Getting it right: beyond red check marks

by Kristin on October 11, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Nima Badiey

“I got so many wrong!” my 10-year-old complained, showing me her “Wordly Wise” vocabulary workbook.

My first thought was “Good.” It’s good for her to get some wrong, and to realize it’s OK—she doesn’t have to be perfect. Some kids need to shrug less when they get answers wrong, but there are plenty of kids who need to learn to shrug a bit more.

But when S showed me her “wrong” answers, my “relaxed parent” mode immediately gave way to “mama bear.” I was engulfed by dozens of frustrating memories from my own school days. Almost without fail, every bad school experience for me hinged on a teacher who was too black-and-white—who refused to acknowledge a child for thinking hard but in a different way, instead insisting that there was only one right answer, one right way.

Not learning between right & wrong

The big red check marks by my daughter’s work were perfect examples. Here are some of the questions; the kids are supposed to circle as many answers as apply:

Which of the following can be harbored: anger, a car, a runaway child, hatred

Which of the following is a character: Snow White, &, 9, optimism

Which of the following can be translated: paintings, music, books, laughter

Apparently you can’t harbor a car, even though to harbor something means “to give shelter to” (and you can harbor plenty of other things that aren’t boats).

Apparently optimism isn’t a character, even though one definition of character is “the qualities that make a person or place different or special.” (“I think optimism is a great quality to have,” my daughter told me.)

And no, apparently you can’t translate music, even though S is taking voice lessons and has been learning about the importance of translating songs into English so that you understand what’s being sung (she isn’t singing songs in other languages, mind you, but she is listening to many of them).

Thinking and advocating are “right”

“Did you explain to your teacher what you were thinking when you made those choices?” I asked. As a parent, this is not the sort of issue that I’ll intervene over, but I think it’s a perfect opportunity for a kid to practice advocating for herself.

“Yes, but she said she has an answer sheet she uses, with the only right answers on it.”

“That’s really frustrating, isn’t it?” I said. “I remember feeling exactly like that when I was a kid. You think it through so carefully and creatively, and you end up getting the whole question wrong, just like the kid who did it sloppily or didn’t do it at all.”

She nodded, relieved that I understood.

“But you know what? Who cares if you got it wrong? I don’t care if some answer sheet somewhere tells you it’s wrong. I only care that you’re really thinking it through. Because you’re smarter for thinking it through, and even for getting it wrong.”

After my little pep talk, I couldn’t help but think how much that applies to all of us, and to so much of life. There are rules and decisions that don’t make sense. There are rewards that are unfairly distributed. And there are moments when you’ll feel defeated, no matter how hard you try to do the right thing.

In the end, the only way to really be “right”—not in the eyes of the world, but in your own head and heart—is to really think, long and hard, and to make choices that feel right to you. Oh, and you need to practice letting those bright red check marks roll right off.

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  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Here a question from my daughter’s second-grade math test last week: “Jane is making muffins for her family, which number is the best choice: 5 or 50?” When my little girl circled 50 she had in mind her grandparents, six aunts and uncles, and dozen cousins. Turns out the teacher has a slightly smaller definition of family: “5″ was the “correct” answer.

  • http://www.rebeccasramsey.blogspot.com Becky Ramsey

    I’m in love with this post. The black and white thinking teacher bug MAKES ME CRAZY!
    Maybe it’s because I can so identify with your daughter.
    I’m crazy about: “In the end, the only way to really be “right”—not in the eyes of the world, but in your own head and heart—is to really think, long and hard, and to make choices that feel right to you. Oh, and you need to practice letting those bright red check marks roll right off.”
    Two of my sweeties have such a hard time letting those check marks roll off. (And I did too!) I started a new custom to deal with situations just like this. We put the paper on the fridge, X marks and all and celebrate the creative thinking! Hugs to your daughter!

  • Kirstin

    As a college teacher who has to deal with the products of our state’s public K-12 education, that assignment makes me want to scream. It would be an excellent starting point for talking about metaphorical and literal meanings of words. As an exercise in teaching vocabulary (with right and wrong answers), it discourages any notion that language can be a supple medium requiring thought and reflection. Such assignments teach kids to shut down their critical faculties while they root around for the magic answers that the teacher is looking for.

    And so I end up marking the papers of college students who are completely bewildered by the expectation that they read an argument, summarize its main points, and then engage with it critically. They regurgitate their class notes, they come to office hours to try to suss out what “I” think is right (or wrong) with the reading in question, they write papers saying “well, it can mean whatever you want it to mean,” they engage in all kinds of irrelevant busywork, all to avoid the frightening business of thinking independently.

    The idea that, as you say, you can be “smarter for getting it wrong” is SO important for actually learning anything! Your kids are really lucky to be getting it from you.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Ray, I love that your daughter thought big when she thought “family.” What a perfect example of the sort of thinking we don’t want schools to squelch.

    Becky, I can SO see myself in my daughter, too. It brings me right back to that angry/hurt/confused combination of feelings I so often had as a kid. And you know what the resulting impulse usually was, in my mind? “Why bother?” Why bother thinking hard and trying hard? Of course, I’m a glutton for punishment, so I *did* bother, over and over again (and fought my way through many an aggravating standardized test—those are the worst). Anyway, now, as a parent, I prefer the “let it roll off” approach over the “get really mad” approach. Your paper-on-the-fridge custom fits that perfectly!

    Kirstin, I’m going to have to shout a big Amen to this one: “Such assignments teach kids to shut down their critical faculties while they root around for the magic answers that the teacher is looking for.” You nailed it, in ways I couldn’t even begin to articulate (seeing as how I don’t teach college kids). This in particular really scares me about our nation: “…they engage in all kinds of irrelevant busywork, all to avoid the frightening business of thinking independently.” Where do we even begin to make a dent in this problem?

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    Oh, how frustrating! Talk about getting ‘em when they’re young and stomping out their creativity! This trained regurgitation just gets me–as if seeing only one solution is an adequate way to prepare children for real life. Those test questions are ridiculous–you could argue for all those answers! Sometimes it takes everything I’ve got to not write off schools as time-wasting holding pens, or processing plants designed to stamp out products that are all identical to one another.

    One of the things that helped me was to imagine my teacher–overworked, and perhaps a bit intimidated by unexpected questions and other ways of thinking she might not understand. In some way, having a ONE right answer must be soothing for her, must help her to deal with anxieties and uncertainty and feelings of inadequacy. Of course, her reaction was inappropriate. But perhaps it would help S to start learning to feel sorry for her teacher in that regard–this woman may go her entire life seeing only one answer, whereas S will go on to live a life that’s colored in, complete with gray areas and new universes and discoveries waiting to be made–a world where every kid and every answer fits in somewhere.

  • Craig

    and all I can think of is faith – sorry might be off topic (bowing head timidly)

    “Yes, but she said she has an answer sheet she uses, with the only right answers on it.”

    OK, first I’m Christian, there are rules to follow, lines not to cross, there for my protection as much as any other reason. I have to stop messing around with the rules. Sometimes 2+2=4 is just true darnit. But then there are those who cling to those rules like pieces of floating Titanic. We can become so rule-sy. We cling to our answer sheets like that teacher. We don’t find room in our hearts, or churches, for those who think outside of the steeple. I’ve been both: the one playing with the rules to suit my own purpose rather than God’s – and the one who refused to accept a thought or belief because it wasn’t “in the pale of orthodoxy”.

    Good for your daughter

    Good for you – for being the mama bear, but consoling her cub first, instead of only attacking the den disturber.

    Thank you for making me think.

    Stay in the big lines, add flavor to the recipe, console wounded hearts, relish “out of the box” thinking.

    God Bless

  • A

    Great post and so true. Am also shaking my head at Ray’s story — I mean, what if the family REALLY likes muffins? And who ever makes just 5 muffins? Talk about not giving enough info!!

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    Re: muffins: Haha, yeah, I would’ve been all, neither, since neither 5 nor 50 is divisible by 12, and hell if I’m gonna bake muffins and not fill the tin!

  • http://www.illinois.edu/goto/twike M@

    If you examine the history of public school elementary education in the US it was designed to prepare laborers for the work force (at the time, factory labor). Form follows function, and therefore THINKING was an undesirable trait as it interferes with acceptance and being able to repeat the “correct” process ad nauseum and en masse along with everybody else. Creativity is the ultimate in independent thought, and schools actively kill creativity:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

    His statement that it seems everybody has a story about how their creativity in school got squashed.

    What happens if a kiddo already knows the material, or S’s case has blown past the grade level to be able to “see behind the curtain?” They still move en masse at the crowd’s pace so that they all are prepared with the same toolset for the factory floor.

    Historically anyone that wanted non mass production education sent their children to private school or homeschooled (the ultimate private school). There are ways to do individualized education en masse, but it’s a little harder, can cost more (upfront — it’s invaluable in the long run) and a lot messier (more grey areas). (see Albanesi and Plato/NovaNET)

    The crux of the problem is the concept of grades. Competency is worth far more than a grade. Genevieve has the most competent answer, combining knowledge of the subject (baking) combined with arithmetic.

    Oh and Craig, darned or not, 2+2 does not always equal 4. 2+2 can equal 10 (base 4). Or biologically 2+2 can equal dozens of offspring. Only when you specify you’re working in base 10 (which is hardly ever specified — it’s assUme’d) does it equal 4, and a better mathematician than I could probably come up with examples where that fails as well. Welcome to the revelation that there is no box… so why worry one’s self to think inside it?

    There are 10 types of people that understand binary: those that do, and those that don’t. The sooner kiddos learn that there is no right answer, and that sometimes getting the wrong result supplied with an attempt to explain why is more valuable… real learning is ugly, messy thing filled with trial, error and mistakes.

    It’s invaluable to show kids how the creative thinkers can take what others perceive as failure to success: 3M Post-It notes being the classic example. The glue failed at what it was supposed to do, but later it took over the business world.

    May your child be a Post-It note.

    http://www.myprimetime.com/play/culture/content/postyourfailure/index.shtml

  • Robin

    Bravo to you Kristin for validating your daughter’s feelings and sharing your experiences with her. Bravo for going “Mama Bear” in a productive way that helped your child, rather than attacking her teacher, who is probably doing the best he/she can.

    That being said, boo for the teacher that offered a test that was so ambiguous! Being a teacher myself, I understand the stress that her teacher is under right now (yes, it’s that time of year when report cards and parent teacher conferences are coming, assessments are being given, things are in full swing and yet the kids are still trying to get into the routines and learning what the teacher expects). However, the teacher knows what is on the test and while I’m not advocating “teaching to the test,” it is important to prepare your students for the test. If the teacher is stuck doing the test as is and can’t give partial credit (because the school isn’t allowing it?) then he/she can certainly give props to the student for thinking outside the box. It would be much easier to swallow if the teacher said, I understand what you were thinking and I love that you put that much thought into it. I feel like the teacher not only missed a teachable moment with your daughter, but he/she missed an opportunity to build your daughter up, and that is the part that bothers me the most.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Genevieve, not to focus more than we need to on the ridiculous, but S brought a vocabulary test home yesterday, after I wrote this post, with this question: “A monstrous decision might make you feel: panicked, alarmed, concerned, or calm” (choose one best answer). I kid you not. How crazy is that?!? She chose “alarmed” and got it wrong. At any rate, I think the compassionate response to others (in this case the teacher) is always a good route to take. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Craig, that’s a good tie-in. Actually, as I was writing this post I was thinking of all the ways I could extend the analogy into adult life, but decided to keep it simple. I love when my readers keep pushing and stretching the ideas. This, in particular, is really making me think: “We cling to our answer sheets like that teacher. We don’t find room in our hearts, or churches, for those who think outside of the steeple.”

    A, that’s so funny and true. It seems like it would do us a lot of good if we practiced thinking like others—from thinking more like a child to thinking like a baker. Seeing different perspectives is so valuable.

    M@, it’s this aspect of public education that frustrates me the most: “They still move en masse at the crowd’s pace so that they all are prepared with the same toolset for the factory floor.” I fully realize how many limitations teachers are dealing with when it comes to resources, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, when you’re looking at kids who are bored and frustrated rather than excited and motivated. Thanks for the great links (love Ted Talks) and thoughts, especially the Post-It note example. I will definitely share that with my kids.

    Robin, I’m glad this post didn’t frustrate you! I think most teachers are amazing (my parents were teachers), and they’re working with so many limitations. My daughter’s classroom, for instance, has 32 kids in it (as does the other 5th grade), because the school district doesn’t have the money to add a third class. Anyway, you said exactly what I wish my daughter’s teacher had said; “I understand what you were thinking and I love that you put that much thought into it.” In the end, I honestly don’t care if she gets “wrong” answers, I just want her to feel confident in the path she took to get there.

  • Kirstin

    KT, I’m having flashbacks here–is this the Leal 5th grade? The vocab curriculum they use is…[rummaging for PG-rated language here]….poorly designed. To put it mildly. R. wrestled with it all last year.