Child Development and the Report Card Problem

This article appeared in my Facebook feed this week and I was intrigued.  It’s written by a paediatrician and summarizes his observations from 25 years of practice.  The one that struck me most from a teaching perspective is number 3, about cyclical growth.

There is a rhythm and pulse to each child’s life – sometimes fast and intense, sometimes slow and quiet. Just as each spring brings a renewed sense of appreciation for life, each stage of a child’s life is a time of new discovery and wonder. After all, learning is not just a process of accruing information. It’s the process of transforming our ideas, and sometimes this requires forgetting in order to see with fresh eyes. Some children will take a step backward before making a giant leap forward. 
 
We just finished writing and sending home report cards a few weeks ago.  I like writing report cards, a minority view to be sure.  Most teachers I’ve met dread them, a position I understand if not one that I share.  While I enjoy writing them and feel that it is an important and even sacred moment in our communication with parents, I don’t like the lack of flexibility in the timing of report cards.  A child’s development knows nothing of reporting periods and paperwork; it follows its own rhythms and dances to the tune of no master.  We have seen children blossom over the past two weeks for whom we struggled to write adequate comments at report card time.  All of a sudden, they’re giving us a tonne of data – they’re coming into their own.  If only I could write their report card now!  I understand, from a perspective of administrative convenience, why it’s important that all the report cards go out at once, on a fixed timetable, but as I document some of the astonishing growth we’ve seen lately, I wish I could go back in time.

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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.