Grades. They’re mostly gone right now, at least as they refer to the COVID-19 impacted spring semester. That’s a thing. Some would say a good thing. Some would say a bad thing. It’s a thing.
And as those grades disappear, I’m reminded of that line by B.B. King: “The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.” The world around us has taken grades away; that leaves us with …learning. That’s a thing too. I’d argue a good thing.
Because learning is the reason we do this thing called school, or at least it should be.
I’ll leave the history of school marks to someone more qualified, and simply acknowledge here that our system of grading isn’t the only way people have taught and learned over history. And right now, in these few weeks that compose the end of the 2019-2020 school year, the pandemic we face has changed the way education does business.
The guidance we schools got from the state suggests that as we move from March to June the rules of the road are that we lose the letter grades and move to a system of “Pass” and “Incomplete.” As a group of us principals summarized in a letter to parents:
Grading expectations for 9th-11th graders for the Spring 2020 semester:
- For second semester, grades for 9-11th grade students will be Pass (P) or Incomplete (I).
- Students will earn a Pass (P) if they earn a D- or higher.
- Students will earn an incomplete (I) if they earn an F mark.
- Students with Incompletes have until they graduate to demonstrate proficiency to change the Spring Semester Incomplete grades to Pass grades.
- A Pass grade for Spring Semester 2020 earns .5 Credit.
Other Important Information for members of the Class of 2021
- No further state testing is required for the Class of 2021
- All Essential Skills and Personalized Learning Requirements for the Class of 2021 are suspended as many students will not have the opportunity to participate in the statewide English Language Arts and Mathematics assessments necessary to meet Essential Skills requirements.
- Juniors will be awarded the full career education credit.
- Most colleges and universities have adopted COVID-19 guidelines related to the Spring 2020 semester. Students and families concerned about the impact that their Spring 2020 grades will have on their future college options should contact the admissions office of the college or university they plan on attending.
What does it all really mean?
I think it means that we’re wise to focus on learning, not grading, not fretting over the difference between an A and a B, not worrying that a particular assignment is late or that we’ve done something wrong that will torpedo our grade. Learning.
This doesn’t mean no feedback or guidance from teachers to students, but it could mean that the conversations look different.
I mentioned to students in a video I sent home (filmed in front of a green screen so I could be sitting in Dumbledore’s study) that students didn’t come to Hogwarts just to get grades; they came to learn magic. It’s a little like that at our school too. Students come to ACMA to learn art, dance, and how to weave words magically. They come to learn the science and history they need, and they will need some; learn history, so they are not doomed to repeat it; and learn about what it means to participate in a crazy-creative learning community.
Much of that, looking back to B.B. King’s remark, hasn’t been taken away. We lost the physical building for a spell, but the teachers are still teaching, the students are still connecting, and while we miss seeing each other in person, this is a strange, relatively short time where we may just have some opportunities we wouldn’t have before.
Another jazz musician, Miles Davis, told us “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” It’s a quotation that guided me in my early days as a teacher. Philosopher of (among other things) education John Dewey would disagree, but not in the way some would think. He wrote “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” Grades, particularly the letter grades that bruise spirits and stunt summative marks, don’t always support Dewey, and almost never support Davis. Those grades, at least right now, are gone.
And with those grades absent, what is left for students (and educators too)? Learning. Learning to adapt. Learning to engage. Learning for the sake of learning. I don’t think that’s too idealistic; I think many of us, students and teachers alike, are hungry to gather together (in whatever way social distancing rules make that look) and learn.
To do that means staying connected and engaging in what’s happening in classes. It means not turning our back on our school communities, but renewing our commitments to making those learning communities strong. We are called on in these strange times to be kind, to be patient, to see the best in one another, and to, as Dewey says, “really think,” learning from our failures, our successes, and most importantly each other. That’s a thing.