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Everyone Gets an A

A letter from Kurt Vonnegut to a class of high school students who wrote to him

The fall semester is in full swing, and my undergraduate students greet me with half-moon circles under their eyes, already overwhelmed by endless lists of must-dos. And here I am, about to give them more—more required reading, more assignment writing, more analytic and creative thinking. But my homework, I like to hope, is more interesting and less stressful than what they’re used to.

When I started teaching, I decided to approach my class with Ben Zander's methodology of “Everyone gets an A.” The theory is that when you give students “a possibility to live into rather than an expectation to live up to,” they are better able to learn and grow into their potential. Zander used this approach when teaching music at Julliard, but therein lies the potential flaw: it’s a given that the majority of students with the discipline and focus to gain a coveted spot at Julliard are probably going to be A-students.

Less guaranteed is the earning of the A by the average overwhelmed and under-inspired college student, which others were quick to point out when I told them about my approach. Truth is, a promised A sounds a lot like a free pass. So I amended my pitch to my students: everyone gets an A—as long as they show up to class, engage in the conversation, and turn in all of their assignments. The minimum requirements for the maximum grade. Even with that caveat, when I tell others about my approach, I’m met with (understandable) doubt and skepticism.

The debate over the impact of “coddling” younger generations rages. From the opposing point of view, giving everyone an A is not unlike giving everyone a medal. It isn’t fair to the ones who worked harder and performed better to be rewarded on the same level as the ones who barely put in an effort. It also isn’t fair to the ones who barely made an effort to get a pass; in fact, it’s cruel to allow them a free ride because the “real world” doesn’t work that way. You’re not setting anyone up for success, the argument goes, when you eliminate comparative performance metrics.

I was a straight-A student through college (with the exception of a C given to me in a poetry class, of all subjects—but that’s a story for another time). I’ve carried, lifelong, what I call a “gold-star” mentality. Put another way, perfect is good enough, and anything less than that is a failure. This mindset was planted and then reinforced by my parents, who knew that scholarships would be my ticket to a bright future. They weren’t wrong: scholarships supported me fully through a two-year international high school in Wales, four years of undergraduate education in Maine, and my MFA in creative writing.

But the grade I received was hardly ever indicative of the educational value of a class. In some classes, particularly in college, an A felt meaningless because I had learned so much more than any letter or score could reflect. In the majority of others, particularly in high school, the A was the only thing that I took from the class. In both cases, at the end of the day, the A was always just a letter. Today, it isn’t the grade that I remember most, but the learning. The ways in which a few rare classes somehow managed to make me into who I am today. That, and the teachers themselves—the space they cultivated for dialogue and emerging awareness, and the way they knew how to challenge me just when I needed it most.

Teaching has been a dream of mine for much of my life, and when I was finally offered an adjunct position teaching writing, I could barely contain my enthusiasm. It isn’t the pedagogy, syllabi, and curriculum that make my heart sing. The LMS platform for hybrid learning is decidedly archaic, and the pay is underwhelming, with no benefits or protections to speak of. In fact, the system by which adjunct faculty work is irrefutably awful, based as it is on the willingness of institutions to take advantage of idealistic and desperate laborers. But none of that is why I do it.

Here’s why I do it: in every student, there’s some kind of light. A spark for something that, once activated, grows into a flame, and then a fire. My job, as I see it, is to help students find that spark. To teach them to shelter it, stoke it, and, when they’re ready, to share it with the world—that same “real world” that a cynic might say my lack of grading subverts. My subject, writing, is the perfect tool to uncover that innate energy, although I could argue that it’s present in every field of study. The homework I assign isn’t geared toward an evaluation of grammar, spelling, or expository formulas. It focuses instead on the exploration and discovery of who my students are at their core, where they come from, how they fit (or don’t) into the world they occupy, and, most importantly, what matters to them most.

In short, my job is to remind them, for the few hours a week that I get to see them, of the relationship between doing and being. As a teacher, my methodology is not to instruct—not to demand or test or evaluate—but to inspire. I’m not here to answer questions. I’m here to provoke questions, and then to empower each student to seek out their own answers.

You can’t grade that. That kind of work doesn’t fall into a five-letter category. Not without ignoring the unique particulars of each student and their journey. A student who enters the class recalcitrant learns to let his guard down and joke with the class, less absolute about his black-and-white perspective. Another student who arrives withdrawn, so shy that he turns off his Zoom camera and speaks only when directed to do so, gains the ability to write incredibly evocative reflections and the courage to share those words with his classmates. Another comes riveted to the increasingly ephemeral glow of a gold-star mentality, and she walks away with a gleaning of what she truly cares about, beyond what others have told her is most important. Another learns, for the first time, to talk openly about her story as an immigrant, and to claim the many strengths that she has been given by this circumstance, as well as the (too-many) obstacles.

They are all free, in my class, from the constant pressure of having to perform. Free of feeling constrained by the expectation that they live out the stories that were dictated to them rather than the stories they are capable of creating for themselves. Once a person finds that within themselves, the story they want to live, I have to believe they change. Irrevocably. Even when they leave the class, and get buried again in the day-to-day script, I know that one day, they’ll seek those answers out again. And again. Until they become them.

Skeptics, take note: by the end—every single time—my students earn their A. No exceptions. And while I hear other teachers complaining about the torture of grading, I relax knowing that for me, it will be easy. All I have to do is pay attention, and then share what I’ve observed.

Here’s what I’ve observed: when you show that you believe in a person, a funny things starts to happen—they learn to believe in themselves.

As I tell my students, emphatically: Everyone is a teacher. As we move through the world, we are teaching everyone we interact with. So, what do you want to teach those around you? I say.

Their answers, their teachings, are why I do it.

Because the real twist, of course, is that by the end of each term, my students have taught me as much as I have taught them. And I hope that I’ve earned my A.

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