So, I teach the full gambit of language learners in China.

My favorite is Umbrella, whose name I want to change to Rocket.


This student, just nine, really loves learning. Each day, he reads a new DRA reading card and takes a test. Yes, the same old school cards you had as a kid. Still color coded. You still grade them yourself and your teacher still gets upset if you don’t put them back in the box correctly.

Well, Umbrella has moved up three color levels and can remember everything he’s read.
“Ms. Sin’s an alligator’s jaw is different than a crocodile’s.”

“A llama has green spit.”

Or, my favorite, when explaining how transportation has changed over the years:

“My father’s car was a horse.”

This trivia will come in handy at a cocktail party someday.

But then, there are the older students. Knowledge gets in the way of what students really want.

The grade.

Somewhere over the years, a quest for knowledge gets replaced with an obsession for a better GPA. And whatever the Grade Point Average is, it ain’t good enough. Students check their grades daily, like traders on Wallstreet having ulcers over the futures of a hedge fund.

I call it Gradebook Nervosa, similar to waif-like girls obsessed with the scale, fearing that the calories consumed by licking a postage stamp will cause them to balloon out a pant-size. The numbers on the scale do more than run their lives, it ruins their lives.

With Gradebook nervosa, a seventy percent score on a rinky-dink assignment can cause sleepless nights for a student, and hence, the teacher they pester all night with instant messages.


Yes, I know this is Asia, where a B+ is a failing grade. But those obsessing over grades? They are the ones who shouldn’t be. It’s not the kid who shamelessly plagiarizes from Ducksters, but the math genius. Then I wonder, if that kid is as good in math as everyone says, why doesn’t that kid do the math and see how much of a grade is actually at stake here?

Like today, yet another good student fighting tooth and nail over one point. One point. This is one point before the twenty percent final, which is half of the year’s grade for the course, which is one seventh of their freshman year grade, which is one fourth of their high school GPA. Calculators don’t even have that many decimal points. The impact that one point has on their GPA is so infinitesimal, it’s like an electron in an atom in a molecule blamed for breaking a camel’s back.

Thinking that the student will get physically ill if I don’t change the grade, I give the student the point, and also, change my opinion of that kid. Really? would you work this hard to improve your grammar? To know when to use who or whom? How to properly include an intext citation in your character analysis?


If only this students realized that in order to get that fraction of a point, they put a major chink in their character.

I tell my students that PowerSchool (our school’s online gradebook) is like the funny mirrors at the circus. Their grades will be a distorted view of who they are.  

Still they obsess, their hands popping during a lesson on Romeo and Juliet (one that I got up at 4 am to create).

“Any questions?”


I wait with bated breath.

“Why do I have only ten percent on that quiz in PowerSchool?”

All I can think is if they paid attention to what I was teaching, their grades would take care of themselves. Don’t they care about iambic pentameter? How Shakespeare plagiarized from Arthur Brooke, who plagiarized this story from Matteo Bandello?

No. All they care about is a point.

Make that a fraction of a fraction of point.

So, what’s the point about obsession with points?

Well, it says a lot about a student’s character.  Sad that we live in a world where teens fret more about what an algorithm thinks of them than a breathing human being. If that’s what it takes to get college these days, I think I’ll go to DeVry instead.

That’s why I like Umbrella and his explanation of how cars were once horses.

But someday, Umbrella the Rocket will give up his curiosity for llama spit for a case of Gradebook nervosa. He too might pester me ad nauseum for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a point.

Until then, I’ll just enjoy his love for what really matters.

Knowledge itself.

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