Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Possibility of More, part I

As with all crazy ideas, it occurred at approximately 3 a.m. – the time when you can convince yourself that just about anything will work. Usually, these ideas, when they hit the light of day, are seen for the frauds they are; but this one seemed to stick in my brain like a bad commercial jingle. What, you ask, is this half (to fully)-crazed idea? Of course, it’s to give all of my American Lit students (mostly juniors) an A for the semester on the very first day of class.

This idea came about when my wife, Anne Smith, suggested I read The Art of Possibility (Zander and Zander, 2000) for a class I was taking to get more credits and bump myself up the pay scale. One of the chapters that captured my attention was titled, “Giving an A.” The basic premise of this is that students will feel free to take risks and be more willing to challenge themselves if they do not have to worry what grade they’ll receive. My first thought, like I imagine most of yours will be, was every high school junior in the world will take full advantage of this opportunity by accepting the A and doing little or nothing in return. I will look like a complete fool to these students as they don’t even have to try to con me into giving them a better grade – they already have it. By this time in their educational lives, they know exactly how to “play school” and, if they so desire, work the system to give themselves every opportunity around to cajole, demand, and manipulate their way to a better grade. Yet, the idea still festered in my brain as we returned to school for teacher work days. And, after teaching American Lit since 1991, I was looking for a new spark to keep me motivated after a few years where I felt I was merely going through the motions. I wanted to look at class differently and get the students to do the same. I’m not trying to crank out English majors here; I’m trying to get students to find a passion for literature and to begin asking the big, important questions in life: What matters? What can I contribute to this world? What is my purpose? How can I find my own path to happiness and success?

With the encouragement of my wife, I stepped into the abyss on the first day of class. Honestly, I hadn’t thought this through completely and I wasn’t 100% sure I was even going to present this to the class until those fateful words spilled forth from my lips: “I have this idea that’s true madness and it scares me to death: I’ve decided to give you an A for the semester.” Looking around the room, the predominant emotion appeared to be shock. Since I enjoy teasing students as often as possible, former students thought this was a big joke. And, truly, how could they not? I’m guessing that at no time in their educational career have they just been given an A. They were trying to find the catch, the teacher’s fall-back where they’d really just get a grade like any other class. Fortunately, I didn’t have one to give them. All I wanted was for them to provide some sort of final product at the end of the semester that showed to me and the class as a whole that they were indeed an A student. Several students were concerned about what this final would look like and if there would be a rubric they could follow; I assured them I had no rubric – I didn’t want to confine their ideas to fit my mold.

After I’d already opened Pandora’s Box, I decided I might want to talk to some people who might be able to clarify this idea in my head. The first person I discussed this with is Karl Fisch, mild-mannered IT director by day, educational guru always. Surprisingly (but not really), he thought it was a great idea and helped me figure some logistics like how to figure grades along the way, what to do if someone does nothing all semester until the end, and what happens if someone completely bombs the final project. I knew that if I had Karl and Anne’s support (two educators I respect to no end), I must be on to something. Karl also suggested I talk with Ray Hawthorne, the school’s instructional coach and former master teacher in the building. Likewise, Ray was excited about this project and encouraged me to include more student feedback in order to allay fears and clarify questions. Now I had three highly respected professionals in my corner – for me, that was more than enough.

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