“Live Long & Prosper” and Other Platitudes

The final grades are in, and the lockers cleaned out. For our seniors, “school’s out, for summer…school’s out, forever,” to quote the great sage of education, Alice Cooper. All that remains are the goodbyes.

For most people, that’s easy: a few tears, a long hug, reassuring that they’ll remain close…on Facebook…forever. Then, with a brave smile and a wave–“good luck,” and walking away.

For me, though, saying “au revoir” to my seniors isn’t that simple. Philosophically, I can’t endorse saying “Good luck” as a platitude. I could wrap my logic in jargon and causal links, but the core of the reason is this simple: an overwhelming percent of my students believe that random chance, or at best, semi-random chance influenced by the most loosely defined causes, is the determining factor in their progress and success. After 26 years of discussions, essays, and status messages, I’m persistently struck by the variety of ways they credit luck, or some equivalent force, to things like passing the state graduation tests, completing school work on time, and even whether they make it to school before the tardy bell. Deep down, the belief that they are subject to the whims of forces outside of their control pervades my students’ lives.

Of course the roll of the dice impacts us all in multiple ways. As the popular bumper sticker says, “Shit Happens.” I’m sure that every holy book has some variation of that belief, wrapped in the guise of their deity’s  capricious “Carrot & Stick Guide to Garnering the Gods’ Favor.”

But modern civilization–and modern education–are built on the diamond-hard assertion that peoples’ actions and choices directly impact their lives. My students say all the right things about making good choices and controlling their destiny…but when I listen closer, they usually do not take neither the blame nor the praise  for their accomplishments; ultimately, the factors impacting their lives are categorized as “Shit Happens.”

So “good luck” doesn’t slide easily off my tongue as I say good bye. I’ve opted for “May the Force be With You,” in some cases, and “Live Long and Prosper” in others, but generally, an awkward, “Stay in touch. You know how to find me,” may sound diffident and glib, but for me, that’s more sincere than a chorus of “Good Lucks” streaming on banners attached to pegasuses as they fly over a rainbow. I do like staying in touch. I do like knowing “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say.

And as I watch the rest of the story unfold, I notice one thing: whether the student rolls all sevens in life, or is kicked in the teeth, luck only bares a portion of the credit.



Practical Math

Note: I wrote this in 2012. It’s still all true, maybe even more true–except for the number of tech-related devices I carry at a time. My phone now replaces most of those!

I like technology. In my purse right now, I have a Livescribe pen, a digital camera, a couple USB cords and a recorder that I can talk into and download what I say into my computer, where it appears as typed words—often word soup, but even that fascinates me. Technology makes sense to me the same way that shopping for shoes makes sense to some women I know. I’m certainly not going to be the person who claims texting hurts communication, or that twitter is killing society–a sizable portion of my life in online, and I’m a firm proponent of tech in education.

However, the fact we can technologically do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way to accomplish the task. Just because we have the toys doesn’t mean we should play with them. To be bluntly specific, because of technology, we are turning students into accountants.

Every high school I know of requires teachers to keep their gradebooks online, and those gradebooks can be accessed by parents and students from any computer with internet access. That sounds like a terrific idea, giving the parents and students detailed information so the home can partner with the school to improve the student’s understanding and achievement I like being able to tell students to look online to make sure I credited all the assignments they have emailed me or to understand why their grade changed dramatically in the past week. Having continual access to a student’s grades is the type of idea that makes a great sound bite and gets unilateral support—who can oppose parents and students having the data to understand the progress the student is making?

Welcome to the dark side of the online gradebook.  One issue is that students live in an “instant gratification” society, and the ability to see their grades in real time feeds that jones. This week, I’ve had students hand me a paper, then say while they are still holding onto it, “So what’s my grade now?” If I haven’t put it in by the end of the class, there’s so much sighing and eye-rolling that I feel as if I’m surrounded by a flock of Scarlet O’Haras.

There’s another trend that shows students are becoming accountants After accessing their grade, some students will decide that they’ve “learned” enough, and not even attempt an assignment that doesn’t impact their grade in a concrete way. They’ll calculate points and percentages, then determine if the homework assignment will make a noticeable difference—it may seem as if every little bit helps, but in practice, that’s not true. Students who struggle with the state math tests often have a Einsteinian grasp of “gradebook math,” even with weighted grades or categorized assignments.

The flip side of that is students who don’t have the score they (or their parents) want, so they audit their points with the fervor of an I.R.S auditor who is bucking for a promotion. Every piece of paper they’ve written their name on needs to be accounted for, and they often try to dicker for missing points or the ability to turn in very late work—they almost always have a ten point paper from seven weeks earlier that would pull them up a percentage point, getting them that much closer to athletic eligibility or the next higher grade.

What do grades mean? Does having the technology to micro-manage grades lead to the student “learning” more? Maybe instead of having more trainings to make sure teachers and parents can use the technology correctly, we need discussions about how to use it wisely.