Thursday, January 12, 2012

Grace not Grades

Our pastor delivered a sermon this past Sunday which stuck with me, and I am chewing on it here and there this week.  We had a lovely service during which our congregation was invited to renew our baptism vows. Check out how beautiful our Sanctuary looked:

Our "River Jordan" turned out beautifully!

 I think I needed that, and to reconnect with the idea that we are all ministers as our pastor pointed out.  Her sermon also invited us to a different way of viewing the church.  I liked her description of experiencing church as "school" rather than in the more traditional ways many of us view family, or as a "hospital for sinners".  I think the idea of "school" suits me better, as I have always seen church and my active participation as a member of a faith oriented body of people to be a place where I can learn more about the things often missed in school...the real "life" stuff.  It is where I am constantly challenged to re-envision the world and my relationships with others, it is where I have so many "Ah Ha" moments and suddenly everything makes sense.  It is where I can grow in areas that are often ignored in the halls of academia, and where that growth and what is learned is immediately put to use almost from the moment the worship service has ended.

But the single thread through the sermon which was the most profound and which ties together so much of what I have slowly come to understand over the past couple of years, is the idea of "grace, not grades".  Living life as a Christian means different things to different people.  To me it is growing more and more to mean living counter to our culture.  For me, living Christian has nothing at all to do with being perfect, proclaiming arrogantly that I have all the answers, or earning my spot on some heavenly cloud someday.  For me it is about viewing the world differently, valuing the things that really matter over the things the world tells me should matter.  It is about my eyes being opened to the value of each human being, and to recognize that God's call for each and every one of us is different, but no less relevant or important.

As I look around our church, there are numerous folks who care deeply about the environment and actively do much to make our earth healthier.  Others are called to see to it that the arts are encouraged and flourish in our community, for art is often where many find God.  Another amazing person is called to minister to those whose encounters with cancer are terribly frightening and yet, for her, sadly familiar.  Am I wrong because those calls don't resonate as deeply with me?  Are they wrong because their passion is not the same as ours...children who are long forgotten or somehow falling through the cracks?  No!  In our "school" everyone can major in a different subject, and we all support one another in following our life's path and passion. Better yet, no one feels the need to push others to proclaim a call that is not authentic for them, and that is a real gift, for the world operates differently and often insists we "buy in" to everything others push our way.

The phrase "Grace, not grades" is a profound one for our family, and is a reason I never articulated well for why we elected to homeschool.  Part of it might be that the word "grace" is laden with prior meaning for others, it is too "Christian-ey" and doesn't seem to "fit" when talking about academics or the pursuit of higher education.  For our children though, all of them not just the ones adopted at older ages, "Grace, not grades" is instrumental in them becoming who they are.  We do not issue report cards, we do not measure by grades.  At first, when we brought Matt home, that was exactly what I did...I graded everything, I berated him at moments for not getting a good enough grade, I measured him over and over again that first couple of months.  I can admit now that it was out of fear, fear that I would fail and this homeschooling thing was indeed the hair brained scheme many told me it would be.  Then I saw what I was doing to his spirit, and I quickly realized as well that learning is not at all about grades or measuring ourselves against one another.  In my insecurity, I was making things worse and not allowing him to learn to love learning.

I had to learn to be counter cultural, to not "own" my child's successes as bragging rights or proof that I was somehow this Super Homeschooling Mom.  I too had so much to learn, and my "school" (our church) helped in so many ways with that.  I have children in my kitchen table classroom who soar in some subjects, and I have some that sink :-)  What I discovered was that when left unmeasured...ungraded...and allowed to try and fail without fear...we got much further and the sinking was kept to a minimum.  Now of course we correct work, but that is very different from "grading".  Grading ranks you, it classifies you, it categorizes you, just as state testing does.  Correcting is entirely different, and it is part of the learning process.  Now I realize that a certain amount of Grading and Scoreing is necessary on a large scale in order to see if schools are functioning well, but to measure the worth of a child by their score or grade is abhorrent to me, and so often settles into the soul of a child and they begin to lose hope of becoming anything other than what the world classifies them as being...a C student...a D student...a "Failure".

But first, I had to learn to offer Grace, not Grades.  I had to allow for missteps (and sometimes I fail at that), I had to see all our children as potential not a letter or number score.  That took (and still does take) time to break free from all the ways I know our society works and the ways I myself was measured and categorized through the years.  It is what feels normal! I think our kids are healthier because of it.  Recognizing the value of the unique gifts inherent in each one, not holding one up as the Super Student nor identifying another as the Loser Student helps all five of our kids have respect for each other...and for every other person they encounter.  For when you stop using the same yardstick that the world uses...a report card, an SAT score...then you stop being impressed by the things the world wrongly values. You see a person as the lovely creation of God that each and every one of us is!   What good is a stellar SAT score if a child's soul is cold?  Or if that child then holds themselves above others based upon a number that measures them as being somehow "better than" the rest?

Today we went bowling, and were there alongside a women's league which consisted largely of seniors.  We were all goofing around, as Dominick named us wacky names on screen.  Angela was "Angel Hair Pasta", Kenny was "Kookie Kenny", I was "Hot Mama"...hahaha!  We had a great time, no one cared who was winning, everyone was "high fiving" each other and hugging after strikes or spares.  It was a lot of fun, and interestingly, after game one and a healthy dose of encouragement along with a little instruction, every single one of us significantly increased our scores on game two.  I went looking for a different ball and wandered down to where the league was playing.  A group of women stopped me who had been watching us and I was asked "Is that your family?"...we always get asked that as we don't "match" and then having 4 kids the same age lends itself to folks thinking we are a club or school group sometimes.  I responded that yes, that was our family.  Another woman spoke up and said "We were just saying that we haven't seen a family have so much fun together in years.  You all look like you really enjoy being together, and that is nice to see for a change!"  A third woman chimed in "And it is so nice to see a family hug each one does that these days."  I replied that I was indeed a very, very blessed Mom and wife.

The truth is, we have tried our best to eliminate competition as a component in our family.  We have tried to replace grades with grace, and it has spilled over into the kids, a side effect I never imagined and one we still have to practice regularly for it is easy to backslide.  Our world barrages us with messages about success and what that is supposed to look like, and fighting that is a constant battle.  But I wonder, would Kenny have ever grown to see himself as capable and learned to read if we had not stopped the nonsense of measuring him? More importantly and sadly, I will admit, would I have ever grown to see his capacity if I had clung to the measurements we were given with IQ scores and state test scores?  Would Olesya have begun to see herself as "smart" if she had constantly been held up against her peers in math?  Would we have heard her ever say what she said the other day when out of the blue she exclaimed "I like math!  It's not easy, but  I can do it now!"  We all recognized her gift of careful, organized thought had paid off when on our house project we  had huge columns of numbers to add and every other kid whizzed through it but her, and SHE was the only one who got the right answer! We all celebrated and learned a valuable lesson...speed doesn't lend itself to accuracy.  She learned a valuable lesson too...when not timed and measured, she CAN do math well!  Now she is consistently talking about owning her own business someday...she has moved from "I am nothing" to "I am someone"!

At TaeKwonDo last night, all the kids sparred.  Matthew did a particularly good job against two opponents, but it was Kenny I was watching closely as he  was finally showing a little aggressiveness and it was fun to watch.  We got home and were telling Dominick about the sparring, when Angela chimes in "Dad, you should have seen Matthew tonight...he was REALLY good!"  This from our most naturally competitive child who has somehow internalized over the past two years that its not all about winning or losing, and when one succeeds, we all succeed.  The change in Angela has been the most dramatic, as she entered an environment where she wasn't measured by her test scores or her ability on a basketball court, but discovered she inherently had value simply because she was Angela.  The child who cheated at every single game we played so she could come out on top has disappeared.  The child who had to nudge her way to the front of the line, who had to prove over and over again that she was superior, has ceased to exist.  That child has been replaced with one who is almost always the first one to point out another's success!  She is confident and yet now looks for the goodness in people, not how "good" they are at something.  Grace, not grades, has truly transformed her.

Are our kids looked at oddly by the world because they are not competitive?  Oh yea, for sure, especially the boys.  But I love that Joshie could care less about winning or being first, I love that he sings the praises of his best buddy without concern that it somehow lessens him.  I love that Kenny was the best darned cheerleader on his volleyball team despite not being the most skilled or getting the most playing time.  Compared to a couple of young boys on the team who WERE skilled but were so concerned with being the Super Stars that they were often in tears or looked over at their parents for fear they were not measuring up, Kenny had a far better time the entire season and thoroughly enjoyed himself.

God doesn't want us living in competition with each other.  It's not the way it is supposed to work ( or "upost to" as Josh wrote today! Haha!).  One reason our family needs to be in church regularly is that we hear messages that build a strong scaffold underneath us for living in the world in a way that makes little sense to many, but we have discovered it brings a far more contented way of life.

Church teaches us to extend "Grace, not Grades" to our fellow inhabitants here on earth, and we are reminded of that single thing consistently over and over again.  After hearing that this weekend, and letting it simmer, I have enjoyed seeing how that has taken root in our family without me realizing it.  It is sort of a core idea for how we operate, and the simple fact is that it never would have without our participation in a faith community that took it seriously and tried to make that come to life.  Honestly, I think back to our first days as parents prior to stepping back into a church, and I shudder to think of what our life would look like, and how deeply unhappy I was and would still be.  I would be measuring and feel measured all the days of my life.  I would never have understood that I am indeed a beloved child of God, someone of worth, and I would not have been able to parent from that perspective.  I am certain we would not have the family we have, not in number or in temperament.

 "Church" can be such a turn off to people, and I am particularly sensitive to those immediate gut reactions that many have at the mere mention of religion.  I was the same way once myself.  What it took me a long time to recognize is that "church" is what I made of it, what I elected to take away from it...and that I had yet to find anything that equaled it in helping me gain a healthier way of seeing the world.

Thankfully though, God isn't grading me :-)

We had a special visitor this week, as Nancy Larson came to see us!  What a treat it was to meet her in person, and spend a couple of hours chatting.  The kids were quite excited to have her in our home.  Nancy is sort of a mini-celebrity in the homesdchooling world, as she wrote the K-3 levels of the Saxon Math program, which is used throughout the US in private schools as well as by millions of homeschoolers, literally millions.  She is also the developer of her own science curriculum, which we use and find to be absolutely terrific...particularly for our unique language learning needs with older kids.

Before Nancy arrived, the kids wrote questions they had for her on the white board, and Nancy graciously answered every one of them as she shared how she went about writing a curriculum, what her favorite science topics are, and much more.  It was easy to see what a gifted teacher she must have been when still in the classroom, as she was terrific with the kids and treated them with respect and offered very thoughtful replies.  Matthew had just said the week before we learned of her visit to Colorado "Mom, do you think we will ever meet Nancy Larson someday?", so it was funny when I got the email that Nancy wanted to know if we had time to connect while she was in Colorado. Here are a couple of photos from her visit:

"Now, let's see...what can we ask our Curriculum Super Hero??"

Nancy spending time with the kids as they look at a science book.

I loved this picture!


Karon said...

Cindy, as always your post has such power and wisdom behind each word and thought. I especialy like how you clarify the importance to openess and correction rather than a yard stick of comparison. My father has an MBA from Harvard and they do not do grades in the Harvard Masters program for many of the same reasons. The don't want comparison and competition, they want coolaboration and inovation which disolve when grades are the primary sourse of feedback. You should also check out some of the literature about Finland's sucsess in their education program. It follows many of your philosphies or personal growth, equity and collaboration.

Anonymous said...


Like you said in your post, in school we don't all have to major in the same topic...same thing with church. I LOVE the Grace and happiness you have found through your doesn't bother this non-churchy person at all. And all I could think of when I read this post is you guys belong here, with us! Where the vibe is entirely counter-cultural! Come to the People's Republic of Boulder and welcome! :-) Kelly

Anonymous said...

Hope, peace, grace, love, joy, compassion, faith--these are the counter cultural values that got Jesus into terminal trouble.

The practice of despair, strife, hatred, striving for personal happiness (which has nothing to do with joy), greed, self--these are the values that erode people and destroy cultures.

Choose this day. As for me and my people I choose life!


Carrie DeLille said...

Awesome picture!!