Spelling Judgment

I opened the door to the teacher’s lounge and found myself enveloped in cigarette smoke. I approached the Coca-Cola machine, dropped in two quarters, pulled out an ice-cold Orange Crush, and took a sip of bubbly, orange ambrosia. Such were the spoils of making a perfect score on your spelling test in 1980 something.  

I can’t remember my teacher’s name or what grade I was in, but I vividly remember this Friday ritual. One of my teachers would buy you a soda if you scored 100% on your spelling test. Not only that, but you also got to use her heavy Swingline stapler to tack your name up on the bulletin board. It was as much acclaim, honor, and praise a kid in rural Missouri could hope to earn.  

I plucked this memory out of the ether a few weeks ago while discussing school change with some colleagues. School improvement is often complex, but I don’t think it has to be. Reflecting on what has worked well in the past is a straight line to simplicity.  

Stop Condemning Prior Practice. Learn From it Instead.  

As educators, we frequently cast judgment and point self-assured fingers at those who came before us. Today, my spelling exploits of the mid-’80’s seem anachronistic. Spelling tests are out of vogue, there’s a ton of sugar in soda, posting perfect scores are exclusionary, all students shouldn’t have the same goal, and for heaven’s sake, teachers were smoking in the lounge! There are many negatives in that story, but there are a lot of powerful practices at work if examined objectively.  

First and foremost, I was highly motivated to study my spelling words. I was so excited that I’m sure my Mom hated Thursday evenings. I would not rest until we rehearsed my spelling list at least 1,572 times.  

Our teacher also took the time to build relationships with us, which we all know is incredibly important. She spent her own money to reward our efforts, and even as a kid, we recognized she was going the extra mile.  

And make no mistake, our teacher bought a lot of sodas because we were spelling champs. Many of us learned the content because of the enthusiasm she stoked.  

Adapt to Today

Armed with today’s knowledge, we can improve on the aforementioned scenario. John Hattie’s book, “Visual Learning” cites self-reported grades as an incredibly effective strategy to bolster student learning. My teacher gave everyone the same goal, which was to earn a perfect score. Instead, you could allow each student to select their own goal and track their progress to align with Hattie’s research. You can also tailor rewards to student interests. Many of us were highly motivated by sodas and staplers. However, some students might have preferred extra recess time.  

I love the fact that our teacher took the time to reward our efforts, and I don’t want to fault her for only rewarding part of the class. It was how she showed us she cared and it is a testament to her dedication to our learning. In essence, she built a rapport with the class holistically. Today, we know it is essential to build relationships with each student as an individual, to best serve their academic and emotional needs.  

There is so much we can learn from previous educators if we suspend judgment. It provides us an opportunity to meld yesterday’s strategies with today’s research. Our work will also be judged one day. I hope it will be done so with grace and the understanding that we did the best we could with the knowledge we had at the time.  

Reflection without judgment is a refreshing concept. It’s even more refreshing than a glass-bottled Orange Crush, in a smoke-filled lounge.  

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