Lost in Translation – More on grades and homeschooling

Comments on yesterday’s post by Teresa:

I understand the need for our homeschooled children to be aware of the grade language of academia, but I have questions. If a child is taught from the beginning to learn whatever is being studied until understanding is achieved with a grading system of only two possibilities (understood or not yet understood), how does one translate that later into a traditional academic grading system? If a child is expected to learn/understand something before leaving it, then is a grade only meaningful in the academic world sense if the grade is issued on the first try? Is that first try grade then meaningful, if persistence in study with the goal of being able to teach is eventually reached?
I have more questions, but this is a good starting place.

My thoughts spurred by these comments:

Key word – language.  Public education speaks a different language.  That language doesn’t always translate exactly to home education because our world is so different.  Have you ever tried to explain to your children what a hall pass is?  Why would you even need a word for that concept?  How would you translate that to a home school setting?

When my kids were younger, I never graded anything.  It wasn’t a big issue – we just didn’t need them.  I was so involved in their work, I always knew when they knew the material.  I could see it in their eyes, I could hear it in their conversations, and I could watch concepts creep into their imaginative play.  If a word was misspelled or a math problem missed, we talked about it and corrected it.  What use were grades?  Worse than useless, a traditional academic grading system would’ve been burdensome and dragged us all down.  I would’ve had to change my approach to education to even be able to implement it.  It would’ve spoiled their view of learning as organic and enjoyable.  How do you grade a lego town that a kid builds so his beanie babies can re-enact the midnight ride of Paul Revere?  Why would you want to?  How do you grade origami swams we folded when we read a story set in Japan?  Do you count off because it’s crumpled?  The corners aren’t square?  Swans aren’t supposed to be purple?  How do you grade a trip to the duck pond to throw bread?  Do you give extra points when someone screams, “Look!  It’s Mr. and Mrs. Mallard!”?

I just took lots and lots of pictures!  Issuing grades, counting off for imperfect work would’ve spoiled those excited eyes when I called them to the couch to read together and might’ve poured ice water all over their desire to suggest projects.  I knew when Cameron was ready for the next phonics lesson when he could read the one we’d started.  I knew Jordi had difficulty in spelling because she couldn’t read her own journal entries.  I knew Sean was brilliant at math.  Not because I graded his little workbooks, but because he would call out the answers to Jordi’s flash cards while he was messing with his playdoh across the room (that made her so mad!).  We always moved on to the next book/page/lesson/concept when we were ready to move on.  And when they suggested a project (which they often did, especially Cameron), I agreed wholeheartedly and without concern about assessing it.  They leapt into for the joy of doing it and without fear of failure because there were no permanent records to record mistakes.  Grades were irrelevant to our world.

Fast forward to junior high/high school.  I do not sit with Cameron and read his science and civics books with him.  I wouldn’t know if those concepts are making it into his imaginative world or not.  The most effective way for me to measure his mastery of 9th grade biology is to grade the test that came with the teacher’s manual.   I find grades useful, so I use them.  Simple as that.

I also find grades useful for communication purposes.  Now that the kids are older, I find more of a need to communicate their progress in school to other people.  Cameron’s privileges (such as playing video games and auditioning for community theatre) are based on his having put the proper effort into his education first.  When he asks if he can play a game or watch a movie, his dad asks, “How did you do on that math test?”  Dad doesn’t want a 20 minute discussion on his relative progress with graphing polynomials.  It’s quicker to say, “I got a B.”

The kids also like to communicate with their public school friends.  When a buddy is moaning about his C in history, Cameron can commiserate in kind.  They have a shared language.  I’ve explained to him the subjective nature of grades, but still, it is a way to communicate.

And of course, the biggie, communicating their education to potential colleges and scholarship committees.  Yes, I know that grades are not the ONLY way to communicate a lifetime’s worth of experiences.  We’re preparing a portfolio of work samples and descriptions of experiences.  We’re collecting letters of recommendation.  He will take a standardized test and write astounding application essays.  But that transcript is a part of the package.  I do so many things in a nonconventional manner, I thought it would be nice to have something conventional and recognizable for colleges to look at.  Call it meeting them halfway. 🙂  I’m not willing to alter my entire approach to education to gain college admission, but I’m willing to alter my method of assessment.

BTW, we don’t only grade on the first try.  My system is basically if they make an A on math, we move on.  If they make a B, they do corrections for half-credit.  Less than a B, they obviously didn’t understand the concept, so I sit down with them and discuss and probe and re-explain, and we work on the concept together.  Then they simply redo the lesson/test, and we count that grade.  Other subjects are handled in a similar way.

We still dive into self-initiated projects.  Cameron volunteers to write a play for 4H club, he researches, he writes, he revises.  He dreams up stage directions and envisions the entire production in his head.  He attends rehearsals to help direct and occasional takes a role himself.  The kids decide to help design an entire summer camp based a greek mythology novel.  They plan, they paint, they build weapons, they write, they climb rock walls and race Greek chariots.  One thing they don’t do is ask, “Is this for a grade?”  And I’m smart enough not to interrupt the fun to tell them they might get one.  When it’s all over, if I need a grade for a transcript, I write up a summary of what they did, what they learned, and how many hours spent.

I have more to say about grades and self-perception, but this is getting lengthy and it’s time to cook the fajitas.  Watch tomorrow for part 2!

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2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation – More on grades and homeschooling

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