The Content of Their Character

Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it seemed a good time to reflect on words he said that inspired much of the nation to push toward equality for all people, regardless of their circumstances, outward appearance, social standing, cultural heritage, and so forth.  He died too soon, of course (he was 39 years old), and probably could have made much more progress had he lived.  If I were a social studies teacher, I might come up with an assignment that asks, “What would MLK have done if he were alive on April 5, 1968?

[pullquote]I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[/pullquote]As an English teacher, I’m focused on words.  His most famous speech is the “I Have a Dream” speech, the text of which you can find here.  Imagine my surprise when I heard from my students that they were heartily sick of this speech, as much as they were sick of the Gettysburg Address.  For them, the dream remains unfulfilled.  Sure, they say, they aren’t outwardly discriminated against.  They don’t have to use separate bathrooms and water fountains.  They don’t have to ride in the back of the bus.  They can go to school with white children.  They can even have relationships with whomever they choose.  Yet, the dream remains unfulfilled, they say.  Outwardly, they are not discriminated against, but there is still that hostility among white people that they feel, that instinctive habit among them to judge them “by the color of their skin,” not “by the content of their character.”

I found that interesting and disheartening at the same time.  In graduate school, we went through an exercise that exposed our prejudices.  For many of us, it was a dismaying experience.  We never realized that we held prejudices against certain cultural or ethnic groups.  It was the first step toward eliminating those prejudices.  Many of us were going into urban education; we needed to get rid of those “demons,” or it would hamper our ability to be effective -not just as teachers, but as human beings.  Having grown up in an urban environment myself, I had already done a lot of work to exorcise those demons.  Did my students still feel that I judged them on the basis of their outward appearance?

Fortunately, they said they did not. They said they never would have admitted to being sick of the speech if they thought for a minute that I was harboring that hostility.

The conversation ended with me saying, “I don’t really care what you look like.  I care about how you act toward others, about your work ethic, and about your progress as a person.”  In other words, I truly care about the content of their character.  What makes the “I Have a Dream” speech so powerful today is that it still resonates with many and it generates conversations such as the one I had with my students, even if that conversation was “rocky” at the start.  In the end, it brought us to a new place.  It’s a conversation I will never forget.

Learning versus Academic Success

In the post on standards-based grading, I asked a couple of questions at the end of the post.  Basically, I was asking about the difference between learning and academic success.

If you are new to education, you may have heard the term, “doing school” or “gaming the system.” If you are not new to education, I’m pretty sure you have heard the terms and are probably thinking, “Oh, no, not another post on this!”  It is an important topic, though, so I thought I would post something about it here.

One day I was a participant in a training session about managing transcripts.  Related to that is, of course, the dreaded GPA.  As I was listening (yes, I really was), I started thinking back to the late 80s, when I was in high school.  Then, I couldn’t have cared less about my GPA, but watched as many classmates bit their fingernails to the nub over it and their class rank.  Those who were most successful improving their GPA were those who learned how to “do school.”  After hearing my trainer’s story, I had to wonder: Do those who outperform everyone else actually learn more?

In my trainer’s story, class rank and GPA took priority over becoming a well-educated human being.  The Valedictorian in her graduating class loaded his schedule with as many study halls as he could take in his senior year so his GPA would stay very high and he would ‘earn’ that spot. Meanwhile, his main competition (my colleague) decided to take a music theory course that counted for the usual number of credits, and other courses in which she would actually learn something important to her. He did win the valedictory spot and she did end up as Salutatorian. If it had been a fair competition, she may have won. In fact, since I know her, I know she would have won!

Mr. Valedictorian learned how to “game the system.” Ms. Salutatorian learned something else, something she would remember throughout her career as a cellist.

What are we teaching our kids when we ask them to win, no matter how they win? We are teaching them that what they do in school does not really matter. We are saying to them, “Spending days in study hall to maintain that GPA is all right; after all, what you learn in high school is ‘bogus’ anyway.  It is what you’ll learn in college that is more important.”

For this reason, I am glad that my high school did not have study halls, electives that were basically study-hall in disguise, or any other such nonsense. Each one of us had to take courses that would prepare us for college. Each of us had to spend hours each night on homework. Many of us had a long commute to school because we wanted to attend that school and were willing to make the sacrifice. What we learned in those courses made (for me at least) college a breeze compared to high school. I still consider freshman year of high school to be the hardest year of school of my academic career. It was because of the program I struggled through that I can honestly say I believe I am a well-educated and independent learner. Teachers showed me how to use the tools, then told me to go out into the world and use them.

What are we telling kids like Mr. Valedictorian? That he can skirt by, do the bare minimum, and still be considered successful. Perhaps that is the real problem with school today. Perhaps what we are teaching kids is to aim for mediocrity. How does that translate to college and career readiness?

Related Article:

Do the Traditional Grade Levels Still Work for Today’s Students?

In my last post, I asked a few questions related to standards-based and competency-based education. The second question was “Do the traditional grade levels still apply in our century?”

Rather than answer the question outright, I thought I would just pose some more questions.

  1. When we group children by age, are we doing a disservice to them by not exposing them to social groupings they would encounter in the real world, which are comprised of people of all ages?
  2. Does social promotion really help a child, or is it just a way to move a child through the system without regard for his or her academic progress and readiness to learn?
  3. If we did adopt a competency-based education framework for our school(s), would we have to leave behind the notion of grades, especially in the secondary schools? Would that work?
  4. Would it be better to offer classes based on competency, such as what they would offer in college, at the secondary level? In other words, rather than take “Ninth Grade English,” why not offer “Composition 101” to all students?
  5. [pullquote]If we changed to SBE or CBE, would our secondary education count for more than a stepping stone to college? Would those who do not have a college degree become more “employable,” and not need to go to college to get a good job?[/pullquote]Does it really matter if a child graduates high school at 17, 18, 19, or 20 as long as he or she graduates and can demonstrate mastery of the standards and competencies prescribed by that district? What does it tell us about the curriculum if it is rigorous enough that students are not graduating “on time”?
  6. If we changed to SBE or CBE, would our secondary education count for more than a stepping stone to college? Would those who do not have a college degree become more “employable,” and not need to go to college to get a good job?
  7. Would CBE allow teachers to really focus on a select set of competencies for each course instead of a wide array of standards?
  8. Would extending the school year make sense if we moved toward CBE?

Those are the questions I have come up with on this New Year’s morning. On that note, I want to wish everyone who reads this a very happy new year.