January 2, 2021

Color of Teaching: You Deserve to Celebrate

Color of Teaching: You Deserve to Celebrate Featured Image

A WEAC Blog by Jesse Martinez
La Crosse Seventh Grade Teacher and
WEAC Minority Guarantee Representative

To all of the educators out there reading this right now, I want to start by simply saying, “thank you.” Every educator I know is feeling the effects of the pandemic, and we are all feeling those effects in different ways. So to put it simply, thank you for continually showing up for our students, and thank you for dedicating all of yourself to this incredible profession. 

You deserve to celebrate.

Before we dig into some of the incredibly pressing topics that have been weighing on all of our minds since I last wrote in April, I think it’s necessary to take a few moments to stop, breathe, and celebrate. Yes, that’s right, celebrate. We, as a profession, have accomplished incredible things over the last eight months. 

First and foremost, we elected a new President and Vice President of the United States! Not only is this great for society at large, but we’ve put an educator in the White House with Dr. Jill Biden as First Lady of the United States. This also means that we have FINALLY fired Betsy DeVos and will likely see an educator installed as the Secretary of Education and NEA and WEAC members are the reason that this happened. Early data shows that not only did 226,079 NEA members took political action (phone banking, text banking, letter writing, etc.) nationwide, but 1 in every 28 votes cast in the general election came from NEA member households! When we, as a union, flex our muscles, there is no stopping us! 

We also need to take a few moments to celebrate the work that we did within our own classrooms. Every single one of us have innovated in ways that just one year ago, we never could have imagined. From developing virtual curriculums with little to no funding, to creating innovative ways to build relationships, educators have done it all during this pandemic. Most importantly, we have come together as a community and done everything in our power to put the needs of our students first. 

After everything we’ve been through over the last several months, you deserve to take a breath, celebrate, and relish in the fact that you are amazing.

Reflections on Grading

The last time I had the honor of posting a blog (all the way back in April), I reflected on equity and grading during a pandemic. I dedicated a podcast to chatting with Dr. Manuel Rustin from Pasadena, CA about how we should handle giving out grades during the pandemic. Dr. Rustin wrote a great article in the spring entitled “Give Them All A’s,” where he advocated that teachers refrain from “failing” students for the last half of the school year. Dr. Rustin argued that we had not prepared students to be successful in a pandemic, and so we should not be assessing them academically or otherwise. 

In the spring, this was, without a doubt, the way to go. I followed this advice in my own practice and after long conversations with many of my friends and colleagues around the state, it anecdotally appears that most other educators did as well. It was necessary to look at the spring as an emergency situation where we did no harm to our students. Educators asked to be exempt from their evaluations during the pandemic, so why should students be any different? I’m glad that these conversations happened in the spring and am even more inspired that they continued into this fall. Educators across Wisconsin and across the country are examining their practices and finding ways to systematically alter and improve the way students are assessed. 

Since the last time I wrote, I talked about the emergency implications of grading in the pandemic, I’d like to take some time now to further the discussion and reflect on what the pandemic has done to help expose inequities. Afterall, the pandemic exposed just how inequitable many of our grading practices currently are. The status quo of A-F grading, although within our comfort zone, does no favors for our students. Points are typically awarded arbitrarily (regardless of how well we plan and write our rubrics) and behavior and academics are inherently intertwined. We should be asking ourselves, “What does an A tell our students? What does an F tell them?” When we actually take a moment and think about the way that many districts grade, we will see that the 100 point system, the A-F system, the 4.0/5.0 system and so on and so forth, are not only arbitrary, but confusing to our students and our families. Rick Wormeli reflects on this in a video about standards based grading that I found to be thought provoking and timely. 

 If we dig deep and examine this practice, we will see that those letters tell us very little about what content knowledge a student has, and more about their behaviors. When a student does not turn in an assignment, they get a 0. If a student is absent for an extended period of time, they fall behind on work and receive less points, resulting in a lower grade. In this case, attendance is the issue, not content knowledge. To rectify this situation, we need to make grades more meaningful both to students and families. 

For this reason, it is encouraging to see the conversation starting to shift away from A-F grading and toward standards based grading, which effectively separates behaviors (like turning in homework on time, sleeping in class, attendance and effort) and academic achievement. 

When we use a “standards based” approach to assessing students, we are able to give meaning to the grades we assign them. Instead of receiving an “A,” which basically tells us a student was able to attend class and submit work on time, students could receive a “needs work,”  “proficient” or “exceeds expectations” with meaningful feedback explaining to students what they are doing well and where improvements can be made. Assessing students in this system can come in a number of ways, from a simple “1-3” scale (1 meaning that a student has not grasped the concept yet and 3 being “mastery”) to rubrics that track multiple parts of a learning objective. It also includes student self assessments so that students can reflect on their own learning. This type of grading and assessment will foster the desire to learn and grow within our students. 

Another added benefit to this type of system is the way it can be extrapolated to behavior in schools as well. If we are able to develop school wide initiatives that play nicely with systems like PBIS and RtI, we could get creative with our students and begin to do more effective behavior-based interventions with our students as well. This can happen in a similar way to the system in which academic grades would be assigned to students and it could be a school-wide effort collaboratively with families. 

Furthermore, some of the criteria (read: behaviors) that are ingrained in our traditional grading system include things like “participation” and “effort,” among many others, which can look different for students based on their home cultures. In many cultures, making eye contact and things that we traditionally associate with “participation,” “effort,” and “paying attention” can be considered disrespectful. If we are able to remove those behaviors from our academic assessments of students, it will be a large step in the right direction for leveling the playing field for our marginalized student populations. 

No matter what world we are teaching in – during a pandemic, post-vaccine, or otherwise – our focus is always on what’s doing best for kids. That means finding ways to give students the tools they need to be successful. When we are able to take this leap as a profession, we will begin to address the large equity gaps that exist for our students of color and students from other marginalized populations.

The pandemic has exposed many of the equity gaps that exist in our school system. We realize now, clear as day, that our students of color and students from other marginalized populations are being affected more severely by the pandemic, day in and day out. So, even though the pandemic has brought on the most difficult times we have seen in a generation, there are silver linings. The challenges that were set at our feet have allowed us to identify and begin to rectify the issues that exist, and now we can begin the work to rectify them. You see, this is our time as educators to step up, take control of our profession, and do everything possible to ensure that we are doing what is best for kids. 

If you’re curious about standards based grading and would like to learn more about how it works (because it can look different depending on how your school implements it) check out these resources below.

Standards Based Grading Resources: 

Jesse Martinez, an educational justice advocate, is a seventh grade science, social studies and Spanish Immersion teacher in the School District of La Crosse and serves as the Minority Guarantee Representative on the WEAC Board of Directors. He writes to bring forward information WEAC members of color and open the lines of communication about issues facing minority communities in the field of public education. He welcomes your perspectives and feedback to share with the entire WEAC Board of Directors. Send him an email.