Jesse Pinkman’s Wooden Box

An honor student who couldn’t do her best and a thug who could.

A few CTQ bloggers will be dedicating some upcoming posts to grading. At my Stories from School Arizona blog, I posted a letter to an A+ student. Here is another offering.

Santana was a top student. She had all As and Bs. Assign a 10 page paper and you would get a 10 page paper. Assign 20 word problems and you would get 20 word problems. Give her the rubric for any assignment and she would max out on points. I have no doubt that colleges lined up around the block to offer her scholarships.

But process this: My engineering students were designing cars out of clay. The target was to make the most aerodynamic shape they could. Santana brought me her first effort and I pointed out some careless mistakes. She went off, made some improvements, and came back. I pointed out a couple of new issues with her workmanship. Her shoulders slumped, she went off, made some more changes, and came back. When I gave her more feedback, her look fed back to me her annoyance in no uncertain terms. Still, in spite of her anger, she went back to work. She came back once more, assumed a defensive stance, and handed me a car that still didn’t reflect her skills. I decided on a different tack: “Santana, I’ll make a deal with you. I will give you an A on everything you bring me, but you never bring me anything until you’re satisfied that you’ve done your best.”

She was slain. Her shoulders slumped. From her confused expression she might as well as have been looking at her first differential equation.

Santana, who would jump through any hoop for an A, didn’t know what it meant to do her best. 

Jessie Pinkman did. Ignore for a moment his role in building a meth empire in Breaking Bad. Remember instead a scene that showed him as a student. He’s telling a group of recovering addicts about a school project. In tech class he had built a wooden box. He showed it to the teacher who asked, “Is that the best you can do?” In the scene Jessie makes it clear the teacher wasn’t critical or talking down to him, he just wanted to know if it was all Jessie had. He says, “Nah, I can do better,” and starts from scratch. He built box after box until he judged one “insane.” He lovingly describes its touch as smooth as glass and cedar scent.

I bet he got an A on the box. I bet it didn’t care.

During the final episode of Breaking Bad, when all hell is about to break loose, Jessie flashes back to the box.

And now, as when facing the entry sign to a roundabout, I have to decide which route to take in this post. One arrow points to a discussion about the lack of a genuine alignment between grades and achievement. Another to an exploration of how students need to make good grades to inform high schools and colleges of their achievement, even though grades are distinctly unable to do that. One more leads to a rant about teachers who tell students that school is their job and grades are their pay. The last arrow simply says “Grass.” That’s the one I’ll follow.

Nope, not the kind of grass that Pinkman traded his box for as he dove into the Abyss. Rather it’s the grass on the practice field of Western New Mexico University in Silver City. In summers during high school my friends David Thiel, David Nelson, Steve Maxwell, Sam Maldonado, and I would train for the upcoming football season.

We would meet there after dinner each evening and our workouts consisted mostly of endless games of catch – endlessly running and throwing and catching and laughing and falling and always bragging and taunting. My memory is that it was mostly done barefoot. That time Dave spiked the football and it bounced back and hit him in the face. It still gets to me.

There were no coaches or drills or pep talks. But there was a setting sun and the cool of the evening, friendship and football.

Nonetheless our coaches, Gerald Garrett, Robert Ruiz, Tom Gardner, and Mike Castillo were formative figures in our lives. They taught us a game by which we learned hard truths about performance against objective standards: We wanted to win but mostly lost. After graduation we applied their lessons and earned something like ten degrees between us. Nor are we of slight achievement in our careers.

But looking back over the four decades since high school, I think the more valuable lessons came from playing catch on a summers’ eve.

I hope you’ve drifted off into your own memories about a time as a student that’s stayed with you because it mattered more than a score. I’d love to hear about it.

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  • JasonParker

    Learning for learning’s sake

    I’m afraid I’ll come off as though I’m generalizing (because I am), however, wanted to note that it appears to me that when learning is done for the sake of learning – not for a grade – those lessons stay with us longer. 

    One of my favorite memories from middle school is the argument I made to my teachers to allow me and another student to restart a School Store, but to have it run solely and exclusively by its students. Obviously, this argument led to a lot of other memories (mananging the store, handling inventory, hiring employees, etc.) but it sticks out to me as one of those lessons that wouldn’t have been taught “for the test” or inside most classrooms. It was an extremely unique opportunity, and I’m so grateful that I had the experience. 

    In fact, later in that school year, one of our assignments for social studies was to investigate and study markets. We “invested” $10,000 in the stock market and tracked it over a two month period. This happened to be October and November of 2000, when the markets slumped due to the contested election (and a lot of other macroeconomic data and events that I am sure I never knew about as a middle schooler), and so virtually everyone lost money. In fact, the person who performed the best (definitely not me!) held most of her investment in a cash position. By “most” I mean more than 95%. 

    While I certainly learned a bit about markets from that class, I’m willing to bet I learned far more in the two months by managing the school store. And I didn’t get graded on running THAT business. 

    • SandyMerz

      Learning without boundaries

      Thanks Jason, you’re story makes me think how much learning is gained when you outside an formal educational structure – I bet there were things that you learned in your student store that no teacher could have planned a lesson around. I’ve heard of the stock market simulation before and how kids can really get into it. I wonder how your teacher graded it – by your bottom line, maybe, like in the real market – I bet not or it sounds like you all would have failed. 

      • JasonParker

        Not sure we were graded…

        Honestly, can’t remember how we were graded. Furthermore, don’t think it’s a simulation that you can grade based on the performance of the portfolio. Rather, I think it would be important to respond to a set of questions or an essay about markets and what we learned (diversification of portfolio lessens short-term risk, you can’t time the market, short term investing is dangerous, etc.). Yet, I’m still learning about markets (yes, they’re complex) today. The lessons I learned with the school store had an immediate effect on my life, the lives of our employees, and in the community at school. I took those lessons and later launched an eBay business… again, outside of the curriculum, but again, an activity where I gained a lot of “real world” experience in working with people, positioning products, basic web literacy, and more. Thing is, Sandy, I think there’s GOT to be a place for this type of knowledge acquisition to occur in a more formal way within educational structures. Wondering if there are any models or programs that exist that champion classroom entrepreneurship as a core part of the curriculum (I am aware of a few extracurricular programs)…


  • Karl Ochsner

    Making the Grade

    Motivation is different for all students. Some will work hours to get an A, while others will do whatever they can squeak by to get a B. If a project is not being graded, it sits on the side.  Sometimes the grade motivation is the parent yelling at the kid to get it done or worse, do the project for the student.  I guess that is why I like working with technology.  The latest and the greatest confuses the kids and tricks them to want it and see it.  Of course with all "toys" it gets boring after a while and they move on.  That I believe is why technology needs to be integrated into the classroom, with the latest and greatest in technology to push students in wanting to use it in different ways.  Otherwise we will end up with kids just being satisfied with status quo and not pushing themselves to the next level of creativity.


    • JasonParker

      Some aren’t motivated by grades

      Aren’t there also plenty of students for whom the “side projects” that aren’t being graded are more interesting? That their motivation to create, complete, learn, master, build, take apart, dissect, understand, etc., doesn’t stem from the expectation of receiving a grade? 

      We’re all curious about something – I believe that when we’re given the support and resources to pursue our curiosity, we’re likely far more motivated to pursue (for free! with our spare time!) this type of project or work than we are if we’re anticipating a grade. I’m not arguing for a removal of grades, by any means, but am trying to articulate my belief that motivation is not binary, nor is it a fixed asset that one possesses in limited quantities. 

      In addition, I’m not sure that technology is the answer, and I have some difficulty with your statement that the greatest technology confuses the kids. Truly great technology engages people – whether they’re students or adults – and if the technology is learning-based, helps add valuable skills to an individual’s knowledge base. 

      Technology in the classroom isn’t the answer. Technology is merely a tool that can be used to drive, funnel, and focus a student’s curiosity and attention. 

  • marsharatzel

    3 things I need to do to realize passion based student learning

    Sandy and Jason,  I think you identified and described the tension in very precise and descriptive terms.  I believe we have all encountered this phenomenon in our own lives and in our classrooms.

    For me, the trick is

    1. identifying what I have in my curriculum that can be transformed into this kind of learning.
    2. Helping students move from “getting the right answer” so they get their “A” to finding joy in the learning process (they can do this if we lead them gently into this realization and building the trust necessary)
    3. Reallocating classroom time.

    What do you think about those ideas?

    • JasonParker

      Right on!

      Sandy’s point on focusing on process rather than results strikes me as particularly important, here. To train athletes, coaches often work on very small, incremental process goals, such as mastering the three-step or five-step drop, or how to strike a free kick, or mastering the toss prior to serving a tennis ball. I’ve used these techniques in coaching on the Ultimate Frisbee field – putting the focus for the day or for the week on a specific “process” that we’re working on, rather than the result (i.e. winning games). 

      Absolutely parralels your points in #2, Marsha, and I believe it’s an important consideration in working with students. Difficulty in finding – and reallocating – time to provide both individual and group “process” feedback to continue to work towards understanding and mastery. What have y’all done in this regard? What’s working, what isn’t? 

  • SandyMerz

    Process over Results

    That’s right, Marsha. I don’t know that I’ve ever framed it in my own mind like you did in your #1. I always figured those best moments came by accident. Of course trust is so important. And coaching. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been telling my algebra students to focus on the process of learning and the grades will take care of themselves, it’s too early to tell if that’s having an effect. Or what I do mischeviously, is to ask them what they learned when they ask me their grade – they don’t like that at all. But really, if they can’t tell me what they learned, what’s the point of the grade?