Friday, Jul 12th

The Notorious RGB? Not so Much. How Rolling Gradebook Might Help Make SHS The Opposite of Loneliness

yearbook(The following was written by Wes Phillipson, SHS English Teacher) It was April or May of 2003 when I eased my forest green Honda Accord into that spot by the big tree overlooking the brook in the Yearbook picture above. Some epic R&B was playing. I was floating. It was the first time I’d seen Scarsdale High School in all its ivy-league-edifice glory. The only second-hand knowledge of SHS I had came from a middle school computer teacher whose son I taught in Rockland County, and my former colleague and friend Eileen Kelly who has since retired. Eileen told me she was - essentially - chained to her desk at SHS - but nothing could dissuade me from crossing the Hudson.

My first season at SHS ended with a major challenge that nearly ended me: a senior had failed my English class by not completing their research paper in the fourth quarter. Coming up on 22 years later, I’m still here, coming off what I feel is my single-best year of teaching, but I sincerely wonder: what if Rolling Gradebook had existed in 2003? Perhaps that student would have graduated on time, instead of scrambling to enroll in a G.E.D. program, resentful if not forlorn.

In 2021 I found sophomore Alex Ben-Gera staring back at me over a rumpled face-mask in Room 207: Peak Covid days, remember them? He looked younger than his age, and he seemed anxious — on high alert. It surprises me now that Alex helped do some initial background for this article you’re reading, as he was not a “writer” at that time. It lights me up that his Senior Options internship was spent at the headquarters of this storied publication (10583). His first essay for English 10 was (by choice) an opinion piece about Tom Brady’s irrefutable greatness. It didn’t work out. We collaborated on a new topic, this time about Alex’s relationship with Eli Manning and how watching Giants’ games with his father was transformative. That essay had the kind of legs that could match Dorsett or Henry’s 99-yard rush. To push that metaphor further, RGIII — the NFL QB — has rather fitting initials here: RGB = Rolling Gradebook. Once Alex shook off his imposter syndrome, found not just his legs but his voice in our English class, he was off and running. Even from the cheap seats, it’s clear that - had Rolling Gradebook been in effect for Alex’s first quarter - he wouldn’t have felt the direct hits that come with risk-taking, experimentation, and just getting things wrong the first few times in any class.

Alex’s final project was a video essay on the intersectionality of Inception’s antagonist Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), the title character from Macbeth, and a song lyric from a now-canceled rap star who shall remain nameless. Comparative analysis was not something Alex would have been comfortable attempting in September or October, but it just felt seamless - perhaps even effortless - in the spring. And while he doesn’t ever return to read his mash note to Tom Brady, he does watch his visual argument about the smokescreens that cloud reality whenever he needs creative inspiration for school or life.

For academic year 2023-24, I wasn’t certain if it would be “The Notorious RGB” (a menacing grading system that failed to reflect academic “truths” about my students), or more “RGB = Red, Green and Blue” (the primary colors that would allow me to paint the “truest” portraits of my classroom charges).

It was the latter.

And in one specific way, the “old gradebook” was akin to how some viewed the progressive R.B.G. (the late Supreme Court Justice) — maybe it, too, had overstayed its welcome, or had just hung on far too long.

In my senior English elective course Words & Images (it’s just like it sounds: we talk about words, we unpack images), I found some solace in RGB’s very existence. RGB was kind of my conscience when it came time to enter semester grades. My hallucination was that I’d always “aired on the side of the student,” but this time I had a license (if not a directive) to do so. In English classes (and - perhaps - the soft sciences), grading is largely subjective. What is an “A” on an essay, anyway? It’s not scientific, but grading is an art that I ask my students to participate in. My “rolling gradebook” - for the past 10 years or so - has been: grade it with me. Come to my office, sit down on my velvet tufted, faux mid-century chair next to me and let’s talk about this essay. Let’s read it aloud together. Let’s make sense of why you wrote this. Then let’s put a grade on it.

Now, will we always agree on the grade? No. But we get to have a conversation about it. It’s a discussion about standards. It’s a chance for the student to understand what I value, and that I grade (and put weight on) those things. It’s a chance for me to understand the person who (hopefully) wrote those words, who developed those ideas, and who made the form choices that they did.

I don’t think a science or math teacher can do that. In fact, I know that they can’t.

But that doesn’t matter: Rolling Gradebook can be, has been, and will be “the great leveler” for all students, and all disciplines. Or, at least it can play a role in creating parity.

Wellness at SHS has been “a thing” for quite some time now. I don’t know when it began, you could ask my friend and colleague Jennifer Rosenzweig who has been a great champion of students getting their heads on straight.

Much of Wellness within Scarsdale has the aftertaste of oxy-moron or cognitive dissonance for obvious reasons that I won’t go into. But RGB? That’s meaningful wellness. When we did away with summer reading, or prevented teachers from assigning homework over breaks, it’s not clear that that - inherently - boosts serotonin levels. But it’s likely that not having an academic quarter be put in quick-dry cement, or engraved (forever) like a grotesque tableau by Hogarth, is a sound idea that has been implemented by the administration at Scarsdale High School.

From the point of view of an SHS veteran teacher, who lived on Garth Road for 2 years long ago, and who even married a woman who grew up in Scarsdale, I think that our High School is (to borrow a term from Marina Keegan who died immediately after her Yale graduation), “the opposite of loneliness.”

Despite how massive and compartmentalized the place is, I never feel alone here.

It’s possible that RGB will make us all less lonely. Sounds strange? Well, I can tell you that there is just ONE set of faculty here that have nothing to do with grades, yet everything to do with grades: The Deans.

The Deans are entirely exempt from the phenomenon of: “The honeymoon is over.” Deans don’t grade their students. Teachers grade their students. Grades change relationships. There’s no avoiding that. Ask any student if they feel differently about a teacher after first quarter report cards come out.

Perhaps RGB will de-emphasize grades, allowing teachers and students to focus on building (and strengthening) esprit de corps, long-term rapport (independent of grades), and collaborators.

I have zero interest in grading students’ work in isolation, by my lonesome. I do - truly believe - that our HS is the antidote to loneliness. I do, however, want to build students who feel and believe they have a stake in the company. At least, they’re shareholders. I want to produce learners who dismantle the myth of gradelocking once and for all. For how can one be gradelocked if they hold the key?
Early on in all of my English classes this year I shared an essay that I wrote that articulates my singular educational goal: I want to be your producer. Jack Antonoff doesn’t “grade” Taylor Swift. He brings out the best, creatively, in Tay-Tay. Mark Ronson doesn’t “grade” Bruno Mars. He unleashes BM. If you don’t believe me - just watch.

And RGB has the power to help me, and to help my students simply focus on making some beautiful music together so we can dance like no one’s watching, and stop criticizing each other’s footwork. Wanna lead?