At a recent staff meeting we discussed the problem of students not completing assignments. One staff member suggested that when a large percentage of students are not completing the assignment, then maybe it's time to look at your pedagogy as a teacher. Several teachers felt offended or threatened most likely because as engaged teachers we are constantly examining our pedagogy and revising based on our students' needs. Soon there was division between those who think we are coddling our students too much by bending to their desires and those who think students really should be at the center of our teaching.
I'm not sure on which side of the divide I stand. But I do know one thing. After spending most of Sunday recording grades for my 18 seniors in Poetry Writing, there is a serious problem. More than half of the class has a D or an F. I'm required to submit grades this Friday. Several of these students are already on academic probation and receiving a failing grade in this class could be the deciding factor in whether they graduate or not. I am infuriated that this is the situation. I have purposefully structured the class so that it is supportive of the variety of special education students and academic probation students I have (my class is sort of like a collection of all the students who don't quite fit anywhere else). I told my students straight up on the first day that while I'll give them thoughtful feedback on their poems and suggestions for improving them, I will not sit around and try to decide if they've written a C poem or an A poem. For all intents and purposes, this class is a Pass/No Pass class. I tried to sell it to my class as "an easy A" or "the kind of class that will boost your GPA." I am shocked that so many are not taking advantage of it. There are currently seven students with A's and A+'s while eleven are failing. Granted, several of my "failing" students are special ed. so I will modify their grade by requiring fewer assignments, but as for the rest of them, I'm at a loss for words. It is not as if they didn't have warning. I distributed progress reports two weeks ago. I purposefully did not give them any new assignments for a whole week and gave them a deadline to get in their late work. Many of them turned in their work. One student even stayed until 5:00 on a Friday night to get his stuff done. The problem is that after they submitted late work, they slacked off again. They are now missing a whole new round of assignments and classwork. I am ticked off. I do not want to fail these students. I do not want poetry to be the class that broke the student's diploma. I don't want poetry to leave a foul taste in their mouth.
And yet, they must have a foul taste from school if this is how they are operating. I know that there is at least one "A student" in my class who has a "D." She is trapped in some sort of vicious circle of turning in late work only to slack off again. I don't know what to do. There are other variables, too, like the death of one of their classmates in the first week of school. Should that be considered in their grade, that many of them may be mourning and I don't even know or have any way to gauge this? Listen to this soft talk? Aren't I supposed to prepare them for the "real world"? How many of us have had to push ourselves through a hard day, a hard week, even when we experienced a family member's death, a desperate break up, a medical emergency? What employer out there is going to weigh all of this so gently and modify a grade or payment?
Where is the hard line? Is it in my classroom? A few years ago several new teachers who graduated from my program got jobs at the same high school. They were assigned senior English classes. All of these new teachers together failed a significant percentage of the senior class because they refused to give into the mentality of "Well, they are seniors. They aren't going to do anything anyway." All four of the new teachers were fired because of it, because they were honest, because they held their students to high standards. I sat down with my principal today and told her what was going on, and she did not bow down from the possibility of so many F's, though she suggested I think about the motivation of a high grade. I read her point, but I can't dole out B's or even C's to students who have not earned them.
These grades are compounded by a sudden drop in attendance of my class. Granted, it's a first period class. Many students show up fifteen or thirty minutes late. But many more are not showing up at all. Their grade is clearly affected by poor attendance as I give points for classroom work and participation. Most of the students I am most concerned about weren't even here today to receive the print outs of their missing assignments. In my mind, they deserve the F.
But then I think about extenuating circumstances. There's my student who has lost both her parents. She lives by herself now and works after school. Earlier this week, her car was stolen. And another student who lives with his grandmother and had a family emergency last week. Still another whose mother is an alcoholic. What good does loading an F onto an already heavy load do? What real world do I think I'm preparing them for? They are already living their own real world that I know so little about.
If I return to the idea of examining my own pedagogy, I become lost. I thought I was creating an opportunity for excellence, a climate of support and experimentation, a place to build confidence. I'd like to throw grades out the window because I hear my tired, sad, almost beaten down students trying to stand and be heard. I have to weigh if the passing grade or the failing one is the greater gift, and remember to give with love which doesn't always look pretty.