Sunday, January 25, 2015

Report Cards

We’re knee-deep in report cards. My wife, daughter, myself and other colleagues at the school are refusing the invitation of sunny, warm days and are huddled indoors around our screens wrestling with how Johnny or Julie is “making good progress.” “Let the euphemisms fly!” declared one of the teachers and she got that right. “So-and-so is a delight to work with” means “I have no idea how your kid is doing, but hey, she mostly pays attention in class and that’s good enough for me.” “Improving on recorder” means that “Yesterday he got one tone that didn’t pierce my eardrum.” “Sometimes engages in distracting side conversations” is teacherese for “Never has heard a single direction I’ve given.” You get the idea.

Report cards are something every teacher loves to hate. But truth be told, when done well, they’re a good reminder to do what we’re paid to do— notice each child, think about each child, know what kind of help they need, praise the things that they’ve done well, bless the ways they’ve revealed their character, let them and their parents know that you care about them and are leading them to their best promise. They can help keep the whole enterprise honest by making the teacher accountable for knowing the kids.

Of course, they also can do lifelong damage and I spend a good deal of time on my soap-box talking about the difference between naming what we need to help the kids and mindlessly and heartlessly judging them, comparing them, labeling them, branding them with the hot iron of A’s and B’s and 1’s and 2’s. I talk about the prepositional difference between assessment of learning for dubious purposes and assessment for learning, finding out precisely where the disconnects lie and how we can help kids navigate the thorny paths that separate them from what we expect they should know and do and the way they’re actually put together as learners.

And it is helpful to remember that in the big picture, report cards are a human invention about 200 years old, a mere blip in the time scale of human achievement. Bach and Shakespeare never got report cards and managed to do all right. And that in the long run, it’s a little game we play for about 12-15 years and then never again. It’s good to remind the kids that past 20 years old or so, nobody—and I mean nobody— will ever ask to see their third grade report card. Or care if they do.

Writing report cards also reveals a lot about teachers as learners. How do we get through it? Do we do the “easy kids” first or save them until last? What rewards do we promise ourselves? Chocolate? A breeze through Facebook? One Friends re-run on Netflix for every 20 kids? How do we procrastinate? Re-organizing the spices on the rack, a job that simply must be done now!? Looking up the history of Report Cards online? Writing a blog about report cards instead of finishing the 8th grade comments?

Okay, you caught me. Lots more I could say, but time to celebrate Darren’s unique performance as the Dragon in our St. George play and his spirited solo in Watermelon Man.

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