Should 50 be the new zero?

Report Card

A few years ago, the school in which I was teaching changed their grading practices so that no student could make less than 50 for each grading period.  The theory behind this was to prevent a student’s grade from getting so low in the first half of the year that he or she could not pull it up in the second half.  My first thought was what to do with the students who chose to do nothing in class.  Was I to just give them a 50 though they did zero work?   The school had already gone to a ten point scale on which a 60 was considered passing.  At this too, I was disappointed.  In a staff meeting at the beginning of the year my school changed to a 10 point scale, the administration told the teachers to increase the rigor in the classroom if they thought the 10 point scale was too lenient.  My concern to this was just how many teachers would change their teaching strategies to increase rigor.   Another concern was that now the students who wanted only a 69.5 would lower their goal to a 59.5.  This would only be 9.5 points above the new zero.

The 50 as the new zero hit me where it really hurt this past year.  My grandson was in first grade at a school that worked on the old grading scale in which students had to earn a 70 to pass.  At this school students made what the teachers deemed they earned even if it were a zero.  My grandson is a victim of divorce and lives with his mother.  She and her present husband have other children, and both work.  They had little time to help my first grader.  By the time they decided to let me tutor him, his grades had dropped significantly.  He struggled in kindergarten and had little preschool preparation, so he was behind.  After I began tutoring him, he made A’s and B’s and met his Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Math goals.  However, with these great achievements, he still had a 68 end-of-year average in English; so he failed first grade.  Was it my grandson’s fault that he had little preschool preparation?  Was it his fault that he had little help with homework?  Should the teachers have failed him with such good improvement?  Since he can now do first grade work, will he be bored this year?

Some teachers may think that by raising the zero to a 50 parents and students will view them as lowering expectations for students.  I was such a teacher.  However, now I think about our society and what many of today’s children must face.  How does it affect a student at any age when his or parents divorce, a parent dies, the mother has never been married and is having to work two or three jobs, or both parents are working two jobs?  Should schools punish children for not performing to their potential when it is not their fault, or should schools give these children a chance?  These are especially important questions at the elementary and middle school grades.  These children are at the mercies of the situations in which the parents find themselves.  If parents cannot be there to help with homework, what is an underperforming first grader to do?  Young children cannot drive; so if they often arrive at school late or are absent too many times, is it the children’s fault?  Should their chances of success be removed even when their situations improve?

Each time a child fails at the elementary level his or her chances of graduating decrease significantly.  According to The Scarring Effects of Primary-Grade Retention? A Study of Cumulative Advantage in the Educational Career,  a child that is retained at the primary level has a 60% chance of graduating from high school.  As a high school teacher, I fully understand the significant impact at the high school level of student retention in the early grades.

So, are schools that move to the new zero lowering their expectations or giving students a chance?




Sleeping In Class

Sleeping in ClassIs there ever a time when you should allow your students to sleep in class?  My answer is a resounding YES. Of course, a teacher cannot allow students to sleep all day, everyday; but if a child can’t sleep at home, he or she must sleep sometime, somewhere.

Steve shuffles into class, drops his books on the floor beside his desk, flops down in his desk, and puts his head down.  Roll call has been done, bell ringers completed, and Mrs. Shuler has begun a question answer session on the previous night’s reading of Thoreau’s Walden excerpt, yet Steve’s head is still down, eyes closed, and drool sliding down his cheek.  Mrs. Shuler notices Steve and the hair on her neck bristles.  She has worked hard on planning the unit on her favorite piece of work in the class’s literature book.  How dare one of her students sleeps through it.  She guesses that he didn’t even bother to open his book last night.  “He was probably using or dealing drugs or at the least out running the streets,” she thought.  Mrs. Shuler stomps over to Steve’s desk, all eyes except Steve’s are following her.  She loudly clears her throat, but Steve doesn’t move.  She shakes him and exclaims, “Night is the time for sleep and the classroom is time for work!  If you can’t keep your head up, you can go to the office!”  Steve jumps up and slams out of the class while muttering a few choice words.

Have you heard of, witnessed, or participated in a scenario such as the one above.  Unfortunately, I was such a teacher at one time.  I have always been an over achiever, and I work really hard on everything I do, including preparing class lessons.  However, my Steve (not his real name) taught me a valuable lesson.  I had been warned by other teachers that Steve was dangerous and that I had better be careful in the way I handled him.  However, one afternoon soon after a similar event as the one above, I happened to walk out of our school building along with our county sheriff.  For some reason I asked him if he knew Steve and did he think Steve was dangerous.  With an affirmative response of “yeah it’s a real sad case, and no I don’t think he is dangerous,” he told me Steve’s story.  He said that he and his deputies had made several domestic trouble calls to his house.  They often would find Steve and his siblings sleeping in the car, even in the dead of winter, while their parents were involved in other unmentionable acts inside the house.  He also explained that Steve’s little sister had been taken to the doctor  a couple of times with broken bones.  My heart hit the bottom of my stomach, which wanted to regurgitate it back.  I realized I had only added to this child’s agony.

This encounter with our sheriff made me recall events in the lives of some of my other students, events that at the time evoked sympathy but did not alter the way I taught my students.  Events such as the one during my early years as a teacher in which I was subbing for one of our special education teachers.  One of her students kept trying to sleep in class.  After several times waking him, I finally asked why he was sleeping in class.  He told me that he didn’t get home until five o’clock that morning because his mom was at the casino?  I asked where he was during the time his mom was at the casino, and he said, “in the car.”  Another event that came flooding back was the time I learned that a student’s dad was molesting her on a regular basis.  And then there was the student who missed a couple of weeks of school because he tried to defend his mother against her drug dealer and the dealer beat him until the student was unconscious.

The next day after a night of serious contemplation on the things many of my students face at home, I went to class with a new outlook.  As usual, Steve lumbered in and plopped down in his desk and put his head down.  That day, however, I let him sleep.  When the bell rang to change classes, I asked Steve to stay.  He grudgingly remained.  I genuinely expressed my concern for his low grades and that I sincerely wanted to help him.  I assured him that I understood that his home life may not be ideal and that I recognized that he apparently wasn’t getting enough sleep.  We then made a pact that if he would work the first half of class, I would let him sleep the second half.  He also agreed to come in at break to make up work when necessary.  We had a great rest-of-the-year, and Steve passed my class.

Steve truly taught me that before we can teach a child, his or her basic needs must be met; and one of those needs is sleep.  Most schools now provide for the basic need of food and sometimes the need of clothing, but what about sleep?

Student Ownership of Learning through Montessori

Recently, I visited a Montessori school.  Except for a quick Google of the term Montessori, I knew nothing about the Montessori philosophy of teaching.  According the American Montessori Society, educators who hold this philos0phy view the child “as one who is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment.”  The Montessori method “includes multiage groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choice of work activity” (  All this sounded very interesting, and I was anxious to visit.

The first thing I noticed was the quiet.  The halls were quiet; the classrooms were quiet.  Every now and then I would hear soft music drifting from the classrooms.  The classrooms were furnished with tables rather than individual desks, individual work stations, floor mats, and wall and island shelves for supplies.  I saw students from ages 3 to 10, actively engaged in learning.  At first I didn’t see a teacher in the classroom, but then I spotted her sitting on the floor with three small students.  In another class, the teacher was working with a group at a round table.

Throughout the school, teachers were working with groups or individuals while the other students were quietly working.   The counselor told me that the students were given a weeks worth of work at the beginning of the week.  The students then worked on this work at their own pace.  Those who finished early could choose a more advanced project to complete or could choose a play break.  The students could work in groups or by themselves.  They could work at tables, at computer stations, or on the floor.   Some were even working quietly in the hallways.

This school’s state test scores illustrate the success of this type of learning atmosphere.  Ninety-six percent of the students scored proficient on the state mandated grade level exit exams.  Should I mention that this is a public school?

What I saw were students as young as three years old taking ownership of their learning.  I saw students motivated to learn.  I saw students learning to work cooperatively.  I saw students preparing to be successful in the “real world.”

This school is a living example of the importance of guided student ownership of learning.

Which classroom would you choose?

   Ele classroo

Montessori classroom



Motivating With Real World Experiences

First, I taught high school English for 18 years.  My first year was a real experience, one that I do not want to do again — talk about having your teacher for lunch!!  I was a non-traditional college student, meaning that I was old when I went back to school to earn a degree in education.  The college students were always nice and respectful to me, so I thought all young people were the same (I had small children at this time).  This was my belief when I began my first year.  Boy did I learn a lot about students.  They knew a lot more about teaching than I did.

My first misconception was that students would respect me just because I was the teacher, an older teacher at that.  Wrong.  Because I made A’s in school, I thought that all students could do the same if they tried hard enough.  Wrong.  I thought that the students who did make good grades would not cheat.  Wrong. I also thought I knew English, especially grammar.  Quickly, I learned that knowing something and teaching it are two completely different things.

This is me (“I” to be grammatically correct) during my first year.

On the first day of school, I walked into the classroom, wearing my pumps (dating myself) and books in hand.  I began on page one of the grammar book and continued in numerical order.  I assigned sentences from the textbook and ended the day on a successful note, I thought.  The next day, things went down hill.  I was determined that each student would learn, but I soon discovered that many did not want to learn; at least that’s what I thought.  This too was a misconception.  It wasn’t that they did not want to learn; I had not provided them any reason to learn what I was teaching.  Oh yes, that’s another term to discuss – teaching.  I was teaching with all my might, but what were the students doing?

Many afternoons during this first year, I went home crying; and I do believe I would have quit if it had not been for the parents in my little community.  They were wonderfully encouraging.  They understood that the students were just being kids.  Unlike me, they knew the students’ behavior was not personal.

As I struggled forward, I began to see that students were much more motivated to complete assignments when they were given activities that required student ownership and more active engagement; were relevant to students’ lives and community; and required less lecture and less rote homework assignments (sentences from grammar book and questions from literature book).  I also began to notice a reduction in discipline referrals.

Although this first year was the most difficult year of my teaching career, it proved to be a solid foundation on which to build all the other years. These young adults taught me many things.  They taught me that a student’s respect for the teacher must be earned and returned.  They taught me that problems in the classroom may not be student problems, but rather teacher inadequacies.  They taught me that lack of student motivation did not rest solely  on the student. They taught me that if students were not learning, I need to adjust my methodology.  They also taught me that students have a voice, and I should listen.  My first year students taught me that respect and motivation walk hand and hand through the isles of the effective classroom.

Eight years after this first, very enlightening year, the school in which I was teaching introduced me to the National Board Certified Teachers program.  This program taught me what I call the 3 Rs of effective teaching.

3 Rs of Effective Teaching
3 Rs of Effective Teaching

The NBCT program taught me to ask Why? about everything I did and taught in the classroom.  Why do I teach the eight parts of speech?  Why do I teach Poe and Shakespeare? Outside of educational careers, how many employers ask employees about nouns, adjectives, verbs, or Poe or Shakespear?  I am not advocating foregoing the teaching of these important subjects.  However, I do believe that all teachers should have a clear understanding of why they teach them.  If teachers are able to impart to students a logical reason why they need to learn objectives, the students are more likely to be motivated to learn them.

I taught my students that educated people need to be familiar with Poe’s works, but that is not why we are studying Poe.  I told my students that we are studying Poe because if we can critically analyze Poe’s work, we can critical analyze real-world documents such as home mortgage documents, contracts, divorce papers, etc.  It is the strategies we use to take Poe’s works apart in order to come to our own supported conclusions that are important, not so much that the students can recite “Annabel Lee” when they turn thirty years old.  Relevancy can be highly motivating.

Also, the NBCTs program showed me that providing students with activities that were relevant to their lives and community provided opportunities for deep learning.  Could this be done with Poe and his works.  Of course it could.  A student in a class that was assigned a project-based activity proved that indeed Poe’s works could be relevant to a student’s professional interest.

This project was based on a senior project that a neighboring school used.  It was an occupational project in which students chose a career to research.  They had to find an employer to shadow, write a resume and letter of application to deliver to the employer for assessment, research a topic relative to the career, create a product, create a trifold board and a PowerPoint, make a portfolio of their work on the project, and present their work to a panel of judges.  For this project, students had much autonomy. One particular student, shadowed an engineer, and her product was the construction of the gardens found in Poe’s works.  Her project was awesome, and she proved that Poe’s work could be relevant to her chosen career.

The third R in the 3 Rs of effective teaching is reflection.  Again, the NBCTs program taught me the importance of reflection.  It taught me that reflection provides an avenue for growth.  Have you tried to write one or two full pages on why you teach the eight parts of speech, or why an activity did not work for a particular student?  Have you written a two page reflection on why a certain student misbehaved in class or what you could have done differently for that student? If you have done any of these, you know how difficult it is and, yet, how important it is.  Reflection requires a great deal of thought and can help you see things you otherwise may not have noticed.  I also required my students to write reflections. Reflection is an avenue for growth.

In the words of Dr. Donald Norman,

We expert teachers know that motivation and emotional impact are what matter.


Multiple Dicipline Cross Curriculum with One Book

How often have you heard students complaining that they did not have time to read all the books their various teachers were assigning within the same grading period?  How many students actually read the assigned reading?  I venture to say that SparksNotes, CliffNotes, and Shmoop experienced a serious workout during that term.  If one book could provide a path down which the English, science, art, math, social studies, history, geography, economic, and health classes could travel within the same academic term, would you be interested?  If so, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone is a book worth reading.  It is probably the scariest nonfiction book that I have read.  The back cover boasts Stephen King’s opinion as “One of the most horrifying thing I’ve ever read.  What a remarkable piece of work.”  Within the “Praise for” section, Science News claims The Hot Zone to be “more chilling than fiction,”  and Kirkus Reviews states that it is “A bone-chilling encounter with a lethal virus . . . a total convincing page-turner, proving that truth is scarier than fiction.”  Of course, I am not advocating less reading; I am suggesting more student-engaged reading.

During their journey through The Hot Zone, students will encounter specialized experts such as Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax, Veterinary Pathologist at USAMRIID (U. S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases); Colonel Gerald Jaax, Chief of the veterinary division at USAMRIID; Eugene Johnson, Civilian virus hunter for the Army; and Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, Chief of the Special Pathogens Branch of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.  As they travel from America to the rain forest of Africa and back to America, the students will also be introduced to the horrific characters Ebola and Marburg.  Preston creates a vivid image of the effects of these viruses through syntax and vocabulary that are straightforwardly accessible to students.  Teachers in conservative classrooms may need to prepare students and parents for Preston’s use of mature language.  Though this may take the extra effort of sending an approval letter to parents, the book and lesson opportunities it provides are well worth the effort.

How can this book cross the curriculum of nine difference courses?

  • The English class can combine the reading of Shakespeare with the reading of The Hot Zone.  Some compare the plague in Shakespeare’s London to Ebola.  This can lead to cross-curricular projects or research among the English, biology, history, health, economics, geography, and social studies classes.
  •  Art classes can contribute to the project by contributing drawings of various virus strains and cells.
  • Geography and social studies can contribute by examining the effects of the destruction of the earth’s rain forests.  Preston treats Ebola as a survivor; when one home is destroyed, it jumps to another.
  • Math classes can contribute by providing probability and statistic charts.
  • Economics classes can provide discussions on the cost of treatment or lack thereof.
  • History classes can provide research on the militaristic aspects of viruses from past to present.
  • The English class could also treat this book as a literary work of its own.  It is loaded with literary elements such as metaphors, similes, foreshadowing, and conflicts such as man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. self, and man vs. society.
A True Scientific Horror Story
A True Scientific Horror Story