Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Best Ofs

I'm not particularly the formally competitive type (though I like to be the "winner" in nearly every aspect of my personal and professional lives - more on that later), but I do love a good competition. And summer is always chock-a-block full of the contests, races, rankings, and ratings that I both marvel at and appreciate. From magazine "Best Of" listings to the Olympics, competition seems to be the name of the summer game.

So bring on summer. So far this season, I've had the pleasure of trying Maine's "Best Veggie Burger," the pride of crossing fingers for a former student at the USA swimming and diving trials in Omaha, the wonder of following the two runners who actually tied for third in an Olympic-qualifying race, and Dana Torres, and Oscar Pistorius, the too-infrequent contentment of watching the 2012 Euro Cup, and the sheer joy of placing bets for dinner over the length of time it would take to travel in a loaded moving truck from one state to another with a tire low on air (thanks, Northeast derecho).

Of course, it's these healthy competitions that we want to celebrate. Competition drives us to strive diligently, to create with abandon, to think broadly, and to assess our own capacities in the striving, creating, and thinking arenas. And this last element of competition is the one that I find most important, the one that I believe we must instill in our students and children: the knowing of oneself, the competition within.

When I pass back the first graded work of the school year to my students, inevitably someone will turn to someone else and ask, "What did you get?" It happens in nearly every class, and it's a most teachable moment. I get that we are inclined to measure ourselves against each other, but it's that inclination that I want to eradicate, and the earlier the better. For simply put, the work within a classroom is not developed and delivered so that students are in competition with each other, but rather so that students internalize their successes (or failures) and determine their own courses to improve upon their own performances. So I often cut that question off (or hopefully, address it before it even gets asked), and share with the entire class my stand on the purpose of asking it and the purpose of graded work.

First, I contend, one only asks another what he received for a grade in order to share with him what one's own grade is. It's the rare student who receives a low grade and asks around to see what everyone else earned; typically, the high scorers are quicker to the question. So this, then, becomes an unhealthy competition: tell me what you got, so I can better your grade with my own. That's simply egocentrism, and while this approach is completely appropriate for 14-year-olds, it's a less narcissistic self-focus that I want to encourage. I say, "Compete with yourself, strive for yourself, do well for yourself."

And second, I believe that the whole point of grades is to mark an individual student's progress in relation to her prior performance. In this day of interventions, modifications, adaptations, and accommodations, students should be measured against themselves, not against each other. That is the true purpose of benchmarks, really, despite the relatively contradictory implication of their use. Yes, they establish a point of reference against which we can measure all students, but isn't individual progress way more important?

I'll remind myself of these beliefs as I venture through the summer, too. No hot dog eating contests for me, unless I just want to eat a lot of hot dogs for my own pleasure (highly doubtful). Less complaining about Maine's supposed best lobster roll, which is not at Red's Eats, by the way, but here. And of course, tuning in to the Olympics, where competitors surely race and swim and compete against each other, but only because they've focused on themselves for so very long and with such very successful results.

Cheers to competition!!

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