The Language of Learning

Before I was a teacher, I never realized how many revisions my thoughts would go through to morph real-life feedback into report card feedback. Each time I sit down to complete grades, I start with what I really think. (For example: Your child is the best human I have ever met and can I just have him to keep at the end of the year? Or: I am not sure what planet your child hails from, but it is almost certainly not one currently orbiting Sol.) Then, I have to mash it through the euphemism grinder until it becomes something a family member can hear. (For example: Your child is consistently a model to those around him. Or: Your child is working to stay attuned to the class’s activities.)

Each time I do this, it reminds me of a section from William Zinsser’s excellent On Writing Well. (Disclosure: I own three separate editions.) In it, he talks about helping a group of principals “de-jargonize” the language of their communication to parents. In one instance, they reform “Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria” into “At the end of the year we will evaluate our progress.” Whenever I read this section, I am inspired. I, too, will write with clarity and poise. My students’ parents will understand exactly what I mean. No need for jargon! How refreshing!

I accomplish this goal for the first half of the year, sending home neatly written newsletters that use Anglo-Saxon words and bullet points. Then I hit the reality of report cards. I face writing 30 comments each for 25 kids. I think of the hours spent raising eyebrows at particular repeat offenders, the hours that have etched a permanent horizontal line across my forehead. I think of the number of times this month alone I have said, “What better choice could you make right now?” And I buckle.

This is the one time during the year that my writing reverts to jargon. So, in case you are not a teacher, or are just starting your own English-to-Report-Card journey, here are some sample Report Card comments alongside their English equivalents.

Report Card English
Cathryn is still working to improve her control over her voice and body. Cathryn could not sit still and be quiet for three minutes if her life literally depended on it.
Sofia consistently resolves peer conflicts with respect and maturity. I’m pretty sure your kid is Kofi Annan in disguise.
Samuel sometimes struggles to use science materials responsibly during experiments. In a typical incident this week, Samuel stabbed himself with a straw to “see what it would do.” It stabbed him. That was what it did.
Antoine fluidly incorporates new skills into his reading responses. If I had a class of Antoines I would die of happiness.
Imani has shown some improvement in her use of standard conventions. Imani seemed surprised to learn that sentences ought to include punctuation, but will now, under duress, sprinkle one or two periods through each page of writing.
Javier shows excellent consistency and attention to precision in math. Javier saves me a ton of time because I don’t even have to check his work anymore. Also, he should probably be in college.