Teaching Responsibility Is Everyone's Job



I'd like to add to the comments to a recent Roundup editorial.

I taught chemistry for eight years and by my second year I could see that it was possible to teach the fundamentals of chemistry in the first 9 weeks.

I began planning a course where the remaining 27 weeks of the school year would be devoted to lab work that underscored and enriched those fundamentals. It took three years to create 116 original labs, test them, and get ready.

There was one problem. Since students would spend most of the school year doing lab work, those with an A or B in the first nine weeks could drag their feet, ace a few labs, and receive an A or B for the whole year. To avoid this, I devised a grading system in which students had to work every day.

I tested how long it took students to complete each lab. Then, armed with that info, I created a grading system based on a simple fraction: The normal number of days it took to do a lab divided by the number of days actually taken. If it took eight days to do a lab normally done in six days, the grade was 6 divided by 8, or 75 percent, a middle C. I accepted only perfect work, so there was no chance of sloppily finishing many labs to get a high grade. I added in one more thing; I had students sign a paper saying that they understood that if I did not have to remind them to go to work more than twice during a grading period I would round up any grade that was within two percentage points to the next highest letter grade. This never lowered a student's grade for poor behavior, but it did reward the opposite.

Students worked in pairs, and you might think that each member of the pair received the same grade, but it didn't always work out that way. Each time I saw a student truly goofing off, I told him or her about it, put a check mark in the grade book, and pointed out how many checks there were.

A student in one of my classes had a dad who officiated at football games. Dad was a notoriously poor sport. He once even ran onto the field during a game in which his son was playing, yelling and screaming at the officials.

The school year ended. Grades were in. Dad showed up in my room with an assistant superintendent.

His complaint? Sonny wanted to go to the University of Texas on a football scholarship and the C he had earned would hurt his chances. Since Sonny's lab partner had received a B, something was amiss.

I opened the grade book. Both students had earned a 78 percent, but Sonny had been told to go to work three or more times each grading period.

The coach argued loudly. The assistant super, fed up, asked me, "Tom, can't you see your way to rounding up the grade?"

"No," I said, "but you're the boss, Harold; I have no problem with it if you want to change the grade." I saw the light dawn in the assistant super's eyes. With the ball in his court he realized what he was asking me to do. He turned to the irate dad.

"Your son made a poor choice. Living with his choices is part of a young man's education."

Amen to that!

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