Why I (mostly) love writing report cards

Have you recovered from your fainting spell?  Do you need some smelling salts? Some orange juice? A moment to catch your breath?  Go ahead, have at me.  You love writing report cards?!? Are you crazy?!?  Aren’t they the bane of every teacher’s existence?!?

That certainly seems to be the consensus but, to quote Martin Sheen on the West Wing, “as a lifelong holder of minority opinions” I beg to differ.

Writing report cards offers me the opportunity to write, which I love – you may have noticed.  I get to write about children, one of my favourite topics.  These are the children I spend my days with, watching them like a detective or like a pirate trying to ferret out treasure.  I take notes, recording what they do and say.  I take photos, I take videos, I save samples of their work, sometimes suffering through intense negotiations: “Can Madame just keep your painting for a few days, please? What if I take a picture of your painting, can I keep that?”  They aren’t always keen on relinquishing their artistic treasures to their pirate teacher.

So I go on collecting like some kind of crazed reality show horder until I can finally share what I’ve collected in a report card.  For me, it’s a beautiful opportunity to share my observations, my discoveries, and my insights.  Sure, I speak to parents on the phone, I talk to them in the schoolyard, I write a newsletter and I keep this blog but there’s something special about the report card.  The report card I write for a four-year-old today will probably outlive me.  It will be filed away someplace safe, perhaps to be pulled out on special occasions.  It’s an enormous privilege to be part of someone’s life in that way, to midwife their passage into school, and I don’t take it lightly.  There is a sacredness to writing report cards that I feel often gets lost in our irritation with the formatting and the data entry system.  Because of its formality, it is a special moment of communication between a family and a teacher.

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Now… I did say ‘mostly’… here’s the part I don’t like (thankfully a part I don’t have to reckon with this year).  I don’t like assigning numbers to children.  Numbers give us the illusion of objectivity, as though we might be measuring something like barometric pressure or the distance to the moon (both of which are also subjective when you think about it since someone had to invent the units of measurement!).  But we’re not measuring anything so solid, in fact.  We’re assigning numbers to children, organizing them based on criteria (criteria we create) and, in my view, dehumanizing them little by little.  There are winners and losers, those who leave school waving their numbers high over their heads and those who leave dejected.  Numbers also erase all the complexity that I love writing about.  All the nuances are wiped away in favour of something we can average, compare, and analyze.  What is gained?  I wish I new.  Having attended a very rigorous school that doesn’t provide letter grades, I can attest to the fact that grades don’t equal rigour.  In fact, I never worked harder than when I wasn’t working for letter grades.

No report cards are more precious to me than the ones that were written by people who cared about me and really knew me as a learner.  I pull them out occasionally when I need to remember why I teach.  I hope my students will do the same some day.

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