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When Not Paying Attention in Class Isn’t What It Seems

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Student Nick Belsaguy and teacher Jacob Johnson
Nick Belsaguy and Jacob Johnson (Courtesy of Jacob Johnson)

High school junior Nick Belsaguy pulled a lot of all-nighters in December. He wasn’t cramming for science tests or writing history papers, though. He was in his backyard woodshop, crafting laser-engraved cutting boards until 4 a.m.

Nick has devoted a lot of time during the coronavirus pandemic to learning woodworking, primarily from YouTube videos. He started by building furniture for his family’s house, then started selling his work after his mom’s proud photos on social media led to requests. When supply chain issues raised the cost of materials, he switched from tables to smaller kitchen wares. Sales peaked this past holiday season, when Nick brought in almost $3,000 in profit in one month.

“(Woodworking) lets me go from the start of ideas in my mind then to a complete finished product,” the 16-year-old entrepreneur said. “I just love seeing that.”

That passion and focus rarely gets tapped at school, though. Nick said he sometimes rushes through classwork so he can use class time to respond to client inquiries or create laser designs on school software.

It was in one of those moments when Jacob Johnson, who is Nick’s teacher in a credit recovery class at Murrieta Valley High School, learned of his student’s thriving business.


For Johnson, that discovery was the perfect parable for why schools need to be transformed from their longstanding models in the wake of the pandemic: Here’s Nick, an optimistic, motivated teenager who loves to learn (besides woodworking, he’s studying for his personal pilot’s license) and who can tell you the exact ways that he learns best. With his business, Nick demonstrates hard and soft skills that education and industry leaders say they value, such as entrepreneurship, mathematics and communication. But nothing in his transcript captures that.

“With Nick, when I was observing his behaviors in classes, he’s so driven,” Johnson said. “Yet he’s in a class where he could be labeled as a ‘failure’ or ‘failing.’”

For some teachers, the pandemic provided a catalyst to abandon that reductive framework and the grading model that feeds it. Johnson is among them. He said his new approach has been “career-saving,” but as educators cope with pandemic fatigue and the pressure to make up for Covid-19 learning losses, he wonders if the desire to return to status quo will win out. “Or do we take this opportunity to reinvent a lot of what we’ve done, primarily how we assess and try to quantify knowledge and potential?”

Real-life learning

Nick is the type of kid who likes to ask his teachers how what he’s learning fits into the real world. “That’s the way my mind works. I’m a very physical person, and that’s why I love working with my hands,” he explains. “I love to see it in a real-life example, so I can think, ‘OK, I understand this connects to this.’”

During a geometry unit in his math class last year, examples weren’t necessary. Nick already recognized the mathematical principles from skills he’d taught himself in his woodshop.

“So my grades went from having a D+ to an A-. Because I’ve learned it, and in my mind, I picture, ‘Oh, when I’m doing this, this is for this.’ So it’s just the same thing on paper.”

The geometry lessons also helped Nick extend his knowledge. At the time, he was working on end tables where the legs form Xs. He had struggled to figure out the correct angles and lengths to cut the legs. Then, while learning more about triangles, he had an a-ha moment that solved his problem.

“It kind of made me excited to go to class,” he said. “I love building on what I know already. So to me, I’m like, ‘Oh, I wonder what’s going to come next after this?’”

As it turned out, algebra “and a whole bunch of other random stuff” were next, so the flame of Nick’s academic interest dimmed back to its usual flicker. Most of the time, he said, he does what he has to in school because he knows it’s important to graduate, not out of real curiosity.

A pandemic mindshift

Johnson calls that “playing the grade game.” He wants teachers to consider what it would take to fan the flames of every student’s interests instead of focusing on points and grades as motivation — which doesn’t work for many kids anyway.

Johnson said that during the first year of the pandemic, while teaching in his garage and staring at blank Zoom boxes, he had no choice but to tackle that issue head-on. He said it took a mindset shift on both his assignments and classroom management. Instead of seeing himself as a judge who calculates points and assigns grades, he began thinking of himself as a sherpa guiding students through unfamiliar knowledge and skills.

With the return to in-person learning, Johnson carried that new perspective with him. This year, his ninth-grade English classes created a grading contract focused on effort and growth. Every progress report period, students discuss with Johnson what mark they believe they earned. That’s what goes into the gradebook. 

“I’m not adding up points. I’m not adding up the percentages. I’m not giving punitive penalties for late work. I’m trying to keep it really simple,” Johnson said.

And with less time spent enforcing compliance, he can devote more energy toward finding ways for each student to learn and giving them timely feedback. Johnson said his students’ participation levels are similar to before he changed his grading policy, but his relationships with students are more positive and collaborative.

Hearing his teacher describe this approach, Nick was surprised. “I just wish I had Mr. Johnson as a freshman (in English class). I didn’t know he did that.”

Nick also said Johnson’s policy appealed to him more than when teachers give an option to revise assignments for a better grade. He said the feedback for assignments usually comes weeks after submitting, and he would need to revise while the next assignment’s deadline also looms. “It’s just so overwhelming. It’s like, I’ll take my D, because am I going to risk another 12 hours on this paper just for the chance I get a C?”

“That’s what I’m talking about there,” Johnson replied. “He’s playing the grade game. Because he’s forced to play the grade game.”


Teachers, Johnson believes, hold the power to call “game over.” And if they do, he hopes they will work to make school a place where all students can achieve the passion and multidisciplinary competencies that Nick has developed in his woodshop.

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