Reflecting on the disruptions to schooling over the past eighteen months, I keep drifting back to a pair of tweets to make sense of student response and to focus my attention on their education. One is from the early days of the pandemic, the time of emergency online teaching. For me, as a teacher, the early days meant asynchronous, online delivery of World History learning opportunities for eleventh graders; the 2020-21 school year was synchronous but across shifting remote, hybrid, and in-person formats. Along this winding path and as I return to synchronous teaching, in a classroom, with a live student audience, this pair of thoughts continues to resonate.

Completely Institutionalized

This observation came during the early days of pandemic schooling, the time of emergency online teaching. The observation that our students have been completely institutionalized could be an evergreen Tweet, though. I keep looking paths out of this reality, perhaps even ones revealed by the system-wide disruption since March, 2020., but the institution is strong. Students, families, and I are habituated to it. Honestly, I am surprised that I am still surprised. I teach in an institution, after all.

We should empathize with students. Grading protocols have changed throughout their school lives, even as grades themselves have been a rare constant as they have moved through middle and high school. These schools have been simultaneously, but unevenly, changing their grading protocols.

Ms. Tarvin was commenting on a situation where her students suddenly had no grades to track. Without grades, they were lost. The strong emotional power of grades can corrupts reformed grading practices, too. Although standards-based grading practices are meant to and can move teachers and students from a culture of compliance to a culture of learning, in the midst of their patchwork adoption I often observe the opposite. Student anxiety over summative assessments seems to be retarding their development of stress tolerance. High effort students comply with the process of remediating and retesting. They learn to excel at a new game of school. The solution to this is high quality second assessments.

The immediate emotional effects of changes to grades throughout the term motivate many students, many of whom seem to use the online grade book to organize their work. The school data management system, StudentVue, in my district, almost (?) becomes another app where students seek bio-chemical rewards as the watch the ebb and low of a numerical average. My earnest desire that students appreciate learning for its own sake is no match for this, especially in the face of a global emergency that necessarily made all of us more reactive and less proactive.

Pandemic teaching did nudge me further away from using grades to measure the number of tasks completed and closer to grades only communicating learning. All class activities are opportunities to demonstrate knowledge. I am working toward using this these, recorded as not-for-grading, to evaluate student progress, recorded as letter grades. Online teaching, outside of a social emergency, has the potential to move this project forward with feedback loops and the removal of class time as a constraint. Feedback was the main advantage that I found in using Google Classroom. Students can easily revise and resubmit with my comments in view. I found more students revising work than when I hand paper back to them with comments.

For many students, however, communication over distance made this process a struggle. Some would not attempt work that did not immediately move their overall average; some were unable to process directions. These observations are hardly unique, I know. I am reflecting back on them as we return to our physical institutions, hoping to continue to chip away at the institutionalization of learning.

Honestly, it could go either way: deepening or lessening institutionalization. Hopefully, I remember that shifting systems requires a lot of communication, and that being in person will make that easier. One of the most poignant moments from last year involved working through a project with a student. The student was struggling with a project, and we were communicating one on one through Google Hangouts (a little bit like the old AOL Instant Messenger). The student was stuck and expressed fear of failing the class. I typed I am asking you to trust me. Meaning trust me to guide you through the process and the numbers will add up. Their fear of the numbers had a strong grip, and I am not sure how to break that grip as long as we are using grades.

This emotional needs to include the content. I will return to that with the second tweet that I am carrying into the new year.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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