Everyone’s masterpiece is different

Henry, my two-year-old son, loves cars, racing, and pretty much anything that involves throwing projectiles across the room. It was no surprise when he used his little brother’s Pack ‘n Play as a ramp for his Hot Wheels. One by one he shot them high into our bedroom wall with no regard for the paint on either the walls or the floorboards.

In order to spare our paint job, I suggested he might have fun racing them down the ramp instead of up, and, to my surprise, he loved the idea! He called out, “Marks…set…go!” and began flinging cars wildly towards the middle of the room. Hey, at least they stayed out of the air. That, my friends, is a parenting victory.

After the five-car race, Henry stood back, looked at the Hot Wheels strewn about the floor, surveying the landscape of destruction in front of him. With his hands on his hips, and his chin up high, he proudly exclaimed, “This is my masterpiece!” Or “massapiece” if you want to get technical.

A few thoughts crossed my mind: first, he sure is proud of a car race. Second, how often do I put my hands on my hips like that for him to be copying me, and do I actually look like that when I do? And third, is this what my students feel like when they do something new?

We ask our students to do new things all the time. We also ask our students to do the same things all the time. When we grade, we’re not making a distinction.

As human beings, it is natural to feel proud when we do something we never even thought about doing, things we didn’t even know we could do before we had been given a chance. It is easy to forget that, as a teacher, we have seen and done much more than our students in many cases.

Just over a week ago we held our first ever Human Rights Museum, an event open to fellow students, teachers, and the public. This project was in conjunction with a variety of books centered around the question, “How do we promote and protect human rights?” Students had a choice of novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, All American Boys, The Help, Just Mercy, Ghettoside, and The Hate U Give. We read of human rights issues across our country and the world and determined what we could do in order to create something to make our audience think. Students had to think big in order to create something original that got their point across. They worked to expand their creativity and many students said they got so far past their first idea and into ideas that they were extremely proud of.

There was no recipe, no rubric, no limits. We joked that this type of project would often lead to a large poster to be narrated by the creator, and I modeled the conversations that would likely happen if we didn’t push beyond our first ideas. What should we do? Hmmm… How about a poster? We could put pictures on it? I have a color printer at home! We could title them with cool writing. I love to write! Lets do it! Poster!!

Why do students get so excited about a poster? Because they know it works. It’s a thing that happens in school. It’s safe, easy to do, correct.

Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do.

– Seth Godin, Linchpin

But students can do so much more if they are challenged, supported, and given permission to do great things. And we owe it to students to help them build those skills.

The problem comes when we begin to assess things like this. Skills. Real-life, important skills: thinking times ten, considering and communicating with an audience, being creative, and working cooperatively with a group are important skills we worked on.

One group had to call a bus company in order to get a bus seat that could be painted to demonstrate Rosa Parks’s courage and how people still show courage like that today. The hardest part? Making the phone call, real-life skill.

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One group member arranged meetings with five people at a local coffee shop where she photographed them in front of a blank wall with stereotypes and harsh words projected around them. This student came back to show me the pictures, and we talked about certain phrases and what they would do or not do to her audience. She revised a few and took a few new photos. Considering an audience and revising her work, a real-life skill.

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I am like many other teachers in that I hate grading. Feedback during a project, I love it. Conferencing with students, absolutely. These actions give students something they can do right now. Grading feels so final. So judgmental.

So when Miss Lewis, the English teacher who worked on the museum with our class, came to me to ask about grading these projects, it was a difficult conversation filled with back and forths. This project had so much effort put into it. These girls were here for hours after school. Even though it might have been the most creative, it was way more creative than they thought they could be.

So how do we grade things that are creative? How do we grade things students have never imagined they could do before they started this process? And maybe, just maybe, why do we even grade anyways?

In our Human Rights Museum, we had goals of building teamwork, leadership, creativity, and initiative. Those are tough to score on a rubric, and that is why they are so important to be taught!

So when a group of students came up with all kinds of ideas way beyond what they thought they could, but they still just have a poster, what does that mean? When a group gets the viewer to think about their best and worst features as they look in a mirror, then go to the reverse side of the poster board to see, “No matter if you’re short, tall, fat, skinny, pretty, or ugly, anyone can be sold into sex trafficking,” what does that mean? How do we grade them?

If the argument is that we grade to make sure that the students do the assignment, then we might have to look at what we are doing for the assignment. Not one student asked me how much this project would be worth, how it would be scored, or what the minimum they could do to get an A was. I can’t tell you how refreshing that was!

So what would happen if we stopped grading?

What about the group who worked for hours after school to research and map terrorist attacks in the United States in order to show that we cannot label one group of people terrorists. But they had only a poster. How much does their hard work factor in? How about how much they learned? How about how much their opinions developed and changed?

What grade do they get?

What if we lived in a magical world where the public exhibition of their work was enough? A place where the feedback from the audience and everyone who visited their piece was what mattered. A place like the real world. A place like High Tech High.

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My students gave me feedback on the unit. Many students commented that we should do more work in promoting the event to the public to ensure their work is seen. Zero students commented on anything to do with grades.

The culture of schools tells students to do things for points. This is not something that we inherently have from birth. Schools train students to work for grades, but this focuses on the minimum rather than the possibilities.

Avoiding mistakes is valued over trying something new. No mistakes = 100%.  This is why we end up with posters. But mistake-free work rarely turns into something amazing.

The culture of schools right now tells students that they must be rewarded. How can we make learning the reward? How can we give our students the audience that their work deserves? Public feedback should have a much greater emphasis than one teacher’s opinion.

So let’s stop having to grade things. Let’s start changing the culture.

Let’s reward students through feedback from peers and the public and create positive pressure to do great things.

Everyone’s idea of a masterpiece is different. When our students look back on their best work, something they never imagined they could do, it is a transformative experience. We must continue to help our students to see the possibilities and push the boundaries, grow, and develop skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

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