Trying to find math inside everything else

The Spirit of the Rules

I just read the book One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva. (Pretty good, but has some problems). I wanted to share a scene from the book. (Emphasis mine.)

“Does that mean your absence last Friday, unlike your earlier absences this semester, was unexcused?” Mr. Weedin asked.

“It does,” Alek admitted.

“Mr. Khederian, you clearly have a strong grip on this material, and if you hadn’t cut, I would’ve considered recommending you for the Honor Track next year. But I’m afraid that I can’t go around making exceptions for students, regardless of how bright they appear.” Mr. Weedin’s picked up his paper and continued reading.

His teacher’s resolution almost made Alek give up. But he knew how important this was for his parents. And, he had to admit, for himself as well.

“Mr. Weedin, don’t you think failing me in a class when you think I’m capable of delivering Honor Track material is counterproductive?” Alek cleared his throat. ” ‘Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves, / Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.’ ”

“Is that Shakespeare?” Mr. Weedin asked, intrigued.

“Yeah, it’s from Love’s Labour’s Lost. I just wrote an essay comparing and contrasting that play to Romeo and Juliet in English, and that quote really stuck in my head.”

“Why?” Mr. Weeding leaned back and slid his glasses down so he could peer at Alek unobstructed.

“I guess I feel like we spend so much time trying to keep the promises we make, or the rules we set up, but it’s also important to look at those promises and rules and make sure they’re actually doing what we want them to do, and not the other way around.”

“Well, Mr. Khederian, you make a persuasive case.” Mr. Weedin tapped his pencil against his desk three times. “I’m not going to make it easy for you. For the remainder of this class, I’m going to double your homework load. If you complete it all satisfactorily, then I will reduce the penalty from failing to dropping your grade one full letter. So the highest grade you could receive would be a B.”

Alek had to stop himself from hugging Mr. Weeding. “Thank you, Mr. Weedin, thank you so, so much. I promise that I’ll do my best.”

“What is your best, I wonder?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Weeding, but I’m looking forward to finding out.”

“Me too, Alek.”

This was a major theme of the book and one I appreciated (it reminds me of Fiddler on the Roof in a way, especially the climax of the book). This isn’t the most moving scene but as this is ostensibly a teaching blog, I thought I would share it.

This seems especially relevant given the two articles I saw earlier today – one about the student who passed because of admin pressure even though she “deserved to fail” and the other about the student who passed because her teacher felt she should, despite her parents thinking she “deserved to fail.”

It’s interesting on its own to contrast the two articles. But now look at it through the lens of the quotation above. What does it mean to pass or fail a student, and why do we do it?  What is the goal of the grades that we give? Often teachers set rules in their classrooms, or grading policies, and stick to them rigidly, thinking that is what is right. But it is easy to lose sight of why we made these rules in the first place – because we want our students to be the best they can be. Most of the time those rules will help that happen – but sometimes they don’t, and so we need to be willing to change when that occurs. It is the spirit of the law that matters, so try not to get lost in the letter.

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Comments on: "The Spirit of the Rules" (1)

  1. I look at grades pretty constantly throughout the marking periods. I bump students for improvement, for consistency in effort. I also give failing students, especially those who I know their greatest failings were due to absences (rather than misunderstanding) the opportunity to still pass if they achieve well enough on the final(s). I also make sure that the student knows that the points they received were due to showing that they did illustrate the necessary understanding, not because of any other reason.

    I won’t bump a student down (though I will admit the temptation, especially for students who I know do not understand the material).

    Also, I try, albeit unsuccessfully at times, to conference with any student in danger of failing and make sure they understand what I need to see from them to change that outcome. I make sure that the student understands that the number they earn is not a measure of their worth, or of the relationship and respect I have for them. It simply signifies what they can show they know. (very much like my bank balance is not a measure of how much the cute teller likes me :)

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