Graduation, from a New Point of View

Some kids I worked with a couple years ago, kids I got to know well and treasure deeply, will graduate this week from the school where I taught for so long. They’ve just come back from the hike in the White Mountains that Katy Aborn Inman introduced as a brilliant, emblematic feature of Touchstone’s Older Student Program. Photos from the hike have been showing up on Facebook: clumps of kids standing on stone ledges grinning, and Katy’s own small daughter who went and grinned with them.

hiking trip y and m cropped

Graduation this year may well be uncomfortable for me, emotionally. When I made the slightly impulsive decision that gave me this amazing year, my time with my students was already over. No goodbyes, no party, no tidying-up closure. It was what I chose, but it still feels strange.

Nonetheless, I’m hoping to be there for another Touchstone graduation, from this new point of view. I want to see again those kids who have already grown away from me–in that way they’re supposed to. I want to hear how they will look back at their school experience, to watch those vividly unique identities, nourished and strengthened by a life in community, continue to unfold. I want to watch their families taking a deep breath and stepping forward with them. I’d go through all kinds of fire and brimstone for that. Have.

Here’s something rare: a photo of myself speaking at a Touchstone graduation a few years ago. (Thanks to Eli Lurie!)

me at graduationBecause I’m thinking about rites of passage, I’m going to call on myself as guest writer. In Touchstone’s 25th year, for a special edition of the Touchstone Magazine, I wrote about the end of school, and what it was like, June by June, for this one teacher. I’m going to offer that here, again:

This is the way it happens: the clock ticks. Days pass, weeks pass, and I’m tired enough to welcome a break. Some parts of the last month of school are a bit like nursing a terminal patient. There’s some relief when we finally get there, to that ending, a flurry of papers and books, flowers they’ve picked out of their gardens at home, mugs with slogans about relaxing, my face smiling, smiling, smiling, poems read in suddenly older voices, final word problems about llamas and bales of hay. Suddenly it’s over and I’m in my classroom alone.

There is no “if only” in this story. This moment is not tragic. I arrive here by having everything go well. I care about them; pay attention; laugh at their mess-ups only if they are already laughing and only to say that it’s okay, since we’re all bozos on this bus. I tell them again and again that the point of the exercise is not their own success or failure; it’s the world they are here to understand and enjoy and help keep ticking. I listen as they argue with each other, comfort each other. I would be crazy to stop the clock ticking, want any of us to stop growing forward. There’s no “if only” to avoid this loss, no “what if.” Only “what now…” for me, and for them.

They leave themselves everywhere. Ghosts of heads bent over sketchbooks, bodies contorted into chairs, sprawling puppy heaps of readers. Flight paths for glances between them, all over the room. Laughter.

I reach back to a certain kind of moment: when I’ve been reading aloud and they’re outraged that I’ve stopped to ask a question, that shift in the air when the question actually grabs them. In any class, immediately, at least one student has his hand nearly six feet into the air. He might sprain something reaching that hard.

Often enough, I hope, I wait to call on the one who is busy thinking her thought, not yet ready to say it. If a bird comes suddenly to the window, some crazy bluebird out of season, if a sudden snow squall pulls them out of their seats, I hope for the moment when we all settle back and that girl who never speaks finally raises her hand, and gives away the way she knows the hero, or is the heroine.

Year by year, willy nilly, I’ve learned to outlast this hollowness, wait and welcome the new batch. Wait and welcome the old batch back, astonishingly grown into themselves, that thing Susan Kluver said all those years ago to my daughter’s class: we hope you will return as yourselves, grown older.

They do–you do!–and I am shy and thrilled and grateful. To each of you. To this school we have woven together, that bears the imprint of us all.

At last the year came when I didn’t welcome a new batch.

Instead, I’ve made deeper and stronger connections with some of the students from the past, partly by writing this blog. I’ve sorted my boxes of stuff (some of them, anyway) and sorted out in my own mind the meaning of the work I was so lucky to do.

Also, instead, I’ve watched a very young learner, with all I’ve come to know about learning resonating in my delight.

me playing pool, croppedAnd still more: instead, I became more available to the needs of my aging family of origin. There’s challenge in that, too, and also joy. (Here I am playing pool at my mother’s senior living center. She’s really pretty good.)

With my whole heart, I aim to do what all of us can do, no matter what our place in the world or in the generations–to honor the miraculous in each of us, at every age.

And from watching the way we each graduate, every moment–out of one version of ourselves and into the next–wild horses could not keep me away.

Absence and presence

In the end, it’s not really the topic of grades that’s so huge for me— It’s the topic of no grades: what can happen, what I’ve seen happen, in their absence.

graduation JuliaThis is Julia Miller, who graduated from Touchstone long enough ago that she’s about to graduate again, from high school. Behind her, draped on the greenhouse, you can see the flag her Older Student Program group made the previous fall, just before going on their fall hiking trip. If you look closely, behind Julia’s right elbow, you can see the word CREATIVITY and the beginning of the word RESPONSIBILITYtwo of the values that group chose as their watchwords for the year. She’s about to dance–

graduation julia dance cropped–mostly as a joke, but I love the way this photograph shows her blooming along with the petunias, and reaching for the literal and figurative skies.

As they go through their experience, students in an ungraded situation aren’t thinking, “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections from topic to topic and theme to theme and school to home (and vice versa); they’re trying out different voices and different genres and new strategies for understanding the world; they’re thinking a lot about the community of each other.

Teachers who aren’t giving grades aren’t thinking “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections themselves, learning about their topics, watching and planning for ways to include other adults and experiences outside the classroom; imagining the world of each student from inside that student’s perspective; nourishing the community that can do more for each individual than any teacher’s plans.

As we went along, the missing grades barely figured in what I said about the teaching and learning I shared with each year’s class. At parent meetings, I never said, “First, I want you to know that I’m not giving grades.” It was taken for granted, invisible.

Still, that absence of grades was constantly at work in the presence of other energies and outcomes.

I saw the benefits: for kids whose learning experience had never been assessed with grades; but also for kids who had come to my school after experience with grades elsewhere.

Now and then, a transplant–or his parents–couldn’t make that transition. Most were like people woken from a long and troubled sleep. They stretched; they looked around; slowly, or quickly, they became active, in a new way, in the scene of their lives.

Still, I don’t have available the experimental control, in which the same teachers worked with similar kids and gave grades. I don’t know how that would have worked for any of us.

Close friends have said that I would probably have blown all my fuses and quit; that I would have left teaching very early in the game, if I’d been forced to translate my students’ growth and learning into graded assessments.

I wonder: how many teachers have been driven out of teaching by the necessity of an activity ultimately so alien to their original hopes and intentions? How many others, not questioning grades, have nonetheless abandoned teaching out of disappointment with the state of mind grading has induced in their students? What have we lost with this attrition, these departures?

My own history meant that I didn’t take the absence of grades for granted. I first started questioning the effectiveness of grading long before I was a teacher, long before my husband and I went looking for schools for our children. I became skeptical of grades at a time when I was being graded myself, and getting good grades. Not always, but sometimes, I could feel how addictive that was; I could glimpse how few risks I was taking; I felt, often, the price of that labeling.

Beyond that, I remember watching the effects of grades on some of my friends. I knew their talents and strengths, and wondered why their grades didn’t represent them more accurately. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any way for some of my friends to live in their strengths, in the classrooms we were encountering. Looking back I can see how the learning was often shaped to be easily measurable, easily graded.

If you’ve read previous posts, you know that I had some wonderful teachers. I don’t blame them individually. I was in the first wave of the post-war baby boom, and our classes were large. To some degree, increased testing and grading pressure attempted to manage that suddenly increased demand.

Like them, still, many teachers don’t have a choice of not assigning grades. Some give the grades they have to give, but play down the importance of those grades in any way they can, putting their energy into those other products and outcomes I tried to describe in the previous post:

  • Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments
  • Learners who know and understand and respect themselves as learners
  • Authentic and rewarding group learning
  • Deep meanings held in community
  • Powerful connections with significant content

One of those “teachers without a choice” lives under the same roof with me, and his frustrations were part of what finally goaded me into writing about not giving grades. So I want to end this series of posts, at least for the time being, with a nod to him and to all those teachers past and present, saddled with the obstacle of grades and making the best of it, for their students’ sake.

I think I’ve said this before, and I never forget it for a minute: I was lucky.

But that’s enough (finally, or at least for now) about no grades. Next time, I want to start thinking about structures to help teachers and students meet each other halfway, beginning, I think, with the seasonal feast of the Skimathon!