Wresting With Grades

  • David Hoffman

    I hardly ever write about my junior high experiences.  Just thinking about those years brings back memories that are as awkward, conflicted and as uncomfortable as my metamorphosis from child to adolescent. I’m sure I wasn’t more than 50 inches tall and maybe all of 75 pounds when I entered seventh grade, small in stature and equally diminutive in confidence. My seventh grade teacher did little to boost my self-assurance or growth, academically speaking. He was indolent and of the opinion that a one-size-fits-all instructional style was good enough for his diverse learners who, traipsing into teenage trauma, yearned for differentiation and individual recognition.  He didn’t take the time to get to know us—to listen to our aspirations, anxieties and evolving aesthetics. 

    He wasn’t the only teacher who shirked his responsibility to individualize learning, acknowledge the uniqueness of each student or protect us from the bevy of bullies and agitators who were allowed to diminish and degrade defenseless kids like me.  

    My P.E. teacher belonged to that same society of staff. He evaluated results, not effort. He promoted stiff competition. He refused to address us by first name.  “Hoffman—fifty pushups.  Hoffman—twenty laps.  Hoffman—pick up the pace.”  My small and slim stature suffered body slams during flag football, physically painful picks during basketball, and shin stinging slide-intos during softball. 

    My P.E. report card grade reflected my gym teacher’s less-than robust effort to truly assess his students’ physical fitness, effort or improvement.   In all subject areas, we received a mark from 1 to 8—1 the equivalent of an A, an 8 mirroring an F minus.   I only received an 8 once.  Guess which subject?

    In the winter of 1971, my P.E. teacher decided it was time to test his students’ wrestling skills.  Notice I did not write teach, enhance, or gauge wrestling skills.  I wrote test, defined in the Hoffman Dictionary of Junior High Terms as:  Put through the wringer.  Mr. World Wrestling Federation Wanna-be told his gawky, pimple popping, deodorant deficient students the news that their trimester grade would be based on a single wrestling match.  It must have occurred to me to raise my hand and ask him if tag teams were allowed as I only had one body, and I really didn’t want it to be flattened for life.  Remember, I weighed less and was no bigger than a bag of grass seed.  No one else in my P.E. class came close to my stature.

    Never the less, I was partnered with an opponent whose weight and height were closest to mine.  We were like a whiffle to a bowling ball, a twig to a tree trunk.   For a week or so we were told to practice wrestling moves, holds and other mat maneuvers.   Let’s go back to that Hoffman dictionary—told as “left to figure out for oneself in the absence of instruction, modeling or scaffolding.”  It’s like the swimming instructor who refuses to get into the water and directs his students from terra firma to “just swim.” 

     As far as my wrestling opponent was concerned, the only thing he needed to practice was the lift, throw-down and squash-your-opponent maneuver.  (I think I saw this technique practiced once in a Discovery channel documentary on the predator-prey rituals of beavers and their captured fish.)

    I practiced various match strategies in my head too:  1) be sick from school every P.E. day until the end of seventh grade, 2) never take my P.E. uniform home to wash thereby creating an invisible stink shield—no wait this was already common practice among my P.E. peers, and 3) evade and back away from my opponent in ever-increasing pond-like ripples until I was close enough to the wall to pull the fire alarm and cause a mass evacuation.  

    I’m sure I must have also tried bribing my Goliath-like opponent with a lifetime homework hotline (aka -providing the answers), but, alas, nothing could prevent the match from occurring. 

    The big day arrived.  While eating my final breakfast, I asked my dad if he carried life insurance on his kids’ P.E.-related mishaps.  I tried desperately to build up my athletic confidence by means of self-talk, “David if you get through this, your small size will reward you ten-fold some day when you are the winning jockey at the Kentucky Derby.”  During homeroom roll call, I probably answered, “Here…and soon to be gone.”  

    Sad to write, there is no great cinematic sports climax to this story.  No Hoosiers, Rocky, or Breaking Away comeback, final shot or athletic feat.  Just images of a twelve-year-old walking onto the mat, getting into a wrestling stance, intently staring into the eyes of his opponent, then laying down on his back and saying, “You have three seconds to pin me if you possess even one ounce of humanity.”

    I got an 8 in P.E.  

    With report cards just around the corner, it is comforting to know that Island Park teachers assess and assign grades in a much more personalized and deliberate manner. The days of having one single summative assessment or one-size-fits-all culminating act be determinative of a child’s grade are gone.  The practice of solely using unreliable measures like multiple choice or true-false tests (fifty percent chance of guessing correctly) is approaching dinosaur status. Just like the one-chance at proving my wrestling chops was an invalid means by which to assess my all around physical fitness, staff avoid determining academic mastery based on a single valuation.

    Teachers have clear standards against which they use multiple and frequent formative (throughout instruction) and summative assessments to determine mastery. They watch and listen carefully to students as they answer questions, collaborate with peers, work individually and conference with their teacher. Yes, they still give quizzes and tests, but results of these exams are just one part of a child’s academic profile. 

    For example, in the area of literacy, teachers acquire instructional reading levels by listening to students read a plethora of material, noting fluency as well as word attack and comprehension skills. They record what type of reading material students prefer. During small group reading instruction, teachers take anecdotal records of each student’s understanding and achievement of articulated learning targets.  They sit frequently with children listening, asking questions, probing for understanding and noting progress. In sum, your child’s literacy grades reflect thoughtful, frequent, deliberate and personalized assessment.  They are not solely based on a stack of workbook pages or redundant packets.  Nor are they solely calculated by computer programs, take-home projects or standardized tests. 

    Students also have the opportunity to re-do work, building up their resilience and perseverance. Success is measured over time. 

    Completed work is returned with respectful comments that both assess and instruct. They acknowledge a student’s efforts while asking them to reflect, improve, re-consider and celebrate.

    This broader process of assessment is true for all subjects.  Assessing is, in part, a recursive process of instructing, evaluating, re-adjusting instruction based on that evaluation, assessing, adjusting, ad infinitum.  It also leads to designing instruction that differentiates based on individual learning needs and skills that are attained through assessment and individual recognition. It is why we need students at school.  We assess students in real time—all the time. 

    My P.E. teacher was both lazy and unkind in designing a wrestling unit where no learning target was shared, no instruction was provided, no effort or growth was recognized, and only one unreliable assessment was conducted.  My report card grade of 8 was really a reflection of his work or lack thereof.  

    Thank you for your support in helping your child understand his or her grades and the process by which they were arrived. Thank you for supporting our teachers’ efforts to conduct reliable and valid assessments that go beyond paper and pencil and honor the whole child.  A few other kind reminders about progress reports:

    • Spend time focusing on the positive aspects of your child’s growth over the year. Perhaps set one more attainable goal for the final trimester.
    • The difference between a 3 and 4 or a 2.5 and 3 is not monumental in the big scheme of a child’s elementary school education.
    • The purpose of a progress report is to provide parents and children with an update on how they are doing at this juncture of the school year.  It is not determinative of how they will do for the rest of the school year (or their life!).
    • A child should never be judged by a progress report. He or she is a wonderfully complex individual with the capacity to positively impact the world through the use of both head and heart.

    My P.E. experience was scary and but not scarring.  My failing grade received little parental attention (no challenging grades back in those days.) I survived junior high gym class, thrived in high school physical education (table tennis, squash, track and field, Frisbee) and even won the President’s Physical Fitness Award somewhere along the way.  Alas, I didn’t ride the winning horse in the Run for the Roses. I did, however, get chosen to be a coxswain on the University of Wisconsin freshman crew team thanks to my slight size and weight, and I grew to appreciate and encourage physical fitness.  

    As for the way we currently assess students, it’s more reliable, valid, and definitely more ethical. I’d actually go to the mat to defend that belief!

    David Hoffman