Report Cards

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We got our children’s report cards today. One was wonderful. The teachers clearly know him. They wrote kind things, “His contributions to class discussions have enriched the learning experience of his peers” and precise things, “He is happy to practise throwing and catching with accuracy while playing Ethiopian dodge ball” and clear suggestions for the future, he “is still working on socializing less in the hall and in the washroom.” I feel confident that the report card is a reflection of his learning at this moment in time.

My other child’s report card was less effective. There aren’t even really any good phrases to share. Apparently in reading he “interprets context clues and uses several reading strategies.” Well. There you go. I’m an English teacher, for pity’s sake, and I’m not 100% sure what that means for grade 4. The whole report card is general phrases that were almost undoubtedly lifted and used from one child to the next. I know the teachers have a LOT to do, but this report card feels very sterile, and I have no faith that it tells me anything at all about my child.

So… what was I doing today? Writing report cards. Exam period ended this morning; report cards are due tomorrow morning.  It’s a brutal turnaround. For each student, I enter marks for 6 learning skills in addition to a numerical mark for the course and, of course, comments. For the comments, the school board provides teachers with a list of codes, organized by subject, that we are supposed to use. Each code links to a specific approved comment. Every student should have one comment from each of three categories: Strengths, Needs, Next Steps. The comments are grammatically uneven (some use second person verbs, some use third), general to the point of uselessness, and older than our curriculum (“new” in 2007). I hate them.

We are allowed to write narrative comments, but we are strongly encouraged to use the codes. Usually I split the difference, turning the codes into complete sentences, inserting student names, stringing multiple comments into one sentence. I aim for some personalization, some sense of the student on the report card. I want something better than “uses reading strategies”. This semester, for my small class of “Applied” level students, I managed personalized narrative comments, but for the large class I took over 2/3 of the way through, I’ve had to stick with the drop downs. Here’s an example:
Creates superior products
Uses creative thinking skills very effectively
Continue to explore creative ways to apply language and symbols
Continue to increase your personal reading

I know there are real limits to report cards (460 characters to be precise), but I wish I could send students off with something better than “creates superior products.” I wish my report cards could reassure the students and their parents that I really did see them, I really do know what they learned. Maybe next year I’ll get closer, but for now, here’s what I wish I could say instead:

Your child’s eyes light up when she talks about writing. She loves to try new things – once she stops being scared – and she’s learning to be confident that what she says matters. Even when she was half-asleep on her desk because school just started too early, she was still polite and she mostly managed to wake up enough to try the writing prompts. The day she cried, she had friends to comfort her. The day I needed her to step up, she did it. When she writes, she puts her whole self into it, and sometimes what she creates is breathtaking. And sometimes it isn’t, but she’s learning to handle that. There is no numerical score for “this child is doing just fine and my heart swells to think of her growing to adulthood.” Nevertheless that is her final mark.

12 thoughts on “Report Cards

  1. I wanted to write notes to my students to include what you’ve written in that comment, but there just hasn’t been time. I’ve been saying it to them as often as I can. Report cards are a funny (weird not haha) writing genre.

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  2. When I first started teaching, we wrote full page narratives for each child’s report card. There was a lot of cutting and pasting, but there was also room for personal. My kindergartener’s report card this year was useless. Even in person at her conference, when I asked, “but is she kind to others?” Her teacher said, she’s five. They only think of themselves! I was disappointed to say the least. My mentor always said conferences were a turning point with families, a chance to show that you really see and know their child. Your dream report card made me think of this- you see and know that child. She’s lucky to have you.

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  3. Your dream report card would be a parent’s dream to receive. It’s hard to find a balance between communicating academic accomplishments (without sterile phrases) and a deeper understanding of that child as a person, as a learner. And of course the time to craft such careful, articulate comments at the end of the year can be even harder to find! Great slice–I’m pretty sure I’ll be hearing echoes of it when I sit down to write comments next November/December.

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    1. You’ve nailed the challenges: I must report on academic skills/levels and the school system doesn’t necessarily want the “how great is this kid” kind of comment because that can get complicated. And the time required to craft those… well, I’m not sure that’s the best place to spend my limited time – but I’m also not convinced it’s not…

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    1. Me, too. I’m wondering if I might start them really early next year. I wonder if this is the right place to put my efforts or if I would do better to use that time in another way?

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      1. If I were to do it again I might use my conferencing notes to make observations and then use that notebook to do comments later. That way I have authentic comments without trying to remember it all at the end

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  4. I have always preferred narrative style comments as well. We have codes but also free space to write more. It’s always important to me as a parent to see personal comments so I try to do the same. I always hear, “what’s the point, no one reads those.” I guess I think, “no, some do.” I also think, if I went back to look at my report cards from my childhood I would want to see what my teachers said and thought about me as a learner so sometimes I think of it that way. This child might look back at this someday, what would I want them to learn about themselves?

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    1. Exactly. I find report card writing to be very odd. I know what I want (to see that the teacher knows my child – which helps me believe that they have accurately assessed him), but I also know how much work report cards are and I know that many principals don’t want narrative comments because teachers might say something “wrong”. I’m not happy with about half of my comments this time around. Something to strive for next year…

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