Rethinking Grades (Part 2)

Last June, I wrote a blog post while in the middle of rethinking how I grade in my classroom. At the time, I was in learning mode. I knew what I wanted to change, and I thought my workshop classroom would fit my ideas quite well.

Last August, as I attempted (and often failed) to plan for a year of unknowns, I decided that I would look at the 2020-2021 school year as an opportunity.

An opportunity to try teaching strategies I was always too intimidated by.

An opportunity to focus on joy and autonomy.

An opportunity to lessen my students’ stress level (and mine) in an already stressful time.

Yes, this year was the perfect time to go gradeless.

Sure, my students were a bit confused at first. No number on an assignment but they still had to do it? As one student put it, “how will I know what’s important in this class?” One student even asked why he should do any work at all. These were important questions, I thought, so we spent the beginning of year discussing them. We couldn’t go gradeless if my students didn’t understand their role in the learning process.

To help my students organize their thinking, we got into our notebooks. Using a list of ten learning goals (I modeled mine after the ones Sarah M. Zerwin included in her book Point-Less), students created plans to meet two goals each marking period. We created tracking charts in their notebooks (see mine below), and each week they took time to record their progress. Along the way, I shared my own progress, as well as my setbacks. My struggles helped them realize that some weeks would be easier than others. By the end of the first marking period, they wrote letters sharing their stories of strengths and successes, where improvement was still needed, and then based on both, what grade they believe they deserved.

One of my planning charts, and two tracking charts. I keep track of my learning, just like my students.

Yes, going gradeless was terrifying at first. It was such a big change for us all. One aspect that many students struggled with was their “grade” in our online grading application. They still saw a number there, so wasn’t that their English grade? Not quite. I was still required to put numbers in a grade book, but what they saw were their “completion grades.” This was one of the many ways students received feedback, but in the form of a 0, 5, or 10. A 0 meant the assignment was missing, a 5 meant it was incomplete or completed incorrectly, and a 10 meant it was fully completed. At first, my students only looked at those numbers, so I had to change their thinking by giving them additional feedback on their assignments and in conferences. Students soon learned that receiving a 10 didn’t mean that an assignment was finished. I would share strengths I noticed, but also push for more revision. This way, no matter the ability of the student, I could always challenge them. Soon, I began to see more revision than I had ever seen before.

Now, as I write this post, my students are in the process of reflecting on their 3rd marking period of learning. As I read over their letters, I can see their obvious growth and honest reflection. This senior shared some honest thoughts about a tough marking period: “At times it was hard to find motivation and complete assignments on time. But for this class I believe I gave good effort and expressed myself in my writing. As far as reading goes, I’ve read more consistently this marking period and have put aside more time to read.” One of my other seniors found something he enjoys: “My strength in English is writing stories. It’s something that I could do all day if I could.” A ninth grader shared that she gained confidence in her reading from participating in a book club: “The book club helped me to improve my reading skills by sharing my ideas and my thoughts with my classmates in my group.”

Next week, we begin conferences where I will meet with each student to discuss the content of their letters and the grades they are asking for. I must say, so far their self-assessments have been pretty accurate! Some students are even too tough on themselves.

I still have more to learn about going gradeless, but I do know that this is the path I am meant to be on. My students are cognizant of their own learning now, so this gradeless journey is a welcomed one.

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 19th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

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5 thoughts on “Rethinking Grades (Part 2)

  1. […] will help me tackle guiding question 1. Sarah Krajewski wrote two excellent posts (part 1 ; part 2) about Zerwin’s approach if you’d like more context. Zerwin has several resources posted at […]

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  2. […] Maslow had it right – humans just want to know that they’re safe in any given situation. Granted, we’ve developed past the “is that a tiger in the bush” phase in our evolutionary cycle, so we’re less worried about getting actually eaten and more worried about getting metaphorically eaten. The combination of the physical cues (Q1)  that tell a student they belong and that we share a future together (Q2)  work to assure a student that she is safe in our room- safe to learn, to take risks, to grow.  Coyle writes, “They [the cues] seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.” Part 4 of this series will look at how the one on one attention provided  by conferences allows students to calm the worrying part of their brain and focus more comfortably on the task at hand. I’ll also talk here about how I use writing conferences to navigate the move to a gradeless classroom inspired by Sarah Zerwin. You can read about fellow contributor Sarah Krajewski’s work in the gradeless classroom here.  […]

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  3. Sarah Morris April 20, 2021 at 9:12 pm Reply

    I read Pointless last summer and have implemented a gradeless classroom this year. I loved seeing what those strategies looked like in your classroom!:) Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Amy Rasmussen April 15, 2021 at 6:34 am Reply

    Sarah, I love and am intrigued with your process of going gradeless. I’ve wanted to try but never got there completely–although I got close with a group of seniors a couple of years ago. The hard part was helping them change their mindset about applying learning vs getting a grade. And to do that, I had to be consistent, especially with conferences. I also had to cut the number of assignments I had students turn in–we did a lot more practice in our notebooks and a lot more peer-to-peer talk about that practice. For students who “got it”, their motivation became a driving force of their growth, which was astounding. Thank you for sharing your experience. You’ve reminded me of how effective–and fun–it is to break the rules per say of traditional teaching. Awesome!

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    • sarahkrajewski April 15, 2021 at 3:50 pm Reply

      Thanks, Amy! I think this was the perfect year to start, for I didn’t assign as much because I didn’t see kids as much. Their notebooks, however, have just as much writing, if not more, than a regular year! Truly unbelievable, and, yes, SO much fun!

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