Stitch — thread — What we can learn from a B-

Smack dab in the Rust Belt — 1958 — the sound of adolescent feet shuffling from one High School class to another sounded the same as it does today — Lancaster, Ohio. 17 years old and Robert G Heft is getting a B- on a project. His senior portrait a year later finds him to be someone who might get lost among his peers — blazer, thin black tie, even blacker hair sweeping like a pendulum or the bottom of a bowl, from right to left across his moon-pale forehead. There was nothing about him — in the portrait or in any accounting of his high school life — that would suggest he might have been misunderstood. There was also nothing there — no X Factor or dream trying to pry itself out from behind his eyes — that pointed toward the fact he might be capable of creating the next All American icon.

Who knows what the criteria for the project were. Hand-drawn? Nothing larger than 8”X11”? No bleeding markers? Did Heft’s use of cloth count against him? Was that in the rubrics? What did rubrics look like in 1958? Maybe he handed it in late. Or forgot to put his name on it. At the end of the day, there were no two or three ways around it…He got a B-. And he thought he deserved better.

Can we go in together on an inference? FACT: His grade was later changed to an A based on a deal he made with the teacher. All Heft needed to do was find another reputable source… another “judge”, to find his project “A” worthy. If Heft was a punk… or had he handed it in late… or had he disqualified himself by some other set of rules, why would a teacher offer this kind of retribution? Can we agree that the teacher was allowing the student to make an argument based ONLY on the QUALITY of his work.

I can see Heft’s work every day. So can you. There is one in front of every school, at the ballpark, adorning homes in the neighborhood, and in every single American classroom. When his design for the American Flag was chosen by the US Government to symbolically represent our country for what is now 59 years, it created a learning point for any educator who is willing to look at his or her craft every day in an effort to better understand what it is we are trying to do. We just have to ask the right questions.

Was Heft consistently a B- student? Was he “framed” by his assessment history? Hey, we are all human and NONE (read: NONE) of us are innocent when it comes to ‘eyeballing’ student work. Whether it was graded right after Sunday’s chili with a glass of wine or during “The Walking Dead” and come cough medicine might make all the difference. But also in the mix is the work we need to put into establishing, teaching, sustaining, and upholding criteria.

When we take the time to understand what we want our children to understand, we are getting there. Making the effort to chisel out the Statue of David ourselves instead of giving each child a cinderblock not only do we give our students a clear picture (exemplar) of what we want them to learn… they also are emboldened by the sweat we’ve left at its base.

When we do this the right way, we forfeit our right to give Heft a B- without a second thought.

Think of criteria/rubrics/shared expectations as the angel on your shoulder. Sure, it’s metaphorically delusional, but it also is there to remind you that without hard work, a student can’t achieve anything. The only problem is we’ve spent sometimes entire careers thinking the hard work had to come from our students instead of ourselves.

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