Thursday, April 28, 2011

Playing God

Maybe the power of teaching middle schoolers is getting to my head. But a somewhat touching (albeit deliberate self-contrived story) from today:

I was handing back the graded rubrics for a project where the kids were teaching the rest of the class about, of all things, various World Religions. And one group of boys really failed bad. However, I knew that this was mainly the result of two of the boys in the group, G and A, not the third, J. He's not stellar either, but at least he was trying.

Well, when I handed back the grades, G, who is really quite a smart kid and a charismatic personality (he just won't apply himself; perhaps he thinks he can get by on charm), came up afterward and talked to me. He was basically advocating for J, saying that he knows they got such a low presentation grade because of himself and A goofing off the whole time, that it wasn't J's fault, that J was really trying, and so G was asking if I could please give J the grade he would have gotten if the other two hadn't ruined it for him, even if I would take those points from G's own grade and "transfer" them over to J's.

G was being completely sincere this time. I thought, "how noble!" I did, in fact, end up giving J the higher grade (without taking the points from G). He went from a cumulative grade of an F to a D, which may not be great, but it's an important distinction of course.

But I also decided, based on G's willingness to take responsibility for how he had brought down another and to offer self-sacrifice for his sake, that I would round all my students' grades up to the next highest point. I had been obsessively putting in even long decimals (like 87.0625) based on how the math worked out with my rubrics, but I decided based on how G had gallantly stepped up to the plate for his friend to round everyone's grades up to the next point (so even 87.0625 would become 88) for the whole rest of the year! How merciful of me (lol).

For most kids, this of course made no difference to speak of, it's a very minor thing. But it actually had an effect on several kids' cumulative grades who were on a cusp. Several B+ kids went up to A- etc. Not much, but it's something. And several F's did end up going up to D- just based on this tiny adjustment. So G's noble act ended up reverberating throughout my whole grade-book, and ended up affecting kids who weren't even involved with him or his group, kids in totally different classes even who desperately needed that little grace before progress reports get sent home Tuesday. It's like a small Easter miracle.

G himself is still failing, but I thought his gallantry deserved recognition somehow, and the whole scenario really brings home for me the difference between grades and character or moral worth. However much they might tend to overlap still at this age, it reminded me that a "good" kid does not necessarily get good grades. Yes, I'd argue that the ability to buckle-down and delay-gratification is a huge part of virtue, but only when the task at hand requiring that is worthy.

Blind submission to authority and a zeal to "please" teachers is not in itself a virtue. Even though we adults know education is (supposed to be) for children's own good and that learning helps people in the long-run, I remember how often, when I was a kid, it felt like a prison or work-house, like an arbitrary regime ruling our lives and running us through the motions of random "assignments." Yet I ("good" little boy that I was) definitely internalized "obedience" to this system, to The Institution, as equivalent to moral worth (and was a real miserable prick as an adolescent because of it, I think).

Sadly, many of the teachers here speak as if this is true in the lounge, seemingly caring so much about kids breaking petty and pointless rules and judging the children as people for simply not being motivated to complete their busy-work. Another reminder that institutionalization is bad for everyone's souls, both the inmates and the guards.

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