Varsity: From Letter Grades to Letter Winners

As another baseball season concludes, I reflect on our team highlights and individual heroics that will become hometown lore, and inevitably, relive several “what-if?” scenarios, as if we could go back and choose new outcomes. I taste the bittersweet reality of saying good-bye to our seniors, while the renewed hope of next year’s potential emerges. I will miss our graduates, but would start a new season tomorrow knowing I have another chance to work with our returning letter winners. This is the annual cycle of emotions experienced by high school varsity coaches.

Since shifting to a personalized learning model in my high school English classes, I have experienced similar feelings. The more we invest in the individual, the more we get to know our learners–interests, strengths, academic needs, areas of improvement, learner preferences, future plans–and the more personal the relationship grows. While there are more technical definitions, that’s how I identify personalized learning.

Educators know the feelings. Satisfaction. Exhaustion. Fulfillment. Pride. Seasonal allergies are not solely to blame for end-of-year watery eyes as teachers wish their kids a final “have a nice summer” sentiment. There is an emptiness–a sense of loss–knowing the time has come for our students to move on. We’ve done our part, but now we must watch them become someone else’s responsibility. All of the progress, conversations, and feedback exchanged between teachers and learners reset; the learning process starts over next year.

So what do we do? Post a letter grade. Auto-fill several comments. At best, rush to write something nice in students’ yearbooks. And then, they are gone. The classroom is silent until a new group enters.

In my reflections this summer, I question how we end each school year. I question myself.

One of my final coaching duties is to compile team and individual statistics for our end-of-season banquet. At the conclusion of a baseball season, I don’t want a player’s success or worth to be evaluated based on wins and losses or batting average. Statistics may contribute to post season recognition or awards, but they do not communicate anything useful. Like academic transcripts, final stats are permanent (summative); they do not present an opportunity for growth. Rather than dump a packet of stats on tables and call it a season, I craft a personalized letter for each player. The letter includes: Comments, Looking to the Future, Continue to Improve / Focus On, and Final Thoughts.

Here is a sample of the series of letters I wrote to one of my former players.

This honor student’s academic transcripts show he earned A’s and B’s on his report cards. His auto-programmed comments include: Keep up the good work, Achieves well academically, Cooperative and Courteous, Participates in Class, Bravo!, and my personal favorite, A pleasure to have in class. He received baseball accolades as well: All Conference Infielder, Team Captain, Coach’s Award. However, four years of letters tell the complete story. He and his parents received more detailed information in the letters I wrote than what is posted on his permanent transcripts or career statistics. I also had specific information to share with college coaches beyond his .300 average and number of assists.

It is interesting to see the progression in tracking this player’s development throughout his four years of varsity baseball. From year to year, he knew his role in our program, what was expected for growth, and how to achieve his goals. I began writing letters in 2012–his freshman year. Is it a coincidence that he and his teammates experienced the most victories in their four years than any other graduating class?

Alumni

Am I more invested in my baseball players than my students? I hope not. But I do spend more time at the end of the baseball season than I do at the end of a school year providing a holistic evaluation, descriptive feedback, specific suggestions for growth, and a path toward success. I generate enthusiasm, momentum, and motivation for next year’s baseball players. How may we do the same for our learners?

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