E-Postcard Synthesis: Spaced Out


“One of the recurring questions concerning the pass-fail grading system has been this: How would students taking courses pass-fail have fared had they been given the usual A to E letter grades,” asked Mathew R. Sgan in 1970.

Sgan’s article might be outdated, but it provided some interesting insight into a lot of the questions I’ve been asking myself this semester. Two of the keenest insights were, firstly, that students in Sgan’s studies “did not rank pass-fail high as a factor influencing their intellectual and personal growth” (641), and secondly, that students often asked for letter grades because they felt that “instructors often took fewer pains in evaluating their submitted work than they did with those taking the course for a letter grade” (639).

These two insights are key to some of the issues I’ve been experiencing this semester… as my journals here indicate, I’ve felt often disconnected, academically unchallenged and unmotivated this semester. Ironically, this semester, I feel, should have connected deeply with me. Of all of the topics we’ve studied this term, drama connects the most strongly to my teachable subject (as a performing artist).

However, to me this course suffered from a number of problems.

Firstly, I felt there was a lack of challenge throughout. For example, all teachers were given a new curriculum to teach this year by the Provincial Government. That being the case, there existed a great opportunity for connection to both Core Content and Core Competencies (Communication, Thinking and Personal and Social Development) in this course. These connections could have been made specific — or better yet, teachers themselves should have been forced to make these connections in the time we were in class. We could comb through the curriculum itself and find connections from our “Journey to Planet X” to our own subject areas, for example, and highlight them (or find connections to the Core Competencies, which we all teach). However, perhaps through lack of knowledge of BC’s new curriculum, or through having no rubric or expectations… or, who knows why? — we spent a lot of time discussing Leonard Cohen or Community Arts Grants. As an educator looking for ways to enrich my educational practice this was discouraging, disheartening and disconnecting.

However, when evaluating my learning, the question of who is at fault becomes a tricky one, and the blame may lie in the design of the program as non-graded, according to William McLoughlin. To quote at length:

“While the goals of a nongraded school are new and magnetic, they are also quite imprecise. At best, nongrading is a highly projective concept inviting countless interpretations rather than an exact blueprint for education reconstruction and there is considerable confusion regarding its essential components. This, of course, creates untold difficulties not only in the initiation and perfecting of a nongraded school but also in the evaluation of its efficiency.”

In other words, learning to me might look like highlighting sections of the BC Curriculum and connecting drama lessons to my teaching practice. To others, it might look like discussing alien bunnies. Both are equally valid and to weigh the learning of one way over the other under such a system is impossible.

However, as our class was frequently attended by a teenager this term, I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed that this was the level of discourse in a post-graduate university course. I don’t expect meta-level discussions about the nature of the universe and its relationship to teaching, but I did want some meat with my mashed potatoes.

Instead I often found myself spaced out.

To be fair, the motivation issue is an area I often face challenges with in my own teaching practice. I mean, I teach music. In a day crammed with mathematics, reading, spelling and other useful skills, arriving in my room full of guitars and singing songs about railroads doesn’t factor into the “Useful Skills” checklist most kids associate with school. I once had a grade two student tell me, “Why do I need to sing? I want to be a pilot.”

Here are the ways I get over that hump:

1) Clearly establishing links between my subject area and other subject areas: This connective tissue provides motivation for students. As educators, I was hoping that clear connective tissue might be formed between, say, why we are taking an inquiry based drama class when we are high school science teachers.

2) Establish rubrics that provide clear expectations for students: “this is what I’m hoping we can learn on this assignment” (at the same time, the open-ended Inquiry-based model allows for things to go off on tangents… or “additional learning” and projects sometimes change completely or go sideways). As an educator, I was disconcerted when one day I asked whether the drama project we were supposed to create was meant to connect with our area of curriculum (I think the words I used were “what are the parameters”) and was met with something resembling “Whatever you want it to look like.” How is meaning supposed to be created when there are no rules? In the end, I attempted to connect my “Ugliest Singing” to my music curriculum, but I very well could have created a scenario where we were moles fleeing the destruction of our underground tunnels on Mars due to the Attack of the Giant Butterflies, and that would have been valid.

3) Providing a baseline for expected work (and sticking to it): For my guitar students this term I said, “If you’re new to guitar, I expect you to be able to play G and C by the end of the term. If you’re experienced I expect 4 chords with hopefully 6-7 chords coming along.” As an educator, I found the bar was set extremely low. E-Postcards could be random thoughts, pictures with a haiku, a photo of a stick on the ground. How does this challenge us? Push us? I’ve attempted to read articles, cite sources and write full sentences (despite the birth of a second child and the challenges that has brought). I’m not saying that that makes me “better than” anyone else, but what is the baseline expected to indicate engagement with material? It’s not spelled out enough for my taste.

4) Provide motivating projects that have real consequences for students. This term (largely due to my field study), I participated in the Canadian Music Class Challenge, and two of my music classes stepped up to the plate and produced phenomenal work (one class is so good, I think they pose a real chance at winning the thing). Why? I followed the principles laid out in Ron Berger’s book “An Ethic of Excellence” and provided a real motivator for students — do well or end up looking like a fool on the internet. As a result, students were actually engaged and wanting to learn the songs for class. I know the kids are connected to the material because they’ve gone home and shared their performances with their families and friends. Compare the number of views of the video I discussed on Friday with my class (embedded below):

As of today, Monday December 5th, this class viewed their video 325 times. We talked about it on Friday and kids went home and shared it. I know they did because they came back on Saturday (to the pancake breakfast discussed in my 5th e-Postcard) and their parents told me they’d seen it. Meanwhile, the video that CBC uploaded but I didn’t have time to discuss with my class has half as many views (it is linked to below).

As a professional, I should feel like I want to share my learning excitedly like that. That’s how I felt when I finished my thesis in fourth year university. That’s how my colleague felt when she convinced me to take the Communities of Practice Module. And yet I often felt embarrassed when our learning was viewed by our teenage outsider this semester. I felt “shouldn’t a graduate-level course feel more rigourous than this”?

To be frank, given the birth of my child, I was somewhat thankful for the leeway. But as I am up to 12:30am today typing this, it reminds me of cramming in the last few words of an essay back in university and I quite like it.


McLoughlin, William P. “The Effectiveness of the Nongraded School.” International Review of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift Für Erziehungswissenschaft / Revue Internationale De l’Education, vol. 18, no. 2, 1972, pp. 194–211. www.jstor.org/stable/3443420.

Sgan, Mathew R. “Letter Grade Achievement in Pass-Fail Courses.” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 41, no. 8, 1970, pp. 638–644. www.jstor.org/stable/1977666.

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