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Lions Roar : May 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2012 31 SOMETIMES, WHEN I’M PROCRASTINATING, I’ll create these ideal scenarios. I might imagine my dream garden or the model workspace or the ultimate writer’s retreat. These fantasy creations share the quality of Le Corbusier’s ideal cities, in that they are usually perfect yet unbuildable. Not that this elusiveness detracts from their appeal. Quite the opposite. (“Desire is full of endless distances,” writes poet Robert Hass.) Recently I’ve found myself daydreaming about my children and the ideal public school. Given how much of their waking life our children spend at school, shouldn’t it be an impossibly magical and wonderful place? You might have your own ideas about what would make a school great (more green space, sustainable architecture, free nutritious lunch programs), and I would readily agree, but to my mind a crucial aspect would be this: a redefinition of merit. Where I live, the public schools assign letter grades at the end of each term. By grade one most kids are being ranked and filed into categories of lesser or greater achievement, sorted, as educa- tion writer Alfie Kohn has described, “like so many potatoes.” These detailed report cards, the ministry of education contends, are necessary for “growing success.” After all, don’t grades moti- vate students to work harder and hence learn more? I appreciate that for some people this fixation on goals and evaluation may seem benign or even desirable, but not in my family’s experience. I have never witnessed anything more dis- torting of my children’s learning and self-esteem. Let me give you an example. In grade one, my eldest son was assessed with a mild speech impairment. He was assigned a lan- guage pathologist to help him with articulation. Giving him an “N,” the lowest possible mark on oral communication (as his teacher did that term), seemed a bit redundant. Why not just assign a grade for unluckiness? My son was understandably dismayed when he looked at his first report card, surveying its columns of C and D grades. “I thought I did well,” he said. To which I replied, with beams of unconditional love, “You did do well!” He gave me a skeptical look. I might as well have exclaimed: “You’re nothing special!” The entire time, I kept wondering: how does a six-year-old get a “D” in drama? Hoping to gain some insight, I went to speak to his school principal. It turned out she didn’t like report cards either, and worried about what they did to a child’s self-esteem. But she spelled out a conundrum: in order to qualify for special speech therapy, my son needed to score low. There needed to be a record Whether they get an F or an A+, most kids can’t separate their grades from their self-worth. KYO MACLEAR on eliminating grades so children can focus on what really matters in life. Degrading Our Children ILLUSTRATIONBYALBERTORUGGIERI©IMAGES.COM/CORBIS