In the school I lead, finals are approaching for the Upper School. Girls are feverishly organizing their binders, generating study guides, scheduling review sessions, worrying. Their anxiety is palpable; these are smart girls, highly motivated. They want to do well. I’ve been impressed by the generosity of our 9th graders, who routinely share quizlets they’ve created with one another as study aids.
“What makes this so hard?” I ask my English class. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“This counts, Ms. Klotz. If you bomb an exam, it wrecks your average. And then, you can’t ever fix it.”
Absolutes. Adolescents specialize in absolutes. One failure has irrevocable implications. One bad test and the goose is cooked. No college. No career. No personal fulfillment. None of that is true, but the fear persists at mythic dimensions for these terrific and terrified girls.
We are trapped in old systems that pretend regurgitation is synonymous with rigor.
How can we promote risk-taking and creativity and relevance when traditional methods of assessment are so slow to change in school?
Years ago, my friend Jane and I invented a project for American Lit. We asked each of our tenth graders to present a “Song of Myself” inspired by Walt Whitman or a “Letter to the World” inspired by Emily Dickinson to the whole class. The assignment was ungraded. Girls offered poetry, art work, journal entries, reflections, monologues, music, dance, collages over the two nights we spent on a tenth grade retreat that February. Jane took us all outside, put on her ice skates, and skated her Song of Herself on the frozen pond, snow glittering in the dark. Almost thirty years later, I can feel the current that evening generated among us. We learned with our girls and from them. Their work showed their understanding of the themes that characterize American Literature. They had thought deeply about self-expression, about being true to themselves, about what was important to reveal. The space was trusting, supportive. We felt responsible to one another, as if something almost sacred happened in the circle we had created on the floor of the lounge at Frost Valley. On the end of year course evaluations when I asked what assignment had been most challenging and most fulfilling, every girl cited the Song of Myself. No grade.
I have spent much of my career seeking those moments when learning feels relevant, important, essential. How can girls show me what they know in ways that feel authentic? What happens if we don't use grades as sticks to beat children with, if we take away points all together? Standards-based grading, which, I am pleased to say, has some traction in our school, is one path. Narrative comments that offer constructive feedback about what to do differently on the next assignment is another. I fear that our girls work terribly hard, but they often work wrong. They study and study, with no sense of whether or not they’ve actually learned what they need to learn. They’re less confident good at predicting the questions they might be asked and weaving together key concepts. They get overwhelmed by their “high stakes” panic and forget that a test is an opportunity to compete, to win—with the same ferocity they show, regularly, on the athletic field.
What is good about this annual drama the opportunity for reflection it offers those of us who lead schools. It’s past time to reinvent the 19th c. model of “school as factory” that too many of us grew up with—short periods, few opportunities for deep learning, for choice, for risk, for relevance. I glory that I lead a distinguished school at this very moment; now is the time to leap and trust that what we know girls need will serve them well. Leap and the net will appear, a friend of mine used to tell me. Those of us who care about kids and education must be resolute, must keep pushing for real change. We all--parents, teachers, and school leaders--want the best for our girls. We must support one another and leap!