Radical Advice: Forget the Reward

mirrorThis past week I had an illuminating conversation with my university students.  I love teaching this  course at this particular college because these future teachers help me feel hopeful.  Hopeful that they will work to  reverse some of what plagues urban public education today– the anti-intellectualism, low-expectations and uninspired teaching.

This group (of mostly women) are proving to be quite creative, thoughtful and caring. Not surprisingly, they are also high achievers.  They come to class, complete assignments on time and participate in class discussions.  I have come to expect this, so I am prepared when the time comes during every semester when they want to know how to score the grades they covet most.

Now, for me, high scores are reserved for work that is sophisticated– the work that makes me raise my eyebrows and say, Wow.  But how do I quantify “wow” on a grading scale?  I do my best to explicitly state my expectations on a rubric and I bring in samples of previous students’ work.  Still, the essence of what distinguishes excellent from good remains elusive.

So this week my students and I talked about it as a group. Here is what we theorized about the “wow factor”. Upon reflection, I realize that there is deep wisdom in what we’ve identified as the factors that make a difference.

Rules to live by:

1.  Strive to Make Personal Connections.

Students who earn the best grades think and write about how new theories and ideas relate to their own experiences.   They come to a deeper understanding by drawing upon their own or others’ individual narratives. What is my personal investment?  Why does this matter to me and my community?  

2.  Unearth the Meaning in All That You Do.

The students who are most engaged in class find meaning in the ideas they read and write about.  The ideas are relevant, worthwhile and have a purpose.  They look underneath and ask (and are able to answer):   What’s the purpose?  So what?

3.  Connect to Your Passions.

Strong students have a strong sense of their own values.  They bring an energy and aliveness that is palpable.  They connect to an ideal, a higher purpose.  What about this excites, angers or animates me?  What gets activated or becomes more alive when I connect to this?

4. Do it For Yourself (and not someone else).

Ironically, students who excel have a sense of passion and purpose outside of pleasing me, their instructor. They are writing for themselves, their future selves, and their future students.  They are not thinking about how they can earn a grade to please me. How is the personally meaningful?  How am I more alive and connected through this?  What is my contribution? 

4 thoughts on “Radical Advice: Forget the Reward

  1. I think I would love it if you were my teacher/mentor! This class sounds amazing and I love the idea of the e-journal. Keep it up! You really inspire so many people mA!

  2. interesting post. Ben Zander used to have students grade their own assignments before they handed them in. They didnt have to just submit a letter or a number but also what they learned and how they were changed by the assignments. Only very rarely did he disagree with the grades the students gave themselves and they didnt always give themselves A’s.

  3. Wonderful post, and wonderful grading process. Students (and people in general, I suppose) react best when they know what is expected and *how* to achieve it. It’s also important that you haven’t watered down your grading to give “did what was expected” a three. We all need something to strive for and achieve. Superlative should mean more than complete.

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