What Grading Means at Cicero


What is a Sense of Wonder? 

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.


The lines aboveread by sixth-graders in Wind in the Willows, call to mind the meaning of a sense of wonder at Cicero. What Spring brings to Mole is uneasiness with the way things are and a desire to find something new and perhaps even closer to truth (in Latin veritas). This drives Mole on a quest of adventure, growth, and self-discovery. And this is what a cultivated sense of wonder can do for our students.


From the start, Cicero teachers write grade reports that look little like traditional “report cards.” There is quantitative data; there are scores listed. But the main feature of each student’s evaluation is a substantial written narrative that describes the student as a learner. Featured in this narrative is this quality we call a sense of wonder.


The sense of wonder is a drive, a passion for learning, a discomfort with ignorance, and a desire to get closer to the truth. While everyone is born with it, a sense of wonder shows in different ways with different students. In one student, it might look like a series of energetic remarks during discussion. Another student might be quiet for an extended time and then quietly, pensively, raise a question that makes the whole class reconsider their answers.


Ways to Show Wonder:  

 Wonder comes naturally, but it helps to be aware of the habits that come with it: 

  • Be curious
  • Look for puzzles, mystery, and obscurities in the subject matter
  • Ask “Why”
  • Try to solve puzzles, clarify mysteries, and bring obscurities to light
  • Engage your imagination!

If a student has a hard time speaking up, or is not sure if a teacher can perceive their passion for a subject, talk with your teachers. They can help come up with strategies and provide encouragement and support.


At Cicero, teachers coach these habits of wonder, and model them in their own lives. They work each day to create the conditions for wonder, crafting discussion questions, making lesson plans, designing labs, and more. Everything is aimed to inspire a passion for learning that will, we hope, last through a lifetime.



What is Depth of Inquiry? 

 ” To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

This last line of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” calls to mind what it means to have a depth of inquiry as a learner. Sparked by that initial sense of wonder, a student who inquires deeply does not stop at a first answer, does not rest at the surface of things, but exerts a visible effort to follow through and persist in the search for truth where it leads.


In narrative student evaluations at Cicero, alongside the sense of wonder, teachers look for this depth of inquiry. Wonder and inquiry are closely related–in fact, they reinforce each other.


Depth of inquiry prompts students to go deep, to delve into the foundations of things. This is not only a matter of their approach to inquiry and reflection; it also shows their emerging intellectual character. Are they becoming superficial thinkers or are they on the route to becoming profound? Depth of inquiry requires the right intellectual habits, and teachers want their students to develop these habits throughout the school year. Thus, the teacher looks at day-to-day classroom activities to see progress in depth of inquiry.


Ways to Show Depth of Inquiry:

Depth of inquiry takes the first inspirations of wonder to seek truth, and it keeps that impulse going with precise and persistent effort. Below are some habits that reflect depth of inquiry:

  • Ask questions that go beneath the surface
  • Be willing to follow up on those questions
  • Inquire into the material, the topics, and the issues behind them
  • Be persistent and precise in pursuing questions
  • Apply energy in class to discovery

Teachers can best explain what depth of inquiry looks like in each class, and they are always happy to explain. Depth of inquiry requires not just attitude, but action: annotating all the way through a novel, giving more than a basic answer on a worksheet, listening and reentering a conversation more than once, following a thought to its conclusion. Talk with your teacher to find ways you can grow in this area.


What Do Letter Grades Mean?

 “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hillary 

Letter grades at Cicero are not the simple result of number-crunching: each one is a carefully considered message from the teacher about how to continue the student’s journey of education.


But this single letter does not stand alone; it comes with a written narrative that is more than commentary. The narrative is the very basis for each student’s letter grade. 


Why narrative?


Teachers look to see certain skills and understanding emerge in each class, and the best way to talk about these is through words. Even on daily assignments, Cicero teachers craft feedback to focus on specific areas of strength and growth. Beyond summaries like letter grades or percentages, teachers give preference to precise words. Letter grades are meaningful mainly as symbols, standing for a complex set of skills and knowledge a student is in the process of mastering. Words about how to improve are the real road map to growth.


On student evaluations, then, it is the results that count, not a gamesmanship of numbers. Mathematical perfection is not the goal — in such a case, school would be pointless. Rather, the teacher looks for a story of continual growth. What mastery has a student shown, as reflected in the “hard data” of tests and quizzes? Has the student shown a sense of wonder and depth of inquiry? Have they thought seriously about the issues raised in class? Met challenges head on? Sought help when struggling? Inevitable also is the teacher’s self-assessment: how have I (and how can I) best serve this student on his or her journey?


What does an A mean? What does a D mean? The answer is in the narrative. And the narrative is not the end of a conversation between the teacher and family, but a continuation. Personal growth is always a challenge: in and out of class, we are here to support our students through this process.