Midterm grades are often eye-opening experiences for my students. Some are doing well; others not so well. And although they probably know where their grades stand, it is another thing altogether when they see an “F” on their midterm grade report. I approached one of my students this week who was failing my English composition class. I asked him if we could get together to chat about his grade. He agreed. When we finally met, I expected to chat for ten or fifteen minutes; we ended up talking for almost an hour. It was an important experience for me. After talking about missing assignments and multiple absences, we then began to talk about life, my favorite subject. Being a life-long learner, I began to probe into this young African-American student’s story. Following is a synopsis of his narrative:
I have had a hard time with trusting people all my life, and I don’t have many friends. I don’t really trust anyone – well maybe one other student here who is so persistent with me; she makes me talk with her.
My father is a pastor. My mother has been sick for years, and I have been the one to take care of her. She has been very sick this year, so I have been spending a lot of time with her. My dad is very busy. My sisters are much older than I am and have been out of the home for a long time, so I am the one who has to help with Mom.
It is hard to be Black in a predominately White culture. I went to two high schools. I had to leave one because I was always bullied by the “country” students, all of whom hated minorities and were not afraid to let me know that. My second school was better, but many White students came up to me and said, “I would like to meet you. I like Black people.” Probably seventy-five percent of the students were this way at the school; the other twenty-five percent didn’t like minority students and were quite verbal about that. Both views were hard for me. You want to be my friend because I am Black? Can’t you just be my friend because I am John [not his real name]? For a while, I hated White people. But I eventually realized that they are not all the same; a few are sincerely nice and accept me for who I am. High School was hard, not only because I was Black but also because I am a pastor’s kid. In many ways I didn’t fit in. I was glad to get out of there. Then I came to college [a Christian college].
College is different, but there are still a lot of students who come up to me and tell me that they like Black people. Can’t someone just like me for who I am? My friend Jessica [not her real name] likes me for who I am. I will probably leave next year.
John’s story touched me deeply. It was not as if I had never heard this story before; rather, I was taken with this young man’s “presence.” MaryKate Morse writes about this in Chapter 6 of her book. In this chapter, The Law of the Jungle, she writes about several “visual markers” that tell others who a person is. These markers include gender, culture, extroversion/introversion, age, physical features, economic and social status, style of dress, education, and marital status. In relation to culture, Morse writes, “Years after the Civil Rights movement, we still carry ingrained cultural perceptions about members of other races and other cultures. These perceptions are so embedded in our minds and bodies that we are often unaware of them.” She also says that if one is in a minority culture, that person will often feel misunderstood. There is a difference in perception on many issues, depending on the culture in which one has been raised. The American culture still needs a lot of help in understanding and responding to “the other” in appropriate, culturally responsive ways.
As a teacher, I am called to evaluate student work all the time – papers, homework assignments, in-class participation, and presentations. But subconsciously, I also find myself “grading” people as I see and experience them. Do I “grade” people by their outward appearance? If I were honest, I would have to say yes. I agree with Morse on this point, particularly in relation to gender issues. As a man, I do find myself “grading” women. I also grade educational levels (which I often determine by a person’s vocabulary) and other physical markers such as weight, skin quality, teeth, and clothing styles. But on what criteria (whose criteria) do I base these evaluations? What rubrics do I use? These are important questions we all need to ask ourselves.
One of the best teachers at my school and I had a great chat a couple of years ago about grading. We were having some problems with grade disparity on campus. As we shared with one another, Joe introduced me to a concept that I had never thought about before but have been thinking about ever since. He called his idea “quantum grading.” In a nutshell, quantum grading says that a grade given in this universe might be a different grade altogether in another universe. What is an “A”? What is an “F”? It all depends on the standard one is looking for. Are we grading a student on how he or she does in relation to other students, or are we looking for progress in that particular student? What intelligence might look like in one place might look completely different in another universe. For example, if a student comes from an oral culture, should we grade his or her papers on the same standard as a student who comes from a more visual/written culture? And how do we grade emotional intelligence (EQ) as opposed to intellectual intelligence (IQ)? Which is more important? I guess it depends on the universe.
So what about John? Is he a failure? How do I grade him? In what universe do I, the teacher, put him? Perhaps it is I who need to be graded down for not taking the time to talk with him before now. Perhaps it was the teacher who failed here, not the student. I am definitely open to that possibility. So what is my next move? I told John that I would help him and that he is not a failure. I will not do his work for him, but I will still allow him to turn in his work (with reduced points) by next week. Also, we will meet weekly to talk about his work, to talk about family, and to talk about life. I am glad that Joe taught me the lessons of quantum grading. I am also glad to be in the universe of God’s grace and want John to experience that universe as well.