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Vickroy: Putting learning ahead of grades

History teacher Michael Duffy his classroom Andrew High School Tinley Park Illinois Wednesday September 5 2012.  Duffy has unique

History teacher Michael Duffy in his classroom at Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Illinois, Wednesday, September 5, 2012. Duffy has a unique grading system that lets his students retake tests if they attend a mandatory review session. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Good advice

I recently asked parents on Facebook to share helpful back-to-school tips:

Encourage students to work ahead.

Volunteer — a lot.

Limit extracurriculars.

Make sure they get a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast.

Check their locker before each quarter ends; you might find missing assignments.

Be respectful, be good role models.

Take electronics away at bedtime.

Updated: October 7, 2012 6:06AM



One of the hardest things for a parent to do is watch her child struggle.

Even though we know challenges build character and that failure in the present often leads to greater success down the road, it’s not easy to see your child stumble, fumble or outright fail.

And that’s exactly what we foresaw when our youngest approached us a few years ago and announced she had registered for Advanced Placement European History.

She was not your typical AP kid. And we knew what your typical AP kid was like because we had one. Our older daughter soared through the school system, collecting awards and accolades and all that special attention that is given to bright kids who are also hard workers.

Though we believed our youngest daughter to be just as brilliant, my husband and I had both feet planted firmly in reality. She was the kind of student who put more energy into avoiding schoolwork than excelling at it. In grammar school, she’d prepare whole presentations on why she should be allowed to stay home. She’d bargain like a straw market vendor, offering to play the piano for hours or even wash the dishes and reorganize the fridge if we’d just let her skip school.

Suffice it to say, she was an average student. And happy to stay that way.

“She’s not AP material,” I confessed to her AP Euro teacher, Michael Duffy, who taught at Sandburg before moving over to Andrew High School. “I’m afraid this class will destroy her.”

I pictured her self-esteem being dragged through the academic muck. She’d be so crushed by her inability to keep up with the overachievers that she’d end up living alone, watching TV reruns and possibly hoarding cats.

Duffy, now in his 30th year of teaching, asked why she’d signed up for the class.

“She loves history,” I said. “It’s about the only school subject that excites her.”

“I was an average student who happened to love history,” he said. He loved the connections and the what ifs. What if the American revolutionaries hadn’t succeeded? What if his ancestors weren’t allowed to immigrate to America?

“If she loves history, she belongs in the class,” he’d said. “I can’t promise she won’t struggle, but I’d rather have a classroom full of kids who are interested than a bunch who are simply looking for a weighted grade.”

In AP classes, students are expected to learn college-level material at a college-level pace. Because of the difficulty, grades are weighted, meaning a B counts as an A. The school didn’t offer a regular European history course.

We wanted to be those parents who cheer their child on, no matter what obstacles she faced. Such idealism is always easier in lecture than in practice. We worried if the class would decimate her grade-point average and kill off her lone academic interest.

Then Duffy, a coach and father of four, explained his unique grading system. Students took tests, and if they bombed or were simply unhappy with the result, they could retake them, but only if they attended a mandatory review session. Sometimes, he explained, you learn more from your mistakes than from getting it right the first time around.

I loved the approach and that it enabled average kids to attempt above-average feats. Mostly, I loved that it promoted learning simply for learning’s sake.

The system, which he has tweaked even more today to include greater class discussion, grew out of weekly meetings he has with colleagues across District 230.

“We’re always looking for ways to increase learning,” he said. Good grades may get you into college but it’s the material learned that helps a student once there.

The system is not without its critics. Duffy’s had parents of high-achievers complain that the first grade should be the final grade, that life is not about do-overs.

But in fact, life is. In his classroom, Duffy has a poster of four well-known failures. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman all suffered great failures early on, but they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and, well, the rest is history.

To our surprise, the experience not only challenged our daughter academically, it helped her mature. She was expected to keep up, so she did. Sure it was tough, but she learned a lot in that class, about Henry XIII and the Medicis and the Russian Revolution.

More important, she learned how to learn from her mistakes.

She came away with living proof that she can do just about anything she puts her mind to.

And that is a lesson that will serve her better than any grade, test score or academic award.



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