Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Redos and Retakes

Elementary teachers in our district are leading the way in the development and implementation of standards-based reporting. Recent conversations center around grading practices. It's a paradigm shift for many educators to take the management of student behavior out of the grading system. We watched a Rick Wormeli clip about retakes and do overs. Every time that I engage in this conversation, it reminds me of a defining moment in my teaching career. I wrote the following article a few years ago to remember, to teach, and to inspire others to be stronger than I was at the time.
December 2009
The lesson that I learned with Aaron often enters my mind. Aaron was a small 8th grade boy who was in my math class when I was a first year teacher. The year started well for Aaron, but he entered a slump mid-year. He appeared tired, withdrawn, and unhappy. He had circles under his eyes and hardly ever smiled. His work was never done. I didn’t really know what  to do with him. The teachers who were on my team prided themselves in hard and fast rules about work completion and seemed happy to give an F- to any student who had less than 40%. That’s where Aaron was heading.
After several months of prodding him, I finally met with his mother. She explained that she was really worried about her son, and that she and her husband had recently separated and were divorcing. We made a plan to help Aaron get caught up, and he finally started working again.  He stayed late, came in early, and worked and worked, but it wasn’t enough. He failed. He just didn’t have the points. Fifty percent was taken off the top for any late work. When he asked me why I gave him an F, I regurgitated the response that I had heard my colleagues state so many times, “I don’t give grades; students earn them.” At the end of the year I was shocked at what I read in my yearbook. Students passed it around during each class period to sign it. Aaron had written, “If I earned a grade, it wasn’t an F. - Aaron”
Kari was my student during the second year I taught. She also struggled some with math. However, she never fell behind in her work. Kari and I always got along well. She would stay after class sometimes and ask for my advice, or just talked and I listened.
I ran into Kari a few years later at the fair. It was dark outside. She ran up to me, “Mrs. Schloss!” There was a very tall slender young man with her. I didn’t recognize him, but I did notice that he wasn’t smiling.
“Aaron! Do you remember Mrs. Schloss?” I was still trying to place him.
“Yes… I do,” he said flatly. That was when it hit me, “If I earned a grade, it wasn’t an F.”
My heart sank. I had done an injustice to this child. I had an opportunity to reach out to him in a way that could positively affect him for his entire life, and I didn’t. I just drove home the lesson that life is cold, unfair, and unkind. And, if you get behind, you may as well just forget it because you’ll never catch up. I really don’t remember any of the conversation that evening after I realized that the tall young man was Aaron.
To me, there are always two choices, justice and grace. Justice is when we get what we deserve. It’s when the officer hands us the ticket for speeding. Grace is when we get what we don’t deserve. It’s when the officer tells us to “slow it down.” Aaron needed grace. 
During the past week, there have been several students who have entered my door and shared hardships that they are dealing with at home. Parents separated, adult siblings who are losing jobs, Christmas for six children when finances are tight. Each time a child shares with me, each time a child is sent to the office, each time… justice or grace? And I think about Aaron… I hope that I have the wisdom to know which is appropriate because they both have their place and they both teach children important life lessons.
Our students need us.  We have a tremendous opportunity to write on the fabric of who they are and who they will become. It is an awesome responsibility.
Dear Aaron, I’m sorry. Mrs. Schloss

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