The message

For years, I’ve been telling my students I don’t grade for effort.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work,” I’d say, “if the end result isn’t up to speed.”

This I would say this after my long discussions with them about the journey–and the process–and the learning–being what mattered in my class. I mean, I’ve been pushing Alfie for a long time.

Yeah, talk about sending a mixed message to my students.

Today I was reading Seth Godin’s book Linchpins and the proverbial light bulb went off in my head: effort, of course I want effort to matter.

See, this is where I was coming from. I have students who argue that even though they didn’t edit the paper, complete the paper, or finish reading the book, that any effort they put into the assignment should count. And I resented that they wanted credit for not really working, for turning in half an effort, for not really caring about our work. So I would tell them, “effort doesn’t count.”

But I also have fully capable students who “do school” with ease. They write well and produce competent (but not necessarily inspiring) essays; they read well and quickly; and they complete all assignments within an appropriate time frame. These are the students who generally earn good grades–but it’s not because they care about their work (though some do). Often, these are the students who have been taught how to follow the rules and do what they are told, as Godin says. And I was rewarding them for that. Plus, there may have been other unintended consequences.

My epiphany was when I realized that many of these students are no more eager to learn than the other group. The products just come more easily to them.

The students I want to encourage are these: the ones who write papers with original thought, even though they may not be grammatically correct; take longer to finish the book because they’ve put post-it notes and margin notes wherever they stopped to think; ask questions in class that make me ponder another scenario, a new direction, or a fresh approach to what we are doing. The ones who show effort because they are curious.

And, in fact, I do give those kids credit for effort. Rather, I give them credit for wanting to learn, even if they haven’t quite mastered the outcomes yet. I loved when one young man stayed after class to tell me how one of the characters in our book was “a man’s man, isn’t he Mrs. Carter Morgan.” What 13-year old uses that phrase? Or when a young woman told me what she valued most from my class was learning to be patient with her own learning. This from an athlete, an A-typer who has little patience for incompetence in any form. Or the quiet one who came to class grinning, sharing with me her “perfect thesis” she had thought of late the night before, trying to fall asleep.

As I’ve written before, my model of schooling would be a collaborative means of assessing growth that Sylvia Stralberg Bagley from Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles  describes here:

…they [students] learn to view assessment as a valuable tool for growth rather than merely an arbitrary judgment handed down by someone in authority. (SS Bagley – The Australian Educational Researcher, 2010 –

This recent article comparing the judging method used on the television show “So You Think You Can Dance” to possible ways we can work with our students also resonates with me. The judges do not, the author says, “reduce their verdict to a judgment.”

And with my own long history of teacher baggage, I need to be sure I am clear with the messages I send.

image: flickr/photos/walkn/3314689121/