Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Gentleman's C

Last week, my daughters received their second term report cards. The changes in report card formats introduced in Ontario this school year (see here) meant that this was the first report they've received in Grade 6 to feature actual letter grades. In all subjects, both girls received grades of A-, A, or A+. This should be cause for praise and celebration, right? Well, yes and no.

Along with the report cards, a letter was sent home to parents of Grade 6 students detailing the awards their sons and daughters are eligible to win in their graduating year. The letter explains,
...students have much to look forward to in the last term of school as they begin to set goals for improvement in term 3. This is a perfect time to announce the graduation awards' criteria. Every grade 6 student upon completion of their grade 6 program will receive a graduation certificate. In addition to celebrating graduating classes, there will be special awards presented in the areas of Arts, Sports and Academics as follows[.]
The letter goes on to delineate the various awards, which include the catch-all Honour Roll ("Awarded to all students who have received all level 4 grades [A-, A, A+] in the following subjects: English, French and Math"), the traditional yet amorphously-defined "spirit" or "character" awards, and awards in specific subjects such as music and phys. ed. (but interestingly, not math or science).

If awards were based on this term's report cards, both my daughters would qualify for the Honour Roll. But frankly, I'd be happier if there were no Honour Roll; in fact, I'd be thrilled if the school scrapped the awards ceremony altogether. I believe kids—11-year-olds in this instance—are already under enough pressure to perform. They should not have to expend additional energy in their final term worrying about keeping their marks up, knowing that one slip-up on a test could prevent their name from being engraved on the 2011 honor roll plaque to be prominently displayed in the school's front hall for all to see, forever!* My daughters work hard enough, fret about their schoolwork enough. They shouldn't have to concern themselves with year-end awards too. Yet they know that many of their over-worked, over-scheduled, high-achieving friends will "make" Honour Roll. They would feel embarrassed and disappointed if they did not do the same.

But for me the issue is not merely personal: there are valid educational grounds to oppose awards ceremonies as well. For instance, whatever happened to the notion of intrinsic motivation? Hasn't a half-century's educational and pedagogical research shown that true learning does not spring from prodding kids with carrots and sticks, as if they were lab rats in some dubious behaviourist experiment? Hasn't more recent research demonstrated pretty convincingly that kids learn best in the absence of intense external pressure to perform? Why, then, is it considered so controversial when a school actually heeds this research and re-conceives the traditional awards ceremony so as to reward the individual efforts and achievements of all graduating students? (See an account of a BC school that has done just that, here, here and here.)

I don't know the answers to these questions. And clearly, it's too late for me to agitate for the abolition of the awards ceremony at our school. To be honest, I'm pretty certain most parents would object to such a change as strongly as the principal and teachers. So what can parents of soon-to-graduate 6th graders do to mitigate the pressure emanating from the school to "achieve"—in the narrowest definition of the term—at all cost?

My unorthodox solution was to introduce my kids to the concept of the "Gentleman's C." I sat the girls down and told them how, in the early part of the last century, at American (mostly Ivy League) universities, "gentlemen" believed that to work too hard or long at academics meant you didn't know how to enjoy life. I dutifully explained the classism (and sexism) inherent in such a notion—how the self-identified "gentlemen" who espoused such views were privileged enough not to have to worry about C's affecting their chances of finding gainful employment. Cutting to the chase, I told them, "For these "fun-loving" students, to achieve straight A's would have been almost unseemly. A grade of C was considered perfectly adequate for a "gentleman." I chose not to belabour the point, hoping merely to plant a seed of doubt in my daughters' minds as to the value of high marks. I concluded my "lecture lite" with a charming verse from a 1909 poem by Judge Robert Grant called "Extinct Harvard":
The able-bodied C man! He sails swimmingly along.
His philosophy is rosy as a skylark's matin song.
The light of his ambition is respectably to pass,
And to hold a firm position in the middle of his class.
I didn't bother to mention that the poem is satire. But the looks on my kids' faces told me they knew.

*Grade 6 students must also contend with the pressures of EQAO, the province's standardized tests. But that is a topic for another post.

1 comment:

  1. The idea that the purpose of going to school is to accumulate good grades is so pervasive that it's well-nigh impossible to root out.

    I had the following conversation with Older Daughter:

    OD: I got 100% on the last two science tests!

    Me: Wow, that's great! What were the tests about?

    OD: One was about atoms ... I forget what the other one was about.

    And there you have it.