Tag Archives: no grades

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/.

Getting Around the Gradebook: How (and Why) to Go Gradeless

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.

23398899.jpg

See? He’s totally Colin Firth

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:

screen-shot-2018-03-21-at-6-16-36-am.png

(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:

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 6.50.46 AM.png

(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:

IMG_7286

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: