Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Comments on Half-Baked Bread

Drive-By Truckers--"Everybody Needs Love" (mp3)
"How's it looking in there?"
"It's rising."
"Think it will get done?"
"If you'd quit opening the oven door."
"When can we eat it?"
"When it's done."
"When will that be?"
"There's no way of knowing. I know from the recipe when it's
supposed to be done, but you never know about the oven, they're all different, and I don't know how well we mixed it or if we let it rise long enough or if the yeast is strong and active."

This weekend, we, the teachers at my school, will engage in the semi-annual task of writing comments about all of our students. We will write about grades and homework and missed assignments and class participation and potential and disappointment and coasting and sliding and peaking at the right time and all of the good or bad things that students do.

It is thought to be an important task. The parents expect it. I guess we all expect. Once we--the collective adult world-- have those slips of paper with check boxes and terse paragraphs in our collective hands, we have some documentation that allows us to gauge the merits of the students we teach. We can use that info to take away cars or we can use it to give someone a chance in an AP class. We can quote those words in a student's letter of recommendation; we can use them to humiliate a boy at the dinner table. They can confirm what we think we know, if we think we need to know it. The words are ammunition. It is rarely known in advance what the gun will be used for.

I've been writing the comments, in one form or another, for 29 years. I have friends at other schools who have to write them more frequently than we do and in great depth. Clearly, it is thought to be an important task.

Here's what I'm thinking: once I get into the comment card writing zone this weekend, how's about I write a comment for each one of you who is in my life in some way? I'll do ratings of my wife, my children, my father, my brother, my friends, my bosses, my neighbors. Don't worry about the criteria: I'm more than capable of coming up with those unilaterally.

I'll be evaluating how I thought you did in New Orleans over the break, how much I thought you gave to the group timewise, how many drinks you bought me vs. how many you received from me. Quantitative stuff. Documented.
I'll be evaluating how well you took care of me while I had the flu or how you measure up to 5 society-derived standards for a good marriage.
I'll be evaluating, percentage-wise, how you're doing with meeting my hidden, unstated parental expectations.
I'll be evaluating the 5 biggest ways I think you screwed me up when I was a kid.
I'll be sending you clear messages about all of the ways you're not doing your job the way I think you should.
I'll be letting you know my insights on why we're not closer.

And when I'm finished, you can do the same for me!

It takes that kind of pushing to the extreme to see the barbarity of the act, doesn't it? Comment cards are, potentially, a brutal snapshot of a work-in-progress. Like marriage or friendship or any other lifelong journey. And comment cards are perhaps more whimsical, driven as they are by a deadline that always seems to come at the wrong time.

One time, a friend and I decided to write our comments directly to our students. Instead of "Jeff has a real problem completing assignments on time," we were writing things like "You haven't turned in a paper on time so far. Why don't you come by and let's talk about your strategies for breaking a writing assignment down into manageable parts." The comments were personal, open-ended, hanging in the air like the start of a conversation. And, they were wrong.

Comments, you see, are not for the students. They are not written for the children who sit in our classes and interact with us each day. No, they are for the parents. They are to give the parents clear indicators of how their children are doing. They show that the school is interested in communication and partnership. But, no matter how aware a student is of how poorly he is doing in my class, the negative comment card always seems to blindside him. Cheery and chummy in class, we then "tell it like it is" to his parents. And then try to resume the social contract in class. It's an odd disconnect.

So, it isn't really the drudgery of writing comments that bothers me, believe it or not. It's what I know about how they're often used and what I know about the person who is writing them. Which is me. And I know that the demands of time and of trying to say something different about each student can lead me to some strange remarks, remarks that I would have written differently had the student's last name fallen elsewhere in the alphabet or if I didn't have Mad Men calling me from another room.

Me, I'm in favor of a one-on-one conversation with each student. In a better world, I think we would write that comment together, since there would probably have to be one. Not sure how that would fit timewise into a school day because they couldn't all be done in a class period and some would need extended time to work some things out and there's material to be covered and all of that. But I do have hazy memories of, way back in grade school, sitting down with a teacher and being handed a report card and having her say some things to me about that report card and then being the one who handed that report card to my parents, armed and prepared with some knowledge of what it meant.


Billy said...

I do not envy the writing of comment cards. And, when it was part of my job, the burden of communicating regularly and cheerily with parents was an annoying, festering wound.

However, I cannot help but speak from the experience of my teen life.

I remember the teacher comment cards and think of them far more fondly than any single grade I ever received. Or even any group of grades.

Nerds expect good grades. Nerd parents make sure we are under no illusion that good grades are an option. But what nerds don't know and fear they lack is value to the collective, most especially the teachers they strive to please.

Think of it another way: how many stories revolve around the child whose father never said "I love you" enough, never said "I'm proud of you" enough?

Well, many nerds crave that. They don't need hugs, necessarily, but those comment cards offer something deeper than a grade. "I am so proud to have your son in my class. He has an amazing ability to lighten a mood or drive home an insightful point, and both of those are cherished gifts in a classroom setting."

Yeah, that's motivation. Not only do I feel better, but my parents are proud! The A- was just a grade. Knowing I bring something of merit to a class and maybe make a teacher's job a little bit more fun is far more -- and knowing my parents know is a big bonus. I'd sit over Christmas break and reread comments, stunned that Teacher A or Teacher B actually liked me when I thought he hated all of us.

And does it matter that the teacher was cutting and pasting, or cursing the gods for having to write stupid comment cards in the first place? I guess. But not really.

If this made me a self-esteem challenged or sad teenager to depend on the approval of others to determine my happiness... well, please show me the land of teenagers where this doesn't matter. I will study that land for a master's thesis.

But yeah, I guess they would've sucked if I never did homework and hated school.

Sara C said...

Somehow, I agree with both of you guys. I think the point of agreement is that the comment card makes more concrete what a grade can merely abstract, negative or positive. I think I would prefer some version of both your thoughts - an actual conversation with each student at midterm with a student-written, teacher-approved reflection on that meeting given to the parents. Then, instead of a grade, or in addition to a grade, the comments from the teacher to the parent(s) at the end. So thoughtful. Good work, men. I hope you won't be offended if I quietly urge you to make a formal proposal and enact some change where you are. Even if you fail, you'll know you started the conversation.

Anonymous said...

A certain "Coach Hollywood" used a form letter comment. It was patently obvious by the use of "your son"

troutking said...

In his last year, a certain "Coach Hollywood" also cut and pasted one entire comment for each and every student that just happened to contain a comma splice which had to be fixed individually in each and every case.