Bring Honor and Meaning to Learning

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Mark, who earned a D in my college-prep English class last semester, patiently waits for me to finish talking with a few students after class. Two friends of his wait with him. As it happens, these students also earned D's last semester in my class. They are all great kids, though not great students. Still, each of them can, when he feels inclined, do exceptional work, and raise the level of class discussion dramatically with a comment or question.

Seeing that I am finished with the other students, Mark comes forward and hands me a permission form saying only that he will be gone all of the next week. I have no authority to deny his petition. Because it does not say why he will be gone, I ask him. "I'm going away to camp to try to complete my Eagle," he says. "I don't understand," I admit, going on to ask, "What's an 'eagle'?" Jake, one of the two friends, proudly explains that they are all in the Boy Scouts and they are going for their Eagle Scout award. "John already got his, actually, didn't you, John?" John nods proudly, smiles.

I sign the form and briefly discuss what they are doing for their special Eagle Scout project. I've advised other kids in the past on similar projects, if those required writing. I respect the initiative these boys are showing and realize once again that they are, despite their grades, honorable young adults. If they were my sons, I would be proud.

But they are also students--in my class, in the state of California, where we are struggling to create and implement standards to which all students--and teachers--can be held accountable. While they certainly would prefer to get better grades, they lack any commitment to the ideal of academic excellence. When I jokingly suggest to Mark that he go to Scout camp for two weeks and use the second week to work with the same intensity on his schoolwork, he laughs awkwardly.

While I resist the uniform culture of the Scouts for myself, and don't ever want to see the halls of my school filled with boys and girls wearing the same neckerchiefs, I respect the idea of the merit badges. As my three Scouts explained to me, some merit badges are required--just as certain school subjects are--while others can be self-selected. All, however, must be earned by performing at a certain level, one recognized as distinguished by the Scouts. To become an Eagle Scout, a genuine accomplishment worthy of everyone's respect, the Scout must develop a culminating project, a personal rite of passage. When the Scouts complete these projects, when they have earned 21 merit badges, they are awarded that final, highest honor--Eagle Scout standing.

What would it look like if kids had to work toward badges that announced they were a "Writer" or "Scientist," or "Technology Master" or "Athlete"? How might we invest the high school diploma, something few of the men in my father's family earned, with the same sense of honor and challenge that these three disaffected students find in the Eagle Scout designation? They are dedicated to this process; it has a meaning for them that we must study and create for all students.

Our students should be required to demonstrate their skills through performance before professional educators trained to judge such performance.

If we are to hold all students and teachers accountable to academic standards, let us endeavor to make those standards meaningful not only in the eyes of students and the schools, but for colleges and employers, parents, and organizations like the Boy Scouts. How can the Boy Scouts, for example, offer their highest distinction to these young men who have not earned that crucial but nonexistent merit badge: Scholar? I'm not looking to punish students; I want their accomplishment to be one that is real, one that instills in them the same sense of pride as their "Eagle" does.

California's Golden State Exams once offered the promise of such merit, but the results come so slow as to be meaningless. Moreover, they amount to no consequence beyond a seal on the diploma.

Far better it would be for the students and teachers, for communities, and for our state if all our students had to demonstrate their skills in actual performance before professional educators trained to judge such performance, at which point the students would learn that they passed or, if not, how they might do better next time. Far better that every student in our state should create some culminating project that benefited the community and left a sense of pride that would last, a memory of his or her capacity for excellence, for change, for commitment.

Such was the feeling my students enjoyed last year, when they read to kindergartners every Friday and, at year's end, wrote a grant that enabled us to buy new hardcover books for every kindergartner and 1st grader at that elementary school. Surely, every parent, every kindergartner, every peer, and each one of those students recognized the merit and celebrated the accomplishment represented by the grant. The pictures from that day, which the students called "A Gift of Words," remain on my classroom door. Throughout the day, if my door is open, people, including those same students, will stop and point to the pictures with a pride and envy that I imagine Mark, Jake, and John feeling when they get that "Eagle."

Jim Burke teaches English at Burlingame High School in Burlingame, Calif., and is the author of The English Teacher's Companion: A Complete Guide to Classroom, Curriculum, and the Profession, published by Boynton-Cook. He can be reached on the World Wide Web at

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Page 56

Published in Print: June 9, 1999, as Bring Honor and Meaning to Learning
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