Teaching to Learn in the De-Graded Classroom – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 14 pt. 1

Teaching to Learn

Peter Anderson

PA Cover

(Peter here! Here’s a link to my entire presentation! Enjoy!)

Today we get to hear from Peter Anderson himself. And as amazing of a blogger as you know him to be, doing a presentation and live blogging it simultaneously proves challenging–even for him. So this post comes at you from today’s lucky guest blogger, NVWP ISI co-director, and Peter’s “shoulder partner” Amber Jensen! Here we go!

The energy is high in the room as Peter informs us that he is going to “tell us the story of his classroom.” As we are all aware of his enthusiasm and deep thinking about his profession and practice, we are all eager to hear what he has to share with us. After a quick overview of the demographics of his current school, he asks us to begin by reflecting on our own situation.

Quickwrite: Imagine you have complete freedom to change anything about the way you run your classes. What changes might you make? What stops you from implementing them?

Yikes! How does he type the answers to these questions while blogging during these presentations? Um. If I could change ANYTHING, I would make the students the ones who make the decisions about what they are doing. I would want to make learning more of a process of students’ discovery, guided by the questions they bring to the classroom, and creating products that mean something to them and have an impact in the world. Luckily, I did find myself in a situation where I did have complete freedom to design a course without the constricting parameters of state-mandated POS standards (yes, the irony of that acronym is not lost on me — or anyone). Advanced Comp is exactly the course I would want to teach because it is truly student-run, open-ended, and driven by student response to student writing. My role in it is to get the ball rolling and to see what the kids produce. It’s the class that energizes me most because I am permitted to experiment, to engage with the students as humans, and this allows for the kind of learning that matters most. I understand, though, that not every teacher has this freedom, particularly in the era of common assessments, data-driven decision making, and standardized tests!

Here’s what other people had to say:
– No more SOLs! (this elicits cheers from the crowd)
– Creating portfolios to support writing, revision, and publication
– Student-focused study, not test-driven
– No more whole group novels; implement student choice (“so they can like to read!”
– Change the physical environment to remove the mindset constraints

And then Diane (hmm, Peter, was she a plant?) conveys a dream to get rid of grading! ” “Let’s talk about the problems I faced!” Peter says.

Problem 1


He shares with us the work he put in during his own self-study to learn about rubrics. The quantity and depth of Peter’s own investigation on his problem is what I admire most. He shares with us that rubrics are “historical artifacts” rooted in two times and places: the Progressive Era and 1960’s Positivism (Sputnik!). The mindset of quantifiable, measurable, empirical approach lent itself to quantifiable, measurable, and empirical assessment. Enter rubrics! ETS created a 5 point rubric and set the scope for the national rubric scene. The problem with this, though, is that standardized assessment promotes standardized writing! Rubrics compromise the rhetorical purpose of writing; students are writing to get a grade, not just to achieve a rhetorical purpose. The power dynamic between teachers and students is compromised by rubrics. So what to do with this information?

Peter then shares with us his evolution from standardized rubrics to process rubrics. “It’s essentially a recipe” – easier to get down to the business of writing, and the student is in charge of her own grade. Peter knew it wasn’t the end of his journey, but it felt better. Students could decide what grade they wanted to earn, and then could do the work correspondent to that end goal, leaving teachers and students to really discuss the writing itself. But…

Problem 2


Throwing out grades was a revolutionary move, one that he expected to be met with glee from students and, at the least, hesitation from parents and administrators. From what he expected — “Thank you teacher!” — to what he got — “This isn’t fair! How am I gonna know what I’m gonna get?,” Peter didn’t realize the response would be so strong. But by reading further, he came to understand that “to de-grade the writing classroom is to confront and reject the wider culture of being a compliant student as gateway to being a compliant worker.” He shares that he realized now why it was so upsetting – without grades, the students’ and teachers’ reason for being was now gone.

So he reached out to his students to reflect on the process. What came up again and again was that the high-flyers, the ones who had been rewarded for knowing how to play the game, were the ones who were most upset. Other students realized that this process was valuable — and, whether they liked it or not, it made them think! Got ’em!

Problem 3

Guiding words from Paul Thomas!

Guiding words from Paul Thomas!

The next step was to involve the administration. Luckily, when he shared with them his new plan, his administrators were on board. But Peter started to wonder how to know if students were learning. He reached out to the academics, emailed authors of the books he had been reading, attended a standards-based grading seminar (see a pattern in how he operates as a reflective teacher?). Now it’s our time to reflect:

Quickwrite: To what end do you educate your students? Job training? College? Democratic citizens? Lovers of reading and writing? The “real” world?

Well, I don’t know if I am successful at this, because admittedly, I think some of my pedagogical choices do reinforce the grade-motivated learning system. At least in my 9th grade class. Honestly, mostly with the standard-level students even though, ironically, they generally aren’t as grade-motivated as their advanced-level peers. While I do try to invest students in thinking about bigger world problems, to consider their own role in the world around them, and to be conscious change-makers, now that I think about it, I’m not totally sure that my curriculum directly supports that. I am familiar with the “but what about my grade?” conundrum. It happens even after we have a really engaging debate or discussion in class. I grapple with myself – so do I need to give them credit for participating? Or is it enough just to be here and experience it together? Ugh.

My Advanced Comp class is different, though. Grades are irrelevant. These students are being educated to work together, to find meaning and purpose in their goals, to identify problems around them that they have the skills to solve, and then to employ the right strategies to employ them.

WWJDD? What Would John Dewey Do?

Drawing upon philosophies that focus on inquiry-based learning, modeling, genre study, and student choice, Peter now introduces us to (drumroll, please): the ROLE system! This process gets students to think critically about the ways in which students engage with the questions they bring to the classroom. Students can choose one of four roles explore their questions. They can respond by taking on the role of a story teller, a poet, a change-maker, or a realist. And then they think about what kinds of products would make sense to respond to the question. Some of the topics that people were interested in producing included:

– A double-voice poem to understand students’ responses to test prep
– A fact sheet about how much money is being made by interim testing

This is bringing up some great discussion around the room. Questions like, “How do students know what options they have within each of their roles?” and “How do you scaffold the learning when students are all working on a different genre?” Peter promises to address these questions, but first, we get to practice on our own using our very own ROLE organizer sheets!

ROLE organizer

And now it’s on to the next problem:

Problem 4


And finally, Peter addresses everyone’s unspoken concern: what grade will he submit for students when that inevitable emails comes in from the administrator? He shares some student reflections to give us examples of how the students were able to reflect on their own progress, and tells us about how he conferenced with them individually to come to consensus on the grade that would go on their grade reports.

And for some final words of wisdom:

– You will need to find new ways to motivate good behavior aside from the language of grades
– You are implicitly making judgments about what other teachers are doing in their classrooms
– You are going to have to face parent-teacher conferences where you need to justify your
– You are going to realize how punitive the discussion around student progress is in meetings

So how was this lesson received? Well, to quote some of the ISI teacher fellows in the follow up discussion:

“I hadn’t realized before how much we as a society focus on grades and the quantification of things that you can slide yourself into a particular slot: I’m a B student, I’m the valedictorian, etc. I think the work that you’re doing is really brave and really challenging. We are all living in a bigger paradigm that you’re pushing against. It’s a really big thing.”


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