Things I Learned In School, Pt. II

More thoughts on things I learned about teaching and learning…from teachers.

High School:

As a student in a public high school in Sudbury, Massachusetts, I had some friends who were officially my teachers; we talked about life, learning, politics, culture…and if they had to give me a C or a D in class, I really didn’t care. It was obviously a game we all had to play for the benefit of…who?

There was one history teacher, Mr. M_______, who taught a single course: a comprehensive year-long survey of Russian history. A classroom virtuoso, his teaching was part lecture, part dance, part abstract painting (his hyperkinetic scribbling on the chalkboard served as an outlet for an incessant need to move), part arts and crafts. He conceived Russian History not as a body-of-material-to-be-mastered, but as a medium through which students found out about the world and about themselves. At the time I took his course, which was open only to juniors and seniors, he was employing a very unusual grading method:

“In this class,” he said on the first day, “you are granted the symbol A. Depending on your contributions and participation, you will either receive a Large A, for ‘amazing,’ or a small a, for ‘awful.’ In either case you will have the symbol A. I do not want any of you doing work in the class because you crave a symbol. I want you doing the work because you genuinely want to do the work.”

It was a wonderful course. And what I took away from it was a general gestalt understanding of the sweep of Russian history…and a huge practical insight about what effective teaching could and should be. It didn’t matter that in the first semester I got an A and in the second an a. That, if anything, served to reinforce my growing awareness that the grades I got had nothing at all to do with what I learned.

Lesson: The System may require grades, but there are many ways to skin a cat.

From my freshman year in high school, I knew that I wanted to be on the school newspaper. I joined the staff and began writing and participating in the marathon layout sessions. It was my ambition to be the editor of the paper in my senior year; I felt this strongly enough that when my parents got one-year faculty appointments in Toronto for the duration of my junior year, I argued that I had to stay behind, or I would lose my place in the queue. I lived with my grandmother that year, and I kept my place (as “Associate Editor”); when my senior year began, I was the Editor, and I did a hell of a job, if I do say so myself. The paper had a Faculty Adviser, who stayed out of our way and signed forms as required. He was responsible for giving us all grades; everyone got an A. The grade was required by the system, but it was irrelevant to my motivation, which was purely that I wanted to edit the newspaper.

Lesson: You can get a good grade for doing a good job, and it still doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

To really reinforce the link, they should give students “time off for good behavior.” Thanks for reminding me why we are homeschooling!

11 Aug 2010, 3:58am
by Betsy Kallus

As I recall, the main justification for the “A” as opposed to the “a” was that students had to make a russian icon. If you did that, you got the “A”. I still have my icon somewhere.


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