I was browsing through my Facebook profile one day and, in my news feed, saw one of my students writing on the “wall” of another student:
“Missed you in Miranda’s class today, we got our screenplays back.”
The other student responded, “What grade did we get?” [It was a group project.]
“We got an A.”
As I read this, I wondered, Did they even bother to read the comments that I wrote on their paper?
* * *
A student who had just returned to school after being out sick approached my desk and said, “Hey Mr. Miranda, I heard you gave back our essays in class yesterday. Do you have mine?”
I found her essay and said, “Yeah, here it is. It was really good, let me go over some of the things I noticed in your writing. . . .”
I started reviewing with her the comments I’d scribbled in the margins, but couldn’t help notice her weight shifting from one foot to the other and her eyes occasionally wandering around the room. I smiled and said, “Are you interested in this, or do you really just want to know what your grade is.”
This is why I love teenagers. She looked up, cringing with mock pain and embarrassment, and admitted, “I just kinda wanted to know my grade.”
* * *
These types of incidents gave me an idea for a little experiment that yielded a remarkable data set.
As an English teacher, I would spend hours each weekend reading student writing and offering meticulous feedback on each paper. I never wanted to be one of those teachers who simply gave out assignments, then wrote “A” on the top of the paper and returned it to students. I felt like students deserved more than that.
So I would log the hours, decline invitations to weekend getaways with friends, and write long notes on the students’ work: messages of encouragement, suggestions for improvement, funny inside jokes so they would know that I cared about them as individuals. And it always pained me when, at the end of each class period, I would find student work littering the classroom floor. I could never tell if they even read my comments, let alone reflected on them and used them to improve their writing skills.
One day I decided to do something different. I read every student’s paper and gave it a grade, but didn’t write a single word on it. I then posted the grades to my online gradebook and sent my students an email: your grades are posted, if anyone is interested in receiving line-by-line feedback on your writing, please let me know.
Of the 93 students in my classes, how many do you think requested feedback?
When I ask teenagers this question, the answers invariably fall within the range of “zero” to “two.” So, I guess I should be proud that four students responded to my offer.
At the time, this was crushing. In retrospect, it’s utterly rational. Why should they care? I chose the assignment, I chose the due date, and all anyone ever talks about in school is, “Keep your grades up!”
Once they learned what their grade was, why would they care to know anything else?