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Once, when I was doing my student teaching, I created a test for a “Business Communications” unit. Back then it was all about me, so I titled it “The Greatest Business Communication Test Ever” or something just as ridiculous–because, in my mind–I was the Muhammad Ali of teaching.

Anyway, for some reason, I thought it was pretty damn good. A great measure of achievement. But after I’d given it, and began correcting it, I soon realized that something was wrong. The students were bombing.

These were seniors at Elk Mound High School. The best and the brightest. We’d covered the material inside and out, and we’d done it with gusto.  It was a fun class. The students loved me (remember, everything was about me). I expected each of them to knock the test out of the park. Not because it was easy–but because they knew it (because I was a shooting, shining star of a teacher dammit).

Heh . . .

About five tests into correcting it, I realized something wasn’t right. Another ten or fifteen tests, and I began to recognize a pattern: students kept repeating variations of the same wrong answers.

It was weird.

Like Sherlock Holmes, I dug deeper.  Then it hit me. Many of the answers weren’t really wrong!

GASP!!

As it turned out, a lot of the questions were vague enough to allow two (or more) different answers! It all depended on how you read the question and from what source you drew your answer–lecture notes (me-brilliant remember) or the book.

So there I was, 20 tests graded, 20 terrible scores (I’m talking D’s and F’s for students very used A’s), and me with no clear path out of this mess. I was a little over half way through grading. The tests were already marked up.  To make matters worse, after reading the questions over again, and again, and again, and then reviewing the book, and the variety of answers — I was starting to get confused myself!

Still–I couldn’t backtrack now and change all the marks and grades.

That would only make me look stupid–creating an unsolvable paradox in the students’ minds:  How can somebody so brilliant be so stupid?

Impossible!

And yet . . .

It was a complete Farkboingstumblemuck.

Then I had a brainstorm.

This was a communications class right? We’d studied all kinds of business writing and persuasive methods right? So I made a decision. I’d continue to mark them all wrong. Everything I could find.

Basically the entire class bombed.

You should have seen the looks on their faces when I handed those tests back. It didn’t take long for the objections to start.

“Grades are final,” I said. “Unless. . . you can craft a letter persuading me to change my mind. Be clear, be concise. Explain your point of view. Provide ample evidence for your argument. This won’t be easy.  But if you can convince me to change your grade–I will.”

The letters had to be professional–typed, signed, the whole bit.

It was great.

I tell you I’ve never seen letters so well crafted. A thing of beauty. All the anger and confused emotional energy converted to productivity and channeled right into those letters. It gave them a sense of control. Of purpose. Of power.

No longer were they helpless students at the mercy of an authority figure.

Anyway it worked so well that I often still use a variation of that assignment today with my eighth grade students.

Don’t want a detention? Explain to me in writing why you don’t deserve one. Think you should have gotten more time to complete that assignment? Convince me in writing.

I handed back a big portfolio project today. A couple of students didn’t think they got a fair shake. They knew the routine. This is what I got:

Dear Mr. Wondra,

This is a very unfair circumstance. I had two percent knocked off of the total percent. This was due to you not giving me the appropriate information. I was home ill and when I came back, you gave me an assignment but no direction to empty out the rest of my binder.

I was gone the day you gave this information out to our class when A__ asked about this direction. M___ and A___ will both vouch for me that I was absent that day due to the fact that I was suffering of sickness.

I know you understand that this is an unfair gesture towards me. I will make a deal with you Mr. Wondra: if you find this letter not up to your expectations, you can give me a 99% out of the 100% that I worked hard for and deserve. I know that a 98% is good but I deserve the grade that I worked hard for.

H___

This one came with a title:

This Is Why I Deserve a 100%

By: A___ M___

Now I understand that a 99% is a good grade. It is quite unfair for me to understand why I got a 99% when I know I deserve a 100% on the project I worked very hard on.  You gave me a ninety-nine percent because you said I didn’t type up my table of contents. But I never even knew we had to do such a thing.

I may be hard of hearing, but I know I would have caught you saying such a thing. I even have looked on the rubric of requirements and it does not say typing the table of contents is required. If I had known that not typing out my table of contents brought my grade down, I would have typed it up. If you still believe that that should be required for me to get the grade I deserve, which is a 100%, then I will type it up right now for you.

Thank you for your time.