Makin’ It Up: Retakes

I am not the originator of this idea. But, I firmly believe that a good teacher knows a good idea and promptly rips it the hell off and implements it ASAP. So, I believe in the idea of unmerited opportunities for students. I believe that students should be allowed to turn in late work. I believe that students should be allowed to retake tests and redo assignments and that if they do better then their grade should improve.

“But, that’s not fair to the students who did the work on time or were prepared for the test!”

Oh? So, school is a competition? Look, if you believe that the purpose of school is to separate the students into groups according to either their intellect or ability to do work on demand then I can see why you would say that. But, I don’t believe that. I believe that is why school as we know it was created. I believe that, especially high school, was designed to put kids into groups so we could groom them for their appropriate classes. Smart kids go to college. Average kids go vocational school. Kids with issues go work retail or go to jail. It’s an assembly line perfectly designed to categorize people and move them into their roles.

I am not down with that. My momma taught me that if I know better then I should do better. I know better today. I know that all kids can learn and that we are a better country when more people are educated.

Not only do I believe that any kid can learn. I believe that they do it at different times and in different ways. So, if Little Johnny takes a little longer to figure out how to write that essay correctly then I think he should get the grade.

“So, he can get as much time as he wants? He can’t get the same grade as some other kid that worked harder?”

Short answer: yes.

School is not a short answer deal, though. So, lemme ‘splain. One thing I, and most teachers that resist change, do is to make up extreme situations to illustrate why whatever is being suggested is a bad idea. I try not to do it, but I used to get a bad case of the whatifs. What if this? What if that?

Yes, let’s play “What If?” Let’s say that Little Johnny struggles in English. He gets to me in high school and is convinced that he can’t write. But, I have to fix that because writing is thinking and I need citizens of this great country who can think. So, Johnny goes ahead and writes the essay I assign. And, he’s right. It sucks. So, I reteach it. He rewrites it. It’s better, but still not very good.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class is moving on. Anyone who has taught for any significant length of time will tell you that the curriculum is full and we have precious few instructional minutes to deliver it. So, now we’re analyzing poetry. But, Little Johnny wants to nail this sucker. So, he takes it home again with my feedback and further instruction and brings in a pretty good essay. It’s quite serviceable. It’s not a piece of art but it tells me he understand and can perform the skill indicated by the standard.

Did he learn? I think so. In that case, should he have a lower grade to punish him? I believe his grade should be a representation of what he learned, not what he did. I think that’s pretty important and something teachers forget. Many teachers use bad grades to punish bad decisions, poor choices, or misbehavior. But, I think this is not fair. Unless you’re helping to separate the wheat from the chaff for industry. Because, that’s all that practice does.

But, Johnny learned. And, I’m sorry, did you just say the other kid worked harder than him? WTF? Johnny rewrote that essay twice. I think he earned a “B.”

“Fine but what about that kid who just blew it off. He could do it, but he’s taking advantage of the situation.”

So? Don’t you do that too? Do you ever prioritize and do things now that you just have to but put off others? Yes, yes you do. We all do. It’s actually a pretty darn good strategy. So, if that smart kid puts off writing the essay because she had some other stuff due in another class, so what?

I went and checked the standards. I don’t have any in Language Arts about teaching time management.

I will give her full credit. But, I might tell her that I’m going to be grading her essay with a sharp eye and less forgiving attitude. I may ask her to rewrite it and polish it further to get the grade. And, besides, that, as I said, the rest of the class continues.

Have you ever been short on cash one month and blown off a credit card payment? Or phone payment? I have and it sucks. Now I have a double payment to make. I think that putting work off has natural consequences that students have to work that much harder for procrastinating.

But, besides all of that, I am an English teacher. I am not a time management teacher. I’m not a responsibility teacher. When they write those standards, then I will grade on those.

For me, what matters is if they student learned the skill. If they demonstrated it, then I feel I should give them credit.

Let’s be reasonable for a moment. Most of these things should be taken on a case by case basis. The problem with making rules is that you have to stick with them. So, for me, I am going to take it case by case. If I can tell a kid is truly gaming the system then we will have a talk. I need to contact home. Maybe we need to have a parent conference to find out why the student is procrastinating. Generally, I won’t accept work after a grading period (the quarter) passes. It makes sense because that grade represents their learning to that date. I can’t go back and change that. There are, obviously, times when it’s too late. The ship has sailed.

But, if that kid is just trying to learn, then I should teach and assess his learning, not his work.


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