“Man, this class is pugnacious!” | IDEA

“Man, this class is pugnacious!”

Posted by Ammerah Saidi on Sep 11, 2010 - 01:33 PM

I saw my students for the first-time this past week. I've been preparing for their arrival, metaphysically, since man was first created; philosophically, since I was born; and officially since teacher training started on August 16th grin

Things quickly got heavy with my new eighth graders as soon as I passed out the class syllabus which contains the following paragraphs (selected because they caused the loudest sighs of exasperation and/or shouts of defiance from my students):

*CRITICAL INFORMATION* “C” is the default grade for any assignment, NOT an “A” since an “A” means going over and beyond what is requested of the skill and requires further independent research from the student. See attached article for further explanation and reasoning for this grading practice.


Students will receive a zero only when they fail to turn anything in demonstrating a total lack of effort. But let it be understood that effort does not equal passing. A student may try really hard but be focusing on the wrong skill-set and thus failing to accomplish the predetermined objectives. As long as a student works with me through successes and failures, he/she will be able to at least pass the course.

I made sure that students understood that "C" being the default grade means that when they step into my classroom on day one this week, they do not have an "A" in the course, but rather a "C". Some of you may be thinking, "Wow, Ammerah, this doesn't sound very democratic to me. This sounds almost draconian, perhaps dictatorial--and dare I say it, yes, even poopy." Or as one annoyed student put it, "Man, this class is pugnacious!"

However, the awesomeness that is a sincere concerted effort to create a culture of learning that is engaging, ethical, and authentic produces conversations like the following with my students:

Ms. Saidi: Ok, so I can see you are all annoyed, angry, maybe even scared. But what are you really angry about?

Student: We're all gonna fail! It's not fair I get a "C" on day one.

Ms. Saidi: Who said you "get" a "C"? It says on the syllabus on page 2, grades are earned in this class, not given. Have you earned an "A"?

Student: Yeah. I showed up, didn't I?

Ms. Saidi: Does a doctor earn a check just for showing up or does he have to produce some results?

Student: Ok, yeah--but this is just school.

Ms. Saidi: Yeah, so it sounds like school isn't important to you. I think I know why. Let me ask you guys something: What does a letter grade mean? What does a "C" mean?

Student: Average. An "A" means excellent.

Ms. Saidi: But what does excellent mean? What does average mean? (we discuss these terms a bit and I ask for evidence to support each definition)

Ms. Saidi: Ok, so let me see by show of hands, how many of you here have gotten grades in classes you haven't earned--meaning you walked out of that class and forgot nearly everything you were taught?

(Everyone's hand, including my own, goes up)

Ms. Saidi: Does that sound fair to you? That whomever gave you that grade lied to you--that they put a stamp on their work saying you understood the material even though you knew and they probably knew you didn't?

Student: Yeah. You know, our ELA teacher last year just had us watch movies and do worksheets for the last two months of school. (Other students proceed to share their examples of getting grades, not earning them).

At this point I give the following speech:

Ms. Saidi: Here are some numbers that I think will get you to see I'm on your side in the best kind of way. There is a 29% graduation rate here in Detroit for high school students--right here, in our city. This means that out of a hundred students who enter DPS schools, only 29 will make it out with a high school diploma. Now, of these 29% who make it out, there is a significant portion of students who are either illiterate or only functionally literate--simply meaning they can't read. (students are nodding their heads) Some statistics put Detroit's illiteracy levels anywhere from 33% of our population up to 49%. So, what did their grades mean? The grades they "got" which moved them from first grade, to second grade, to third, fourth, fifth, etc.

Students: Nothing.

Ms. Saidi: So my promise to you is that grades will mean something in this class. I will never lie to you. I will never falsely praise you. I will support you to help you truly "earn" grades and not "give" them just to get you out of my class. But your promise to me is that you won't ever quit. You'll accept that failure is part of the process--failure which won't hurt your grade in this class if you push through it. Your promise to me is this: I will chase the skill, not the grade. The grade will follow my skill.

And boom. It shifts. I smile from ear to ear when I look around the room and see students smiling back, nodding their heads and saying to me, "Ok, you got me. I'm in. Let's do this."
Why this whole note? This is all, of course, tied to the schooling failures of this country (and parts of the world) to produce happy, ethical, motivated, intelligent individuals. Instead, we are producing the opposite of each of these adjectives to the detriment of each of our communities--no matter how far removed you think you are, we're all interconnected.

As I wrote in my defense paper identifying the purpose of education to be social justice:

We live in an interconnected global society; one in which the pain and anger of an individual thousands of miles away can impact my comfortable happy life here in the U.S. instantaneously. Pearl Harbor, global warming, Rodney King's beating, Archduke Ferdinand's assassination, Columbine, September 11, 2001, and the economic crisis today are all examples of why we need to care about the health, safety, character and intellectual development of every individual in the world. All the money, power, or intelligence in the world will not stop the bullet of an immoral thief or mistreated/misguided youth. No matter if we reach the pinnacles of academic attainment or economic prosperity or domestic tranquility, if we do not explicitly teach that the protection of life and liberty for all humans is upon all our shoulders, the threat of destruction is forever present in each of our lives.

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