Grade Pressure: It Starts Young

My daughter is in 4th grade.

She LOVES to read and LOVES to write and loves to learn about things in general. She asks her parents questions all the time that show us that she’s really trying to figure out her world.

I’ve written in the past about a couple of breakdowns she had over a reading assignments in second grade and lamented about how she was learning so early that often times a teacher’s ideas about a text are the “right” ones, a lesson that often shuts down engaged readers. That was certainly the case for me as a student. It was not fun anymore if I had to think only what the teacher thought about a book.

But now I see already starting in her the stress and pressure about grades.

And she doesn’t even really get them yet. Her report cards are standards and where she’s at for each of them. Great data really, and nothing boiled down to anything that looks like a grade.

So this morning, she comes out of the bathroom after brushing her teeth with a quiet, “Mommy?”

I walked around the corner of the kitchen to the hall so I could hear her over the buzz of the microwave as it toasted the 18 raw almonds I was getting ready to put in my morning oatmeal.

As I’m looking at her face-to-face, still in her p.j.s, hair not yet brushed, wide-eyed (and only 30 minutes from when she needed to be ready to leave for school), she tells me that she didn’t get her diorama about Benjamin Franklin finished and it was supposed to be finished today.

This is a reading response project. Her class read a book about Benjamin Franklin and then each student chose some kind of response project–she chose the 4-scene diorama, and as of this morning, had completed only three of those four required scenes. She chose to represent Franklin’s birth in one scene, the kite/key electricity experiment for a second scene (we made a key out of shrinky dinks for that one), Franklin’s wedding for the third scene, and his death for the final scene. She has had over two weeks to work on this, and she brought it home one weekend but mostly used the time provided in school on her creation.

And 30 minutes before leaving for school on the day it is due, all of a sudden she is upset that she’s not going to be able to finish it. Had she thought of this the night before, she could have made Franklin’s gravestone and then taken it to school to glue into that 4th scene. Maybe she did think of it but decided not to do anything about it. Her proclivities toward procrastination (just like her mom) are something we need to work on for sure (and we will).

But here was the biggest issue–when I asked her what would happen if she didn’t get it finished, she tearfully said that it would “not be graded well.”

Those were her exact words. She said “graded.” And she was panicked that her work would not be graded “well.” My daughter, in 4th grade, who does NOT get grades, has somehow already internalized the pressure to get a good grade on a project.

Where does this pressure come from? Of course there are the hours she sees me sitting with my ipad responding to student work, and yes, I usually use the term “grading” to name what I’m doing because one word is more efficient than the phrase I need to really capture what it is a I intend to be doing. Watching her teacher mom work (and dad–can’t forget the hours he spends at the dining room table grading the work of his biology students) can certainly influence the way she thinks about this stuff. And I can’t speak to what exactly takes place in her classroom around assessment and evaluation, the words used, the practices employed–though this is the first year I’ve seen anything come home with something like “50/50” on the top of it to tell her how she did. Up until now, she’s gotten only comments and check marks from her teachers on her work.

Or maybe it’s more insidious–just the ever strong undercurrent in our world about quantifying everything and the gold star of educational effectiveness (student achievement) (aka test scores). How could I ever expect to shelter her from this?

What I can do, though, is what I did this morning. I sat on the floor next to where she had collapsed in frustration and put my arms around her and reminded her that grades are only data–they tell us things about where she’s at as a learner but they do not say anything about what kind of a person she is. I reminded her that it’s much more important to focus on the learning and on her as a learner.

WE have built this problem. And I mean the collective “we”– teachers, administrators, policy makers, parents, the world. And we’re teaching kids to think that learning is about the letters on the report card and not the experiences they have in school and how they choose to challenge themselves in meaningful ways.

If somehow I can help my daughter to see past the grade pressure and to hold on to her imagination and her dogged curiosity about her world and the pure joy of learning, she will make it through all of this okay.

Even if We don’t get this problem figured out.

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3 Responses to Grade Pressure: It Starts Young

  1. Anon says:

    Great post! It’s interesting that students (myself included) stop seeing as school as a place for learning and more as something they need to do in order to get good grades as soon as those check marks start turning into numbers and letter grades.

    Just curious, what eventually happened with her assignment?

    • DocZ says:

      Thanks for reading!
      She put together the gravestone for the 4th scene over her breakfast today and then glued it in to the diorama when she got to school. The students shared their work with their classmates–but only two of the four scenes, so she tells me that it wouldn’t have mattered if she had it finished or not. There was no “grading”–so her fears about that were totally fabricated via her own worries, not about the reality about what would happen with the project. Again I wonder where that worry came from.
      She brought the completed diorama home with her today. It’s kind of awesome.

  2. Pingback: Beyond Dioramas: Inviting Students to Read and Read and Read | The Paper Graders

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