down.

My remarks…

Good evening and welcome! The ending of the video is where I will begin—with a thanks to David and Beth Skudder for starting the ball rolling that made this all happen. Not only did David bring Justin Miller from City Leadership and me together in September 2015 to begin to dream about what we might make happen together, but the Skudder’s also created the substantial funding that underpinned the recreation of the Bunkhouse space. The St. George’s Bunkhouse represents both their love for St. George’s and their earnest commitment to Memphis and Shelby County. PLEASE JOIN ME IN A ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR DAVID AND BETH…

Just yesterday afternoon David, Justin and I met to reflect on the remarkable year that has led to this moment. What David had to say was wonderfully helpful and offers clear perspective on what we are trying to accomplish here. Here are a few of the things he said to us:

  • “If you want to be part of the community you have to step in, you have to be a presence.”
  • “Through St. George’s I’ve seen all the good that comes from kids learning to be helpful, learning to leave it better than you found it.”
  • “In order to make things better you have to get involved—one brick at a time, one good deed at a time.”

The St. George’s Bunkhouse gives our school largely unprecedented way to live toward the ideals David described. Imagine just a sliver of some of the possibilities for our students on each of our three other campuses:

  • Class gatherings like the one the Class of ’17 will have tonight and tomorrow morning here.
  • “Amplify Memphis”, a summer course studying the cultural richness and key issues of Memphis residing here during all or part of its three-week session next June.
  • Groups of students and faculty members using the space as a hub for service learning opportunities and for cultural experiences.

The number of great ideas for how to use the Bunkhouse will outpace our ability to follow-through on all of them. The conversation we have as a community about how to best use the space will be generative and rich.

Members of St. George's Institute for Citizenship are joined here by St. George's faculty members Timothy Gibson, Jason Hills and Jessica Hardy
Members of St. George’s Institute for Citizenship (L. to R. Omar Yunus, Grace Optican, Winston Margaritis, Julie Ann Joyner, Alton Stovall, Megan Lenoir, and Becca Chandler) joined here by St. George’s faculty members Timothy Gibson on the left,  Jason Hills in the middle, and Jessica Hardy on the right.

Education is a gift that is not simply for the recipient alone. Our education as individuals exists only as we make meaning from it and as we are moved to action in the world as a result of it. With that in mind, the questions I have for all of us who have had the privilege of an education such as the one at St. George’s Independent School—the questions I believe are particularly apt on this day when we open the St. George’s Bunkhouse are these–

  • What will we make happen as a result of our access to the St. George’s Bunkhouse?
  • How can we use our footprint here to impact the world around us?
  • How can we continue to learn from people who have different backgrounds, different opinions?
  • How can what we already know lead us to want to learn more, understand more, impact more?
  • How can we make our education not simply about us? How can we use the St. George’s Bunkhouse in ways that help us better understand what it means to be a good neighbor?
  • And, importantly as well…how can the St. George’s Community use the Bunkhouse in ways that bring our own community closer together.

It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. However, the bold vision of St. George’s Independent School, and the St. George’s Bunkhouse, calls us to think of our neighbors far more broadly to include not only our school, but our city, our county, our state, our nation, and our world. As an independent school drawing from well-over fifty zip codes, we include people who might live far away from us as neighbors, and we include people with whom we might often disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor. At St. George’s, we name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor, SG901. And the physical representation of that effort is the St. George’s Bunkhouse, which will serve as a hub for our community engagement.

Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another.  The St. George’s Bunkhouse, created in partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 is a powerful manifestation of that belief within our school.

I am particularly grateful for the roles each of the next speakers has played. Alton Stovall, member of the Class of 2017, who you will hear from next has been the key student leader in the process that has led us to today. Following Alton, John Carroll and Jeff Riddle will speak. Our school could not be more fortunate in its partners in this endeavor. I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

Alton Stovall, Class of 2017, speaks at the St. George's Bunkhouse Opening
Alton Stovall, Class of 2017, speaks at the St. George’s Bunkhouse Opening

Alton Stovall’s remarks:

Before a handsome butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it must first spend its days as a not-so appealing caterpillar. When I first stepped foot on this site, what I saw was a basement. A basement cluttered with boxes, worn-out equipment, and objects that made you question how they were useful before they were put into storage. Indeed it was a rough space, but it was a space with potential. And what was done with that potential and how that potential was maximized to the fullest extent is something I find truly amazing. This is not to say that getting there was not a long journey, because it certainly was. Nevertheless, I personally had my fair share of fun along the way. From choosing a perfect name, to timidly speaking to reporters about my experiences, to even picking a paint color for the walls…(by the way I will truly never understand how there can be so many options for one single color. I mean there’s white, but then there’s eggshell white and satin white and high gloss pearly porcelain white and anyway)… All of that is to say this- what we have the privilege of experiencing here tonight is a butterfly getting ready to spread its wings and fly away. Where it goes is up to us… and that’s the beauty of it all.

The possibilities of what we can accomplish with this space are endless from class retreats, to service projects, to simply a fun night in Memphis. God only knows the full extent of what we can do here, but I thank Him for what was already done here. I am thankful for having been involved in this project from the start, I am thankful for all of the amazing people I met along this journey, and, most importantly, I am thankful that this is not the end of the road. In fact it is just the beginning… the beginning of a movement against the grain of society. Where the world seems to be moving apart, tonight we are moving one step closer together. And just as this space now joins many other campuses to form one campus. We are on the road to joining many communities to make one community. The full extent to which we do that is up to not one of us, not some of us, but all us. In order to do that to the best of our abilities, we must too undergo our own transformations. So as we move forward, I ask of you, I plead of you, I charge you to get ready, spread your wings, and let’s fly.

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