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Teaching and assessing character: Part 3

favicon There has been a lot of talk lately (this radio show, this book) about how teaching character skills can promote long-term academic achievement and life success among students.

In my first post, I narrowed down a lengthy list of 24 performance skills to a tidier, more manageable five.

In my second post, I tried to define those five character skills: zest, grit, self-control, empathy, and integrity.

Now comes the post about why. In this era of No Child Left Behind, in this time of standardized testing and academic achievement and content standards, why would I — why would any teacher — devote class time and energy into the teaching, assessment, and development of performance skills?

One way to answer that question is with a moral argument. In addition to teaching my students how to read and write, I believe strongly that it is my job to help my students become good and strong people so that they can persevere, advocate for themselves, and keep learning.

(The statistics that Paul Tough offers in his book is also pretty convincing.)

OK, that’s a start. But can’t I do that informally? In other words, do I need to make performance skills a dedicated part of my grading scheme?

I think yes. What I value is what I give time for in class and what I grade. I can talk about grit all I want, but until I explicitly teach it (by naming it, defining it, modeling it, identifying it, and having students demonstrate it) and assess it, then I’m just hoping that it happens. By making character skills a part of my class, I send the message that they’re important and that they’re not personality traits — rather, that they are attainable skills that all students can practice and improve.

Now maybe I’m getting somewhere. But over the past few years, I’ve tried to move toward standard-based grading — or at least in the direction of moving my gradebook toward mastery-driven skills. Wouldn’t grading performance skills be a shift away from that goal?

Perhaps, but I think I’ve come to terms that grading shouldn’t be entirely standard-based. Instead, grading should be about what is valuable to be learned. I got rid of my traditional grading scheme long ago because I don’t value quizzes and tests and projects and homework in and of themselves. Rather, I value reading and writing and exhibiting solid habits of work. Therefore, if I believe that character skills are important, then they should be reflected in my grading, even if it’s impossible for students to master them.

After all, I believe there is a part of standard-based grading that is disingenuous. It may seem right to base grades on student achievement on an outcome; it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you master an objective by the end of the semester. But frankly, if the standard is to analyze a fictional text at the ninth grade level, and I’m reading at the fourth grade level in September and then the eighth grade level in June, shouldn’t I rewarded as much or more for my grit (and other character skills) than the kid who began reading at the 10th grade level?

Yes, this is getting both too abstract and too complicated at the same time. But it’s a first stab at figuring out why teaching and assessing character skills matter. And it’s also a little foray to suggest that there is no such thing as a fair grading system, so I might as well grade what I think is most important.

Your thoughts? favicon

2 comments

  1. Susan

    I’m more interested in knowing how much of yourself & your personal history you will bring into the conversation in order to explain the character traits. It’s one thing to teach readin’ writin’ ‘rithmetic; another to teach/explain/model grit. What does that lesson plan look like? ♡

Please share your brilliant insights!