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.
A little over a year ago I first wrote about family dialogue journals (FDJs). An FDJ is a notebook that travels between a student’s home and classroom. Teacher, child, and family member use the journal to engage in a written dialogue about curriculum, traditions, family history, etc. I decided to try FDJs out as a way to keep families informed of what was going on in their child’s English class. My first year using them was neither a success nor a failure. It was, however, a lot of work. I spent the year haranguing children to return their journals and lugging around tote-bags of notebooks so I could scratch out personalized FDJ responses during any spare moment.
So when it came time to map out my 2016-17 school year, I didn’t know if I had it in me to continue. This changed when I connected with Kathleen Sokolowski over at Two Writing Teachers in August. A Voxer conversation that started with a discussion of removing grades from the classroom turned into an extended back and forth about family dialogue journals. Kathleen decided to give FDJs a shot (check out her excellent post on the subject over at Two Writing Teachers). Her enthusiasm reignited my commitment. I wrote an FDJs Revisited post, cleared away any mental detritus, and prepared to try again in September.
It’s now November; my 7th graders have completed four rounds of FDJing. This year’s crop of students seem more amenable to the FDJ concept than last year’s. They brought in their notebook at the beginning of the year (without any nagging on my end. They’ve also been more apt to speak openly about their families and non-school lives.
Instead of asking students to read their FDJs in entirety in front of the class as I did at the beginning of last year (wince), I’ve asked students to share sections of their family’s responses in small groups. I’ve also given students the option to share a different piece of writing if they wish. This way everyone has something to read. Kids who don’t have their FDJs or don’t feel comfortable sharing them for whatever reason can still participate. These small tweaks, combined with the aforementioned shift in classroom attitude, have resulted in a much friendlier environment for sharing. What follows is a slightly more in-depth look into how I’ve been approaching Family Dialogue Journals this quarter.
Every other Friday is a designated FDJ day. By the time Friday rolls around I’ve managed to respond to every journal I’ve received over the two week period. Below are two random examples of my responses. As you can see, they’re not great. Sometimes the parent gives me something to work with, and often they don’t. But writing these replies is a two-way street, and I’m just as responsible for crafting interesting responses as families are. Probably more so, in fact. Right now as long as I’m replying to one specific thing from each FDJ entry I’m satisfied. Writing 60+ personalized responses (while not every student brings them in, this is almost a 100% increase in participation from this time last year) requires me to straddle the line between making it meaningful and getting it finished. Part of me relishes this challenge since figuring out that balance seems to be a crucial aspect of life.
I mentally divide FDJ day into two chunks: sharing last week’s response and writing next week’s letter. Instead of taking part in our normal class openers (we alternate between independent reading and notebook time), I ask students to find something to share with their group. If they have their FDJs they read their family’s most recent response and select up to four sentences to share. I’ve learned that students need these few minutes in order to decipher handwriting, mentally prepare to read out loud, and figure out what they want to share.
When everyone is ready, I kick things off by reading my own family’s response. Last year my mom was kind enough to write back and forth with me, and this year my dad has taken over the duty. Once I read my dad’s response I have a few students share connections, summarize, etc with what I read. I expect students to do this for each other, so getting everyone warmed up with my own FDJ works well. Then it’s their turn. Every group of four reads to one another using the following protocol:
This protocol helps group members stay involved by requiring them to respond in a particular way (I enjoy thinking protocols. The National School Reform Faculty’s website has a ton of good ones). I do my best to stay on the sidelines during this time, planting myself in the middle of the room and dividing my attention between every group.
After everyone has shared, we get ready to write our next letters home. Although I change the exact mechanics each time, I like to make sure the students talk before they write. Sometimes we use chalk talk activities where students move silently throughout the room and reflect on the last two weeks’ worth of instruction. Last time I sorted everything we’d done into four categories (see below).
Then students picked the category they wanted to write about and met up with other students interested in the same topic. The goal is to help each child come to the page ready with some ideas. Once we’ve brainstormed and bounced ideas off of one another, it’s time to write.
I show them the next letter I’ll send to my dad. I like to color code my writing; it helps me highlight the different elements I want the students to include.
A much better way to do this would be to engage students in some type of letter genre study. What common elements can we find in typical letters? What kind of information do authors include? How do they convey that information? What purposes do we write letters for? etc. But I’m approaching FDJs in baby steps, and what we’re doing now gets the job done.
What students choose to say about class and what they’ve been doing is always illuminating.
Students end their letters by coming up with a question to ask someone at home. Ideally every child’s question relates to what we’re studying in class. Right now, however, I’m pretty much giving them free reign over what they ask. By the time students finish writing their letters the class period is just about over. The process ends when I send out an email reminder to parents that afternoon (the first of three reminder emails per cycle).
So far the FDJs are mainly functioning as a form of increased school-family communication. This is the most basic of purposes. My next goal is to use the family dialogue journal to engage parents with questions related to the content of the course. By the time I write my next FDJ post in a couple months I’ll hopefully be able to speak on using the FDJ as a instructional resource.
How do you communicate with families? What methods do you use beyond report cards and signed quizzes/tests?
I have been dreading writing this post, because it means I have to make a decision.
Last year I wrote a blog post exploring a book I had just read about family dialogue journals (FDJs). To sum it up, FDJs are notebooks that travel between school and a student’s home on a regular basis. Family dialogue journals attempt to build a partnership between home and the classroom. Students compose a brief letter about something (for instance reflections on what’s going on in class or specific aspects of a curriculum), someone at home replies, and then the teacher responds to both student and family member. The sequence ends when students share their FDJs with each other. The cycle then repeats every 1-2 weeks.
I first became interested in family dialogue journals after I removed grades from my classroom. Regardless of how effectively grades communicate learning, they are a school’s primary method of communicating student progress to parents and family members. If I was going to do away with grading, I realized that I had to put some mechanism in place to keep families informed of what was going on in their child’s English class. I also saw in FDJs a way not only to connect the classroom to the family, but to welcome families into the curriculum. The constant rush for globalized learning has a tendency to erase the power of the local. Our roots, our complex histories, and our shared struggles can be pushed aside when we keep our eyes trained on place-agnostic learning outcomes. With these potential benefits in mind, I decided to give FDJs a shot.
During my first read of the book, I remember being struck by just how often the authors referenced the difficulty of the FDJ process. Almost every chapter reminded the reader of the challenges involved with the project. Finding time for students to share in class, creating student buy-in, responding to every journal, and working through language issues were just a few of the points the book raised.
I now understand. I struggled more with sustaining the family dialogue journals than perhaps any other aspect of my class. By the end of the school year only approximately 1/3rd of each class was turning in their FDJs. At first I took this as a sign that students weren’t enjoying them. But after speaking with every class multiple times throughout the year, I realized this wasn’t true. In fact, students loved listening to their peers talk about their families. They just felt uncomfortable asking their family members to do them.
I get this. Throughout the year I modeled the process by undertaking a family dialogue journal with my mom. Even as a 34 year old adult I sometimes felt a little hesitant asking her to complete the next entry. Sometimes I would forget until the last moment, compounding my sheepishness. The FDJ requires more of a family member than typical homework assignments. Indeed, a few students in each class had no qualms repeating disparaging comments made by their family members about the FDJ. And again, I understand. The family dialogue journal places demands on everyone. Although I enjoyed reading them, sitting down and replying to forty notebooks every two weeks was time consuming. There were times when I was relieved that so few students turned them in.
Listening to students share their entries with the class was a joy, as was responding to each entry. Some parents talked about their childhoods, describing a time they skipped school to hear a concert or attend a protest. Others detailed humorous anecdotes about their children parading down the sidewalk wearing nothing but a diaper and saran wrap. Many families allowed me a glimpse into their lives. But not all did. Some offered me only random sentences here and there, inconsistent descriptions of inconsequential things. That’s part of the process. Meeting every family where they’re comfortable and then trying to build something of value. There can be no judgement in a family dialogue journal.
I’ve been on the fence all summer about returning to the family dialogue journal. I was steering towards dropping them until a parent reached out to me during the end of August. The parent’s fortuitous email explained how powerful the journal was, and that it had deepened the family’s relationships with one another. The parent included photographs of the letters her son had continued writing to his collegiate sisters throughout the summer. This is the power of the FDJ. If handled unevenly (like I did last year), it’s just another school related nuisance to be suffered through by kids and families alike. But with the right combination of ingredients, it has the ability to build wonderful connections. Through the FDJ, teachers, students, and families can honor and build upon local funds of knowledge. Students can learn surprising things about themselves and each other.
In I-Writing: The Politics and Practices of Teaching First-Person Writing, Karen Surman Paley explores the powerful ways a student’s family shapes his or her social, political, and emotional identities. For Paley, first-person writing (like the kind encouraged by the family dialogue journal) is an effective way to engage with the larger issues of the day. With this (and a year of experience) in mind, I plan on making a return to FDJs this school year. Some things I know to improve (a stronger roll-out in the beginning of the year, talking them up during back to school night and then contacting any family who isn’t able to attend) while others remain murky (using the FDJ to have students discuss literary curriculum).
In some respects family dialogue journals are the antithesis of standardization. They exist in a dialogic space between multiple parties and negotiated purposes. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. FDJs require time, patience, and communal effort, things in short supply for most of us working in the classroom. I look forward to writing another post about my progress in a couple months.
Using Family Dialogue Journals to Honor Family Knowledge and Cultivate Strong Community
A summary of the professional book Family Dialogue Journals by JoBeth Allen, Jennifer Beaty, Angela Dean, Joseph Jones, Stephanie Mathews, Jen McCreight, Elyse Schwedler, and Amber Simmons
TL;DR: A Family Dialogue Journal is a journal that travels back and forth between school and a student’s home. Teachers, students, and family members engage in a written dialogue about issues pertinent to both class and home life.
I did away with grades in my middle school English classroom last year. The process of de-grading and de-testing brought with it a number of logistical and pedagogical challenges. How would parents know what their child was up to in English class? By removing grades I had removed the primary mechanism of keeping families involved in their child’s education. I needed a way to keep parents engaged without relying on letters or numbers.
I attempted to create a system where students wrote to their families every day. Every lesson ended with five minutes of reflective writing on the day’s objective. What did they learn? What was the point? What components of the lesson did they find enjoyable? (This was before I read teacher scholar Joe Bower’s wonderful blog post questioning the dominant logic of writing down a fixed, measurable lesson outcome on the board every day.) While I thought the activity had its merits, my students hated it. They took every opportunity to let me know how they felt about it during our end-of-year portfolio conferences. I don’t blame them. Since I didn’t start until the third quarter, I hadn’t set a precedent or routine for the writing. I wasn’t able to have a vision for the writing, either.
Without grades, every family would be left in the dark unless I found a way to somehow invite them into the class and engage with what their child was learning. I knew I had to improve my system for the upcoming school year.
Family Dialogue Journals provides an excellent introduction into the world of family journaling. At its core, family journaling attempts to build classroom community by engaging teachers in written dialogue between students and their families. This post will provide a summary of the useful information in this excellent book.
Chapter 1: Why Use Family Dialogue Journals?
What is a Family Dialogue Journal (FDJ)? Although there isn’t a single “best practice” approach, every FDJ has at its core an ongoing written conversation between teacher, student, and family. With more and different skills required of students and teachers, parents need to know what their children are learning. FDJs provide a way to let parents really know and take part in their child’s learning. FDJs can act as as a two-way bridge, not only sharing information with families, but soliciting and incorporating family knowledge and into the curriculum.
Benefits of implementing FDJs include:
-Families connect to life in the classroom
-Family voices contribute to the curriculum
-Teachers extend curriculum through authentic sources of cultural and linguistic diversity
-Students learn about their families’ experiences and opinions
-Students who speak more than one language develop biliteracy
-Teachers provide writing craft lessons for authentic communication
-Students refine questioning skills, develop critical literacy, and engage in social-justice issues in their lives and community
FDJs carry with them some ethical and logistical concerns. There is no single best approach to incorporating them or dealing with the myriad issues such communication can create. Different family schedules means some children might need to use a faculty member to write to instead of a parent. Opening up a space for dialogue means being prepared to handle whatever comes out. Be ready to read things that will throw you off guard. Have discussions with any child and family that pops up on your teacher radar for any reason.
“This families-as-funds-of-knowledge stance involves a shift from thinking about what families can’t/won’t/don’t do to what families do, how they do it, and how children can learn with and from their families.”
Chapter 2: Getting Started
The second chapter explains how FDJs can serve a variety of purposes. For instance, they can be used to increase family participation, value family funds of knowledge, and incorporate critical thinking skills. The chapter discusses the importance of communicating the purpose and function of the FDJ to families from the start of the school year. The authors did this by writing home letters, speaking with families during school events, etc. Set a strong foundation to make sure everyone understands that the purpose of the FDJ is more than just busy work. Teachers should also communicate about the FDJs with administration to make sure everyone is on the same page.
There’s no one way to schedule and facilitate FDJs in the classroom. Use journals on a one or two week cycle. Create the questions yourself or allow students to come up with a few. Make sure to bring students into the problem-solving process if you see something not working. Sharing is equally flexible. A few students can share to the whole class each day. Students can share in small groups if time is an issue. After responding, a student can call on his or her peers to ask clarifying questions or to speak on a related topic. In terms of responding, try to write a few sentences in every FDJ every cycle. Be prepared for families to not always answer. Sometimes family responses will be short. It’s all part of the process. Flexibility is key.
“It takes resolve, perseverance, and creative thinking to maintain some semblance of regularity in completing the journals, sending them home, and carving out time for sharing responses the following week.”
Chapter 3: Generating Journal Entries
Generating effective questions requires constant collaboration and reflection by both teachers and students, especially during the beginning of the FDJ process. Teachers can use journal entries focus on literature. Incorporate the FDJ into whatever topics your students are reading about. Link the FDJ prompts to your essential questions and enduring understandings. Use the journal to help your students learn more about their family’s heritage.
Creating effective, productive questions is an art. Help students learn this essential skill by teaching it and practicing it.
Chapter 4: Going Home
The authors of the book required their students to take their FDJs home every Friday. They wrote to a variety of family members in and out of their primary residence: moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts, etc. Be sure to have Google translate and/or any school linguistic resource on hand. Families should be allowed to respond to the FDJ in whatever method, language, and format works best for them. If the journal isn’t making it home or if you aren’t getting any responses, don’t be afraid to talk with the student to find out why. Make sure that you have effectively conveyed the function and expectation of the FDJ. Many families might not know what they’re supposed to do, or how they should go about doing it. Remember that this type of family communication will be as new for them (most likely) as it is for you!
“View each lack of a response as an opportunity to better understand a student and/or family, to adapt the process for an individual or the whole class.”
Chapter 5: Sharing Responses
Sharing increases motivation for students to complete and return their FDJs. As mentioned above, sharing FDJs can come in many formats. Work together with students to develop sharing norms and spend time practicing them. Don’t just assume that this comes naturally. Think about creating mini-lessons on selecting the sharing order and how to ask and answer questions. Consider making group jobs like timekeeper and material manager. Stay in the moment and open to discussion on anything that comes up. It’s likely that your sharing processes will evolve with classroom needs and students’ input.
“The written dialogue is reason enough to pursue FDJs with students and families; orally sharing the journals makes the process even more meaningful. Together, written and verbal sharing create personally relevant academic conversations where all parties can learn about and from one another.”
Chapter 6: Creating Connectional and Critical Curriculum
Connectional curriculum (a term new to me) links classroom learning with families and communities. This doesn’t mean parents helping out with math homework or signing a reading log. Connectional curriculum grows from what we learn about each student’s family’s experiences, jobs, histories, and opinions. The authors also make a case for using FDJs as a vehicle for social-justice. This type of critical curriculum supports the questioning of dominant cultural practices while encouraging action on a wide variety of social topics.
Use family knowledge to build community: students can learn about the history of their name, for instance, or find connections with the familial circumstances of other students.
Connect curriculum to FDJ entries: What do you know/celebrate about Earth Day? Can you show me how you would solve 59 divided by 4? Where on the map did your family stories take place? Have you ever written poetry?
Lastly, help students use their FDJs as a springboard for developing a critical lens.
“Through the FDJ process, we are better able to 1) take into account student interests, 2) incorporate family funds of knowledge, 3) build on the vast resources of cultural and linguistic diversity within and beyond our classrooms, and 4) encourage critical thinking about social issues.”
FDJs became a critical component of a dynamic classroom for each of the teachers involved in this book. Teachers were able to deepen relationships between every stakeholder in the education process. Families, administration, teachers, and students were all connected through intentional writing and sharing.
The book ends with a few miscellaneous suggestions for incorporating the FDJs.
-Use the journals for particular units
-Teachers can alternate who uses FDJs throughout the year
-Make FDJs multimodal by allowing images and technology to facilitate the conversations
“As with anything worthwhile, there will be trial and error, pitfalls and setbacks. During such struggles, we tried to reflect and discuss with families, students, and other educators. All the while keep the purpose front and center: creating a dynamic family-school learning community.”
I can’t wait to begin the FDJ process this September! Thanks for reading.