One pandemic activity I have really enjoyed is looking through the many papers my mother kept in an attempt to document my childhood. Hidden in between my teenage letters home, theatrical and musical programs, and letters from the school addressing the “marijuana problem,” I discovered my report cards.

In 1982, a B meant many things:

“Alison did consistently good work. Her essays were thoughtful; her comments in class, useful.” Grade: B (AP ENGLISH, JUNE 1982)

“Alison’s work was sometimes disappointing this term. I suspect she did not give the course the time it deserved. She was always cheerful, and pleasant to work with.” Grade: B (CALCULUS BC, JUNE 1982)

Reading through my old report cards made me wonder, what is the purpose of grades, and how do the words that accompany them add to their meaning? How is a B in one class “consistently good” and in another “sometimes disappointing”? And how do teacher comments reflect learning? 

While I could opine for hours about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of letter grades and how they have changed over time, I am more interested in the comments that accompany them.

Comments, Then and Now

There are marked differences between boarding school comments in the 1980s and those written today. No longer do they consist of two sentences, handwritten to fit in a tiny space at the bottom of a half-sheet of paper to be mailed home. Now, they are typed, formatted, uploaded onto a password-protected website, and shared via an email invitation. 

Comments are much longer than they once were. At my school, we provide a “course comment” describing the work we are doing in the course in addition to a student comment. Today’s grade reports also look much more professional:

Fig 2: Midland School Grade Report (2020)

And, teachers are encouraged to share specific stories. For example, Millan is one of the most creative statistics students. For our casino project, he designed his own “Deal or No Deal” style game, in which he had to play the banker. Millan went through at least three different drafts of the game before settling on a final version.

I would argue that stories such as this, connected to a particular moment in the class, not only provide true insight into a student’s educational experience, but also, when read 30+ years later, will help the student actually remember the class. 

In fact, without a memorable moment or detail about the learning experience, many courses look the same. A student can “participate in class,” “hand homework in late,” or “show curiosity” in any subject, but will only do a casino project in Statistics. 

Comments During COVID

How should comments look in the time of COVID? Especially with classes online and parents spending more time with their children than teachers, how can teachers create a narrative describing work from a student they never see except on a screen?

The answer lies in concrete examples and stories. Teachers can keep an ongoing chart with a list of students’ names followed by space to record a memorable moment and capture the cogent comment the day it happens. Creating a continual practice of documenting instances of demonstrated student learning will take the pressure off comment-writing the week before a deadline. My practice is meditative and involves closing my eyes, picturing the student in my mind, and then writing what I remember in detail. I also look at their writing projects for sentences or phrases to quote. For quieter students, writing samples are particularly useful. 

A perfect teacher comment uncovers an aspect of a student’s learning that is new to the parent or guardian. This is easily done by describing a particular moment in class or a specific detail of a project. What is something that a student did in your subject area that probably would not occur in a different class? Ideas might include:

  • a cogent comment during discussion
  • a particular image in a slide show during a presentation
  • a well-written phrase or sentence in a paper or poem
  • a creative demonstration of learning (artwork, songwriting, podcast, etc.)
  • a metacognitive realization during a conference

Meaningful and Manageable Comments

Teachers lead intensely busy lives. Teaching during COVID presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles: learning new online platforms, doing childcare while running a Zoom discussion class, making sure your Wi-Fi at home is stable and powerful enough to handle each new task. Adding yet another chore of tracking student moments for the inevitable comment deadline might seem to be asking too much, but the payoff is real. 

As I think back on my time in boarding school, I remember very little about actually sitting in classrooms. More vivid are memories of riding horses, singing and dancing in “Dido and Aeneas” and “Anything Goes,” and carefully dusting my room in time for Saturday inspection. I wonder if more classroom memories would return if my teachers had told some specific stories in my grade reports.