I spent a good portion of my spring break last week catching up on reading all of my students’ writing, and their thinking was a real treat. It is a blessing to work with preservice teachers, whose idealism and energy remind me of the optimistic fervor with which I tackled any challenge that came my way as a new educator.
As I read their work last week, I left comments, asked questions, and gave feedback. Often, I wrote thank-you notes to kids at the end of their papers–thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thank you for sharing them with me. Thank you for being you.
I did not leave grades.
I have believed for a long time that grades are part of the systematic destruction of our students’ love of learning. We’re killing their creativity, as Ken Robinson discusses in his TED talk that my students and I watched on the first day of class this semester:
We began our year with Ken Robinson’s powerful suggestion that we educate students out of their creativity–and yet, that we must teach students to survive in a future that we can neither predict nor imagine.
We next read Paulo Freire, who suggests in A Pedagogy of Freedom that the purpose of teaching is to create the possibilities for the production and construction of knowledge, that “what is essential is to maintain alive the flame of resistance that sharpens their curiosity and stimulates their capacity for risk.”
Just take a moment and let that sink in. THE FLAME OF RESISTANCE! THE CAPACITY FOR RISK! It’s beautiful, people!!!!!
So, where do grades have a place in this utopian vision for great teaching and learning?
My students’ thinking, which aligns with my own, suggests that they don’t. In fact, they create a dystopia: Jamie writes that students have shifted from being “programmed for learning” to just experiencing “programmed learning.” Kat lamented that “students are taught to anticipate rather than participate.”
It is essential that things change.
After becoming enamored with Ken Robinson’s Colin Firth-esque looks (to my mind, at least), I picked up his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. He narrates the audio version, and as he speaks to me in his adorable British accent, he advocates for a vision of change to the systems through which children learn.
Ken argues that schools and learning have long been erroneously thought of as mechanized processes, and that as such, efforts to reform them have been framed as simple tweaks, such as one would make to an industrial process in order to streamline it. But Ken presents a clear argument that learning is not an industrialized process, but rather an organic one: a complicated, complex system that cannot be standardized.
When I finish the book, I am sure I will be able to go and fix everything that is wrong with education today, but in the meantime, I’m content to a) recommend it to you, and b) stand firm in my commitment to make changes where I can.
I reflected, and found a place to make a change.
The change I made this semester was in removing grades from my classes. I had to cheat a little to do this, but I like the way it’s worked out. While I’ve always longed to do away with grades, I struggled with how to do so within the confines of a system that makes me put grades into a gradebook.
I found the answer in one of Tom Romano‘s syllabi from my Teaching Writing class with him:
(Yes, I save syllabi for years. Electronically. I’m a teacher, okay?! That means I hoard.)
That was it, I decided. Eureka! Do the work. Do it well and do it on time. You’ll get an A. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Now, as I read student work via Google Docs, I focus on leaving organic comments, questions, reactions. I push and prod, pull and praise. I focus on what’s important, as Amy writes here.
My students receive feedback from their critical friends and me, and engage in a conversation with all of us in the comments. We talk about their work in class, read it together, and pull out highlights and paste them into shared Google Docs, like these from our midterm self-assessments:
(At the end of the semester, I’ll compile those highlights, some variation of which we do weekly, into a printed anthology I’ll give to each student.)
In my grading spreadsheet, I give full credit to match the point values of each assignment–10 points for one-pagers, 50 points for major papers, 25 points each for self-assessments and notebook turn-ins. No thinking about percentages or worrying about fractions. Just an A for work done well and on time, because it removes the pressure from students to worry about their grades.
Because I teach teachers, I get to be very meta about my processes, and I’ve practiced giving strong and thoughtful feedback alongside my students. We study our students’ (and our own) products, discuss what learning we see being made visible, and work to improve our feedback methods and messages each week:
If I can’t remove grades, and the stress that comes with them, I’ll give all students a grade that makes them stop worrying about whether they’ll attain that A or not. That is what I have been longing to give them: learning unfettered by the pressure to boil down their thinking to a number or letter.
All thinking, reading, writing is worth so much more than a grade. It’s worth a reader, a respondent, a friendly ear, a coaching eye, a nurturing nudge.
This is my cheat code for how I’ve managed to get away from being a grade-doling disciplinarian, and come to enjoy being a truly engaged teacher of my students’ growth.
How do you get around the gradebook? Please share your strategies in the comments.
Shana Karnes teaches preservice teachers at West Virginia University, works with practicing ELA teachers through the National Writing Project @WVU, and reads approximately 562 books a day with her two daughters, ages 4 months and 23 months. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.