“Walking the Tightrope” on the Last Day of School

Today was the last official schoolday in my district. I woke up this morning wanting to let my kids out early and start summer vacation a few hours early, but I instead spent the time sharing with them the results of their final exam essays.

I certainly did not feel like explaining to one particularly studious young man why he had received an 90% on his essay, versus the 95% or perhaps 100% he’d apparently hoped for–but school wasn’t over yet. And there would no longer be any putting things off until tomorrow.

As I laid the essay out on front of us, this diligent young student asked several times exactly what he’d done to lose points.

“You didn’t necessarily ‘lose points,'” I said. “Don’t think of this as you started with full credit, and lost it because you had some spelling mistakes. You have to earn your way to an “A.”

“I know,” he said. But then he added, “And then I misspelled some words here. Is that why I lost five points?”

“You’ve got some spelling mistakes. You also have some words used incorrectly…” (He’d used “captivate” when he simply meant “capture,” for one thing.) “…but honestly, you’ve written a good essay. All the pieces are in place. I felt it was good enough to receive an A minus. However, it lacked that something extra, that ‘above and beyond’ quality to make it to a full A.”

He stared at me blankly.

It was very important for me to make this student understand. You see, much as I look forward to the freedom of the summer months, I’m always sad to see another group of students rush off and forget about me (they tend to leave on the last day as though I’ve got the plague). And of course, there’s always that part of me that waits until everyone has gone, then gazes longingly at the students’ red portfolio folders, asking pitifully, “What did I accomplish?

What indeed, if I still could not communicate to this young man the difference between an A minus and an A?

“Take a look at your first sentence. There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, per se, but I saw the same first sentence over and over again.” I snatched another paper from the pile. “Now see, this other person began her essay with a profound statement about books being like food for the soul. Her paper wasn’t perfect, but her first line sucked me in right away.  She showed that little something extra–that she’d thought deeply and profoundly about the whole topic. Understand?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Plus, I also left out the word ‘there’ in the last paragraph. Did that cost me one point or two?”

In the end, I must have pointed out enough small mistakes to satisfy him, because he went away fairly happy with his A minus. Or so it seemed.

Days like this make me think that it’s a shame to put grades on student writing at all.

Grades tend to make students look at their essays the way they would a math test. “How many things did I get wrong?” they ask, instead of “What could I have done to make this even better?

As my students move forward in their writing lives, I want them to think about what it really means to create successful piece. A great essay, or poem, or short story, must be built from the ground up. Writing is not, nor should it be, the equivalent of walking a quivering tightrope, afraid to look down for fear of swaying too far to the right or left. No, writing should be less of a tightrope and more of a long, rambling path through a dark but welcoming forest, a journey that continues to take shape with each new twist and turn.

And now, here I sit in an empty classroom during the first five minutes of summer break, wishing I could rewrite the English curriculum for every school in the country.

If only I had one more day…


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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2 thoughts on ““Walking the Tightrope” on the Last Day of School

  1. Writing is so different from what they’re learning in all their other classes. The courses that come closest are the industrial tech classes, where a student can make an okay Adirondack chair that followed the directions, can be sat upon, and looks more or less like an Adirondack chair, or a student can make an heirloom-quality piece of artistry and beauty. It depends both on how hard the student worked, how much the work meant to him, and sometimes, on innate talent. It’s very different from teaching in other content areas.

  2. Very nice post — too bad the student thought that writing is a mechanical process of not making mistakes.And too bad that the student perceives math as being like t hat.

    I think that math as practiced by a working mathematician is more like writing than it is like math as that student experiences it. Mathematicians are looking for beauty, which is more often called “elegance”. True, this is beauty in a realm that most can’t perceive, or care about, but still. Part of what mathematicians call elegance is a kind of simplicity. Another part is in how surprising the result is. And of course, if a proof leads other mathematicians to make new discoveries, well, that’s the best of all. Isn’t that what writers want, too?

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