When my son was eight he won the Most Outstanding Junior Camper award. Sure, I was proud, but mostly I was happy for him; he seemed so pleased and of course that was the intent. A few years later I attended a ceremony at my daughter’s camp where similar awards were given. There was the Most-Improved-in-Archery (which she won) and Most-Outstanding-in-Horsemanship (which she did not). There were even a few awards given which I didn’t understand, though fellow moms nearly fainted when their daughters’ names were called. It was an experience to say the least. I left that day with an odd feeling; not because of good fortune or lack thereof, but just wondering whether there might not be a better way.
Fast forward a few years and a few camps. Both of my children had found beloved camps in the Adirondacks. Though attending different camps, they were participating in very similar award structures. Both camps offered a leveled structure. Each of the many areas of expertise was organized into a series of achievements. Most campers could achieve the basic award in nearly any area from Survival to Riflery.
As the awards increased so did the requirements and skill levels needed to earn them. Only the truly dedicated can earn a Master’s award in an area. Earning six masters qualifies one for eligibility to become a Lone Eagle; a distinction earned by so few that plaques are made and displayed and go back to the early days of this camp.
What I like about this structure is that it seems accessible to all. It also feels truly achievement-based and not reliant on the fact that no one better was there to win the award instead of me. (Remember Saskia?) And my winning of an award has no bearing on whether you can win the same one. The wide variety of awards lets me focus on my areas of interest. The various levels allow me to go broad in many areas or more deeply in just a few. It’s also much easier to genuinely celebrate someone who earns an award—either you’ve earned that award and know how much work it took, or you haven’t and know how much work it took.
I often wonder if we couldn’t do this in schools. No, I’m not advocating a gradeless system (though if you are, I’m all ears). But I am wondering whether we might, within the walls of our classrooms, institute some type of merit system that would hold significance for our students. Something that would have deep meaning and yet still be achievable for all.
Do grades really convey what we think they do? or intend for them to do? After all, what does an “A” mean if it was earned with little effort? And what about a “C” grade that was hard-won? Is that something you can celebrate or be proud of? If you ask me, our current system is a little topsy-turvy in the value department. Food for thought, that’s all I’m suggesting. And if you have comments on this, I’d love to start a discussion :)