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Straight Talk: Stereotyped as a B student? Tips for getting A's

By: Lauren Forcella
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Dear Straight Talk: Some time ago you printed a letter from a boy who felt stereotyped as a B student. The panel gave tips on how to get A's anyway. Could you run that again? When school starts, I want to be ready. ~ Carly, Orange

Dear Carly: That letter was from Jack. You can find it in our website archives by date (May 28, 2008), or in our search-by-topic menu under "school." Jack felt his grades resulted from "first impressions" made early in the term, after which, teachers graded his name, not his work. He wrote, "... an A and B student could trade papers and the A student would still get their A and the B student would still get their B."

Below are new panel responses along with some from the earlier column. In summary: Getting A's appears more likely if you combine outstanding work with a friendly attitude toward the teacher. Other aids: make a good academic first impression, dress respectfully, don't disrupt class.

Frankly, success outside school is no different.

Brandon, 20, Mapleton, Maine: Stereotyping angered me so much in high school. In today's economy, the difference between a 3.5 and 4.0 GPA is astounding. Quite a few teachers give the others a bad name. If you know you're writing A-grade papers, ask to see the grading rubric. If the teacher has no rubric and can't justify the grade, it's possible you're being stereotyped or discriminated against. I remember a student who had a black boy, a white boy, and herself (a white girl), submit the same paper to an English teacher. The white boy got an A, the girl got a B-, and the black boy got a C+. The teacher was fired promptly and the school adopted a grading rubric.

Katelyn, 17, Huntington Beach: Lots of my teachers were more lenient toward students who were friendly and personable — but those students also worked hard and strived to improve. However, some teachers were simply prejudiced and had to be called out. Bring in your paper and have the grade explained. If it really is B-level work, ask how you can improve.

Emily, (then 15), Sacramento: Have you noticed all the top students are “friends” with the teachers? Try it. Raise your hand, ask how you can help, push in chairs after class, smile and ask about your teacher's day. Life has shown me that a portion of my grade rests upon my relationship with the teacher. If I don't like the teacher, I don't work for a close relationship, therefore my grade is never an A in that class — even if I work my butt off (getting help, studying through lunch, etc.). One teacher told me his students rarely approach him because they’re scared of him. He let me turn in missing homework, raising my grade significantly.

Colin, 18, Sacramento: Grading names over content is a serious offense. Teachers have been fired for less. If you feel stereotyped as the semester wears on, do what Jack mentions: find an A student and swap papers to the same teacher several times. If the results vindicate you, present them to the dean. If nothing happens, publish the incident in the school newspaper. Best case: an improved school. Worst case: a more interesting life.  

Katie, (then 15), Auburn: I’m an A student, but one teacher hated how I dressed so he dropped me from an A to a C for the block.

Chris, 24, Los Angeles: I know how it felt to be labeled "average." Halfway through junior year, after years of goofing around, I tried to bump up my grades. I had to get completely involved! I did office hours, emailed teachers, formed study groups, and most effective: I prepared before lecture so I could participate during class.

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More from Lauren Forcella:

 I want to emphasize that I know many devoted teachers who read every paper carefully and are keenly conscious not to stereotype their students. They want nothing more than for a deserving student to rise from a B to an A. At the same time, plenty of teachers are overwhelmed beyond the ability to read every paper and do lean on other impressions when they grade.

It's only human to do this. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, says in his book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," that when a judgment is difficult to make (such as grading a paper when one is exhausted), humans readily fall into answering easier questions (such as, how did they do on their first paper? what do their looks tell me about their intelligence? do they participate in class? are they friendly and respectful to me?). The average person's brain operates like this almost nonstop, and no one is immune from it, including those trained otherwise, such as judges, teachers, and police officers.

So what to do about it? Aside from rebuilding from scratch our public schools? (Don't get me going. A 2003 National Center for Education Statistics study put the average per-pupil cost for public school at $10,041 and the average per-pupil cost at private school at $8,549. Yet academic performance, social/emotional wellbeing, and teacher satisfaction are worlds higher in private education.) An obvious starting point is for the various departments of a school to adopt standard grading rubrics.