Monday, June 15, 2009

Closing the (grade) books: Felix in repose

In which a school year, and an experiment,
are declared complete

The F
elix Chronicles #36
Kim: A (That's easy.)

Mindy: B (That's easy too.)

Mark: B- (That botched final exam really dragged down his average. He's been erratic in recent months. Gonna let the chips fall where there may there.)

Joey: B+ (The numbers say B, but would the class have been half as good without his humor? His jokes themselves were signs of engagement.)

Grading. The final act, a postmortem ritual that gets performed after everyone but the administrative staff is gone (and even their ranks are thinned and days shortened). I generally dislike assigning grades, because I think it's overly reductive to denote an entire semester's performance to a single letter. I also dislike grading because it seems to be that there's a core conflict of interest between being a coach and being a judge, and I regard a teacher's job as essentially the forme
r. Coaches have to make judgments too, I guess, and rank their players competitively. But there's still a sense of a team, a shared enterprise, that's generally missing in grading. At least there's the factor of class participation, which typically looms large in my calculus, somewhere between 20-30% of a grade.

Of cour
se, using a figure like that implies that in fact something like class participation is quantifiable. It isn't. And even those things that seem quantifiable, like test scores, are suspect in all kinds of ways. Grading simply can't be objective, and I really don't see too much point in trying. I've long decided that it is first and foremost a pedagogical tool -- carrot, stick, way of sending a message. There are flaws in this kind of thinking, I know. But there are flaws with the alternative, too, and in this situation as in so many others, you simply have to pick your poison. I try not to be reckless, honoring talent and punishing laxity insofar as I can perceive them. But grading seems like as good an arena as any for a child to learn that life isn't fair, at least as far as human beings can engineer it. Not that we shouldn't try.

Nate: A- (I don't really think he deserves it, but the grades say so, and I have to err on the side of disregarding personal feelings.)

Sam: A- (Part of me thinks he should get the A, but the grades aren't quite there, and I feel like there's a whiff of complacency about him that I'd like to see him prodded into overcoming, which I hope I'll get to do myself next year.)

Erica: B+ (Another late collapse. Could see this coming. Actually, B+ is a bit of a gift.)

Ellen: A (I'm simply going to disregard the 84% she got on the first test of the semester. It was an outlier. She'll obsess, fruitlessly, if I factor it in, and I told her to forget about an makeup assignment for extra credit.)

Chris: B- (He's been limping along all year. Last semester he got a B; I hope his folks will notice the deterioration.)

As far as I can tell, there are basically two grades at this school (and every other one I've worked at in the last twenty years): A and B. There are the gradations between them, and a big jump between B+ and A-. As my colleagues often say, you gotta work hard to get a semester grade of
C or less, though I'll sometimes slap one on a weak essay. Students fail my exams all the time, but I can't think of a single instance where I flunked a kid for a whole course.

Alec: B+ (Love to make it higher, but can't find an excuse to do so. Again, this isn't about my affection for the kid.)

Samantha: A (if only I could make it higher!)

Beth: A (Ditto!)

B (He kinda slipped between the cracks. I feel bad about it. If I get another chance, I'd like to work a little harder to pull him in.)

Becky: B+ (She'll be mad about this, and I'm likely to hear about it. But it's what she deserves.)

Susan: A (Really shaky in terms of numbers. But she's been so reliable in class. And that research essay on Amelia Earhart was really terrific. She tells me she's already signed up for "U.S. Since 1945," and her Mom is lobbying to get me again.)

For me a class never seems to end so much as it fizzles. We get to the last week of May and we're chugging along into World War II. Then it's time for review, and we play a round of Jeopardy!, using the same set of clues every year. I give a class session over to discussing he final essay question, which I hand out in advance of the exam, but it usually runs out of steam about halfway through.. At the end of that last week we play a game of whiffle ball, which I enjoy very much -- I play very competitively and will be bragging for weeks about striking out Tom, star of the baseball team, with my curveball -- and savor the company of these kids, who will soon disperse. (It's when my team is at bat that I learn things like Becky's plans to study art at Bennington or Roy'
s ambitious plan to go to Antaractica.) And then I have a session where I just answer any questions they might have, a session which typically peters out. Then we have finals, and the class meets a final time on the last day of school, when I turn back exams and sign yearbooks. But it always seems anticlimatic. I always feel like a living organism is dying. I'll have many of these kids again, but never in this configuration. It makes me sad.

Lisa: A- (Pretty much a straight row of grades there.)

Liza: B+ (Never got to know her well, but academics are secondary now; she's a nationally ranked tennis player.)

Roy: B+ (Nice surge at the end there.)

Tom: B (He found Becky, and the clock, far more interesting than anything I ever said or did. Maybe he'll wake up next year.)

Unlike the seniors, all these kids will be back. As, God willing, will I. But I've decided that it's time to retire our friend Felix; the chronicle you're now reading will be the last of its kind.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that it's difficult to chronicle a school year during a summer vacation when there's no year to chronicle, as it were. I probably could keep this going for a while. For one thing, there's always been an element of imagination in this enterprise. I also had a backlog of pieces that I wrote before I started publishing them on this blog. You may have noticed that I've been running some of them, many of which are set in the fall months, here on the cusp of summer. But sooner or later, I'd find I had a dearth of material, real or imagined, to work with.

A more serious problem is attention of an unwanted kind. While I believe many, if not most, of the thousands of visitors I've had to my blog have kindly read my work with an understanding that I'm trying to capture aspects of everyday school life in a way that illuminates issues for consideration and reflection, there have been some indications that my posts have been fodder for gossip. Beyond that, I've always known that I've been walking a tightrope here. While I don't believe I've committed anything remotely resembling libel or slander, the possibility for misunderstanding and hurt feelings has always been a risk, one that only increases the longer I do this. I made the decision that the potential good in terms of honesty and clarity justified launching this experiment, but understood that my final responsibility is to my students and institution. I'm going to stop before I unambiguously cross a line.

I do so with some regret. I've enjoyed this project, and would like to see it continue. But I'm glad I did succeed in pu
blishing three dozen of these pieces, and do hope they will be the foundation for further work of a similar kind in the future. Please keep an eye out for it.In any event, I do intend to try and keep this blog going with pieces about teaching as well other subjects in the realm of American history in everyday life (I recently signed on to review books for the History News Network).

I'll end here with a few words of thanks: to my students and colleagues at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. To Felix Adler, the man who founded the institution, and in whose name these chro
nicles were written. And to you, dear -- and I do mean dear -- readers. Merely stopping by to say hello has been appreciated. But please know that you are welcome, now or later, to grade me on the work I did here.

And please continue to come by. I will labor to be worth your time.


Coming soon: A postscript and the complete Felix Chronicles, with links, at this blog.