Do Grades Determine Our Value?

Three weeks ago, I asked my students, “How would it feel if we didn’t have grades in this class anymore?” I have been teaching for 14 years, the first four years were very much my “learning curve years.” Like all new teachers, I had a lot to explore and learn in order to be an effective teacher. In those early years I was building my curriculum, assignments, exercises, and teaching tools to guide my students on their path to a degree. I used some, at the time, radical methods, like video critiquing each assignment, but also used many standards of education and using what I knew from my own educational experiences.

But wait, let me start at the beginning… not of this semester, but long before I became a college professor.

“Grapes Group? Your turn.”

“Sailboats Group? Let’s go, you’re up.”

“Kangaroo Group. Time to read!”

Regardless of the clever and non-leveled name the teacher used for reading groups in grammar school, I, and the other children, always knew where we belonged. I was not an academic success in grammar school. In the very beginning, reading groups seemed equal, but it quickly became obvious that I was separated into groups with other students who didn’t perform as well as the “smarter” students.

My earliest academic recollection is that my self worth was not as high as those in the “A” reading group. This meant not only was I not smart, but that academics or even reading for enjoyment were out of my league. I would hear from others how books could transport them away to new worlds, but those images never came to me. All I would see would be an endless parade of words that I would need to slog through and hope to retain any scrap of what I read. In my head a line had been formed and I struggled to achieve A’s in my class. I was a solid B/C student with a heavy emphasis on C.

Throughout my K – 8 education the joy of learning was not really present. When I thought about the grades I got, I felt that even when I tried my hardest, I still only achieved a B. So why really try? I would never get the A’s that some of my friends breezed through without a second thought or even the A’s that my friends worked really hard for. The system of grades as the goal versus learning being the goal put me in a virtual box that I felt I could not really break out of.

I felt chained to my identity as the low reading group kid from those early years of grammar school with no possibility of becoming a member of the coveted high reading group. Even though in upper grammar school there were no more reading levels, there remained grades and instead of being in the low group it became B/C kids versus A kids. There is a story of an elephant who has a chain around their leg preventing their freedom, then the chain is replaced with a rope but they don’t know they can now break away to freedom. If the reading levels are like chains, grades could be the rope. I was now the elephant with a rope around my leg, but I had no way to know and no one told me. I had internalized for years (and would continue to for many more years) that my grades were a reflection of me and my worth and regardless of what effort or progress I made I would remain that B/C kid, chained or roped, stuck in that place. My experience is, sadly, not unique. The more I read and speak with students and colleagues the more I find this internalized identity based on our school grades is common and far too often detrimental (whether we are the C kids or the A kids).

When I got to high school, it didn’t get much better. I already didn’t prioritize my education and then I received a TV for my bedroom. Now I was able to prioritize entertainment and avoid homework even easier, staying up late watching Night Court until the wee hours of the morning. Needless to say, that didn’t help my learning or grades. But I kept going and still solidly managed to maintain my B, mostly C average. When the SAT’s came around, you guessed it, I was not in the highest percentile. Again, I didn’t really try too hard because I “knew” how smart I wasn’t because for years I had been told, “You are a C student.”

With little interest in my current education, I was not motivated to seek more schooling and without support from the adults in my life to go to college I only applied to two schools and didn’t even know to apply to a “safety school.” When I was turned down by both colleges, I went to the Army where their test told me I was pretty smart. The recruiter was exultant at my high scores on their test and how smart I was to score so well and be placed in such a good job with them. For the first time that I could ever remember in my life, an adult told me I was smart. So I went where I felt valued.

There are a tremendous amount of stories where the military is a dead end and many of those countless stories end in tragedy. Fortunately (I honestly do not know how) I was not one of those stories. I do not endorse the pathway I took, the US Military is not a plan I would encourage anyone to follow, but I got lucky.

A few years out of high school and while serving in the Army, I saw the movie, Toy Story. Instantly, I knew that was what I wanted to do. Even as cliche as that sounds now, it is the truth. Throughout my K – 12 education I had always loved art class, it was the one place I felt confident and skilled. However, art was never taught as something that could be a profession. Though I took extra art classes in high school and earned A’s in all those classes, no one ever took me aside and said, “Hey, you could make a profession out of this.” With some distance away from school, and after my eight years in service, I decided to go back to school at almost 26 years old! But now I was going to go back to school for something that I was ALWAYS good at…ART!

Going to college for the first time as a non-traditional student I was surrounded by students who had never really been out in or experienced the world. They came straight from high school, where for the past four years (at least!) they had been told, “Get good grades or else.” (“Or else you won’t get into college, you won’t get a good job, you won’t be able to support yourself, you won’t…”) All their work and effort culminated in a grade that either validated them or informed them they “were not enough” or they had “not done enough.” I watched as they only knew and reacted to “What grade did I get on the project?” Just as I had always done too.

It was at this time that my thoughts shifted. I did not return to school to “get a good grade and get out,” but I returned to gain knowledge. I returned with a singular purpose to learn how to make movies. Honestly I still did care if I got a good grade. A good grade makes EVERYONE feel validated. But what changed was that I knew that more than the grade, I was making steps to be able to do the work I saw on the big screen. I began learning for the sake of the new skills, not just the letter. All of my classes were suddenly ripe with opportunities for learning, whether it was English, Math, History or Art, I was now in school to learn. The grades no longer shackled me because I no longer based my success or my progress on the letters attached to my papers and films. And surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly at all, I started earning A’s in my courses.

Without even knowing what the Dean’s List was, I received a letter that I was on it! But that success mattered less to me than the fact that I was extremely immersed in the learning rather than the grade. My success was not the grades or the Dean’s List (although they were nice and earned me accolades I had never received before), my success was that I was learning for the sake of learning and my chosen future goals. When I graduated I was able to work in Hollywood (the path wasn’t direct after school but I ended up making it.)

While working in Los Angeles, I began to recognize that some of my favorite aspects of animation included mentoring new animators, teaching my colleagues, and sharing my knowledge so I decided I would move my career into secondary education. (Tell my 8 or 18 year old self that one and you could probably knock me down with a feather!) I could begin teaching at RIT with my BFA, but to remain a teacher and to earn tenure I would need a Master’s degree. So I returned to college to earn my MFA while teaching full time. And again, it wasn’t the grade that I was chasing, but the knowledge that I knew I would need and want to pass on to the students I was teaching. Don’t get me wrong, when I got a B it stung, but mentally freeing myself from chasing and being shackled by grades, the actual information I was learning set me free. (I am on the tenure track now and am awaiting the result of my final submission to see if I earned tenure… fingers crossed. I find out April 20th-ish, 2023.)

And so to return to the beginning of this post, I began a dialogue with my students three weeks ago. If we can teach students and they can focus on their learning and progress instead of a letter grade will we have better outcomes? Will students learn more? Will students engage more? Will teachers and students build connections that don’t exist or cannot exist in the current paradigm? Will an ungrading system create more equality between teacher and learner? I hope you will join me as my students and I find out.

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