An Energetic Taskmaster Prompts Pupils to Ask, 'How Can I Do Better?'

The Monitor checks in again with two urban teachers in the midst of what they call their toughest job

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Gerardo Martinez wants his eighth-grade students to understand that one bad grade won't ruin their future. So last marking period, he brought in a copy of his sixth-grade report card.

Each column had at least one "unsatisfactory" in areas such as "showing respect" and "demonstrating self-control."

"They couldn't believe it. They envision me as the ideal student," he says with a laugh.

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Assigning grades is a complex task for the second-year teacher at William H. Taft School in Brighton, a neighborhood of Boston. Mr. Martinez has a reputation as a tough teacher. And he loves it. He demands as much from students as he does from himself.

"Grading is the hardest thing a teacher does," Martinez says, leafing through a pile of essays on an old wooden table in the corner of his classroom. "It's time- consuming, but it's [also] difficult to reduce the accomplishments of a student to a [single] grade."

There's a lot at stake as Martinez prepares his grades for the second marking period. Tests and homework were once the pillars of assessment. But now, far more is considered. How willingly students learn and what issues they are dealing with at home - like divorce - have become increasingly important.

Teachers must also try to keep students motivated. A good grade could mean the difference between a child staying in school or dropping out.

While many teachers still "fall into the trap" of making grading an exercise of averaging numbers, Martinez rarely resorts to his calculator.

"Tests are important, quizzes are important ... but there's an element in grading that I believe many teachers leave out," he explains, "and that is the social, emotional, personal development of children."

To make sure he doesn't leave anything out, Martinez has developed a 30-point check list that he uses - in addition to his green grade book - to keep track of how each student performs in a broad range of areas. Among the items on his list: spelling, neatness, following directions, study skills, and getting along with classmates.

Throughout each marking period, Martinez refers to the list, making notes on each student's performance. He uses "excellent," "good," "fair," and "unsatisfactory" to rate them on each item.

"A good teacher assesses as you go along," he says. "You don't wait until the last minute."

While Martinez admits the system is time-consuming, such detail, he explains, helps children understand what their grade means.

"Kids get A's and don't know why they get A's," he says, his voice rising in exasperation.

At the same time, Martinez says the system helps him keep his students constantly informed about their progress - which helps them take control of their education. He reserves one day each eight-week marking period to hold conferences with the 77 students in his four classes. Such attention, he says, has made his students more competitive about grades.

"Students come up to me and say, 'Mr. Martinez, why am I not doing well in your class?' "

"I can [show them the sheet] and say, 'Well if you look at first marking period, I notice you had a very hard time getting along with your classmates ... but you got an 'excellent' in your ability to learn."

His students known that when they get an A, they've earned it. When asked what his grade was on a recent assignment, Jason Torres answered with a grin: "An A!"

Others say they feel Martinez pushes them to do better. "I feel like I have to improve my writing," says one student.

But the main reason Martinez has developed such a detailed system for evaluating his students is to make sure the grades he assigns are accurate.

"I hope that if I give someone 25 excellents [on the 30-item check list], that when I average their tests scores, the numbers are similar," he says. "Often times they are."

Other times, though, they aren't. For example, one student regularly gets D's on tests, Martinez says. But he gets points for maturity and willingness to learn. So his final marking period grade usually comes out to a C+.

Still, Martinez says, he's never promoted a student who "can't cut it." Last marking period, six students received A's, 20 earned B's, 18 got C's, and 14 failed - half because they had eight class absences (a school policy).

In addition to his grade book and check list, Martinez has his students keep a portfolio of their writing assignments. He allows students to go back and rewrite their assignments, which he believes is the key to helping students improve their writing.

"People might argue that you're giving everyone a chance to get an A," Martinez says. "It doesn't work that way.... They're just showing me that they have the initiative to go back and revise and rethink." Still, not everyone takes advantage of the opportunity. "There are certain students who are very content with a B," he says.

In all, Martinez's primary goal is to get his students to take part in the grading process. Each marking period, he tells a story to illustrate his point: Two people have to take a long trip, and they each ask for directions. The first person just starts walking, hoping to get to his destination. The second person, stops and asks someone along the way if he's heading in the right direction. He continues walking, then stops and asks again.

"He's guaranteed he's going to get there," Martinez announces, "because he's asked everyone along the way."

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