Are We Teaching Students How To Swim Or Handing Them Rocks As They Sink?

students sink or swim

As an educator, I believe it is my duty to help students succeed.

When I was a student, if I didn’t do my work (and I did this to myself one semester in the 5th grade), my teacher let me fail. My parents then coached me through the process of realizing that I’d messed up terribly, that I was better than that, and that I could pick up the pieces and rebuild myself as a successful student (which I did, making an “A” in both quarters following my failure).

Unfortunately, many of our students don’t have this kind of support at home. Many of them don’t have parents telling them that they’re better than a zero, and to get their work turned in, or to go to the teacher and ask for help, or that they can do better next time.

As I have taught my classes, and worked with my students, I’ve realized that the traditional methods of grading, setting unmovable deadlines, and letting students sink does not work in a world where students are swimming without a life jacket an a fathomless ocean.

With all of that in mind, the article below by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post spoke to my heart as a teacher:

All that said, I understand where traditional teachers are coming from. When I started teaching five years ago, I was right there with them. Be tough! Make the kids pull themselves up by the bootstraps! (Never mind some of them didn’t have boots, metaphorically speaking…)

School veterans often say to that: “Are you kidding?” DuFour says they tell him “providing students with these second chances won’t prepare them for the harsh realities of the ‘real world’ or the ‘sink or swim’ environment of higher education, where students are expected to take full responsibility for their learning; requiring students to get additional help until they become proficient simply ‘enables’ students to give less than their best effort.”

Ten or twenty years ago, this might have been true for the majority of students in suburbia. But today, so many of the students in urban and rural communities are coming to school from broken families, without the supports needed to succeed in the traditional system, that we must become the life preservers they need until they can mature and build the capacity for creating their own systems of success.

When students enter my classroom…

  • I see kids who already believing they are failures.
  • I see kids who think can’t write or that they have nothing to say.
  • I see kids who think they hate reading, but they just haven’t met the right book.
  • I see kids who just think they aren’t good students.

My goal is to help them think outside of that box.

To this end, I have established the following policies in my English Language Arts classroom.

  • Students can revise any assignment they’ve turned in on time for up to full credit. So, if Johnny turns in an essay and gets a 90 percent, he can correct his paper, and turn it in for up to a 100 percent.
  • When I grade papers, particularly writing assignments, I include action statements that tell a student what they need to do in order to make a 100 percent on the paper. When I hand Johnny’s paper back to him, he might follow my instructions to add more details to the third paragraph, which will earn him back the points that he lost for leaving out those details in the first place. Ultimately, Johnny has to do the work to receive the points. 
  • Students can turn in any late/missing assignment for up to 70 percent of credit. They can revise these assignments for up to 70 percent. This helps keep students out of the too-many-zeros hole, where some setup camp for the rest of the year.
  • Every four weeks, we have a work day, where students can revise or makeup any assignment during class. I use this time to offer feedback on assignments, to help freshmen clean out their stuffed-to-the-grills lockers, and generally encourage students to make revisions for overall grade improvement. You’d be amazed at how much work gets done — which means that students are actually having a self-led review session… 
  • In the interest of learning how to meet deadlines, all grades after that work day are set in stone. Last semester, I let students wait until the end of the semester, and that was a mess for me. So, in the interests of teacher sanity and frequent review, I have established the every-four-week policy.

I insist my students take advantage of this opportunity, and my principal backs me up on this. He frequently (read: every Friday) calls any students who are failing or who have three or more zeros to the office and has a chat with them. Some sort of lunch detention may be involved. At any rate, students then flock to my room to turn suddenly-found papers in, find out what they’re missing. At least, that’s what happened last semester. This semester, my students seem to be more on top of things, so there has not been as much flocking.

As my principal, our supportive parents, and I work together, our kids are building that capacity for, and learning how to attain, success. They are crawling out of their boxes, sometimes kicking and screaming (not always metaphorically…), but coming to terms with what it means to be a student.

Is grading hampering student learning?

Grading shouldn’t take up all your time and you shouldn’t have to spread it out so much that students don’t see the results of their work until weeks later. So what can you do? 

Related topics: Grading, Student Success

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

  1. Hi

    Very touch by what you are doing to help your students.

    Just to add, you may wanna consider flipped classroom to truly help them.

    1. Kids need this support because if they are having a hard time, they will probably give up. Kids should go to college and get an education. Be successful!

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