How do Grades Hurt Us?

A vending machine for art. It looks like it was re-purposed from a cigarette vending machine.
This re-purposed vending machine is all about external motivation–which piece of art would you like to buy? ©Laurel Decher, 2020.

Reading an article about how it hurts kids to focus on “grades” instead of “learning”: “Grades vs Learning: Shifting Attention to What’s Important

“Drafts, re-dos, and ‘evolving assignments'” may help students to focus on getting better at something instead of getting a good grade.

Hmm. That sure sounds like writing a book! Everybody write a book! *just kidding*

Creativity is supposed to increase when the motivation comes from inside the art instead of from outside. Poet and counselor Mark McGuiness’s MOTIVATION FOR CREATIVE PEOPLE is a wonderful exploration of this.

It’s hard to do your best work when you’re thinking about losing points.

The truth is: we all get grades. Adults have workplace evaluations, product sales, reviews, raises, etc. We all have to learn to use both kinds of motivation. 

At the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2004, beloved children’s author Katherine Patterson told a story about being stuck on a novel. She told a writing friend, “I haven’t learned anything!”

The friend said, “You’ve learned that novels can be finished.”

Listen to Katherine Patterson’s wonderful keynote speech here.

To me this means,

“Panic doesn’t mean anything. It’s a normal part of the process. It’s noise. It’s trying to keep you from playing with your work until you get something you like.”

How can we remind ourselves of this more often? How can we teach kids to work with both kinds of motivation? (Or how can they teach us?)

Stories we tell ourselves

Recently, my husband and I watched a movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken’s character, Harry, is so shy he only talks to women if he’s “in character” in a play. No one really tries to connect with him until Susan Sarandon’s character arrives in town with the phone company. It’s an endearingly awkward tale that shows how our internal narrative affects our view of ourselves and others.

It’s a joy to watch the characters in “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” give up the old “truths” and find a way to live that’s the envy of the whole town. This is a classic way to create an interesting fictional character.

The Reverse Backstory Tool is a fun and effective way to create a character who’s ready to jump into a story and bring it alive. It’s a handy bookkeeping tool for the relationship between the character’s external and internal goals, the character traits that will help or get in the way, and the lie that the character must disprove in order to win.

Click to download a PDF of the tool Reverse Backstory Tool – Becca Puglisi

I found another example of “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” in The Church at the Well podcast series. Kevin Fitton talks about “I’m Too Busy.” He connects the leisure time research of Professor John P. Robinson (University of Maryland) and Brigid Shulte’s OVERWHELMED to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha.

The “I’m Too Busy” lie has so much potential for rich characters. Harry acts out a version in the hardware store and in the theater. He uses his activity on- and off-stage as a shield.

What are your favorite stories where characters grow and change? Have you ever rooted for a character to overcome that blind-spot?

Source: The Reverse Backstory Tool appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.


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