When my oldest child started middle school, it was only a matter of weeks before a new kind of awareness of grades set in, along with a new kind of anxiety about measuring up. I remember well the competitive curiosity of my school days and the relentless refrain of “What did you get?” after every test and paper and the complex negotiations around asking, answering, and not answering that question.
But when my child asked how I did when I was in middle school, I really couldn’t remember much. Since then, we’ve had an ongoing series of conversations about expectations, pressures, and competition. I’ve thought a lot about the institutional and cultural factors that shape those expectations and pressures. And, recently, I found a way to answer her question about my own middle school experience.
There are many cultural factors, large and small, which shape our, and our children’s, sense of excellence and achievement. The Race to Nowhere has documented the fierce landscape our children learn in, and news stories regularly report on the economic insecurity that fuels that increasingly competitive race. But it is the local, institutional factors that are most salient for our kids.
These include Honor Rolls, Achievement Awards, and levels. Honor Rolls are traditional and effective ways of setting the bar for kids, and working to achieve, or maintain, Honor or High Honor status can help kids focus their efforts. I’m less sure about the Achievement Awards. By recognizing the top two grade earners in every section of every subject, they cast a wide net, and that’s good. But since some very high achievers inevitably lose out to peers with grades just a point or two higher, it fuels a sometimes unhealthy competition, encourages perfectionism, and leaves some feeling that great isn’t really good enough.
Happily, we are moving away from levels at our middle schools. But my child knows well that this year’s math grade determines next year’s math placement, and even my strong student worries (unnecessarily) that a bad showing on this year’s NJASK tests could affect placement in next year’s eighth grade.
I try to assuage my child’s fears and remind her that she’s a “work in progress.” I am told that I “just don’t understand.” And maybe I don’t. I don’t spend my days in those classrooms, halls, and auditoriums, and I can’t really remember what it was like for me. But a year or two ago, my mother cleaned out her apartment in preparation for a move, and she gave me a box. I took a quick look and found elementary school artwork, old class photos, and some report cards. Then I put the box in the attic. Recently, trying to understand and remember what it’s like to be a seventh grader, I went and got it and shared it with my kids.
In seventh grade I was in a new school. Some kinds of work (lab reports, essays) were unfamiliar to me. I got mostly B’s, a few A’s and I did make the Honor Roll, which was noted on the report card, but not otherwise recognized or celebrated. What is most striking is the unevenness of my efforts and attention from class to class and trimester to trimester. New subjects and good (though not necessarily favorite) teachers inspired my best work.
My weaknesses included: lack of general organization, sloppy homework, failure to read directions, weak spelling, punctuation and organization in writing, careless errors in math, talking too much in class, not talking enough in class, and sometimes goofing off in class. In short, I was a seventh grader. I had strengths too, and they were also noted. I was generally liked and encouraged. Opportunities stayed open for me.
I see this most powerfully in my math education. In high school, I was a math geek. I was an A student, and took two years of AP calculus as well as AP Physics. In seventh grade math my motivation was noted, but I had a B- average, and my exams were C’s. I am lucky that these grades did not disqualify me from the advanced math track I followed.
I want my children, and all our children, to feel liked and encouraged in school, and to know that opportunities are open for them. And I don’t want to take anything away from our high achievers. I have been a proud parent in the auditorium for awards ceremonies. I know the sweet feeling of watching my “work in progress” shine in the spotlight for a moment. But at the same time, I see my inconsistent seventh grade self in the shadows, and I remember that every child is a work in progress, and some, indeed, are unfinished masterpieces. We need to continue to build school and community cultures that give them room and time to grow, honor their inconsistencies, and celebrate them all.