I hate grading things. I have a lot of students and it takes too long and it doesn’t increase anyone’s ability to read, write, speak, or think critically. So I don’t do it. I haven’t done it in five years. Since my district requires a letter at the end of every quarter, students assign themselves a grade as part of their quarterly portfolios.
Most kids give themselves B’s. No one wants a C because that makes honor roll impossible. Families often hitch rewards and punishments to report cards. Other students are nervous about giving themselves an A because they think I’ll challenge it. Rarely do I give out anything lower than a C. First, it feels icky to go nine weeks without mentioning grades and then suddenly become tyrannical about them. Kids would feel sucker punched.
Second, low grades also don’t increase student learning. Kids who aren’t turning in assignments or engaging with the content aren’t doing so because I haven’t dangled enough carrots from the stick. Everyone wants to do well and find success. Students struggling with this need things like strategies, compassion, consistency, and support. Not grade shaming.
Don’t misunderstand me. High expectations can and should exist without grades. I’ve found that maintaining the expectation of excellence is harder to do in the gradeless classroom. This comes from students telling me that my class is easy. They say the lack of grades lowers their anxiety. They don’t have to cram for unit tests or drill Kahoots to memorize terms.
That makes sense. We tend to equate intellectual rigor as something that can only happen if a student is stressed out and anxious. Something is only hard if it threatens our grades. This is a totally rational response to a system that prizes extrinsic rewards above anything else.
My ability to engage students without relying on grade-related threats will probably always be a struggle. It’s a Sisyphean goal. Yes, I work to cultivate meaningful relationships and build a classroom environment that fosters intellectual risk taking. I try to locate authentic audiences for student work and articulate clear purposes for every assignment. But at the end of the day, not everything can be fun and work stinks.
Grades aren’t going anywhere. They’re too baked into the system. There’s no way to move massive numbers of students up and down grades and in and out of different schools without some sort of standardized reporting. The inertia behind standard grade reporting feels insurmountable. Besides, there are more pressing issues to focus on such as educational inequity and structural racism. While grades can be understood as a manifestation of oppressive assessment systems, a focus on removing grades can easily miss the forest for the trees.
I don’t plan on returning to grades. It’s on me to engage students through my curriculum and instruction while leveraging as little extrinsic motivation as possible. If students are only working for the grade, then I haven’t done my job. That’s my favorite part about going gradeless. It forces me to fight for my subject matter and my discipline. I get to spend every day making the case for why this stuff matters.
This is the second in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom. Read the first post here.
The Limits of Community and the Future of Going Gradeless
Teaching can be a lonely profession. Even though I come into contact with 120 people every day, most of the interactions are asynchronous. The relationships I have with my students are authentic, and I do my best to build reciprocity and trust, but I’m in a different place than them. -To restrict our focus to matters of measurement is to miss an opportunity not just to reimagine education, but to reimagine our place within education. o circumscribed by centuries of hierarchical teacher/student dynamics. On the other hand, my peers and I are on equal footing. But the demands of the job keep a tight leash on what we talk about and when we talk about it. When I meet with my fellow 7th grade English teachers, for instance, we’re expected to follow the district’s meeting template. And when it comes to instruction, the three of us are expected to maintain a certain level of consistency in what we teach and how we assess it. This creates a fixed community, a group of teachers bound by shared purpose, goals, and ideally beliefs.
My coteaching community hummed along until I started changing my beliefs about grades. As soon as I started questioning the role I wanted grades to play in my classroom, I began drifting away from the group. Every question I raised about the purpose of our common assignments sent me farther away from my coworkers. The disintegrating kinship I was experiencing had little to do with conflicts of personality or a lack of professionalism. A series of systems all pointing in the same direction can’t accommodate someone being at cross purposes with the flow. I wasn’t a wrench in the system, just an outcast.
Our biweekly meetings stopped being productive. The three of us came to an unspoken agreement that our time together would be spent on filling out IB unit planners for units we would never teach. The unwieldy and overly complex unit template made it easy to spend 45 minutes working on it without actually accomplishing anything. The unit planners became a way to keep up the facade of being on the same page. By the end of the year, the assistant principal was in every meeting to help make sure we were creating common assessments and focusing on similar skills. The situation wasn’t anyone in particular’s fault; none of us wanted to compromise. I was alone, a prisoner of my dogmatic beliefs.
PLNs, Social Media, and Belonging
Fortunately, the demise of my coteacher community was offset by the discovery of an online network of like-minded educators. Frustrated at having no one to talk to, I began reaching out to the academics I’d been reading: Paul Thomas, Alfie Kohn, Maja Wilson, and Lawrence Baines. I asked all of them if they had ever found themselves on the wrong side of their respective communities. Much to my surprise, each of them responded. It was like shouting into the void and receiving an invitation to a secret club filled with the coolest and smartest people ever. Kohn’s response has stuck with me. With his permission, I’ve reprinted it below.
I can certainly sympathize; taking unpopular stands has a way of making folks, well, unpopular. Naturally it helps to find a kindred spirit if there’s one in your area. Otherwise you have to decide whether to reach out to others — perhaps by sharing books, articles, and videos — in the hope of persuading some of your colleagues to question the conventional wisdom and thereby *creating* some kindred spirits to connect with.
The alternative is to push on alone and connect with colleagues around other stuff so you don’t feel completely isolated. How best to proselytize, or to sustain friendships in spite of divergent views, depends on your personality and values, their personalities and values, and various details of the situation in which you find yourself — all matters on which I can’t advise you, of course.
Taking his advice, I decided to search for kindred spirits on Twitter and Facebook. My first discovery was the Teachers Throwing Out Grades community. I was surprised to see a lot of resources about standards-based grading, proficiency scales, and single-point rubrics. All of the talk seemed to revolve around perfecting the measuring of student learning. For me, this is the least interesting part of education. My brain recoils the second I ask it to focus on learning outcomes or to disaggregate state standards. Rather than offering me a safe space to connect with others, the TTOG community kept my attention trained on the very thing I was escaping. On top of this, a few big names seemed to dominate the discussions. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the group was little more than a chance for the big name members to push their books, consulting services, and brands. I lurked for awhile, but I knew I had to keep looking.
Around this time I attended a standards-based grading seminar led by the outstanding Rick Wormeli. I was ecstatic. These could be my people! Indeed, many of Rick’s points, such as eliminating zeroes, questioning the efficacy of homework, and allowing for retakes, fit easily into the definition of teaching and learning I was developing. I knew by the end of the seminar, however, that the SBG community wasn’t for me. Standards-based grading’s emphasis on content mastery and tracking student progress of state standards was a turn-off. So was what I felt to be an obsession with self-assessment. I value self-reflection, and I spend considerable time every year working with students to build their capacity to accurately and honestly evaluate their work. But I’m not interested in linking their self-reflections to rubrics or asking them to rate themselves. To me, this is another example of the managerialism that I’m trying to avoid. There’s nothing particularly interesting or liberatory in asking students to pick apart everything they do, and the majority of self-assessment practices I read about strike me as extensions of the teacher-led grading.
Becoming Something More
I gave up actively searching for a community that would support who I was becoming as a teacher. Anything that dealt with the removal of grades seemed to focus on other stratified systems of measurement. And websites and Facebook groups devoted to pedagogy and improving instruction always discussed traditional grades. So when my colleague Arthur Chiaravalli told me he was forming a new group with Aaron Blackwelder devoted to teachers going gradeless, I was hesitant. Once the Facebook posts and blog pieces started flowing, I started disengaging. It was just too much. Don’t misunderstand me; the quality of the posts and the nature of the questions were fantastic. I just don’t want to talk about grades. That’s why I stopped using them. I’m done with them. Nor do I care about what to use in place of grades. The whole situation can lead me to endlessly compare myself to others, too, a sort of meta-commentary about grades and competition and our culture’s relentless drive to be the best.
Students should be receiving feedback from teachers and peers. It should help students see what they’ve done well (so they can keep doing it) and what they can improve. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the extent of it. Lots of feedback given by lots of people combined with lots of chances for revision. Feedback comes in many forms, and it’s important to find a method that works, but I think something valuable is lost when a community does nothing but showcase different systems of measurement.
In my own practice, removing grades has given me the opportunity to focus on the stuff that I think matters: building relationships, creating meaningful lessons, and providing a safe space for students to stretch, fail, and grow. For me, this is the work of teaching. This is what I want to talk about and puzzle through. To that end, the gradeless community can function more as a station than a destination, a launching pad for educators to come together before heading off on their own individual paths. The topic of removing grades also feeds into many of the education issues of our time: personalized learning, ESSA, equity, and policy.
I can feel my desire to align with Teachers Going Gradeless and to place the corresponding hashtags on my social media bios. But at the same time, I’m wary of becoming entrenched in any one community. This has more to do with the idiosyncrasies of my personality than it does TG2 (or any community). The relentless drive to connect my heart with my instruction is restless. Perhaps it sees within any community the threat of calcification and the gravity of consensus. I remain confident, however, that restricting our focus to matters of measurement misses an opportunity to rebuild and reimagine who we are as educators.
This is the first in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom.
The first thing I tell teachers about removing grades is that it changes everything while simultaneously changing nothing. Students still come to class, complete assignments, and receive feedback. Hyper-students, kids who have successfully mastered the convergent thinking and mimicry of traditional schooling, continue their institutionally and culturally-sanctioned quest to acquire as many points as possible. Students who struggle to play along with the game of school’s idiosyncratic and often artificial demands continue to struggle. Students might report an atmosphere of reduced classroom pressure, but for the most part everything functions as it always has.
From my perspective, the decision to remove grades, quizzes, and tests led to two major changes in how I operate as a teacher. First, I had to learn to manage student behavior without using grades as leverage. No longer could I “remind” a disengaged student that the end of the quarter was coming up and that their parents were expecting honor roll. Without that leverage, I was forced to rethink every assignment. Each lesson needed to serve a specific purpose, something larger than the acquisition or maintenance of a number. This was the second shift. I needed to be able to articulate a convincing and meaningful answer to the ubiquitous student question of “Why do I have to do this?” Authentic learning and grades aren’t mutually exclusive, but the absence of the latter heightens the teacher’s responsibility to foster the former.
The first time I told my students I would no longer be grading any of their assignments, it did not go as I had planned. In my mind, I expected to be greeted as a hero, a classroom revolutionary fighting against punitive systems of assessment. Having just read books and articles by Alfie Kohn, Mark Barnes, and Paul Thomas, I delivered a sermon to my first period class on the tyranny of numbers and letters. No longer would students need to worry about the pressures of report cards or quarterly honor roll lists. Beaming, I faced my students, eager to celebrate what was sure to be a new era of unencumbered learning and intellectual freedom.
Instead, I was greeted by blank stares and barely contained rage.
Some students stood up from their desks and berated me, their small hands balled up at their sides. Others glanced at each other and exchanged looks of “This guy can’t be serious.” Most students, however, responded with indifference. At the time, I didn’t understand. Everything I had read about de-grading the classroom stressed the importance of transparency. Of speaking with your students about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Yet the more I tried to explain myself, the more upset students seemed to become. Stumbling over my words, I attempted to mollify the room by explaining how everyone would be responsible for coming up with their own grade. This didn’t help. Grades rewarded good behavior, many protested, and allowing the kid who rarely turned in work to end up with the same grade as the student who dutifully completed every assignment was unfair. The picture at the top of this piece comes from one such student.
Looking back, I now realize I was experiencing what Paul Thomas described as students’ disconnect between “their behavior as students as opposed to learners” (246). By removing the dominant motivator and purpose of school without warning, many students understandably felt cheated and betrayed. I had done little to foster dialogue around issues of assessment and equity with my classes. If anything, I had gone in the opposite direction; I just wanted everyone to think exactly like I did, an irony lost on me at the time. Rather than encouraging students to discuss issues of assessment, grades, and equity, I was attempting to indoctrinate them with my own ideology. Despite the rocky start, I was able to stumble through my attempts at quarterly portfolios and individual grade conferences.
I took a similar approach with my administration. I decided to wait until I had removed every possible grade, quiz, and test from my classroom before bringing it up to my evaluator, one of the assistant principals. I was terrified. I had no clue what I was doing, and I didn’t want to derail the process before I was able to work some things out for myself. The day I introduced the first quarterly portfolio assessment to the students was also the day I revealed everything to my administration. That morning before classes had started, I shuffled into my administrator’s office. Eyes glued to the carpet, I unloaded a stream of consciousness speech about everything I had been doing. As penance, I begged him to come and observe my portfolio roll-out. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either.
With most of my students and administrators cautiously on board, I was set. As the weeks went by, I realized what Paul Thomas meant when he wrote, “Non-traditional practices in any classroom make direct and indirect commentaries on other classrooms, the practices in those classrooms, and the teachers/professors leading those classrooms” (248). Over time, I came to feel like the entire school building was against me. Honor roll lists and admonitions to “do your best on the test!” plastered the halls. Students were routinely told that school was their job and that grades were their paycheck. Parent-teacher conferences were shackled by a language of learning that emphasized measurable progress and little else.
I became known as the easy teacher among some students and even a few colleagues. I don’t blame them. As Karen Surman Paley writes, “Any pedagogy that results in grading students, ranking them in their class, and providing the basis for records…is part of capitalist relations of power and authority” (26). Without points to fight for and assignments to dominate, it’s easy to paint my class as “soft.” I’ve come to accept that regardless of how hard I push my students to read, write, think, and speak critically, a certain segment of the school population will always think my class is easy because students don’t receive marks.
My district does, however, require me to input at least one grade for every quarter. I’ve handled this a few different ways. For instance, students and I have worked together to create criteria that they use to assess themselves during the portfolio process. Most students give themselves B’s. Anything higher risks extra teacher scrutiny, while anything lower has the possibility to cause parental strife. I’ve also tried limiting final grades to only A’s, B’s, and C’s. Most recently, I’ve experimented with giving everyone an A. The less thought I devote to parsing out who deserves what, the more time I can devote to planning meaningful lessons and providing effective feedback.
Now, the only time I discuss my grading policy with students and parents is during back to school night. I explain to families that their students won’t be taking any quizzes or tests, but that they will receive constant feedback about their performance. I hold up a couple of old student portfolios, go over feedback protocols, and try to do everything I can to convince families that their children are in good hands. The only question that continues to stump me is when parents ask how they’ll be able to stay on top of their child’s performance. I have a difficult time answering this question without launching into a diatribe about how traditional grades offer only an illusion of reporting. I want to ask families if they interrogate quiz and test grades with the same level of skepticism. But this is only because I’m self-conscious about my inability to provide a clear and direct answer to the essential and timeless question of “How will I know how my child is doing?” Since dropping grades, I’ve implemented assignments such as Family Dialogue Journals to try and keep parents informed of what’s happening in the classroom, but the situation remains far from perfect. Like everything else, this is a process, and I’m in it for the long haul.
Grades, Modernity, and the New Administrative Progressives
The 2016 NCTE conference was amazing. Even though I was able to attend sessions on a variety of topics, I spent the majority of my time discussing grades. I took part in a round-table discussion focused on removing grades from secondary English classrooms. Most of our talk centered around what to do after getting rid of grades, quizzes, and tests. What do you put in their place? How do you make sure kids stay motivated? What kind of feedback do you offer? These valuable questions have been taken up by minds far sharper than mine, and I advise you to check out any of the blogs, books, and professional resources devoted to such topics. That’s not what this post is going to be about.
Instead I’m going to write about the gut-level unease that trailed me for the duration of my time in Atlanta, Georgia. The feeling began to gnaw at me during the round-table when I didn’t know how to field questions about removing grades at the high school level. As the teachers around me were right to point out, it’s much easier to throw out the grade book in middle school (where I teach) than high school. For most middle school students, topics like financial aid, graduation requirements, and college admissions don’t have teeth.
As for me, the single letter my district requires me to enter into the gradebook at the end of each quarter has little bearing on the educational trajectory of my students. I have structured my class so as to spend the absolute bare minimum amount of time thinking about student grades and points and rubrics. This is a privilege afforded to me by a trusting administration and a welcoming school climate.
So I sat at the round-table feeling foolish. Unlike the other round-table participants I did not come prepared to discuss feedback mechanisms and mastery learning. Nor did I have advice on setting up a gradebook or handling the paper load. I chose to spend the weeks leading up to NCTE feverishly typing up pages of notes on the history of grades. I’m not particularly interested in talking about why grades don’t work. Don’t get me wrong, I love to sit around and bloviating about the negatives of grades. I just don’t think it’s necessarily the most important part of the larger conversation about grades and measurement.
We know that grades don’t work. External rewards undercut intrinsic motivation and create situations where students/humans will do the least amount of work possible for the maximum result. Grades aren’t particularly effective proxies for learning, either. They’re crude symbolic abstractions of a complex and non-linear process. There’s nothing new to this assertion; educators have been speaking out against grades since at least the Common School era during the mid nineteenth century.
What struck me most during the anti-grading conversations I participated in at the conference was the ever present allure of efficiency. Behind the discussions about proficiency scales and standards-based alternatives to traditional grades lurked the human (and, in our case, distinctly American) desire to quantify and fix and stratify. In my mind, the Rob Marzanos and John Franklin Bobbits of education have begun to blur.
In his influential book The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, David Tyack details a new class of 20th century school reformers, a group he famously called the “administrative progressives.” Administrative progressives sought to centralize public education under a unified banner of social efficiency, scientific management, and mental measurement. The progressive designation had nothing to do with John Dewey. Instead, this new group of reformers saw themselves as mavericks, iconoclasts who would lead public education out of provincialism and old world traditions through modern science and technology.
While grading systems were common across schools in the early 1900s, they lacked any sort of standardization or uniformity. Some schools stuck to old-world grading methods (emphasizing individual competition, ranking, and behavior) while others favored a more modern approach (the belief that grades could provide objective data and distinguish between ‘classes of men’). Various titles, levels, and numerical systems jostled elbows, often times within the same district. As schooling became larger and more complex, schoolmen needed a universal metric of academic progress and intellect to link schools vertically and horizontally. By the 1950s the A – F system of grades the majority of us grew up with was well on its way to becoming the national standard.
Administrative progressives remain an important part of contemporary education. Top level administrators and superintendents continue to act as bureaucratic data-managers, technocrats expected to know more about managing inputs and outputs than instructing a classroom full of students. Appeals to the debunked factory model of education, a myth as potent now as it was one hundred years ago, fit right in with administrative progressivism: education is stuck and the key to progress lies in more efficient technologies of instruction.
I sometimes feel that current anti-grading rhetoric has much in common with the desires of the twentieth century administrative progressives. A cottage industry has sprouted up around alternatives to traditional grades. Much of the rhetoric behind proficiency scales and standards based grading seems to me to be taken from a Progressive Era playbook. The language of a proficiency scale provides more information than a letter or number, and standards based grading grounds a teacher’s judgments rooted in content objectives, but they still serve to reduce the complexity of learning into transferable terms. Such alternatives to traditional grading are, as a mentor of mine once commented, the best way of doing a bad thing.
So how can we get around them? What about high school where letter grades and GPAs play an essential role in admissions, graduation requirements, and financial aid? Or when students transfer between schools and counselors use report cards and test scores to make important decisions about class placement? Grades, and the national consensus of how an A differs from a B, are baked into every single layer of schooling. Parent meetings depend on grades, when basic assumptions of a child’s competency, intellect, and progress draw from letters and numbers. This isn’t anyone’s fault, and this post isn’t about pointing fingers. Because any teacher who removes grades must grapple with the institutional inertia behind traditional marks.
Mechanisms of grading, ranking, sorting, and transferring are essential to modernity. In Making the grade: a history of the A-F marking scheme, Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt situate grading as “…a key technology of educational bureaucratization, a primary means of quantification, and the principal mechanism for sorting students.” Removing grades can disrupt and draw attention to this. In our rush to find alternatives to assigning grades, we should be wary of implementing systems with similar functions.
Some questions of education can be answered through assessment technology. Tracking student progress and content mastery, for instance, benefit from any sort of standardized scale. More important questions of education, such as the what, the why, and the how, cannot be. We shortchange education discourse when the majority of our conversations stick to the former at the expense of the latter.
A day of benchmark testing has left me nauseated.
But not necessarily with the test. Today students took their final benchmark test. They take four of them over the course of the school year (roughly one per quarter). Like most benchmarks, the test is meant to be a formative assessment. The district expects teachers to use the data from the benchmark to inform classroom instruction. As far as privatized education goes, the situation is pretty standard. A Pearson company creates our benchmark exams. They give us the exam schedule. Teachers are instructed to use the schedule to plan the curriculum. So, if we know the first benchmark will test students on main idea, author’s purpose, and figurative language, we would do well to make sure we cover those standards before the first benchmark.
In order to access the test results we login to the provider’s website. The website offers a dizzying array of options. We can mess around with cut scores, sort students by gap group (students with disabilities, African American, English Language Learner, etc.), and check test progress over time. Teachers then transfer the scores into various spreadsheets for grouping, analyzing, reteaching, etc. Did a big chunk of students miss the two cause and effect questions? Then we’ll spend class time on cause and effect. Although the specifics might vary depending on the district and the school, this is the general flow of things.
I’m opposed to testing. As a general rule, I’m not interested in efficiency, standardization, or managerialism. I find most discourse on standards, grading policies, and data-based accountability semi-repellant. I’ve uncovered and nurtured these beliefs during the last year or so. My pedagogy, a direct outgrowth of my beliefs, parallels my shifting values. I do not teach testing strategies. I do not ‘do’ test prep. I am grateful to work in a public school that allows me to enact a pedagogy that agrees with my personal values.
But that’s not what this brief post is about. This post is about the white-knuckle terror that accompanies the benchmarks and the end of year exam. At the beginning of the year the price of my belief is quite inconsequential. It’s not until everyone returns from Winter Break that a feeling of dissonance begins to brew. This internal static becomes almost overwhelming after Spring Break; this is when ‘testing season’ begins. Data is watched. Meetings are monitored. Conversations are held.
To doubt this method of schooling in September is one thing. But the closer I get to the big test the harder it is to see my students as anything other than a percentage, a point on a number line that must not be allowed to sink below the cut score. So today, while my kids took their benchmark, I stared at my laptop. The website colors every score below 70% in red. Every student who fell into the red felt like some sort of indictment on how I choose to run my class. Have I failed them by not hewing to what is now the standard approach? Shame and disgust rocketed through me. I sat at the end of the day with my head in my hands, wondering if my urge to resist the status quo in order to forge my own path had sabotaged 90 students.
My anxiety over scores is certainly nothing new. At my old school, the benchmark provider would release the scores the second day after the exam at approximately 4:30 AM. I would wake up around 4 (no alarm needed) to mash Control-R until the webpage updated. But back then I could at least fall back on my drill-and-kill instructional methods. I knew I would dissect each wrong answer for clues about what happened. What were the distractors in the answers? What was the genre of the passage? What key terms might the students have misunderstood? Where did the question fall in the overall arc of the entire exam? And so forth.
But I’ve sworn off the tools of the technocrat, and I cannot go back. For what is my conviction worth if it folds under duress, no matter how great the pressure?
When I started using portfolio assessments last year (instead of grades and tests) I relied on the classic four language domains: reading, writing, speaking, listening. Students would select an artifact representing their work in each category. The first semester of this year I decided to eschew categories in favor of analogies. While I (and the students) enjoyed the analogies, I felt the portfolio was missing its core (or, to use Elbowian language, a center of gravity). I wanted our Quarter 3 Portfolio to include some new categories. I decided to focus on the body, specifically the work done by the head, the heart, and the hands. This post provides an overview of our process and how it worked out. And, as with every assignment, there is real value in doing this with the students.
Categories and Artifacts
For the head, students listed words like think, analyze, problem solve, decide, and compare. They said the heart might feel joy, sorrow, exhaustion, excitement, anxiety, and hope. And lastly they explained that their hands wrote, erased, tapped on screens, colored, flipped pages, put up sticky notes, and folded.
Students then had to pick the word that best described the quarter for each part. For instance, a student who did a lot of analysis might go with ‘analyze.’ Once students had their words down, they selected an artifact (something we did in class during the quarter) that best represented that word. That student who chose ‘analyze’ might go with a Flash Fiction draft that required him to analyze the components of the genre to make sure his piece was authentic.
One Organizer to Rule Them All
First quarter I provided too little in the way of guidance. Determined not to make the same mistake second quarter I ended up going too hard in the other direction. Students told me they were overwhelmed by the organizers. For the third quarter I tried to create a simple organizer that contained almost everything a student would need. Each column had the same instructions in it, but I slightly altered the font for each artifact to try and help the eye differentiate. The directions moved left to right. So whenever a student was done with a particular box they could draw a giant X through it. This helped them understand the sequence as well as provide a visual cue for progress.
At this point students wrote in their word and artifact on the left-hand side and completed the first square for each category.
Improving Our Artifact Reflections
Without proper planning, portfolios can become nothing more than a summative task, a way for students to show off what they’ve achieved over a semester. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, there isn’t much in the way of ‘learning’ going on when someone is merely putting on an exhibit. I find there’s value in helping students take the time to thoroughly process each artifact they choose.
I wanted to improve the reflection process this quarter. Using Starr Sackstein’s blog about teaching reflections (and receiving valuable feedback from Jana Maiuri), I settled on a sequence of activities to help students figure out ‘what should a great reflection include?’ Asking students to play a central role in selecting criteria for an assignment is a common and effective strategy. Students completed gallery walk, taking notes on various reflections posted around the room. What made each one effective? We took our time answering guiding questions on various pieces of chart paper and voting as a team on the most valuable components of a reflection.
I took the most popular results (using my professional judgment to add or remove anything) and typed them up. Students spent a little time trying out different brainstorming strategies before inserting their artifact reflections into their Google Slides portfolio template. Here’s what students ended up using to drive the content and form of their reflections:
Grade Evaluation Essay
This is the final major component of the portfolio. As I’ve mentioned many times, I do not assign grades, quizzes, or tests in my classroom. My district, like most, still requires me to input a letter grade for each student at the end of the quarter. The Grade Evaluation Essay is my compromise. In order to try and help students grapple with synthesizing an entire quarter’s worth of work into one letter and one small essay, I created three scenarios. Although I haven’t used this lesson yet (that happens the next two days), I wanted to share my process. Individually and in groups students must read the following scenarios and decide A) what grade each of the fictional students ‘deserves’ and B) what factors/criteria/categories will be used to arrive at that grade.
Each student is a composite of popular behaviors and typical classroom occurrences. The items along the top are the major assignments of the quarter. My goal was to create scenarios without a clear “first, second, third” ranking. Kiersten, Melinda, and Javier all have strengths and weaknesses. By working as a group, students should be able to better leverage each other and bring multiple perspectives to bear on what is a complex task. Without cooperative learning, this task would be outside the Zone of Proximal Development for many of my students.
After trying to come to a consensus (regardless of outcome), we’ll write out each group’s grading factors. On the reverse side of the page is the same organizer sans writing. Each student will then use a few of the factors to brainstorm their own journey through each of the assignments. Finally they will turn their brainstorming into their final Grade Reflection Essay. The idea here is that the brainstorming page will move them left to right, from evidence to final statement. I haven’t written my own Grade Reflection Essay yet, but I’m excited to open myself up to students in a new way.
The reflections look better than previous quarters. They’re more focused on specific learning and discovery. I’m excited to see how the Grade Reflection Essays turn out. If I stick with the corporeal theme next quarter, I’ll probably substitute ‘hands’ for ‘mouth.’ I’ll also do a better job trying in the body parts to the reflections. Ending up with a grade goes against much of what I believe in, but knowing when and where to compromise is key. I’ll look to update this post after the full results come in. Lastly, along with the two aforementioned educators, I’d like to thank Mr. Carter (my team’s excellent math teacher) for providing valuable feedback along the way.
Last year I removed grades from my classrooms. The entire process took me three quarters to complete. This post isn’t about how I went about de-grading my class, though. That’s for another time. This post concerns what happened after I removed grades. I want to make clear from the outset that I refuse to demean or trivialize any of the amazing work accomplished by teachers who choose to use grades. The last thing I want to do is bash the profession that I’ve fallen deeply and obsessively in love with. Nor am I interested in yet another “Here’s something else American schools get wrong” article. That sort of rhetoric allows external forces to gain influence over what happens inside our classrooms (As Little Finger from Game of Thrones would say, chaos is a ladder. For a fascinating look into the relationship between perceived moments of social crisis and education trends check out Jal Mehta’s The Allure of Order). I’m merely providing commentary on how what started out as a way to escape the burdens of mind-numbing rubrics ended up leading to a complete rewiring of what it means to be an educator.
Because when I talk about removing grades and tests, I’m also talking about a whole-scale pedagogical shift. When you remove grades you also reject the notion that learning can and should be quantified. When you reject the notion that learning can be measured you find yourself at odds with pretty much everything that happens in an average school. Data analysis, psychometrics, ice cream socials for honor roll kids, reading logs, common formative assessments, unpacking standards, state and federal tests, etc. Although some of these things might be only tangentially related to grades, they’re still outgrowths of a vision of education rooted in metrics, management, and deficiency.
Removing grades from my classroom was an incredible experience. It wasn’t until I tried it that I realized just how central grades were to my own pedagogy. I want you to try something. Try to go an entire day without using the language of scores, percentiles, points as a way to modify a student’s behavior. Group of boys unengaged with the task? Perhaps a gentle reminder about how report cards are coming up and that classwork counts for 15% of their grade. Spot a student doodling on the side of a paper? A simple warning about the importance of whatever it is we’re doing and how it will end up being tested and graded should suffice.
Grades, raising them, sustaining them, reversing them, etc. becomes the modus operandi of almost everything we do. The rhetoric of academic excellence and 21st century knowledge simply provides a new reason to keep doing the same thing. It’s like the Janus-faced administration who cautions against teaching to the test but then spends professional development time discussing cut scores and gap-groups. This is because grades function as a sort of gravity. No matter how hard you try to escape their orbit, the gravitational forces makes sure everything always comes back to numbers, letters, and percents.
I often tell people that removing grades from the classroom changes both everything and nothing. On one hand I was still a teacher. Students came to my room every day at the same times, sat in roughly the same desks, and engaged in various educational activities. My responsibilities didn’t change. I planned lessons, worked with students in groups and individually, and did my best to love and nurture every child that entered the building. You can’t love and nurture while punishing, ranking, and sorting.
Removing grades is a simple task. You just stop doing it. You stop grading things and you stop entering things into a gradebook. Yet this simple change requires a complete revision of value judgements and educational purpose. My instructional goals used to be straightforward. Start out with the state’s testing blueprint and crosswalk (these documents lay out specifically what skills the state will use to measure each child). This narrows the standards down to a solid 15-20. Then use the schedule of assessments to see when each standard would be tested by the district’s benchmark exams. Now I know what will be tested, when it will be tested, and how it will be tested. This is to wield education as a technology in order to bring about certain specific outcomes. Think an inch deep and a mile wide. A dizzying array of tools to wield but only a single reason to use them.
But if I’m not teaching for mastery of content (delivered to me by someone else and measured by grading), what am I teaching for? And this is when the real work comes in. And the fear. How will I get children to work? How will I manage a classroom? How will I communicate with parents in an age of grade-surveillance and instant communication? Will I give homework? What skills will I focus on? How can I convince children to embark with me on an unknown path bereft of signposts and cardinal directions? Will they trust me? Will I trust myself? What starts out as a quiet act of revolution quickly metastasizes into real existential-occupational dilemmas.
These dilemmas force you to make choices with actual consequences. You will find yourself, perhaps for the first time in your professional career, fully in charge of your classroom. This is sublime in the true sense of the word.
Popular concepts like student-centered classrooms, engagement, and technology mean nothing without a firm philosophical and ideological backdrop. And this is where I am now. Trying to work with students and develop content that excites and challenges them while following my heart’s lead through new fields of understanding. The full enormity of our responsibility as educators and citizens can only be accessed by jettisoning the dead weight of gradebook mandates and superficial assessments.
It’s my hope that more educators will experiment not only with removing grades but rethinking the entire enterprise of what it is we’re supposed to do in the classroom.
It’s worth it.