Teacher Leadership Subscribe to RSS

Defanging the F Grade

| Owen Edwards

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's great American novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's letter was, of course, an accusatory A. Damning for her, but I'd have been very happy had I received more of those when I was in secondary school.

For me, the scarlet letter that lent its shaming tinge to my academic career was the F. Ms. Prynne suffered greatly because of her letter, but I had my share of angst dealing with more than a few of mine.

As it happens, by dint of luck and a good enough mind, I've done better than some of the teachers whose courses I failed might have predicted. Yet I can recall, as if it were yesterday, the terrible shadow cast over my life by an F in math, or physics, or chemistry.

Whatever else I might have accomplished during a given marking period -- excellent records in English, art, and social studies, solo singing parts with the choir -- all it took was one F to cast a near-permanent pall over my school experience (not to mention a foreboding quiet over the supper table on the evenings after I brought my report card home).

I'm convinced that a feeling of inadequacy brought on by those scarlet letters lingers still, decades after they torpedoed my grade point average. I hadn't yet heard the saying that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Clearly, the failing grades didn't kill me, but instead of making me stronger, they just made me feel inadequate. My teachers' moving hands had written, and I had been found wanting.

I'm not going to claim I didn't deserve those failing marks, but they weren't from lack of trying. I simply couldn't bend my brain around the mysteries of algebra, for instance, and it took weekly tutoring just to get me to raise my F to a D. So, compiling my test scores and my homework demerits and my generally glazed expression in class, what could my teachers do?

But that was then, in an academic era with few gray areas, when failure represented -- well, failure. I have since seen that failing can be a beginning, rather than an end, a source of encouragement instead of a crushing blow.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a national business magazine covering the technology boom in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time reporting on paradigm-shifting start-ups, interviewing such famously successful entrepreneurs as Oracle's Larry Ellison, AutoDesk's Carol Bartz (now CEO of Yahoo), and Netscape cofounder James H. Clark.

What I discovered was that almost all the successes in the Valley had been preceded by failure, and that an F on an entrepreneur's business report card was generally understood to be just a rite of passage. (Clark, who became a billionaire when Netscape went public, was a high school dropout, by the way.)

Paul Sappho, a well-regarded futurist in Silicon Valley, neatly summed up this attitude in a recent speech: "We know how to fail," he said, and he went on to joke that the reason high tech company headquarters in the area are surrounded by lush grass is so that when people jump out of high windows, "they only sprain their ankles."

Of course, there have always been dedicated teachers who help students use a failing grade as a catalyst for progress rather than a reprimand. And Edutopia's recent coverage of multiple intelligences spotlighted the widening understanding that difficulties with one subject need not overshadow a kid's abilities in other areas.

Realistically, there are students whose failures indicate attitudinal and social problems difficult for teachers to remedy alone. I'm no fan of grade inflation, and I'm not suggesting that failure be euphemized out of existence. But it should be seen as something of value, even if its impact on metrics is negative. After all, failure is inevitably part of everyone's life after school -- relationships fail, businesses fail, the best-laid plans go awry -- and we move on smarter, if we've learned anything at all.

So, if the goal of school is to prepare students for future success, failure needs to be understood in a broader context. There are ways, as Sappho says, to "know how to fail," to turn the stark finality of an F into part of a continuity, a bump in the road, not a blowout, the prelude to a comeback -- something that can be counterbalanced with successes and used for motivation instead of frustration.

I'd love to hear your ideas on how to accomplish this.

see more see less

Comments (56)

Comment RSS
Candace (not verified)

Social Science Education

Was this helpful?
0

After reading several different postings, I realize everyone has different views on the 'F' grade. When I was in the public school system as a child, I viewed this grade as not only failing school but failing life. Fortunately, I never earned a 'F' in any of my classes but the fear of failing was always in the back of my mind.
Now that I'm a teacher and have my own classroom I tell all my students that they all start with an 'A' and can keep it through doing their work and effort. I'm a huge effort grader and if a student shows effort there is no way they will fail my class. On the other hand, students can't just pass a test and pass my class either. I had a few students receive low grades because they would do well on the tests but not turn in or participate in anything else.

Samantha (not verified)

I am going into my 5th year

Was this helpful?
0

I am going into my 5th year as a high school science teacher and a number of my students have failed my classes. I have to say, that with experience gained through the years, I've found my requirements for grading varied through the years. Under one principal, I was encouraged to pass students for trying their hardest, even if test scores and various other assessments, such as portfolio presentations, didn't prove mastery of content. I had the pleasure of keeping in touch with many students after they'd graduated and I started to learn that we may not have done a service to several students by grading them on their efforts. There were a couple of students who were straight A students, based mostly on their efforts, that found it quite difficult to get by in college. They had experienced a sort of culture shock as they started to realize it wasn't their effort that meant success but their final grade. It was a big blow to their egos and for one it led to dropping out. After hearing their stories I decided that their grade should be influenced by their efforts, yes, but that their overall grade should indicate how well they actually new the content. (Well, duh.) I soon started to feel as if the administration was more concerned about numbers (passing rates) than whether or not the student actually learned something.
I agree that an "F" can be damaging to ones morale but if this is the grade that reflects how well they know a particular topic, then it is a grade fairly earned.
I think in respects to teaching students how to take a failing grade, one must teach students about the differences in each individual's potential. When I tell my students that Charles Darwin didn't do well in school, they don't believe me. I find that I can motivate students to want to learn and to try harder when I let them know that it's not the end of the world if they don't do well. They ARE good at something else and can later on focus on getting better at whatever it is they are good at. I help them understand why it is beneficial to take all their core classes, math, science, english, social studies, music, etc. but that it is not entirely necessary to ACE them all, especially if it does not seems possible, despite all the effort one seems to put into it. I was ALWAYS better at math and science. No matter how hard I tried, however, I just couldn't seem to earn a grade above a B+ is English or Social Studies. It wasn't until I realized that that was the best I could do that I was at peace with myself.
When I read an article on Gardner's Multiple Intelligences in college, I remember thinking to myself, "Well, I wouldn't have been so hard on myself if I had read THIS is high school." I find myself introducing this concept to my students each year. This is always a new idea to them and it makes some of them feel a lot more comfortable with trying and failing in my class.
When it comes to assessment, I also find that grades don't need to be final. I feel if I give the student the opportunity to improve upon a piece of work, or if I expect a student to correct his/her mistakes, they usually remember the material for the Living Environment Regents at the end of the year. It was in high school that I decided to give my students a chance to improve upon a low score. I had taken a Physics test. I had honestly studied and when I found I had earned a 76 I realized I didn't know the material as well as I thought I had. When I asked my teacher if we could go over it, he said he didn't have time to do so in class and that we needed to move on to the next topic so we could pass the regents. I remember thinking, "So, that's it? I fail and that's it? You're giving me a test to see if I know it or not. I don't know it. And that's it? You're not going to help me know it?" As a teacher, with the pressure of having my students pass the Living Environment regents at the end of the year, I understand that constraints that time places on lesson planning. But I vowed to ALWAYS give my students an opportunity to learn something (again)that they didn't understand. I use after-school tutoring time to do this, but I also give the students the opportunity to make up tests or quizzes for an improved grade.
The students who fail my class are the students who don't come, who don't do enough work to merit a passing grade, and who don't prove in one way or another that they know their material. Failure IS an option in my class, an option that THEY consciously choose via their actions.

Samantha (not verified)

I am going into my 5th year

Was this helpful?
0

I am going into my 5th year as a high school science teacher and a number of my students have failed my classes. I have to say, that with experience gained through the years, I've found my requirements for grading varied through the years. Under one principal, I was encouraged to pass students for trying their hardest, even if test scores and various other assessments, such as portfolio presentations, didn't prove mastery of content. I had the pleasure of keeping in touch with many students after they'd graduated and I started to learn that we may not have done a service to several students by grading them on their efforts. There were a couple of students who were straight A students, based mostly on their efforts, that found it quite difficult to get by in college. They had experienced a sort of culture shock as they started to realize it wasn't their effort that meant success but their final grade. It was a big blow to their egos and for one it led to dropping out. After hearing their stories I decided that their grade should be influenced by their efforts, yes, but that their overall grade should indicate how well they actually new the content. (Well, duh.) I soon started to feel as if the administration was more concerned about numbers (passing rates) than whether or not the student actually learned something.
I agree that an "F" can be damaging to ones morale but if this is the grade that reflects how well they know a particular topic, then it is a grade fairly earned.
I think in respects to teaching students how to take a failing grade, one must teach students about the differences in each individual's potential. When I tell my students that Charles Darwin didn't do well in school, they don't believe me. I find that I can motivate students to want to learn and to try harder when I let them know that it's not the end of the world if they don't do well. They ARE good at something else and can later on focus on getting better at whatever it is they are good at. I help them understand why it is beneficial to take all their core classes, math, science, english, social studies, music, etc. but that it is not entirely necessary to ACE them all, especially if it does not seems possible, despite all the effort one seems to put into it. I was ALWAYS better at math and science. No matter how hard I tried, however, I just couldn't seem to earn a grade above a B+ is English or Social Studies. It wasn't until I realized that that was the best I could do that I was at peace with myself.
When I read an article on Gardner's Multiple Intelligences in college, I remember thinking to myself, "Well, I wouldn't have been so hard on myself if I had read THIS is high school." I find myself introducing this concept to my students each year. This is always a new idea to them and it makes some of them feel a lot more comfortable with trying and failing in my class.
When it comes to assessment, I also find that grades don't need to be final. I feel if I give the student the opportunity to improve upon a piece of work, or if I expect a student to correct his/her mistakes, they usually remember the material for the Living Environment Regents at the end of the year. It was in high school that I decided to give my students a chance to improve upon a low score. I had taken a Physics test. I had honestly studied and when I found I had earned a 76 I realized I didn't know the material as well as I thought I had. When I asked my teacher if we could go over it, he said he didn't have time to do so in class and that we needed to move on to the next topic so we could pass the regents. I remember thinking, "So, that's it? I fail and that's it? You're giving me a test to see if I know it or not. I don't know it. And that's it? You're not going to help me know it?" As a teacher, with the pressure of having my students pass the Living Environment regents at the end of the year, I understand that constraints that time places on lesson planning. But I vowed to ALWAYS give my students an opportunity to learn something (again)that they didn't understand. I use after-school tutoring time to do this, but I also give the students the opportunity to make up tests or quizzes for an improved grade.
The students who fail my class are the students who don't come, who don't do enough work to merit a passing grade, and who don't prove in one way or another that they know their material. Failure IS an option in my class, an option that THEY consciously choose via their actions.

Peter Crespo (not verified)

Failing Grades

Was this helpful?
0

I have been teaching High School Math for 11 years at a diverse school. I agree with the article about how bads grades hurt. I also had a time in college when I had a bad semester. As a teacher I tell my students that the only way to fail my class is to not do their work and to not try at all. I feel if a student attempts their homework, partipates in class, takes notes, ask questions, and tries on their tests, they will not fail. However I do have students that fail. These are the students that choose not to try. Like one blogger stated they are usually failing multiple classes. How do you reach the students who don't care about their classes?

Jeremy (not verified)

I agree with you Martha that

Was this helpful?
0

I agree with you Martha that we all have those students who lack putting forth all of the effort needed to be successful. I had two students this past year that had that same attitude and I now feel like I am partially to blame for their failure. They showed up to class with no homework, completed late work or no work, and when I would work with them or make phone calls home I got nowhere. I didn't retain them only because I started the process too late and my principal doesn't like to retain students. I would definitely do it different next time around. I think I would try to connect with them more to see what outside factors they have going on at home. Maybe try to build some good rapport with that student and just build a good caring relationship where they trust what you are teaching them. I guess I'm not the one to really ask since I found myself in a similar situation, but was unable to do much about it. Fortunatley, you are though.

Martha (not verified)

5th grade mathematics

Was this helpful?
0

I too believe that if a student tries his or her best in my classroom, they deserve to pass. On the other hand if a student (we all have them) will not try I am inclined to give them the grade they made weather it is a F or a C. Just this past year I had a student who never tried, it didn't matter is I worked with him one on one or he worked with a peer tutor, he still wouldn't try. He made 40's and 50's on almost all of his work. His parents wanted him to move on to the next grade; however, my better judgement led me to stand firm that he needed to repeat the 5th grade. I knew that is he moved on to the 6th grade he would only get farther behind.
Do any of you feel that I was wrong, and if so what might I do different this year to avoid a possible repeat situation as that one? Please let me know.

Catina Robinson (not verified)

Melissa, I agree with

Was this helpful?
0

Melissa,

I agree with you! I let my students redo work over and over. It takes a lot of my time to regrade it. But

it's worth it!

Catina Robinson (not verified)

Melissa, I agree with you!

Was this helpful?
0

Melissa,

I agree with you! I 0et my students redo work over and over. It takes a lot of my time to regrade i. But

it's worth it!

Catina Robinson (not verified)

Jannah, I am so proud to

Was this helpful?
0

Jannah,

I am so proud to hear that you didn't quit. I loved reading your story and will be the first to say,"Hats

off!" I am so proud for you and wish you nothing but success. Again, CONGRATULATIONS!

Catina Robinson (not verified)

Defanging the F Grade

Was this helpful?
0

After reading the article a lot of things stood out in my mind. Why do we think that failing is not part of life? I want my students to be successful, and when they are not I look at myself. I wish that learning came easy to everyone, but it doesn't. I failed Algebra 1 in high school. My son is getting ready to have the same instuctor that taught me the second time. I am a little nervous, and also excited because I learned to love math in college. After retaking the course I received a C. It was because I didn't try and I didn't care (my father at the time was sick with cancer). I did what I could to get by. Why are the students making the grades that they are making? How can I help them improve? We must all understand that failing doesn't mean that we give up. Keep trying and give it all you have!That's all anyone can ask.

see more see less