Image courtesy of Mark Teasdale
For many of the British Commonwealth countries around the world, Remembrance Day is set aside for honouring those who have died fighting for their countries. One of the traditions around this holiday is the wearing of bright red plastic or cloth poppies, a ritual connected to the poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, a Canadian physician serving in Beligium in the First World War. Today, the Royal Canadian Legion in Canada sells poppies by donation, money that goes towards the veterans and their families.
As a child, I didn’t understand the importance of the poppy and I remember my friend and I bought up as many poppies as we could and put them on our jackets and shirts. To us, this was something that we could afford. We could put in five or ten cents in the bucket each time we saw someone selling them. We thought we were so cool, that was until one veteran saw us doing this and asked us what we were up to. We sheepishly explained that we were collecting them. He smiled and asked us if we knew what the poppy meant. Of course we didn’t, so he took the time to explain it in a gentle and thoughtful way. I remember us feeling pretty stupid afterward and gave him back all of our poppies, minus one each.
My problem was that I treated the poppy as a commodity, something to be bought, traded for, and displayed as a symbol of pride. What I hadn’t realized was how it was something completely different. Instead, the poppy is a symbol of unity and remembrance. A chance for us to show our support for others, whether rich or poor, common or famous, powerful or weak, we are all the same. It is about identity, a sign to others that we belong to this group, not standing up as individuals. The poppy itself is nothing more than plastic and metal, worthless material made valuable through the action of giving to others.
I don’t know why that came to mind today, but it started me thinking about how we treat assessment in the classroom. Just like the way I treated the poppy, some teachers and students see marks and grades as a commodity, something to collect and show off. It is a badge of pride, not support. Collecting badges, marks, or grades is a singular action with little support for the group as a whole. Amongst students and parents, it is something to displayed as a symbol of individual pride.
Now before I hear about the need to live in the real world, I think it is important to think about what we would like the real world to look like. Do we want to continue fighting each other for superiority, or would we rather that we start supporting one another, identifying ourselves as the group rather than as I? I did this. I got that. I made those. I won these. This thinking shows itself in so many areas. I earned this money, so why should I spend it helping those who are in need? What if we started thinking about people as us, not them.
This is my dream for the classroom, a place where people help one another NOT for the mark or individual recognition, but as a group that identifies itself through the support and encouragement of many. Each person gives to the group that which they have, sharing their expertise and time to grow as a unit. I wish for a place where learning is the ultimate goal, not the byproduct of achievement. I know it is idealistic and won’t amount to much in the end, but you can’t harm me for holding out hope, can you?
Before I sign off, I want to say thank you to each person who has served their country in war. I don’t like war and I lean more towards pacifism, but I also am intelligent enough to know that in this world, there are going to be times that we need to defend that which is right. I wear my poppy not to glorify war, but to remember the devastation and loss because of it and pray for peace.
5 thoughts on “Remembering”
Assessment is such a hard thing. In many ways, I hope the same like you that students will endeavor to learn and improve for the sake of learning and improving. One time I had two English classes (all Americans), and I wanted them to be able to work through writing a rhetorical analysis as a group to have a benchmark before turning it in. I used a class wiki and had everyone contribute a paragraph here, a line there, an example there. I then gave feedback at the draft evolved and told them what grade the paper would get if submitted as is–which was an E at the time. A couple students revised it and then it was at a D according to my rubric, and there it remained. I even tried to get the classes to compete by sharing collective grade with the other class, hoping that competition might inspire action, but once they both got to a D, all other work stopped.
I asked the class if they were going to do anything else, and they said if it wasn’t required, they weren’t.
In a way, I felt like Garth Algar: “It’s like, people only do things because they get paid, and that’s just really sad.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjB6r-HDDI0).
Maybe it’s because I’m the kind of guy that contributes to Wikipedia articles or reports dead links, but I wish more people just learned for the sake of it. Can you manufacture the desire to learn and work as a team?
First off, thanks for the comment, Bill. I appreciate your insight.
I have to admit that there was a time in my life that I was like your students. I was happy to just pass to get out of that assignment / class. I don’t think it was anything against the teacher, but I just wasn’t motivated to do any more than that.
Obviously, something has changed. Maybe it is just that I am older now, or it could be that I have found something I really enjoy. Whatever the reason, I seem to forget that there are times when others don’t have the same enthusiasm as I do for that particular subject. And that is the ticket. It often points back to me. I’m not saying that is what happened to you. It could be that this was one of those moments where your students were just focused on getting it done. I just think that there are times it points back at me as I start to push my opinions, my thoughts on the students instead of hearing from them. I blame myself in those situations and I also blame the system for driving us to this point.
I don’t know where the change lies. I would hope that things can change in each classroom, small things that can make a larger difference down the road. I don’t know, but I’m certainly willing to give it a go.
Thanks again, Bill. Come back any time and add your experience to the conversation. I believe we need to share to grow.
I definitely think it’s good to listen to students and sometimes that yields a lot of fruit. One time my students were all slacking on an essay I was having them write, and it was a day for the rough draft and half of them had essays, and the other half didn’t, and the rough drafts that were brought to class were not very good. I just asked them point blank: “Okay guys, this is terrible. What’s the deal? Why aren’t you getting this done?”
They said they were all so busy writing Statement of Purposes/Letters of Intent for graduate schools they were applying to and that they were spending all night filling out applications and writing letters.
Normally, I deploy a tried-and-true lecture/guilt trip to my students about how I did graduate coursework while I was teaching while my wife had just given birth to a baby while I was totally burned out and exhausted while I had to study for a teacher certification test to get my ESL endorsement AND while I was applying for jobs! “We all have responsibilities outside of this class” and blah blah blah.
But I took a different route and got off my high-horse and said, “Well, a letter of intent is no different than a persuasive essay–probably one of the more high stakes persuasive essays you’ll ever have to write! Scrap this other essay. We’re writing statements of purpose!”
Overnight, there was now a nearly 100% completion rate for the assignment–students were engaged and asking questions and bringing all of their essays to class to share and get feedback. I was really pleased with myself for being so clever but then I realized it was more trying to give the students what they want.
Now that I think about it, this would make a very good blog post. Thanks for the inspiration!
Thanks for this post, Nathan! Just today I taught my students about Remembrance Day, we listened to the poem and I asked them to learn it because it is unbelievably sad and powerful.
I liked your other thoughts too.
I am so glad that you did that with your class. I love that poem and I never get tired of hearing it. I have great memories of being at Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Klaipeda with other Commonwealth expats.