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A Note About Grades

I arrived at school today to a mailbox full of angst:

“I turned in Assignment X and got Y grade. Why wasn’t it a Z?”
“I really need X points to get Z grade—what can I do?”
“I just turned in Assignment Q (which was due a month ago). Please grade it ASAP so my grade can go up.”
“I know I didn’t do Assignment V. Can I do it now so it can be counted?”

These are variations of many, many conversations I have with students about their grades. Most of the time they take place during the marking period, when something can be done about it without unnecessary stress on either of us. The cries explode the day grades are submitted, and all of your stress is firmly transferred onto me. I’m supposed to FIX IT.

I understand. I was an AP student in high school, and I know the pressure to maintain a high GPA is immense. It seems that everything you hear from teachers, colleges, parents, your peers, and the world at large seems to suggest that keeping your GPA at stratospheric levels is necessary in order to gain admission to college and basically win at life. Let me clue you in on a little secret:

It’s not.

You don’t have to believe me. Einstein said it better:einstein

Ladies and gentlemen, you’re focusing very hard on the things that can be counted, but not so much on the things that count. When I get emails about the class, they’re hardly ever about the subject, the concepts, your discoveries, or learning. The conversations are always, always about numbers. Specifically, numbers that translate into letters on your transcript. Those things are important, yes, but in the grand scheme of things, they don’t really count. Here’s what does: Understanding. Stretching. Growth. Discernment. Discovery. Challenge. And, most importantly, failure. Failure is the best teacher of all. It reveals your weak spots and invites you to grow. You should embrace failure—which might look like a B, or even a C. That kind of failure keeps you humble and shows you where to focus.

But if you (or your parents) come from the “Failure Is Not an Option” school of thought, here are some proactive things you can do to keep your grade looking the way you like it:

  1. Pay attention. If you’re busy chatting with friends or playing on your phone or doing other homework on your laptop when you’re supposed to be doing something for this class right now, that’s a near-guarantee that poor and/or missing work is to follow. I’m aware you’re sitting at tables. That doesn’t mean you have license to do what you want, to be rude, to ignore what’s going on and expect me to explain it to you special later. You know how to be a student. That shouldn’t be contingent on where you sit and how.
  2. Listen. On essays especially, I try to provide feedback to help you improve. What do my notations say? See any patterns? Are you making changes based on my comments or just glancing at the number at the top and filing the paper away for later? Heed the wisdom of Jackie “Moms” Mabley: “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
  3. Read. Read the assigned works. The ones I hand you, not the summaries on SparkNotes or PinkMonkey or Shmoop or whatever the avoid-actual-work site of the month happens to be. Plot summaries will not help you with AP questions. You won’t have the depth of detail needed to answer them properly, and you won’t have the practice necessary to analyze text closely when the time comes. And while we’re talking about reading, read the directions. Don’t skim, don’t assume, and don’t let your friend’s four-second summary scalf-roping-hlsr-590x742tand in for what I specified. I can’t tell you how valuable this skill will be in college, where your course syllabi will rule your life in ways you can’t even imagine now.
  4. Ask questions. Don’t understand something? Ask. Unsure about what something means? Ask. Have an amazing idea that you’d like to explore? Please, please ask! The ability to ask good questions is an invaluable college and life skill. Professors love students who can ask good questions. Be that person.
  5. Slow down. Stop being in such a hurry. I’m well aware that the procrastination struggle is real. Fight it. Plan your reading so you aren’t trying to finish a two-hundred-page work in an evening. That’s why I gave you a calendar, so you could plan. Hint, hint. Make sure your name is on the paper itself and in the filename, if it’s electronic. Do you have any idea how many assignments I see entitled “AP essay”? Am I supposed to guess what each paper is about and who submitted it? I really don’t need that kind of excitement in my life. Don’t do all your work at the last minute, or worse yet, in the class period before you show up to mine. That slapdash effort rarely earns what you’d like. Learning isn’t like the calf roping competition at the rodeo. You don’t earn bonus points for being quick. Plus, if you haven’t tied off the calf properly, it doesn’t matter how good you look during the process. You lose, plain and simple. Do good work, and good results will follow.


Ideally, I’d love to face a class full of learners, people who are engaged in the process, willing to take risks, asking good questions, and thinking thinking thinking so their knowledge grows and their outlook expands. But if the grade monkeys screech too loudly—and I get it, they do sometimes—follow the steps above. Pay attention. Listen. Read. Ask questions. Slow down. They help, I promise.

As my father is wont to say, “End of Sermonette.”

Calf roping photo © Bob Straus


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