How We’re Getting to Semester Grades in My Gradeless Classroom

There are only eight weeks of classes left for this semester. I’m not sure how quickly we got to this mid-semester point, but we did.

And much has happened on the gradeless front in my classroom.

Last spring, I felt somewhat unmoored in the grade conferences I had with my students. We hadn’t made any agreements ahead of time about what the grades would be based on. I wanted to make some changes for this year in order to feel a bit more grounded in those grade conferences at the end of the semester. You can read here about my reflections over all of that and the changes I hoped to make for this year.

Step one was narrowing down the too-many CCSS for 11th/12th grade. If I wanted my classroom to be clearly focused on these targets, I wanted a reasonable number of them so we could all keep them present in our thinking. I called my list of 22 (plus 4 “successful student habit” standards) our Super Standards. Here they are:

  1. Provide an objective summary of a text, including themes/central ideas. What is the text’s overall purpose or argument? Point to specific evidence/detail from the text to explain the text’s overall purpose or argument. (Reading)
  2. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning the structure of specific parts of a text contribute to its overall meaning as well as its aesthetic impact. (Reading)
  3. Determine an author’s point of view (nonfiction) or speaker’s point of view (literature) and analyze the impact of that point of view on the meaning of the text. (Reading)
  4. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning (warrant) and relevant and sufficient evidence (data). (Writing)
  5. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. (Writing)
  6. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences. (Writing)
  7. Words: Use precise words, phrases, domain-specific vocabulary, and/or specific vivid details to develop an argument, to convey information or explain, or to pull the reader into a narrative. (Writing)
  8. Connections: Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between concepts, between events of a narrative, or between claims/data/warrants. (Writing)
  9. Structure: Organize complex ideas, concepts, claims, and/or events of a narrative so that each new element builds on that which it precedes it to create a unified whole, including an effective concluding statement or section. (Writing)
  10. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Writing)
  11. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, seeking feedback, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Writing)
  12. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences. (Writing)
  13. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. (Research)
  14. Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print (literary and/or informational) and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; avoid plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and follow a standard format for citation. (Research)
  15. Come to small group and large group discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas. (Speaking and Listening)
  16. Work collaboratively with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed. (Speaking and Listening)
  17. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives. (Speaking and Listening)
  18. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks. (Speaking and Listening)
  19. Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest. (Speaking and Listening)
  20. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics when writing or speaking. (Language)
  21. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues or consulting reference materials. (Language)
  22. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. (Language)
  23. Follow instructions; pay attention to details. Read assignment instructions carefully to make sure you are taking care of business. Don’t let Doc Z have to remind you again and again about missing components of a task. (Successful Student Habits)
  24. Manage time effectively to meet deadlines. Communicate with teacher ahead of time if more time is needed on a specific task. Show that you know that deadlines matter and manage your time effectively to meet them. (Successful Student Habits)
  25. Monitor one’s own learning toward the standards. Collect evidence to demonstrate mastery of said standards. (Successful Student Habits)
  26. Use digital tools to learn, collaborate, and reflect over your learning in this class. (Successful Student Habits)

I presented this list to my students on the first day of school (here’s my lesson plan) and engaged them in conversation surrounding some excerpts from “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn. I had initially planned that day to start the conversation about what makes an A, B, C, etc., but we didn’t have time (and I don’t think it would have been a very productive conversation so early on). So I scheduled that conversation for a few weeks later, once they had worked a bit with the super standards and gotten used to how the class works.

The next step was to set up a way for students to track their progress toward the standards. Toward that, I built the “Super Standard Student Tracker,” a google spreadsheet. They each made a copy of it to personalize and store in their folder in Drive for the class and began filling out the self evaluation column for September 2014.

Once they had a bit of time to reflect on how they were doing toward the standards individually, I opened up the conversation about grades. I asked them what our metric should be to determine a grade for each person at the end of the semester. How many standards should each person have to address? And should we be going for mastery?

There was some real consensus between all three classes. For one, my students wanted things to be differentiated. They wanted to choose individually the focus of their work for their grade for the semester, but there was some disagreement about how many standards students should have to focus on. Some argued that for an A, a student should focus on all of them (this felt like it would become a much too onerous task). Some argued that for an A, a student should have to focus on two thirds or half of them–this also felt too onerous. I didn’t want the act of tracking their learning to get in the way of actually doing the learning. Also, they wanted the grade to focus on growth, not mastery. I asked them if it would be okay for all students to have to focus on the four successful student habit standards, since I think those skills are foundational to broader success in the class. All three classes were okay with that.

So a few days later, I gave them a proposal. In short, it says that for an A, students need to work well toward the four successful student habit standards and track their learning toward five or more of the other standards, providing evidence of significant growth in each one. Students seemed okay with this, and they also asked for the ability to write their own standard to work toward if what they wanted to focus on isn’t represented in the list of super standards. I loved this suggestion and made space for it. The truth is that as I narrowed the CCSS to my list of 22, I lost some detail. And students were identifying some specific skills they wanted to target that they didn’t see in the list of Super Standards.

super standard selections
These bar graph shows how many of my students chose each super standard as one of their five that they will focus on for their grade for this semester.

I built a google form for them to let me know what grade they were going for and which standards they were going to focus on. The results of their choices for standards are here in this bar graph. I found it interesting that so many students want to focus on narrative. This may be because we happened to be working on personal narratives as we had this discussion and the work was familiar to them. That may also be why there were fewer students who chose to focus on research-related standards. We really haven’t discussed those much. But we will soon as we launch into our big research persuasive paper for this semester.

I shared the semester grade proposal with one of my administrators, and she pointed out to me that this approach is actually very similar to how our district is approaching teacher evaluation this year. There’s a set of standards for teachers in our state, and we all had to assess ourselves toward each of them here at the start of the year. But then we chose three that we want to zero in on for our individual teacher evaluation. Same exact plan my students and I came up with.

I should also say that even though we’re technically gradeless until that semester grade that each student and I will negotiate together, there is still a lot of information in my gradebook. I am keeping track of every task I’ve asked of students, from paper drafts to revisions to weekly reading check-ins. For each task, I enter either “complete” or “partial” or “review instructions” or “missing.” And the grade book still boils all of this down to a number, because I have to be able to exist within a school community that pulls students’ grades every week for eligibility and files progress grades every six weeks. But in the end, all of that information about what work students have completed or not just becomes data, part of the conversation between each student and me about what his/her semester grade will be.

So we’ll see how it goes. I’m hoping this will give my students and me more guidance in those end-of-semester conferences.

And I also know now what grades they are all shooting for:

grade goals
The “others” were two B’s and one “A for Awesome” and one 98.32 from one of my more math-inclined students.

Let’s hope they all get there!

Posted in assessment, grading | 2 Comments

Letting Go of Control for More Authentic Writer’s Notebooks

Today my students and I got started on writer’s notebooks.

In the past I have given students a set of guidelines to tape into their writer’s notebooks, which is a perfectly normal thing to for a teacher to do, but I elected not to do that this year.

My journey toward authentic writer’s notebooks is ongoing. The very first year I used them about five years ago, I collected them from about a third of the class every week and read and responded to their work.

I saw many students using their writer’s notebooks inauthentically, only putting on the pages exactly what I asked for and nothing more. I didn’t see the kind of ownership I wanted for this important tool, and I figured it was because students didn’t use the space authentically because it wasn’t totally theirs. I was checking on them. I was reading what they wrote. They couldn’t take risks and write with honesty because there I was, always.

So I stopped collecting their writer’s notebooks the next school year.

Still I would “assess” their use of the tools though–by watching how they used them in class and by period “writer’s notebook self evaluations” where they would report to me how much of what I asked for in their writer’s notebook they had completed over the last few weeks. This was never for “grading” purposes–only feedback for me about how they were using the tool and a chance for me to impress upon them once again the guidelines for their work.

Did you catch that, “impress upon them once again the guidelines for their work.” For a learning tool that is supposed to be individualized to and focused on each student, that sounds awfully teacher-centered.

What was I thinking?

Well, I was thinking that students need guidelines (and they do). That students need to be able to see clearly what we ask them to do (and they do). And I thought that my own list of things to do in one’s writer’s notebook would achieve that (it did). But it also made the writer’s notebook so much more about my vision than about their own.

If I really want my students to learn the skills to be life-long learners, observers of the world, thinkers, question askers… I need to teach them how to do that kind of work, and not in the way that works for me, but in the way that works for each of them individually.

So today, instead passing out to them the list of things they are to do in their writer’s notebooks and asking them to tape it into the front or back cover ophotof their writer’s notebook, I read them Ralph Fletcher’s description (from his blog) of what writer’s notebooks can be. Then I asked students to each write their own guidelines for their writer’s notebooks. I did this as well–I wrote mine on the board and then copied the guidelines into my WN. I shared my guidelines with them as my guidelines only, my own personal list, and I told them, “This isn’t crap. I’m really trying to work on this stuff.” Then I had them share their guidelines with each other–inviting them to steal a guideline someone else came up with that would work really well for them too.

Though the jury is still out on this, I think this is a good way to go. I can still do writer’s notebook self-evaluations by asking students to revisit their guidelines (as I revisit mine) and then write to me about how well those guidelines are working for them (or not). They can add to their guidelines too as the year goes on, or remove some, or whatever they need to do in order to make their writer’s notebook work as authentic as possible. In this way, the tool is theirs; it’s individualized for each of them. They have to figure out how to best use it rather than having me tell them how to use it. They can learn from each other. They can learn from reflecting over their own work. I’ve let go of control of this tool.

Authenticity in the classroom is a process of letting go.

I thought I was there with the writer’s notebooks because I stopped collecting them and reading them a few years ago.

I wonder where else I’m getting in the way of their own learning?

The less I control, the more they have to as learners and thinkers.

Posted in engagement, muddling through, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writer's notebooks, writing | Leave a comment

Changes Afoot for The Paper Graders


Sadly summer vacation is over and it’s time to get back at it. Well only sad because summer vacation is awesome but I have to admit I’m excited to get back to school. I love my job, my colleagues, my school, my students. I’m really very fortunate.

This school year brings some changes for The Paper Graders. Mr. S is taking an adventure into school administration as our new Dean of Students. Mr. B is becoming a literacy coach for the district (for part of his day–he’ll still teach three classes). I’m excited for both of them–I think they’ll both thrive with the new challenges and will have positive impact on the students and teachers they work with.

And we will all three be presenting at NCTE as well as our state affiliate conference. See you there!

As for me–my changes this year involve what I’ve set aside for this school year. I’ve been explaining it to people like this: imagine my mind as a pie. There is only so much mind space in that pie–I cannot create more. It represents the full amount of stuff my mind can reasonably focus on in my professional world (and still remain healthy in my personal life as a great mom and wife, daughter and sister, who exercises for energy and health and eats well and takes time each week to NOT work).

Every new thing I put into that pie takes a slice of my mind space. Last school year, on top of teaching four classes, I was also teaching a secondary English teaching methods class at the university in town, editing the journal for my state’s NCTE affiliate organization, doing some literacy work/classroom visits for my school district, and teaching workshops for the Colorado Writing Project. And within my teaching world, I was advising both the yearbook and newspaper at our school–which I loved doing but those both took up pretty significant slices of my mind space.

And all along there sat some important things outside of the mind pie that I really wanted to work on that I just couldn’t fit into that mind space (and still remain healthy in my personal life as a great mom and wife, daughter and sister, who exercises for energy and health and eats well and takes time each week to NOT work).

So, I’ve removed some things from the mind pie: journal editing, university teaching, yearbook advising. The space freed up now in the mind pie I plan to fill with more frequent blogging and a classroom research project. See, I really want to fully implement the reading/writing workshop in my classroom, and there are some interesting obstacles to that full implementation that I want to work through this year. And it’s a research project; I’ll be documenting the journey and writing about it.

The changes for Mr. S and Mr. B also mean some changes for me. Office 831 is no longer Mr. S’s home base at our school. He’s literally just down the hall now, but it was definitely something helping him earlier this week to take down all of his pictures and clean out his files and box up all his books, the artifacts of 12 years in that office. There will be a new colleague in his vacated space in 831 and Mr. S’s visits to 831 will put him in the third chair. This dynamic will be interesting, but I look forward to hearing about how he will begin to see the work that we do at our school from his new vantage point in his new office. He has very wise perspective and I think he will be able to do good work for our school. And whereas Mr. B will be out of the building more frequently (and in the third chair of 831 eating his lunch and chatting about teaching and life less frequently), I look forward to the conversations with him about his new work. He’s an awesome teacher and I’m thrilled that he’ll be mentoring other teachers.

As for the new denizen of 831, I’m not sure he’s totally aware of what he’s getting himself into.


Posted in colleagues, reflections, teaching, time | Leave a comment

The Gradeless Experiment: Success!

The moment I knew I was getting somewhere was the day I tweeted this:

Today’s senioritis moment: “if I get you Starbucks, can I not have to revise this paper?”

Immediately after the student tried to bribe me with Starbucks, I asked her permission to tweet the moment out, she asked me to mention her in the tweet, we laughed together, and then we set a time for her to come in for some help on the revision. She had already revised it twice, but hadn’t quite hit the thinking work she needed to on the piece. I had asked her several times if she needed help with the revision and she assured me she was fine. But after the work session we had together (sitting side-by-side in the writing lab, each of us with her paper up as a shared google doc on our individual computer screen), looking over my comments and discussing them, talking over her intentions and thoughts with the piece, brainstorming approaches to making the piece stronger–and after a half hour or so I could see a light bulb go on in her. She had finally figured it out.

Pre-gradeless experiment, this student would have gotten a grade on the paper that she would have either been okay with or not. If she was not okay with it, she may have chosen to revise it but maybe by taking the shortest possible path to an improved grade (i.e., fixing mechanical errors only–addressing the least complex area of the rubric). Maybe she and I would have quibbled over rubric points, and in the process, she would have been focused on the grade rather than the writing.

In our gradeless microcosm, however, when talking about papers, students’ focus was not on the points attached to the rubric and what they could do easily to increase the grade on the paper. Instead, they had to look very carefully at my response to their work as a reader and think carefully about how they would rework their writing based on that response. They had to explain to me the changes they made and why they made them. They had to identify which standards from the rubric (in this case, the rubrics were simply a list of the Common Core State Standards relevant to the task) they focused on in their revision to strengthen their work. Their conversations with me really became about how to improve the writing so it better expressed their thinking rather than on how to increase the grade.

This is EXACTLY what I was hoping would happen if I stopped putting grades on individual papers and required everyone to revise each paper at least once (and continue until the paper was as successful as possible).

In my end-of-semester conferences with each student, again and again they told me that whereas they were annoyed at me for making them revise (and revise and revise in some cases), they know that their writing improved and they could tell me exactly how. They told me that the gradeless experiment should continue into the next school year.

Here are a few thoughts in my students’ words (from an end-of-the-year survey):

  • My writing in this class, I believe, has changed dramatically from last semester. Because we got time to revise and revise and revise. It was helpful that you made time for us and helped us with our writing.
  • The writing this semester has been more exciting because I can focus on what I really like to write about and enjoy doing it without any grade hanging on my shoulders. I have enjoyed the writing this semester way more than I did last semester.
  • My work was better and more experimental. It was fun to be able to play around and not get marked off for what I wanted to try. I know I could get an A if there was a set way I had to write like in all of the other L.A. classes, but I grew more as a writer this way.
  • I liked how we had to do thorough revision. It really helped me think about what I needed to work on in my writing and I think it improved my writing a lot.

So I will continue to be gradeless, but not without a few changes.

  1. The entire set of standards for 12th grade from the CCSS is TOO MUCH for my students and I to focus upon. There are about 65 individual statements of skills if we were to try to keep focused on every single one of them. I really want my students to be the ones focusing on the standards and how they are doing towards each of them, and 65 is too much. Hence, I’ll be narrowing/combining into a set of 10 super standards*. I want these to be clear, focused standards that my students can understand, work on, and collect evidence toward their learning toward them. They will do this via an electronic portfolio. I’ll build a google site template for them with all the resources they need embedded or linked to. They’ll use the site all year to collect evidence toward how they are doing and then in our semester grade conferences, they’ll have a body of work to point to as they talk about what grade they think they should have.
  2. And on that grade thing. My students will need to come to an agreement about what an A looks like, a B, a C, etc. When we do sit down to have the grade conference, what should we be looking for to determine the grade? How many standards mastered for an A? for a B? My students and I didn’t have this agreement and so when a student and I disagreed on the semester grade (this happened in only a handful of instances, by the way), we need something more objective to consult to help us come to an agreement.
  3. And I need data for those end-of-semester grade conferences. Last semester I had LOTS of data to look at (all of my students’ work was in individual google folders, and we had that to look at during the conference) but it wasn’t clearly organized around the standards to really help us to determine how the student had done. The e-portfolio will help. So will my own running record of student learning. I’ll do this with a very simple google form that I’ll have up when I’m responding to student work. I’ll make a record for each student when I look at his/her work with notes about how that student is doing toward individual standards. The resulting spreadsheet will be helpful data for end-of-year conferences or any time students want to sit down with me to review their progress before the end of the semester.
  4. I need to look for efficiencies wherever I can. I did the gradeless experiment with one class on seniors, 30 students. I have three sections of that class this year. That’s likely about 90 students. How will I achieve grade conferences with 90 students? Will I be able to provide the same level of writing feedback to all 90 of them that I did to 30 of them?

I’m totally converted. No more grades on writing. No more grades on any individual tasks. Feedback only. Keep students focused on the work and the learning and the process and not the grade. Enter one grade–the one that’s necessary for the transcript at the end of the semester, but negotiate with each student individually to determine what that will be. And that’s it.


The grade game is difficult to step out of I know. The way teachers look at me sometimes when I tell them I’ve gone gradeless says it all. How will you get them to do anything? they ask. Going gradeless IS possible and critically important for our students. They want to learn. They want to become better writers, better readers, better thinkers. But when we make the focus of a classroom all about how to collect points (and how to avoid being punished by losing them), that is what they will focus on as well. Points, instead of learning. Grades, instead of thinking.

I want more for my classroom and for my students.

*A few hours after I initially wrote this post, I undertook the task of narrowing down the 65 CCSS standards for 12th grade into a set of super standards. It was impossible to get them down to 10. But I did achieve 22. To that I added on three additional standards about student habits for success (time management, following instructions, and keeping track of one’s learning toward the standards). So we will move forward with 25 total standards and the the e-portfolios will be based on those 25. 

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, CCSS, grading, making change | 3 Comments

Going Gradeless and Getting Better Writing Conferences!

I had my first more formal writing conferences today with students under my new gradeless regime. (Read about it here, here, and here.) So they all wrote complete rough drafts. I gave them all feedback. I provided rubrics (just a list of the CCSS that the assignment targets) but did not mark anything on the rubrics. And this week, they are working on thorough revisions of those drafts.

The thorough revision assignment asks them to do a few things: highlight all the changes they make. Put comments in the margin (via google docs) to explain the thinking behind them. Write a paragraph at the end of the revised draft that explains which three standards from the rubric they targeted for their revisions and how those standards guided their revision work.

I had over half of my class today (optional day–paper work session). In 70 minutes, I was able to have a meaty conference with each of them as they worked. I came prepared with copies of the rubric and the instructions for the revisions. I started with the students I knew needed the most help, and these are the questions I used to get students talking with me about their writing:

Let’s look at my feedback on your draft? What do you want to work on in the revision?

So which of these standards then do you think address what you need to work on?

Which three standards do you want to choose to guide your revision work?

And finally, here they were taking control of the thinking about their writing. THEY were identifying the focus for their revision. THEY were struggling with the rubric to figure out what they could do well and what they wanted to work on to improve. THEY were making plans to guide their own revision work. They were ALL doing the grunt work of becoming better writers–they were re-seeing, re-evaluating, re-working their writing. They were thinking carefully about feedback and using it to make plans to improve their work.

In the past, I’ve given feedback, marked up the rubric, gave them a grade, invited them to revise if they weren’t happy with the grade. Those who chose to pretty much just fixed the mechanical stuff but didn’t really engage in the piece of writing that much for the revision. They did just enough to bring up their grade if they weren’t happy with it.

This increased engagement and ownership in the writing process I saw today–is it simply because there’s no grade at stake here on this paper? That’s some of it. But I think it’s more complex than that. In the process of going gradeless, I’ve had to define the learning objectives differently than in the past–if success is not determined by a certain number of points acquired, then what is it based on? Hence, I built a rubric that is a list of the CCSS that the piece of writing targets. In the process of going gradeless, I’ve had to figure out how to get my students really thinking about those CCSS that lay out the learning objectives for our course so that individual students and I can both be on the same page about how well s/he is doing. Hence, I asked THEM to use the rubric to determine which standards they think their work shows they can do and which ones they need to work on rather than me marking up the rubric to identify this for them. In the process of going gradeless, I wanted to figure out how to get my students focused on the WORK and not the GRADE. Hence, the assignment that requires all students to do thorough revision work of all major papers.

And all of this helped influence the meaningful writing conferences I had today. We had plenty to talk about. Students were intensely engaged in the conferences. We were REALLY talking about their writing and their thinking about it.

They showed ownership in the process at a level I’ve not seen before.

I can’t ask for more than that.

But I did tweet this at the end of class (exhausted after about 15 intense conferences in 70 minutes):


Posted in CCSS, education, grading, literacy, making change, teaching writing | 1 Comment

Reign of Error tidbit: The Language of Corporate Reform

If you’re not reading Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, you should be. I’ll take it upon myself to post a few tidbits while I’m reading it. Here’s today’s installment:

From Chapter 4, “The Language of Corporate Reform”:

Recognizing that most Americans have a strong attachment to their community schools, the corporate reformers have taken care to describe their aims in pseudo-populist terms. While trying to scare us with warnings of dire peril, they mask their agenda with rhetoric that is soothing and deceptive. Though they speak of “reform,” what they really mean is deregulation and privatization. When they speak of “accountability,” what they really mean is a rigid reliance on standardized testing as both the means and the end of education. When they speak of “effective teachers,” what they mean is teachers whose students produce higher scores on standardized tests every year, not teachers who inspire their students to love learning. When they speak of “innovation,” they mean replacing teachers with technology to cut staffing costs. When they speak of “no excuses,” they mean a boot-camp culture where students must obey orders and rules without question. When they speak of “personalized instruction,” they mean putting children in front of computers with algorithms that supposedly adjust content and test questions to the ability level of the student but actually sacrifice human contact with a real teacher. When they speak of “achievement” or “performance,” they mean higher scores on standardized tests. When they speak of “data-driven instruction,” they mean that test scores and graduation rates should be the primary determinant of what is best for children and schools. When they speak of “competition,” they mean deregulated charters and deregulated private schools competing with highly regulated public schools. When they speak of a “successful school,” they refer only to its test scores, not to a school that is the center of its community, with a great orchestra, an enthusiastic chorus, a hardworking chess team, a thriving robotics program, or teachers who have dedicated their lives to helping the students with the highest needs (and often the lowest scores).

Posted in education, policy, reform, society, the system | Leave a comment

Traversing the Chasm between Research and Practice in Education: My response to “Professors, We Need You!”

Nicholas Kristof, NYTimes columnist, recently published “Professors, We Need You!” This piece argued that academics are essentially irrelevant in the biggest debates in our society because they isolate themselves in the ivory tower and cultivate a culture that values nearly unintelligible writing that they only do for each other. Here are a few tidbits:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. [...]

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

I’ve written a few times in this blog about the tension between research and practice as I see it in the field of education:

So it’s really no secret that I’m frustrated and have been for awhile. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I know my work is most relevant when I am fully immersed in practice. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I missed my students in the time I was out of the high school classroom and working on my doctorate. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I wanted to every day have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of adolescents. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I wanted to work on the problems that challenge education from the inside.

But I have not felt much support from the academy regarding my choice.

And I feel so alone. For a few years now I have been trying to cobble together a job description that would allow me space to do both, practice and research. But there’s no model that exists for this in my school district, no structure to support it. I have some time this year to do some research and writing and instructional support for literacy across the district, and I’m grateful for that. But it’s still not the life I have envisioned for myself as a teacher/researcher who works out of the context of a high school. The mind space and time necessary to manage a high school language arts classroom are significant. I would have to cut way back on the teaching to have the space to really dedicate to research. But then my work would not have the immediacy that I get from being totally immersed in practice for most of my days. If I’m fully immersed as a classroom teacher, there is NO space to do the writing and research aside from evenings and weekends which are already full of work to keep my classroom running anyhow (this month, already 39 hours spent beyond the school day toward my high school teaching obligations) (I’m using a new app on my phone to keep track of where my time is going). I worry that if I pull way back on the teaching to make space for other work supported by the district, it will take me away from my teaching community. I don’t want that. So I’m not really sure how to achieve what I hoped I would be able to do as an education PhD in the high school classroom.

Perhaps if K-12 practice was a more overtly valued outcome of a PhD in education, it would not be so difficult to imagine a way to make this happen.

Which brings me to Kristof’s piece and the furor among academics that has exploded as a response. Literacy professor Greg McVerry (in his conversation with fellow professor Antero Garcia on DML central) characterized this furor with a key question:

Should research be accessible and for the community or should research be just to gain knowledge?

In the field of education, this question takes on critical import. Decisions made by people who are not educators are changing the daily lives of students in classrooms–significantly in schools under serious pressure to get certain test scores. So research in education should absolutely be accessible and for the educational community, to guide policy makers’ decisions and to support and empower teachers to advocate for what best serves their students. Doing research for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge is a selfish pursuit when we’re talking about children and their experiences in school and their ability to use those experiences to build a successful life for themselves. Antero Garcia says,

I want to use scholarship for public good.

Yes! And yet, the academy values, over everything else it seems, original research published in the top tier peer-reviewed journals. Journals that are really only read by other academics, mind you. Journals that teachers do not read. Journals that policy makers do not read. If we are not doing research in education for the purposes of building knowledge for and with teachers and policy makers, then what are we doing?

Back to Kristof’s piece:

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

My writings in this blog have seen far more readers than the few pieces of my dissertation that have been published. And what about that book chapter I co-authored with my advisor and another professor early in my doctoral program? I’m pretty certain very few people have looked at it. But when I look at my CV, it’s one thing on there that gives me street cred as an academic. This blog certainly doesn’t. But that won’t keep me from continuing to write here.

Greg McVerry says,

I’m educating more people in digital spaces than I am being cloistered off in academia.

And he goes on to explain how he is taking the risk to include his Twitter handle in his tenure package, how he is finding ways to argue for the importance of blogging about his work to an audience beyond his fellow academics. He explains his primary goal is to reach teachers, to support teachers so that he can have an impact on their practice, but,

As professors, we’re becoming irrelevant in education to the people we want to serve. They [teachers] are searching out their own learning, and we need to recognize that.

I teach high school language arts. I advise my school’s newspaper and yearbook. I support literacy instruction across the district. I am just finishing up my three-year term as editor of the journal for my state NCTE affiliate. I work with the local writing project. I sit on several district committees. I present at my state annual conference and at NCTE’s annual conference. I write in this blog. I use Twitter to stay connected to others in my field. I try to write about my classroom in ways that might be relevant to other teachers. I teach methods classes at the university in my town. I show up to school every single day and work to have a positive effect on my students and my colleagues.

I do a lot (too much at times). I can’t alone wage the battle that will become more and more necessary to fight for what best serves my students. I can think of plenty of ways that research in education could help the work that my colleagues and I endeavor to do:

  • Research in education could help us mount a wave of well-supported resistance to the forces currently driving education: high stakes testing, teacher accountability measures based on metrics that are neither reliable nor completely under teachers’ control, and what seems like a willful ignorance to the real problems that face education in our country: poverty, segregation, inadequate funding, inequities across states and districts.
  • Research in education could help us figure out how convince the decision makers that the billions they are sending to testing companies in order to enact their vision of testing every school child in our country as much as possible could do far more good if put toward resources for schools, smaller class sizes, tech tools in all students’ hands, and paying teachers adequately for the very important work that they do.
  • Research in education could help us to show the American people the corporate interests currently involved in “reform.” As Diane Ravitch argues in Reign of Error, these corporate interests serve to threaten a backbone of the democracy of our country: a strong public school system focused on equal educational opportunity for all.
  • Research in education could support us to maintain a focus on meaningful classroom experiences in the context of all of the above, particularly by supporting the changes in instruction that need to happen so that classrooms will make sure students meet the ever-evolving literacy needs of the 21st century.

There ARE researchers in education focused on these goals. There really are.

But academia as a whole in the field of education is not currently oriented on these goals, and it needs to be. Reach out to teachers in the places where we are already–we read and write blogs, we use Twitter, we connect on Facebook. Forge partnerships with us so that we can work together to problem solve. Value what we know about teaching. Seek our expertise. Invite us to engage in your scholarship as equal partners. Bring us in to talk with your students. Spend time in our classrooms. Help us figure out how to get policy makers to do the same. They don’t really listen to us, and they don’t really listen to you–but maybe they’ll listen to all of us together.

Work to encourage education PhDs to work in K12 classrooms, not as a plan B when the job in academia doesn’t work out (as this article discusses), but as a sought-after outcome of a PhD program in education. And then support education PhD K12 teachers to live a life as both teacher and researcher. We can be powerful allies.

Like Kristof says in his blog post “Bridging the Moat Around Universities,” I do not want this piece to suggest I am writing off academia. He writes,

I hope people don’t think my column is a denunciation of academia. On the contrary, I think universities are an incredible national resource, with really smart thinking on vital national issues. I want the world to get the benefit of that thinking, not see it hidden in academic cloisters.

I totally agree. Education professors across the country are absolutely a source of really smart thinking about the problems that face students and teachers in classrooms every day. I just want this country to get the benefit of that thinking–we need it. And we need it now.

Posted in academia, collaboration, education, literacy, making change, policy, reform, teaching, testing, the system | 4 Comments

Going gradeless: rubric ruminations

I’ve had several people ask me in the past week or so how the gradeless experiment is going. Since nothing was really that different yet from how things had been before, neither my students nor I have noticed anything new. But this weekend now I’m sitting on drafts of the first major papers my students have turned in under the new gradeless grading regime and I need to figure out how to best proceed.

I have their drafts in Dropbox, ready to import into my note taking app on my iPad to read and respond to them. I also have my newfangled rubric, now literally just the 11/12 grade standards from the CCSS that are relevant to the writing task.

Seems like I should be all ready to go, but I’ve not touched a single paper today.

That’s not necessarily surprising. I’ve been prone to procrastination since I was quite young. But I do think something else is going on here.

I hear Alfie Kohn rumbling in my memory about grades: a focus on grades makes the locus of the classroom on what the teacher thinks about the work, not on what a student knows s/he can do. I want to make this shift in my classroom, and I think that if I use my new rubrics in old ways I will not make that shift.

The rubrics do not have any grades on them or numbers–only check boxes. But what I was planning on doing with them was attaching one to each draft and marking up on it what each student is doing well and what each student needs to work on.

But do you see how this is still a focus on ME and what I think about each student’s writing rather than helping each student to identify clearly the strengths and weaknesses of his/her own work?

So here’s my new plan. We need the rubrics. The rubrics are the connection at this point in the semester to the standards upon which each student’s grade will be based in the end. The standards are what my students and I will place at the center of our conferences about what their semester grades should be. They can not be seeing the standards for the first time then, so they need these standards-focused rubrics. THEY need them. Not I.

Hence, I will respond to each draft as a reader and leave feedback all over each of them. Upon returning these drafts, I will ask students to use my feedback to determine how they have done according to the rubric–which standards do they know they know how to do? Which standards do they need to work on? From here, they’ll make their plans for revisions, and their revised versions will include a thorough memo about what changes they made and why, invoking the standards from the rubric in their explanations.

And then they’ll keep the rubric as their own record of their progress toward the standards. And they’ll slot their final drafts into a portfolio where they’ll use their writing as evidence toward their learning toward the standards.

My intentions? Get my students to own their learning, to be able to articulate clearly themselves how they are doing, to know without my judgment whether or not they are meeting the standards for their work. I just assist them with feedback along the way.

That makes me much more of a partner in their learning rather than the evaluator of it.

I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in CCSS, grading, making change, muddling through, teaching writing | 2 Comments

Going gradeless and ending up at the Common Core

I have a confession to make.

I’m one of those teachers who has claimed to know the standards. I’ve claimed to know that I’m covering the standards just fine thank you very much, I don’t need to have them all over my lesson plans and unit plans and rubrics.

And how did I know this? I knew it from looking at the standards after the fact, after the lessons were planned and taught, after the units were laid out, after the papers were graded. I have several times looked over the standards and put in some mental check marks–covered that, covered that, covered that, could have covered that more, and I’ll work on that next year.

Raise your had if this is you.

So a funny thing has happened to me.

As I wrote recently, I’m going gradeless this semester with my seniors. Instead of giving grades on their writing along the way, I will focus on feedback. At the end of the semester, I’ll sit down with each student, look over his/her portfolio, and together we’ll determine what grade s/he has earned. And I’ve known from the start that we would need to have some standard quality, some set of learning objectives to base that conversation upon.

Enter the Common Core State Standards. I don’t need to create this set of learning objectives. It’s already there.

And if the end grade will no longer be based on how many points a student has amassed over the course of the semester, it must be based on something. And let’s be honest–basing it on points collected is far less meaningful than basing it on how a student has done toward a set of clear learning objectives.

Just because I’m going gradeless does not mean I’m not still putting rubrics in front of my students. I am. But now instead of rubrics that show students how they collected the points necessary to determine their location on a grade scale, they are rubrics that help students see how they are doing toward learning objectives. They are rubrics full of the language of the standards. And my students and I will have to look at those learning objectives together and figure out how the students’ work shows what s/he knows and is able to do.

The conversation shifts from “what grade did you get” to “hey, kid, what do you know that you know? What do you know you need to work on?”

I just find it funny that in my efforts to side step grades I’m actually getting into the standards finally and for reals this time, not just as an activity to assure myself that whatever I just did with my students likely met some standards.

The next step is not just putting the standards at the center of the conversation with my students to assess their work but putting the standards at the center of my lesson plans every single day. I learned this clearly yesterday when visited by a colleague of mine who observed my discussion with my seniors. After class, he asked me what my teaching objectives were and then he read off several standards that my class that day had worked on. How lucky for me! My plan that day got the students engaged in the standards! I didn’t even realize it! Neither did my students! But imagine if I had planned it that way from the start? I would have been more focused, more deliberate. My students would have better understood why they were doing what I asked them to do.

Do you see the difference here? The goal is teaching FROM the standards rather than seeing if my instruction as it is already meets the standards. (Credit to @axmaughan for articulating this distinction so clearly yesterday at the executive board meeting for the Colorado Language Arts Society).

It’s letting the standards shift my instruction. For the better. Because I’ll become more and more intentional. Because my students will know more clearly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Because it won’t be about how I think my students are doing on a grade scale but rather the focus will be on what my students know they know and on what they know they need to work on to know better.

And in case you’re thinking that there are significant problems with the CCSS, and I shouldn’t be letting them drive my instruction, I will ask you if you’ve really read them. They do not attack narrative writing–in fact if teachers use them there will maybe be more narrative writing (in high school especially) than there is now. They do not attack literature–the CCSS ask us to teach literature but alongside many other kinds of texts as well. We owe our students this anyhow. They need to be fluid in all kinds of texts.

No set of standards is perfect, but the CCSS do focus on the literacy skills students will need for their 21st century world. I really have no significant issues with them.

Besides, the standards are not the power broker here–the mandated tests that assess them are. These tests and the high stakes attached to the results of them are what we should be talking about.

In the mean time, we can use the standards to get us unified on those complex literacy skills our students need to build their own futures in a world we can’t even see clearly right now.

My students are heading into the first paper in our first gradeless semester. I’ll write about how it goes with only feedback and no grades. I’m hoping for more engaged writing, for more rigorous revision, for more risk taking. I’m hoping for more clear focus on the learning objectives and reasons for writing effectively.

I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, CCSS, cultivating real learning, grading, literacy, making change, muddling through, policy, reform, testing, writing | Leave a comment

Going Gradeless

For the last couple of years, Mr. S and Mr. B have been moving away from grading writing in their classes and instead focusing on feedback and conferencing instead. It’s been a slow process–starting with simply taking the numbers off of the IB rubrics they were using to respond to writing and moving toward where they are now, at full-on portfolio assessment where the grade for the course comes at the end.

As I’ve watched their evolution away from grades, I’ve thought about my own classroom but figured that I just couldn’t go gradeless. My students were less motivated (not IB students) and they needed that grade on more things to do them, I thought. I had to have grades to figure out which students had the option to attend or not on flexible attendance days, I thought. There were more reasons, and I wrote about them in this blog. (Go here to see our conversation about grading as it has unfolded in this blog). 

And then we went to NCTE in Boston last November. Alfie Kohn spoke at a session about grading. These are the notes I wrote as I listened to him speak:

Three effects of using grades:

  • students who are graded are less engaged and less motivated to learn
  • teachers who grade students create students who tend to choose the easiest path to the grade–they avoid intellectual risk whenever possible
  • the quality/retention of learning is lower in students who are graded–grading undermines the depth of their learning

None of this changes if we use standards-based grading, grades on line, or rubrics.

With grades, it’s not about what the students learn but about how teachers think students are doing.

Stop grading.

You have to put a grade at the end but  never put a grade on any individual assignment.

Conference instead.

Avoid in culpability of degrading learning.

Settle a grade in negotiation with student.

Kids tend to rise to the trust and respect we show them.

It was at this moment that it all came crashing together for me, all the conversations with the other Paper Graders, all the moments with my students when I saw them caring more about the grade than the work and what they were learning, all the emails and phone calls I’ve had from parents and students asking me to round up a grade, all the things I’ve read about grading and its effects (including Alfie Kohn’s works), all the times it felt so wrong to be putting a number on a piece of writing, all the moments it felt like I was paying my students to do their work, all the “revisions” I’ve gotten from students who simply fixed commas rather than rigorously revising just to bring up a grade. All of it came together in that conference center ballroom with Alfie Kohn himself telling me to STOP GRADING.

And I was done. At that moment. Done.

I came back to finish out the semester without changing anything about the grading because it would not be fair to change the game at the end of the semester. But I let it all percolate in my mind to figure out how I would approach it with my students at the start of second semester. The truth is that my class was mostly gradeless already. Many of the things I asked my students to complete never got a grade upon them–simply a “yes” or “missing” in Infinite Campus to build a record for me and my students about how much of the work I had asked of them they had chosen to complete. The critical difference would be with the major papers. Those are the only single assignments I have put grades on for a while now. But now I will not.

Instead of grading their writing, I will ask all students to complete full rough drafts, to which I will provide focused feedback and require a rigorous revision from everyone. In my record keeping (no longer the “grade book”), I will record “yes” for revisions completed with rigor and “missing” for revisions that I don’t have or that are minimal attempts to engage in the revision process. We will still use rubrics, but they will not have scores on them. They will be our resources for defining what the goal is with the writing–for defining what strong writing looks like. We will use them as the centerpiece of our conversations about their writing.

I cannot keep Infinite Campus from boiling everything down to a percentage that equals a grade on a scale determined by the district, but I can train my students and their parents to look at the IC grade as a percentage of the work completed by a student. And at the end of the semester, I’ll put in a new grade category “final grade” that will be weighted 100% (thus making the record of work completed for the semester not a part of the grade calculation). That “final grade” will be determined via a conference between each student and me.

Of course in that final grade conversation my students and I will need to have some set of learning objectives to use to determine a grade. We’ll be using the Common Core State Standards for 12th grade. So that there are no surprises in that final conversation, my students will be looking at those standards throughout this semester. Those standards will be on the individual rubrics for papers so that we talk about them as we confer on their writing. Those standards will be the basis of their individual e-portfolios–they’ll post hyperlinks to their work that serves as evidence toward individual standards.

On the first day of the semester, I shared with my students my journey toward not wanting to grade anymore. We looked at Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades.” I made a proposal for how we could approach things. We talked it out. They voiced some concerns. I asked them to vote individually to let me know if they thought we should try it or not.

They were unanimous. “Let’s go for it!” they said.

I wrote up an explanation of grades for second semester and posted it on my website so that students could refer to it and direct their parents to it as well. And here we go.

So far nothing is different from last semester. We’re reading short stories and discussing them. I’m asking students to write blog posts and bring in books to read and write in their writer’s notebooks, and I’m recording in Infinite Campus whether or not they’re doing those things–same as last semester. It won’t be noticeably different until we’re dealing with our first paper in a couple of weeks.

My hope is that our new approach to grades will lead to my students doing the work for themselves, not for me. My hope is that my students will know well how they are doing and what they are learning. My hope is that my students will do the kind of rigorous revision that leads to real growth in their writing. My hope is that there will be fewer conversations about points and grades and rounding up.

I agree with what Kohn said at NCTE:

Kids tend to rise to the trust and respect we show them.

My hope is that going gradeless shows them trust and respect as individual human beings and that they will rise to it.

I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, CCSS, engagement, grading, making change, teaching writing | Leave a comment