Questioning Our Most Dearly Held Beliefs

Jonathon Medeiros, NBCTDecember 17, 2020

Aunty Puanani Burgess, a Hawaiian activist, poet, and community leader, writes about how to build community, how to help people know themselves, and each other. She focuses on finding and sharing our moʻolelo, our stories. In examining our lives to find words for our stories, she underscores the power of asking questions, of questioning even, and especially our most closely held beliefs.

There is value in the kind of questioning Aunty Pua asks of us. Especially valuable is to question the institutions that are so ubiquitous we forget that certain aspects of them could be different; we forget that these usually unquestioned parts of schools can reinforce power imbalances and have long lasting negative outcomes. Things like attendance policies, grades, late work and being on time, classrooms with doors, working quietly, taking final exams, 59% is an F, missing work = 0, 2 tardies = detention. Too often these policies go unquestioned.

And I believe in questioning. I am actually not even sure I believe in it so much as I live it: questioning, being curious, is like breathing for me, necessary for survival, for growth. Growth: what I want for my students, for myself, for my children, my colleagues, my school, ideas about education overall. And though it is natural for me to question myself and most “truths” that I encounter, questioning and challenging what we know about and do in schools is a truly needful thing in this strangest and most fruitful of school years.

Yesterday during that 504 meetings, and earlier at the one last week, and the week before that, a colleague mentioned how they give half credit for late work. “Latenesses,” they said, but as a person who values making meaning in novel ways, I folded their new word into my vocabulary. 

“I don’t have to give you any credit,” they said magnanimously as if the notion of half-credit would motivate compliance. If a person seeks compliance, perhaps this tactic will work, but half credit is still an F on traditional grading scales. If a person seeks learning or a permanent change in student behavior, I am not sure this tactic will work.

I understand time moves in one direction for most of us, and I understand we live in a public education world that accepts notions of present-ness and timeliness as hallmarks of learning, but can we challenge these beliefs? Can we understand what the river learned about time, that it is at the source and the ocean at the same time? Can we meet our students’ work where we find it, because if they give me their evidence of learning on the “due date” or next week I still get it in the present moment. And when my colleague gives that student an F (half credit) regardless of the content and quality of the learning work, regardless of the studentʻs actual learning, that student receives that F (half credit) in their present moment. These punitive late work policies are long-lasting deterrents towards engagement in future present moments.

Imagine looking at the traditional A-F scale, traditional late work policies, and then blinking them away, or questioning them. Maybe we can focus our energy on providing feedback, on helping our students see and describe their learning and their stumbles in accurate terms. Maybe we can stop focusing on various percentages of credit. So, when our students struggle to show us complete learning, we provide feedback that pushes them towards more learning and also values them for the inherently valuable person they are. Seeing the value in their work, incomplete or late as it may be, will help our students see the value in themselves, which is especially important in a system designed to raise up one way of being over all others.

Particularly useful would be to make everything we ask of students purpose-built for reflection and growth. So, any examination of student learning should actually just be an opportunity for students to continue learning while demonstrating where they currently are.

And so yesterday, and last week, and the time before that, when my colleague talked about their late work policy in the midst of the 504 meetings, I cringed a little. But I promise the student who was being spoken to shrank completely away. That canʻt be the outcome we want.

Jonathon Medeiros, NBCT

Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for 15 years with students on Kauaʻi and is currently teaching 12th grade Language Arts and serving as an upper academy lead at his alma mater Kaua'i High. He frequently writes about education policy and is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Jonathon is currently working on a few projects, including a collection of essays, a full length collection of poems from his familyʻs daily writing practice during the global pandemic shutdown, and a journal about his days in the ocean. Follow Jonathon on Twitter - @jonmedeiros or visit his page at jonathonmedeiros.com