by Jessica Lahey
Twice a year, we formally assess students’ writing. I hand out a prompt and grading rubric about one week before the date of the assessment in order to give the students time to organize their thoughts in advance of the prompt. They then have two class periods to write their essay. It allows us to create a portfolio of writing samples from about second grade on, and the assignment also gives them some practice writing timed essays in class. Usually, the prompts are expository, based on the literature we have been reading in class – the mid-year assessment was about Great Expectations in the seventh grade and A Tale of Two Cities in the eighth – but in the spring, when the flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and attention spans are short, I opt for a more creative topic.
This was the prompt I handed out last week:
Crossroads Academy’s core virtues curriculum is a central part of your education. Just as your education in math, literature and science informs your academic development, your education in the four core virtues informs your moral and social development. For your essay, please choose one of the virtues – justice, temperance, fortitude, or prudence – and write about a moment, experience, or event in your life when you relied on your education in the core virtues to guide you.
I love grading these essays. The students take it very seriously, and I am fascinated by their perspective on the core virtues, character education class, and the way students rely on the virtues to guide their actions.
The essays were sublime this year, and I loved reading all of them. But this one…this one stuck with me. I was impressed with the writing, but I was also deeply disturbed by my part in her ordeal and the lessons that she and her classmates may have taken away from the experience she describes. The author, Tea Levy, and her parents, have given me permission to share her words. Tea hopes that her words will help educators understand what end-of-year awards assemblies feel like from her seat in the bleachers.
The Problem With Awards
In seventh grade during one of the last weeks of school, everyone headed down to Bancroft to attend the “culminating final assembly.” At the assembly, awards were given out to the students who had earned them during the year. I watched as nearly all of my classmates walked down to the podium to receive awards, but when the awards ceremony was finally over, my name had not been called. One of the teachers asked everyone who had gotten an award to come to the front of the room to take a group picture. When all of the award-winners had left the bleachers, three of my classmates and I were the only ones left sitting. The experience was devastatingly humiliating for me, but through my anger, I learned the importance of perseverance and optimism.
When my name was not called during the assembly, it made me feel inferior, as if my hard work had not been recognized, and my efforts wasted. I had done the very best I could on the National Mythology Exam, studied hard for the Grand Councours, and prided myself on my Latin poem, but after that morning the significance of all that seemed greatly diminished.
Suddenly I was angry. Angry with my teachers for creating what seemed to me at the time to be an exclusive and competitive atmosphere, but also angry with myself. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to be good enough to win or why everyone else seemed to be so much better than me. Optimism helped me cope with my anger. I had to remind myself that if I wanted to redeem myself, I would have to maintain a positive attitude. I reminded myself that the only way to have my efforts recognized in the future would be to remain as unfazed from this incident as possible and not limit myself based on my experiences.
The optimism I used to overcome this obstacle was linked closely to perseverance. My self-proclaimed failure gave me a new motivation to succeed that would push me through to the end of middle school. I wanted to prevail against the odds and become the perfect student. I quickly realized how unreasonable this goal was, but my desire to have my efforts acknowledged never faltered. I worked harder and concentrated harder and my work paid off. The first trimester of 8th grade I received my first straight A report card. This achievement made me feel as though my perseverance had been noticed, and I was elated.
Although I still look back on that morning with dissatisfaction, the experience taught me many things. First of all, I acknowledged the fact that they couldn’t give prizes to everyone without making the whole thing seem like a joke. But more importantly, I realized how much I wanted my efforts to be rewarded and that I have the power to ensure that they are.
Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.