Students Pass on Grade Stress

(When They Can)

By Mark Nepper

When Covid forced schools to move to online learning in the spring of 2020, teachers at my school received one simple instructional caveat: Do no harm.

Toward that end the district froze the grades of all students to keep them from sliding in a negative direction. If students were passing as of March 13th, they could receive no lower grade than they had at that point. By completing work for the remainder of the semester, though, their grades could improve.

We saw an interesting trend among our high school…


By Mark Nepper

“Ok, let’s get started!”

Every school year, every day before every class I either said or thought these words.

They marked a beginning, signaling it was time to get going. I often thought of the mantra as starter’s call to runners before a race. “Runners take your mark.” Poised and on the mark, knowing everything would soon become hectic, the words prepare you to focus on the action ahead.

On the first day of school, after saying “OK, let’s get started,” we would, indeed, get started, begin the process of establishing routines, developing a community, moving into…


By Mark Nepper

Nathan met me in the Writing Lab to discuss an essay he hoped to submit to a writing contest. This occurred in my first year of teaching — 30 years ago at a high school in Madison, Wis.

“We have to write about the importance of technology in school. What role technology plays now, and what role we think it will play in the future,” Nathan said, excitement coloring his words. I wondered what focus his essay would take.

“Computers, of course,” Nathan said. We talked some more. I liked to think I was fairly tech savvy…


By Mark Nepper

I could feel the sadness and longing in the words she wrote. Her honest confession showed yet one more way that the pandemic quarantine is creating hardships for students. But not just students. Many of us miss the simple act of hugging.

My student says she misses her friends. She wrote in her weekly journal for class that she can’t wait to see them again. She wants to give them a big hug.

“I’ve always loved my friends. But I think I took them for granted. I will never do that again. …


A Love Letter by Mark Nepper

Never Doubt That a Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens Can Change the World; Indeed, It’s the Only Thing That Ever Has. Margaret Mead

On a cold but sunny Saturday in early March that year, I walked the length of State Street in Madison, wondering what the next two hours would be like. I knew, though, what the past three hours were like, and what the past three weeks were like.

I walked by piles of old snow and blew cloud vapors into the air. I carried my protest sign like a shield. “Lost causes -” it said, “the only…


A Letter of Gratitude

A teacher’s day, week, month, year burst with transitions. Some elements of our work flow smoothly from the conclusion of one unit or set of skill instructions into the next. Other transitions prove more difficult. As a teacher of semester-long classes the transition between the first and second semester always proves the hardest for me. I find it sad to contemplate the ending of one dynamic community and then have to instantaneously begin preparing for a new group of students. We get a weekend to switch the mind set.

I mourn the last day with a…


By Mark Nepper

This is a story of two moments, two movements, happening within 15 minutes of each other. One brought me to my nadir. One brought me to my zenith. It reminded me of this crazy dance we as educators do with our students.

A student recently informed me that they could no longer continue to participate in a club I advise. The student cited several reasons for ending their three-year participation in the activity. Primarily, membership had dwindled, and this student didn’t see value in trying to continue with something that was over, especially when other responsibilities beckoned…


By Mark Nepper

To Whom It May Concern:

It gives me great pleasure to recommend Ethan for admission to your institution. Ethan enrolled in three of my classes through his high school career. He is a student who has achieved academic success and possesses great potential. He has inspired me and students in class with his work ethic, his writing ability and his thoughtful commentary. You will be pleased to admit him to your upcoming class.

Blah, Blah, Blah. That induces as much boredom reading it as it did writing it. But my college recommendation letters often read like that…


By Mark Nepper

Final exams used to cause students extreme stress. Many would start studying weeks before the exams arrived. They would lose sleep during exam week as the prepared for the tests. They would look haggard as the week progressed.

When I started my educational career students showed me they place great stock in how they performed on these assessments. They viewed it as a representation of what they had learned in the class. So they studied. Really hard.

Much of that has changed.

Students in a writing class I teach at West High school in Madison, Wis., admit…


By Mark Nepper

After singing a Willy Nelson tune, “Funny how time slips away,” he stepped down from the podium and walked slowly down the center aisle, and then the side aisle, moving toward the exit. The song lyrics reverberated in my head, perfect lyrics to mark the end of a teaching career. As he moved through the audience, people reached out to touch him, to shake his hand.

He touched those hands as he moved out of Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., humbly taking his final bows.

Those who reached out to touch him, his former students, wanted one…

Mark Nepper

Mark is an English teacher at West High School and a director of the Greater Madison Writing Project.

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