An important reminder about why I am working to #StopGrading

I no longer put grades on individual pieces of student writing for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important ones surfaced this evening.

I’m making my way through the first batch of my students’ thorough revisions. These are revised versions of my students’ weekly drafts that they wrote in the first full week of school. These are pieces of writing already filled with comments in the margins from students in peer response groups. These are pieces of writing that students are handing over to me as improved from the first draft.

What about the ones I get with minimal revision? What about the ones that are only one paragraph long of just a few tentative sentences? I just got one of those, and I paused to reflect before I drafted my feedback.

If I were grading it on a rubric, it would lose points in almost every category.

If I were grading it on a rubric, the points I could award it wouldn’t add up to much.

If I were grading it on a rubric, the grade it would get might not be passing.

And how might that affect my student? I don’t know for sure, but I imagine the effect would be negative. This is a student who doesn’t seem to like to write, doesn’t like to spend much time on work for my class, doesn’t push himself to explore his thoughts through writing. I imagine this is a student who has felt little success in his past writing for school.

But yet he comes to class every day. He shows up. He’s an important part of our classroom community.

One more low grade might tell this student one more time that he’s not good at this thing called writing, so why should he even try?

Because I focus on feedback instead of points, I can hunt for the things that are working in the piece of writing and find ways to help the student grow from there.

Because I don’t apply a pre-determined rubric to the piece of writing, I can look carefully to discern what the student is working to achieve with it and provide feedback to help the student revise toward that purpose.

Because I don’t put grades on individual student assignments, I don’t have to put a judgement on the piece that might be connected negatively to my student’s past as a writer, a set of experiences with school that I cannot control.

But I can take the piece of writing seriously. I can tell the student what he’s doing well. I can choose one or two things for him to work on to improve the piece. I can help him feel a little bit of success, success that builds confidence, confidence that can eventually lead him to some risk taking with his writing, risk taking that can mean growth.

My hope is that by the end of the semester this student will be able to see tangible growth.

My job is to encourage it.

And I can’t encourage it by throwing points and grades at this writer who needs support more than anything else.

This.

It’s a huge reason why I’ve stopped grading.


This is the tenth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, feedback, grading, not grading, reflections | 2 Comments

Step Eight: Build your classroom community of writers to #StopGrading

I am one teacher in a room of thirty (or more) writers. They need copious amounts of feedback to grow, more than it is humanly possible for me to provide for them.

But yet, we teachers of writing often feel like we must read and respond to everything our students write, else it feels like it doesn’t matter, else we think the students won’t take it seriously, else it just doesn’t seem real in the context of a classroom.

We’ve got to stop doing this.

My student writers need feedback, but it doesn’t have to come only from me. My students can in fact share the feedback load to the huge benefit of everyone in the room.

Including me. The more feedback they give to each other, the less time I need to spend reading and responding to student work.

When I say “stop grading,” I’m referring to “grading” in two senses:

  1. “Grading” is the work we do when we use rubrics, points, and letter grades to assess and evaluate our readers and writers, which directs their focus on rubrics, points, and grades rather than learning. I’m working to focus on feedback instead to address this.
  2. “Grading” is also the work we do when we collect piles and piles of student work and spend hours of our time outside of school dealing with it. In my world, making space for grading means I have to cut into my time for being with my family, for keeping myself healthy, or for sleeping. Usually I trade sleep for getting the grading done, and this is not sustainable. I’m working to train my students to help me with this work.

This past week started my concerted efforts to build my community of writers so that they can become important feedback-givers to each other in my classroom.

Monday (50 minutes):

  1. We sat on the floor in a circle and sent a bucket around the room. In the bucket were strips of paper with questions on them–questions like “what are you most proud of?” or “what do hope to contribute to humanity?” or “what kind of foods do you eat and why?” Each student had to choose a question from the bucket and answer it. I asked students to study each other’s answers carefully and to look for people that they thought they could connect with. Yes, this is the fourth year most of my students have been in the same school together, but this does not mean that they know each other. We have 2200 students. I cannot assume they know each other’s names, or that they’ve ever seen each other before, or that they know anything about each other. Some do, but many do not. My students sat in this circle with the name tents in front of them that they had made on the first day of school so that they could focus on each other’s names as they listened to each other’s responses.
  2. Students went back to their desks and got their writer’s notebooks. I handed out to them a half-sheet of paper that listed the 11th/12th grade Common Core State Standards for reading, writing, listening/speaking, research, and language. I asked them to each tape the document onto a new page in their notebooks and then to select seven standards total–2 writing, 2 reading, one each of the remaining three categories–circle them, and then paraphrase them in their own words in their writer’s notebook and write a brief statement about each to explain why they chose them. (I will write much more about this later in a post about having students monitor their own learning.) After a few minutes of silent work on this and passing the tape dispensers around the room to make sure everyone had the standards firmly attached to their notebooks, I asked them to get up and walk around the room to see if they could find other students working on the same standards as they had chosen.
  3. Based on the circle with questions and the conversation looking for students working on similar standards, I asked students to form response groups of three to four people. I advised them to choose wisely–choose people that they think will help them grow as writers because they would be giving them lots of feedback on their writing. I asked students to fill out a Google Form by Tuesday evening to inform me of their chosen groups or to let me know that they needed help getting themselves in a group.

Tuesday (50 minutes):

  1. We had a Socratic Seminar on the first quarter of Into the Wild. We didn’t talk specifically about response groups (other than reminding them to fill out the Google Form by that evening), but students had their name tents out and they listened and talked to each other–yet another opportunity for community building.
  2. Tuesday evening I looked at the groups they had sent in to me via the Google Form and worked to tetris each class into eight separate response groups, working to honor their choices and hoping I was not making any grave mistakes with the few students who had not filled out the form.

Wednesday/Thursday block (85 minutes):

  1. When class started, I put up on the screen their response groups and asked them to move to sit together in a pod of desks of their choosing.
  2. I gave them their first response group task: talk to each other until you discover three things all people in your group have in common and one thing unique to each person in your group. I told them that they had to talk to find things in common that were not apparent by looking at them, like “we all have eyes.”
  3. After about five minutes, each group reported out their findings. And it was wonderful. We discovered for example that one group of young men had in common pet fish. And that another group all had a particular fondness of sandwiches of all types. In all three classes of my seniors, the few minutes we spent listening to each group’s discoveries in this brief conversation task led to laughter and smiles and general bonding for the class and the groups. This is time well spent in my book.
  4. I let the groups know that their next group bonding task for next week would be to determine a spirit animal for their group and use that spirit animal as the basis of a small flag for their group that would hang above their pod in the classroom. They talked excitedly about that for a few moments and then I asked them to get out their writer’s notebooks so we could transition to the day’s writing focus lesson.
  5. There was a reason why this was the week we focused on community building. Last week my students wrote their first weekly drafts–something that they’ll do every week before Thanksgiving, except for the three weeks where they choose one of those drafts and revise it very thoroughly. This week’s plans included teaching them that revision process, which anchors on effective peer feedback to drive their revisions. So at this point in the class period, I took about 10 minutes to roll through a writing focus lesson to give them some ideas about where they could go with revising their drafts from last week. After the focus lesson, I asked them to turn to the people in their response groups and tell them what ideas they have for revising based on the writing focus lesson. This was important–it was the first conversation (out of many) they would have with their response groups about their writing.
  6. Next up: nuts and bolts about the thorough revision task. Rather than reading over the instructions for them and explaining it all–something I’ve been trying to do less of–I asked them to read the instructions silently to themselves and then talk to their groups to explain the task to each other and identify any parts of the task they had questions or concerns about. I’m doing less of reviewing the instructions when my students can read them on their own because I think I end up doing too much of their work for them. If I review instructions, they seldomly go back and read them on their own when they are actually doing the work. Having students explain the task to each other and then report out to me what questions they had worked pretty well. I could tell from their questions that they really did read the instructions and were trying to put together all the details of the task.
  7. Knowing something about the thorough revision task, students were now aware of the role that peer feedback would play in the work. Getting feedback on a piece of writing from peers is one of the first steps of the revision task. I started the conversation about this by asking them how peer feedback had gone for them in the past–show us with your fingers on this scale 0 (disaster) to 5 (awesome) about how peer feedback has gone for you in the past. I asked the groups to look at how many fingers each person in their groups had showing so they could know about their new group’s history with peer feedback. Each class showed a small handful of students who reported that peer feedback has been a disaster in the past, pretty much no one saying it had been awesome, and most students reported two or three fingers to indicate that their experiences with peer feedback had been okay but not fantastic. Taking a few moments for this brief conversation is important to show students who are worried about how helpful peer feedback might be for them that I know it’s possible that it has never been a positive thing for them. I was able to assure them that we would take the time to work on making it useful. I told them that there was no way that I alone could give all 30 of them the amount of feedback that they need to grow as writers. We all had to work on it together.
  8. Next I told the class that they actually know quite a bit about what helpful feedback looks like. I asked the groups to talk to each other about what helpful feedback on their writing looks like and what feedback that is not helpful looks like. From here we built a list of peer feedback norms. The bullets in the first half of the doc are the ideas my three classes shared out about helpful/not helpful feedback on writing, and it’s obvious that they get it. They know that a simple “good” is not helpful. They know that being mean is not helpful. They know that you need to take it seriously to be a good feedback giver and actually read the piece of writing and think carefully about how you can help the writer. Below their list of norms are a couple of tables, one that sketches out a framework for responding that can help students get started with what to say if they’re not sure how to start. The second outlines the reader’s and writer’s responsibilities in the feedback process. I reviewed these two tables and then set the students loose to accomplish two things: pull up the draft you’ll share with your group for their feedback and review your writer’s memo to make sure it has everything it needs in it to set up your readers for the feedback you need. Then share the draft in Google Docs with each person in your group.
  9. The last item of the class was a few moments to make some plans. I asked the groups to turn to each other and decide how they would use their time in class on Friday and when they agreed with each other to complete feedback on each other’s pieces of writing. They turned to each other and started talking it out–should we do feedback before Friday so that we can use Friday in class to revise? Should we use Friday in class to read and give each other feedback? When do you all want to start working on revisions–we should have all of our feedback completed by then, right? It would have been very easy for me to lay down deadlines about this. I could have said, “you will use your time in class on Friday to read and respond to each other’s writing and you should complete that task by the end of Friday if you can. This way everyone has the weekend if they want to work on revising.” But I didn’t say this because I wanted the groups to begin to feel ownership for this process and responsibility to each other. I provide the time in class for them to work and some big deadlines to anchor that work (these revisions are due to me for my feedback by next Wednesday), but stepping back to let the groups decide how to use their time to help each other hit the big deadline is a powerful gesture. It shows them that these mini writing communities in their response groups are theirs, that they matter, that I trust them to manage them and work with each other, that they should be responsible to each other, that they can indeed become each other’s primary feedback givers.

Friday (50 minutes):

  1. We started with 10 minutes of silent reading and reading conferences. This was really important because for me to accomplish my ambitious plan for block day, I had to set the silent reading time aside. We needed to get back in the routine of starting with silent reading. I was able to conference briefly with 2 to 3 students in each class. After two full weeks of school I’ve almost conferred about writing or reading with every one of my students.
  2. Next was a brief tour around Google Classroom to point out a few useful features. I threw them into Google Classroom without any instruction, and now that they’ve used it for two weeks, I thought it might be a good time for them to share a few tricks they’ve learned for using it efficiently. We spent maybe three minutes on this.
  3. Before we headed to the writing lab so they would have computers to access their writing in Google Docs, I asked them to turn to their groups and remind each other of the plans they made on block day for using their time in the computer lab today and for when they agreed they would have feedback completed for each other on their pieces of writing.
  4. The writing lab time was focused and humming with purpose. Every screen had pieces of writing up and I watched the margins fill with comment boxes containing lots of words of feedback. I did, though, visit each student to ask to see the target standards we started work on earlier in the week on Monday. Today was the day I wanted to see that they had completed that work–selecting their standards, paraphrasing them into their own words, and articulating why they chose them. I took photos of several examples for use in a future blog post about this. It took me most of the writing lab time to get around to each student to look into their writer’s notebook for this work and to have a brief conversation, so I did not do any writing conferences. But as my student teacher pointed out in my third class today, the peer feedback was satisfying their feedback needs for today.

And that’s really the point about all of this. As the sole feedback giver in the classroom, the teacher cannot provide enough feedback to 30 (or more!) students so that they will grow as much as possible as writers. We should provide written feedback in a very targeted manner–and only on the pieces that students will continue to revise so they actually read and consider our feedback. That’s how the thorough revision task works in my classroom. They revise, I read and give feedback and invite them to keep revising. We may go back and forth at this several times until it seems a student has learned what he can from a particular piece of writing. If I limited my students to only as many of these tasks as I feel like I comfortably respond to in a semester (that’s three thoroughly revised pieces in my world for each of my students), they would not write nearly enough. So they write more than that and I enlist their help in providing feedback to each other.

My next steps? I will look closely at the kind of feedback they’re giving to each other this first time around to see what they need to work on to get better at it. All of their comments to each other will be there in the margins when I read and respond to the revisions they’ll give me later this week. I’ll pull out examples of really helpful comments and we’ll talk about them and why they were helpful. Also, with the wonders of google docs, I can reply to their comments right there in the margins with brief feedback on how they’re doing and they’ll get email notifications that I’ve done so. I’ll just need to remind them to monitor their email. I will also continue to build community, both within response groups and among the entire class. More conversation activities. More team tasks. More team goal-setting and plan-making. I’ll make a big deal out of their team flags and get them hung from the ceiling immediately. It’s a silly little thing, but these kinds of silly little things are memorable and make a difference. They are another opportunity to put student personalities at the center of my classroom.

Don’t create more work for yourself than you can manage and also remain a healthy, happy human being. We ELA teachers are good at creating a lot of work for ourselves under the assumption that we must respond to or grade everything else our students won’t take the work seriously. Students will take seriously the work that matters to them, and it if comes in the context of a vibrant community of writers who write and respond to each other’s writing with genuine care and interest, the work will matter to them. Time spent carefully cultivating that community is time well spent.

It’s true that students do need to write a lot and feedback is what they need, and lots of it. But that feedback need not come solely from the teacher. Making the move toward feedback instead of rubrics and points as a primary response to student writing may require more time of you per each piece of student writing. To make it manageable, you simply cannot read and respond to everything your students write. Rubrics can be efficient. Points seem objective and straightforward. But neither of these move writers as effectively as genuine feedback that comes as a result of a conversation between reader and writer over a piece of writing. Train your students to do this as a part of your classroom community, and even though you might end up reading and responding to only some of your students’ writing, they’ll get a healthy and helpful amount of feedback.

Enlist your students’ help as feedback givers and teach them how to do it really well. Your entire classroom community of writers will grow and you can be less buried in “grading.” No classroom benefits from a teacher who is trading sleep for grading time. Stop doing it. Stop creating mountains of papers to get through and stop turning to efficiencies like rubrics and points that deflect your students’ gaze from learning about themselves as writers. Focus on feedback and make it a cornerstone of your students’ work with each other in your classroom.


This is the ninth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

Posted in #StopGrading, balancing, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, feedback, grading, not grading, teaching writing, time, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Step Seven: Start the #StopGrading conversation with parents

Back-to-school night was this past Wednesday, the evening where parents walk through their students’ schedules with ten minutes for each class. This is not enough time to tell them very much, especially if I want to leave time for a few questions. So my plan was pretty simple and straightforward: a little bit about the course, a little bit about where to find various materials connected to the course, and a little bit about grades.

It really is just the beginning of the conversation about how I work with grades in my classroom. What I said tonight went something like this:

“Regarding grades, I don’t approach this traditionally. Decades of research show that grades have a negative impact on learning. When students are focused on grades, they do not take risks, they take the easiest path to the grade they want, and cheating increases. Hence, I just don’t put grades on individual assignments anymore. You will still see plenty of data in the gradebook. But the number you see there is not your student’s grade. It’s a number that reflects how much of the work the course has asked of your student that your student has completed. You can use this to keep track of whether or not your student is keeping up with the work. If you want more information about how your student is doing, open up the full grade report and you’ll see my notes on your student’s progress as a reader and writer. Over the course of the semester, this will become a much more detailed picture of your student’s progress than a collection of points would be. In a few weeks, once the students see clearly what the work of this class looks like, we’ll have a conversation to come to an agreement about what A-level work looks like in the course so students have a clear idea of what they need to do to get the grade they want in the course. Then they will self-assess toward that grade agreement for each 6-week progress report. And at the end of the semester, they’ll write letters to me to identify which grade they think they’ve learned according to that grade agreement, providing evidence from their work to illustrate what they’ve learned, and we’ll negotiate as needed to settle on a semester grade.”

I also directed parents to two resources I have for them on my school website, a document outlining my journey away from traditional grading  and a key to help them read what they see in the gradebook.

 

One concern that came up in this conversation–a concern that students have voiced to me before as well–is that grades matter still in our world and might it be a problem that students aren’t getting constant data on their actual semester grade as they go through the semester? With the way our gradebooks are set up, they are built to broadcast just that, a number that shows exactly what a student’s grade is at any moment. The concern with not having that is this: what if we get to the end of the semester and a student thinks she is doing fine but actually ends up with a D? This would be a big problem, and it should not happen. I’ve found the key to avoiding this is to make sure students stay connected to that grade agreement once we have it. I have them self evaluate toward it for 6-week progress reports, for example. And I have had one-on-one conversations with students who are worried about how they’re doing in regards to that semester grade where we look through the grade agreement together and look over their progress and imagine what grade they would be earning if we had to decide at that moment.

One of my administrators asked me something about this once too–is it a reasonable expectation that a teacher’s gradebook should be able to reflect exactly what a student’s grade is at any moment? Online points/percentage-based gradebooks make it seem like that’s a reasonable expectation, but I wonder if teachers need to push back at that. If a grade is based on how many points a student has collected out of points possible, then yes, that running percentage is essentially the student’s grade at any point in time. But this all assumes that the best way to assess and evaluate learning is with a points/percentage system, and our gradebooks operate on that assumption as well. Rick Wormeli has argued that the gradebook should not drive the grading philosophy, but that’s where we have ended up. Instead, a grading philosophy should determine the structure and function of the gradebook. I do not think that a points/percentage system is the best way to assess and evaluate my students as readers and writers. So I hack my points/percentage-based gradebook to get it to work for my classroom’s needs. And no, it is not reasonable to expect that my gradebook can broadcast exactly what my students’ grades are at any individual point in time. My gradebook data is all about progress and learning, not grades. This is the data that actually helps students grow. I’m working to make the process for turning all of that data into a semester grade as transparent as possible for students and parents.

I teach mostly seniors this year. Senior parents don’t show up to back-to-school night in the same numbers as freshmen parents. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that even though I talked about this at back-to-school night, I’ve not yet started this conversation with all of my students’ parents. Hence, I also sent out my first weekly parent email on Friday afternoon. This is something I started doing last year. Our gradebook system makes it very simple to email groups of parents. I send out each week’s lesson plan plus a brief note about how things went in class that week and what’s coming up next. I do not know how many parents read my emails (so I still can’t yet be certain I’ve reached every parent to start this conversation about grades), but I do on occasion get notes back from them thanking me for the communication. Here’s what I sent out:

Greetings parents and guardians–

I’ve just spent two awesome weeks with your students. Seriously. They are wonderful human beings. I am so excited to spend their last year of high school with them.

I enjoyed meeting those of you who were able to attend back-to-school night on Wednesday. In case you weren’t able to be there, I wanted to pass along a few resources about SLCC. If you go to my staff page on the school Website, you’ll find a collection of links in the bottom right corner. These include the letter I wrote to my students at the start of the year to introduce my classroom to them, a folder of our weekly lesson plans in case you ever want to see what we’re up to (here’s our plan for next week), information for you about supporting your student’s work for SLCC, and information about the nontraditional approach I take to grading so you know how to read what you’re seeing in Infinite Campus. I invite you to look at the full grade report for your student in my class on Infinite Campus periodically throughout the semester–I record notes there about their progress as readers and writers that you might enjoy seeing.

We are reading and discussing Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and building the beginnings of our community of writers. And I’m having a blast getting to know them all. They are going to do some excellent work this year.

Please get in contact if you ever have any concerns or questions or thoughts for me.

Have an excellent weekend,

Sarah

How do you talk with your students’ parents about grades?


This is the eighth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, not grading | Leave a comment

Step Six: Use conferences to focus on feedback instead of points to #StopGrading

When people find out I don’t put points or grades on individual pieces of writing, one of the first questions I get is what I do instead. I focus on feedback–as much as I can provide, and conferences are a key component of that.

I just finished my first full week of the 2016-2017 school year, and already I’ve had reading and writing conferences with over half of my students. I’m tired–conferring takes a lot of energy. But there’s nothing else that provides the space for frequent, individualized instruction–a must for helping readers and writers grow. I’m still on a journey figuring out how to confer most effectively, but I’ve gotten better at making space for conferences, at getting more intentional about them, and at keeping track of my conference conversations so that I can harness those discussions to drive my instruction.

Making space for reading conferences:

My class starts each day with ten minutes of silent reading. Students come in and get their books out and start reading right away so that when the bell rings, they’re already reading. I take attendance quickly and then grab my clip board and start conferring. I have to be honest–reading conferences have been difficult for me to actually do. Those ten minutes can be awesome for me to deal with administrivia for each class. Or maybe for me to sit and read too. But for the last few years my students are just not reading as much as I wish they would. I’ve read so much about the power of reading conferences to help students to build a reading practice, so I know I need to use those precious minutes for reading conferences.

Even so, other things got in the way too: I didn’t want to break the silence of my classroom while my students read. Wouldn’t it be annoying for them to have a whispered conversation happening somewhere in the classroom while they were trying to read? But more than this, I hesitated because I wasn’t sure what to even talk about in a reading conference. Actual reading instruction was not a very big part of my teacher training, and in my own classroom practice it is something I’ve been learning and figuring out in the last several years. A recent read, Scott Filkins’s book, Beyond Standardized Truth: Improving Teaching and Learning Through Inquiry-Based Assessment, really helped me with reading conferences. He suggests putting in front of students a list of the kinds of things successful readers do and asking them to point to one and discuss how it’s going in the context of whatever they’re reading.

So that is what I’ve got on my clipboard–a list of several habits of successful readers: monitoring comprehension, visualizing, making inferences, asking questions, using fix-up strategies, establishing a purpose for reading, etc. When I sat down with each student this past week, I started with, “how’s the reading going?” We just started reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, so invariably this question lead them to some thoughts about Chris McCandless. From there, I pointed to the first habit of successful readers on the list–monitoring comprehension, which I reviewed very briefly in class the first day we started reading conferences–and said, “tell me about your reading comprehension. What do you do to make sure the words are actually sinking in and that your mind isn’t just reciting them?” They told me about all kinds of fix-up strategies they’ve used when they realize their comprehension is breaking down. As the year goes on and I have the opportunity to review the other habits on the list, students will be able to talk about any of them. But in these short, less than 2 minute conversations, I am already learning so much about my students as readers–much more than I would learn if the only way I was inquiring into their reading was through some kind of a quiz.

Making space for writing conferences:

I have done a better job with making space writing conferences in recent school years. Last year I started planning each week with a template for the week that reserved wide swaths of time for students to be writing. Our weeks start with reading and discussion and writer’s notebook exploratory writing. By the end of the week, we take that notebook writing and work toward drafts of various genres by Friday afternoon. I want my students to do a lot of writing in class so I can be there to talk with them as they work and so they can turn to each other for feedback as they work. I’ve got all of Friday and at least half if not all of Wednesday or Thursday block periods reserved for writing and conferences.

I start conferences with “what are you working on?” There are many people who have written about conferences and how to move through them. What seems to work for me from all of these is to start by listening to students to get a sense of how they are thinking about their writing, then identify something that I can teach them quickly or challenge them to work on, and then to end with having students identify their next steps.

Getting more intentional about conferences:

Years ago, I thought that a teacher wasn’t conferring unless she was stationed outside her classroom in the hall talking to one student at a time while the class watched a movie in the classroom. Or that teachers who conferred did so by filling up their planning and prep periods with student meetings for conferences. I just wasn’t doing either of those things. But I was popcorning around my classroom as my students worked on their writing, something that I realized was essentially conferring on the fly. I was having brief instructional conversations with my students as they worked on their writing, and some days I would come out of class absolutely exhausted from all of the conversations and the constant bouncing from student to student chaotically.

I’ve gotten smarter about this. A class period full of conferences is still exhausting, but by keeping better records of which students I’ve spoken with when, I can be more certain that I’ve worked with everyone as equally as possible. I also maintain a Google Doc that lists the students I want to confer with and why I want to confer with them based on what I’ve seen in their writing as I’m reading and responding to it outside of school. These strategies make me more intentional and purposeful about conferences.

Using conference data to drive instruction:

My ability to use conference data to effectively drive instruction comes from good record keeping. This has taken me a while to figure out. After trying various systems, I’ve settled on using the online gradebook that my district requires of me. The gradebook is not built to house the kind of qualitative data that comes from reading and writing conferences, so I’ve had to hack it a bit. But it turns out that this gradebook makes an excellent system for conference notes. I carry my laptop with me and type my conference note as I’m sitting there with the student. Sometimes my students even help me compose the note.

With every score I put in my gradebook, there is a box for notes or comments, and I can type up to about 250 characters or so in that box. This is plenty for a brief conference note. I have a category in my gradebook called “conference notes” so these notes show up clustered together in their own area of a student’s grade report. The “assignments” I list in this category are “conference 1,” “conference 2,” and on as I go through the semester. In the box where a score would usually go, I type whether it was a reading or writing conference and the date–“writing 8/26” for instance. When I look at the gradebook view with the columns for assignments and rows for each student, I can see at a glance which students I’ve conferred with and when. And when I hover over a score box that has a comment attached to it, the comment pops out right where my cursor is. Hence, I can very quickly access my conference notes just by moving my cursor around the gradebook screen. I can look across a class’s conference data on one screen and I can do a deep dive into individual student data by running a grade report on just that one student.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how well this works (it’s Infinite Campus in case you’re wondering). But the biggest benefit of using the required gradebook to house my conference notes is that no longer are those notes accessible only to me. Imagine a student is at home working on a paper and can’t remember what we talked about in the conference about his current piece of writing. He can log into the grade system and find the note and remember what we talked about. Imagine a study hall teacher or a special education teacher is working with one of my students–having access to what that student and I talked about in our instructional conference conversations is extremely valuable as that colleague works to support our common student for the work for my class. And don’t forget parents–they too have access to reading my conference notes. Over time the notes become quite a story about a student as a reader and writer, 250 characters at a time. This is far more information that a series of numbers provides about a student.

In looking over my conference notes for this last week, I see that I had many conversations with students about including specific details and examples from their lives to engage the reader’s emotions as much as possible. I also frequently talked with students about how they might need to do a bit more work than simply typing up something that they wrote in their writer’s notebook for a weekly draft. I kept challenging them be intentional about genre–what form might this piece of writing take based on your intended audience and purpose? So as I look toward this week and my objective to get them working with mentor texts to help them to find ways to revise their writing, I will target these areas. I want to put examples in front of them that help students to see what I mean when I challenge them to provide more specific examples or to think more intentionally about form. My conference notes, collected in a way that I can look across them for common themes, help me to design instruction that meets my students’ needs, right where they are.

I won’t lie. Conferring is exhausting. I’m an introvert–all those one-on-one interactions drain my energy. Conferring means I’m hopping from mind to mind, each a completely different world, working to see into the reader/writer/thinker/human being to find a way to meaningfully coax that mind along toward growth. Often I doubt my ability to confer effectively–how can I possibly have just the right instructional conversation with each student every single time? I can’t actually. Sometimes my conferences aren’t great.

But I’ll keep working at it because I know that a human-to-human conversation is far better feedback for developing readers and writers than a score on a reading quiz or a number derived from a rubric on a piece of writing.


This is the seventh post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

Posted in #StopGrading, blog series, conferring, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, not grading, teaching reading, teaching writing, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Step Five: Starting the #StopGrading Conversation with Students

“Is Alfie Kohn right or is his argument total crap?”

So went the opening question for the Socratic seminar I planned for the first day of school Friday.

Rather than reviewing a syllabus with my seniors, rather than doing any long-winded introductions, rather than previewing what we’d be doing in class for the year, I planned instead to ask students to read a short text (one page front and back of excerpts from Alfie Kohn’s “Case Against Grades”), write some notes in the margin, and then join me for a Socratic seminar conversation.

The success of my entire lesson plan hinged on this moment. I hoped that when I posed that first opening question, I would actually have a few students brave enough to be sitting there with me in the middle of the classroom ready to talk out their ideas about Kohn’s argument against grades.

In my classroom, talking in a Socratic seminar conversation is always a choice. After I briefly review my Socratic seminar guidelines , I invite students to pull their desks into the middle to be part of the conversation or to stay right where they are to listen instead. Before some students will talk in this kind of conversation, they need to feel connected to the classroom community, trusting that it will be safe to voice their ideas, certain that the teacher won’t somehow wound them by taking away points if they don’t say the right thing.

On the first day of school, there had not yet been any time to establish any of this. It was certainly a risk.

But I was banking on the text, that it would be enough to inspire students to want enough to say something that they would pull their desk into a conversation in the middle of a new classroom with a new teacher on the first day of school.

And they did.

About ten students brought their desks in to talk about Kohn’s argument in my first class, and all but about seven of my students did in my second class. It was that third class that provided a few awkward moments–I was sitting out there all alone as the students looked back and forth at each other. Slowly, four brave students started scooting their desks into the middle of the room. And after the students talked for a bit, I paused the conversation and asked the class if anyone else wanted to join in now–four more students came to the center to widen the circle.

In all three conversations, there was more agreement with Kohn than not. Students who thought his argument didn’t work focused less on grades being an important motivator (though there was some of that) and more on how they couldn’t see any way to skirt grades in our system that revolves so centrally around them.

As students spoke to each other regarding their thoughts about Kohn’s argument, I very deliberately said nothing. I listened. I kept an eye on the clock. I had one more question I wanted them to chew on. With a few minutes remaining in class I asked, “Based on what we’ve done today, what do you expect from this class?”

A few beats of silence.

And then they began to say the things that made me very hopeful:

  • I think the focus will be on learning more than grades.
  • I hope I’ll look forward to coming to this class because I can just learn and not worry about losing points for stupid stuff.
  • I think we’ll have more conversations like this.
  • I think there will be choice for us to make the work meaningful for us.

A student in my third class turned to me and said, “what about you–do you agree with Kohn?”

The whole class looked at me–it seemed that they were hoping to discover at that moment whether or not I would use grades in class as they were used to having them.

“I’ll guess you’ll have to read my letter to find out the answer to that.” I was referring to my first assignment to them, to read a letter I’ve written about my classroom  and to write me back to tell me what I need to know about them as readers, writers, and human beings in order to be their teacher.

I walked out of my classroom energized and excited. I was so thrilled that they were willing to talk and listen to each other. My goals for the day were to show them that I would expect them to work (handed them a task the moment they walked in the door), that their ideas and voices mattered (central piece of the lesson was a Socratic seminar conversation where all I did was ask two questions–the conversation space was full of their thoughts and ideas), that everyone’s voice would be heard (the critique after the seminar conversation did this–I asked every student in the room to tell us briefly what they noticed about the seminar conversation). I hope they are curious about the class and happy to come back into the classroom tomorrow. My lesson plan was risky, and they answered that by taking risks themselves.

This is a good start.

The first day conversation didn’t lay out what would happen with grades in my class. All of those details will come to them over the next several weeks. But what did happen was the start of an important foundation. They read an argument against grades, responded to it, and discussed it with each other. The thoughts are rolling around in their heads. They are ready to hear more, to understand why I won’t put a grade on any individual assignment, to know why it’s important that they choose their own learning objectives, to be ready to work together as a class to construct an agreement that outlines what it would mean to get an A for the semester.

Those pieces will come. For now, here’s a sampling of the things they wrote in the margins of Kohn’s argument–you can see that our conversation will be ongoing; lots to talk about here:

  • I’ve lost so much interest in LA over the last three years. My friends have too. I felt unsafe taking a risk, so I wasn’t growing.
  • I think a lot more about grades than learning in general.
  • I can’t really remember a lot of the things that I have been tested on.
  • How much does a learning-oriented class (rather than a grading-oriented class) improve students’ intelligence?
  • Some people are driven to learn with grades. There is a sense of satisfaction when getting back a good grade.
  • Grades take out creativity in a subject.
  • But the grades system makes sure students are learning.
  • Last minute essay writing–just throw words down to get a grade.
  • Cheat to get good grade means learning taken away.
  • Grades are a reward but at a horrible cost.
  • Grades are different to others. All students should have an independent scale.
  • Grades don’t mean you aren’t smart.
  • Grades bring stress and reduce learning.
  • Don’t like grades. They DON’T help.
  • We strive for an “A,” not for an education.
  • When given a goal to shoot for, there is little motivation to go above and beyond.
  • Pressure drives students to partake in dishonest actions.
  • I stop caring about grades if I like the class.
  • Teacher doesn’t like you = fail then.
  • Grades make me want to do well but not learn and remember.
  • Grades force you into becoming a pawn.
  • How are we supposed to know if we’re doing well without grades?
  • Students are more focused on what the teacher wants rather than their own ideas.
  • Causes students to prefer the easy way and not work for it.
  • Students don’t get the full potential out of books. Instead they skim text and don’t learn.
  • We would rather do well on something we already know than take chances and risk getting a bad grade.
  • We’re like robots who have one mindset.
  • No fun in grades. Just sloppy work just to do well. You learn more when having fun.
  • Grades are simply a number on a scale. They don’t define you.
  • I do wonder why this teacher is being like this?
  • Grades can possibly be used as a mile marker, giving students something to improve upon.

This is the sixth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

And I’d love to hear from you to help me craft this series. Either leave me a comment below or fill out this quick form.

 

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, student feedback, teaching | 8 Comments

Step Four: Get Admin Behind Your Efforts to #StopGrading

It was fortunate that the moment I decided to stop grading, my assistant principal was sitting right next to me listening to Alfie Kohn make his case against grades in a conference presentation at NCTE in Boston in November of 2013. I turned to her and told her that I was done–no more grades–and she knew exactly why and where the decision had come from. Since then it has been an ongoing conversation.

This is not the way it typically goes down for teachers. More typically a teacher wants to move away from traditional grading and hasn’t yet had the conversation with the administrator and might be pretty anxious about it. One of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting from readers is about how to get administration on board in supporting efforts to back off on grading in your classroom.

It’s important to remember that we are not the only users of our gradebook data.

Our administrators need our gradebook data for reasons beyond our classrooms. They need it for 6-week or 9-week progress reports. They need it for weekly athletic/activity eligibility. They need it for the reports they run to figure out which pockets of our students are struggling and need more support. They have expectations for our gradebooks based on the data they need for many different reasons. It’s important for us to understand those needs.

My school’s data needs are the reason why I make sure my gradebook spits out a number throughout the semester. I make it a number that communications something meaningful that is not a grade–a completion percentage that lets all interested parties know whether or not students are keeping up with their work (read more about this here). This has worked in my context. You’ll have to figure out what will work in yours.

The key is communication. Schedule a meeting with your administrator. Ask what your school’s needs are for your gradebook data and listen carefully. Share your hopes for deflecting your students’ gaze from their grades, the ideas you have for getting there, and research that helps to support your reasons for making the shift. Ask your administrator to help you figure out how to realize those goals while still producing the number data your school needs.

Said one of my administrators the other day in an opening meeting for the school year: “I know some of you are trying out some different things with grades. Please just remember to think about the impact that what you put in the gradebook has on students and our school. Make sure we have what we need there.” Exactly. I do not teach in a vacuum and neither do you. We can make meaningful change around grading, but it has to make sense within the unique contexts where we each teach.

I’ve never met an administrator who didn’t support an idea for innovation centered on improving students’ experiences in school, helping them to learn more–especially if the plan for enacting the innovation took into account the particular needs of the school.

We can’t totally flout the system–there’s much about it that individual teachers cannot control. But once we know the bounds of the contexts where we teach, we can find the spaces to innovate within them. This creates a spirit of cooperation, of good will, of trust and understanding between us, our colleagues, and our administrators.

Movements are about people, people who grow to trust each other and make change together. Once we do bump up against some barrier that completely stops progress, it’s that spirit of cooperation and trust built up over time that can help us blow through it together.


This is the fifth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

And I’d love to hear from you to help me craft this series. Either leave me a comment below or fill out this quick form.

Posted in #StopGrading, blog series, collaboration, colleagues, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, the system | Leave a comment

Step Three: Hack your gradebook to make it the data collection tool that will actually inform your instruction #StopGrading

Screenshot 2016-08-10 at 11.00.45 PM

I know you’ve had this conversation. We all have.

You know, the one where a student asks you to round up a semester grade.

You say no.

No because you have a policy against rounding up grades. No because you didn’t round up anyone else’s grade and it wouldn’t be fair. No because you know on a gut level that the student is getting the accurate grade.

The student persists.

So what do you do? You turn to the numbers in the gradebook and find the ones that pulled the student’s grade down and have some conversation around those.

You say things like, “I see you chose not to revise any of your papers. You could have brought up your grade there.”

Or, “If I looked just at your major/summative assignments, your percentage would actually be 88.7. The B is a more accurate reflection of your work this semester.”

End of conversation. The numbers have spoken.

The only problem is that this conversation is only about numbers, not about learning, or about what this student could do as a reader or writer, or about how the student may have grown during the semester. It is an argument about numbers, points, percentages, averages.

I never thought I would need so much math to be a teacher of reading and writing.

We do this because our gradebooks ask for numbers.

We do this because we think we need the efficiency of numbers to manage our 150 or more students.

We do this because it is what we have always done, because even those old-timey paper gradebooks only had little tiny boxes, big enough for a number and nothing more.

We must claim our gradebooks for more meaningful assessment. Our professional observations of our students’ progress matter, and we need to share those observations with students, with their parents, and with other important stakeholders in our school communities. I know my reading and writing conference notes and my conversations back and forth with my students about their revisions are the best information I have about my students, but somehow the accountability-crazed, testing-based world we teach in has told us that what matters are the numbers.

We can fight back against the number as absolute truth on our students’ progress. We can use the powerful tools we have to tell a more complete story of our students as readers and writers.

Rather than recording points in the gradebook, record your professional observations of your students as readers and writers and create a detailed, robust story of each of them as they learn and grown in your classroom.

Use available tools, but use them differently: think of your gradebook as a data warehouse.

From the world of computing comes the concept of the data warehouse. This refers to a system for pulling together multiple data sources into one central location, accessible for multiple users who can look across the data in several ways to assist in decision making. When designing a data warehouse, there is consideration for which data to include, who might use the data and how, and what kinds of reports and analyses will come from the data and for what purposes.

If only someone would create a powerful tool that could turn a gradebook into a data warehouse…

You do most likely have a powerful tool that does this. I’m talking about the online gradebook that your school or district likely requires you to use, a data management system that tracks scheduling, attendance, discipline, and grades. Your gradebook is viewable by multiple users: students, parents, administrators, counselors, other teachers, school support staff. The online gradebook is already a powerful platform to become a data warehouse.

If you think about your gradebook as a data warehouse rather than a place to collect points in order to math them into grades for your students, then you’re thinking about designing a robust collection of data that you can use to inform your instructional decisions for your students collectively and for each student individually. If your gradebook is a data warehouse, then you’re also thinking about what information might be useful for your students to have access to, or their parents, or school counselors, or special education/ELD/study hall teachers, or school administrators. You’re also thinking about how the data warehouse will represent the information you collect on your students so it’s most usable for all parties, for different purposes at different points during the school year.

ONE: Think intentionally about the data you need to inform your instruction.

Effective assessment is essentially research driven by a few huge research questions: what are students learning? Where are they struggling? How can I plan instruction to meet their needs? Hence, it has been helpful to me to put together a data collection matrix, very similar to the research methods matrices that researchers use to plan significant research studies. Click here to see it.

When looking at the last column, you’ll notice that there’s not much there that can be meaningfully quantified other than just keeping track of whether or not the students are doing the work. But there is ample opportunity for qualitative observations and notes: reading and writing conferences, class discussions, reading check-ins, notes on students’ revision efforts, and students’ own comments regarding their learning via writer’s memos, e-portfolios, and their lists of target standards. This gives me an idea of what information I might want to capture in my gradebook. (Here’s a blank data matrix if you want to use it!) 

TWO: Organize gradebook data into meaningful categories.

Once you’ve figured out what kind of data you need to see clearly how your students are doing toward your learning objectives and to inform instruction, you’ll need to plan how you will organize that data in your gradebook. It will be a complex set of information–some clear categories will make it easier for all stakeholders to use.

Using your data collection matrix, identify the categories that make sense for organizing the data you want to collect, use, and report out. For my needs, it’s completion of work, weekly reading check-ins so I can keep track of students’ reading progress weekly, reading and writing conference records, my responses to their revisions so I can track their learning from revision to revision and know at a glance where each student is on each piece of writing, and notes on my students’ learning toward our class learning targets.

I’m assuming that you have the ability to set weights for the different gradebook categories. The weighting tells the math machine in the gradebook what to do with any numerical data. I keep numerical data on only what seems most meaningfully quantified–assignment completion. You’ll see below that it’s only those two completion categories that carry any weight during the semester. The remaining categories do not calculate into the number that the gradebook creates during the semester. But at the end of the semester, the completion category numbers are unweighted and no longer calculate in the number, leaving only the final semester grade category to have any numerical effect on the grade that the gradebook calculates. See below for the gradebook categories I’ll set up for this year based on the data matrix thinking I did about the data I need to inform my instruction (or click here if you’d rather see these in a table). 

Category: Completion of work–major tasks (weekly drafts and thorough revisions, formal presentations, final group book conversations, etc.)

  • Weight during semester 90%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Completion of work–minor tasks (filling out weekly reading check-in form, completing peer feedback, Socratic Seminar tickets and participation, having new books in hand on particular days, etc.)

  • Weight during semester 10%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Weekly Reading Check-ins

  • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Conference Records

  • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Revision Notes

  • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Notes on Student Progress Toward Learning Objectives and Standards

  • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Semester Final Grade

  • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 100%

What gradebook categories make sense for the data you need to collect about your students’ learning and progress?

THREE: Plan what kind of data you’ll record for each gradebook category.

Each gradebook category will need information in it–what would be most useful to you and your students? I still create assignments or tasks for each category, but some of them won’t actually be assignments or tasks for students. In the case of keeping track of completion, I will list each task I’ve asked of my students. But for a category like “conference records,” each “assignment” is instead a data point. I create an “assignment” for each conference and just label it “conference #1” or “conference #2.” In the score box I’ll indicate which type of conference it was (reading or writing) and the date so I can see at a quick glance when the last time was that I conferred with an individual student. In the comment field for each conference I’ll leave a brief note about the focus of the conference conversation. Click here for more details about what kind of data I record for each conference category.

What kind of data will you record for each category in your gradebook?

FOUR: Decide where you’ll have the gradebook crunch numbers.

Until your school as a whole steps away from grades (which may be never), you’ll still need to have some math happening in your gradebook.

As I’ve already indicated, the most meaningful thing I can think of to quantify is how much of the work we ask of our students they’ve completed. Hence, the numbers in my gradebook reflect completion of work and nothing else. Hence, the number that my gradebook broadcasts as the “grade” throughout the semester is a reflection of whether or not students are keeping up with their work. This is enough for athletic eligibility purposes, for parents keeping tabs on their students, for counselors to know if students are keeping up with their work.

I have thought carefully about how I want this particular number to work. For example, if I have a student who has chosen not to complete a major task for my course, like a revised paper, then I want that completion percentage to take a bigger hit than if the student forgot to do the ticket to be prepared for a Socratic Seminar. The revision represents possibly weeks of writing back and forth between me and the student and it is the place where students really learn and grow as writers. If students are not doing the most important work of the class, the completion percentage needs to reflect it. This is the one part of the gradebook where I use numbers, so I make those more important assignments worth more than the other routine, daily tasks that I ask of students. I want the number that my gradebook does spit out to be meaningful and to accurately reflect how much of the work my students are completing.

Oh, and get ready to say again and again, “That’s not your grade. It’s a percentage that reflects how much of the work for this class you have done. If it’s not 100%, you’ve got some work to do.” This is a shift in how to read that gradebook number as the semester progresses. Students and their parents will need reminders of just what you’re broadcasting with it. Keep talking about it.

What number data do you need in the gradebook minimally to satisfy the needs of your school community?

FIVE: Create a word-based scale to use for the categories that quantify numerically.

Emphasis on numbers in the gradebook keeps students focused on points and numbers. If possible, develop your own grade scale or set of marks that you can use in your categories that you do want to quantify numerically to keep students from being too focused on numbers and to provide for them more information about their progress.

Words like “complete,” “almost,” “keep at it,” “partial,” “review instructions,” or “missing” provide much more information to students than numbers, and if you’re able to use those kinds of words instead of just numbers, it helps students to know more about how they are doing.

I’ve made my own set of “assignment marks” (as our data management system calls them) with these words so that “complete” registers as 100%, “almost” as 90%, “keep at it” as 80%, “partial” as 75%, “review instructions” as 50%, and “missing” as a zero. With this custom grade scale, this section of the gradebook uses words to show what percentage of the work a student has completed. It’s a good idea to provide to students a clear key to what you record in the gradebook, especially if it’s different from what they are used to. Click here for the key I provide to my students to help them make sense of what they see in the gradebook.

This approach means that what goes into the gradebook on an individual assignment is not static. Update the word you record for each assignment to describe where the student is at in the process as the student keeps working. This honors the process of revision and recognizes that improving writing means working at it again and again. This keeps students focused on the work rather than the grade. It frees them to take risks, and it reduces their stress because they are not worried about losing points for anything and can instead see their work for what it is and focus on making it as strong as possible.

What could your word-based scale be?

Whew. That’s kind of a lot of detail. My apologies if this is overwhelming. What more would it be helpful for me to show you or explain? How much of this works in your gradebook world? How much of it just doesn’t work at all? I’m only familiar with my gradebook program (Infinite Campus, in case you’re wondering). There are others out there and I have no experience at all with how they work.

Or do you have other ideas for how I could go about all of this? In all honesty, I’m really still figuring it out.

You may be thinking that your gradebook can’t do that (whatever it is), right? Don’t get shut down by apparent limitations. Think like a hacker. Hackers come up with clever solutions to tricky problems. I would say our required gradebooks are a tricky problem in our teaching lives.

I’ve suggested that you put something besides numbers in the score boxes in your gradebook and maybe you are thinking that’s not possible in your gradebook? Try it! My gradebook flags my non-number entries as “invalid score input.” But that’s all it does. It still lets me put those words in there. Even if your gradebook does not permit you to put anything besides a number in the score box, can you leave the score blank and use the comment/note field instead to collect and communicate meaningful information about how your students are doing? Find a way to record and communicate out the kind of meaningful information your students can use to reflect on their own progress and that you can use to drive your instruction. The point is this: don’t make assumptions about what your gradebook can’t do. With a little creative thinking, maybe you can use your required online gradebook–with all of its limitations–to be a rich data collection and communication tool. Play around with it. See what’s possible. Ask your district or school if there are additional features to it that teachers do not currently have access to–maybe there is a possibility for more flexibility.

Here are some questions to ask to get you started exploring the possibilities of your online gradebook:

  • Is it possible to put a word or two rather than a number in a score box? How many characters can you type?
  • Does your gradebook allow space for comments or notes on every individual score? How many characters can you type?
  • Are you able to set up different categories in your gradebook and have only some of them calculate into the grade?
    • If not, can you use abbreviations on assignment titles to denote different categories? Can you leave the score box empty to keep certain assignments from calculating into the grade and just leave a note/comment?
  • Are there built-in codes/abbreviations that you can use to avoid putting in numbers? (e.g., my gradebook includes “T” for “turned in.” I can mark any assignments as “turned in” and it will not affect the number the gradebook calculates in any way.)

And finally, don’t be discouraged by what appears to be a lot of data entry that you don’t have time for. That’s been the response of some of my colleagues when I show them what I’m up to. But this qualitative data recording work has replaced all the number management I used to do. I have gained some time by setting the numbers game aside. I gain time by not having to write to students to justify lost points on assignments too. I’ve also found ways to work as efficiently as possible with data entry. For example, I carry my laptop with me from conference to conference and enter my note regarding the conversation right there on the spot, often asking the student to help me to compose it. It has been worth my time to figure out how to do this and to make it manageable.

Thinking of my gradebook as a qualitative data warehouse yields a rich set of data that tells a detailed story about my students as learners rather than a collection of numbers and points needing explanation and interpretation.


So that concludes the thinking I need to do to get things going in my classroom next week. I’m planning to write a post about the first day of school where I will begin the conversation with students about grades the moment they walk in my classroom. But if you’ve got burning questions or want to push back at my thinking or think I’m missing something–please send a note (comment here or click on the link to the form down below) and I’ll see how I can respond.

Thanks for reading!


This is the fourth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

And I’d love to hear from you to help me craft this series. Either leave me a comment below or fill out this quick form.

 

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, hacking, not grading, planning | 3 Comments

Step Two: Design a classroom experience to keep your students working without points #StopGrading

Screenshot 2016-08-09 at 11.11.57 PM

Will students still do the work you assign if you don’t give them points for it?

Yes–especially if the work is valuable to them.

In the previous post in this series, I outlined what I thought it should mean for a student to get an “A” in my language arts class. In essence, that list makes up my intended learning objectives for the course. Following the precepts of backwards design, next I have to think about where I’ll be able to see whether or not students have met those goals and then I’ll need to plan instruction to help students get there.

So I spent a good chunk of today doing that thinking and pecking it out in a huge bulleted list. It looks like this (I’ll just ask you to read one objective here instead of all of them):

Objective: The student is a reader with a vibrant, self-directed reading practice that will continue beyond my classroom.

  • I’ll know students can do this if they
    • Read more books than they initially thought possible.
    • Create lists of books to read in the future (as Penny Kittle says in Book Love, “readers have plans.”)
    • Read books that matter to them.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Provide ample opportunity for my students to choose what they read.
      • We will have some shared reading experiences (one whole-class book each semester) but the bulk of student reading will be individual choice or book groups.
    • Give students time to read.
      • Ten minutes at the start of every class period gives students 40 minutes per week. This also gives me time to conference with a few students about their reading every day.
    • Get quality titles in front of students.
      • A classroom library isn’t practical for me (see my post on this here). But our school’s library is fantastic–more time there.
    • Get students talking about books.
      • Student response groups can help with this as will an online collection of books students have read and what they think about them. (currently building this as a WordPress site that a student aide will manage for me).

(see after the second horizontal line below for the rest of the list) (or if you’d rather see my thinking laid out as a table, click here).

I try to make myself do this kind of thinking through my classroom every year–so I’m grateful that this blog post gave me a chance to do that work. It was thinking I needed to accomplish before I have students next week. I always find areas I want to focus on to improve (this year: more work with mentor texts, more focus on writer’s notebooks, more conversation about books…). I encourage you to do something similar as a thinking exercise. I’ve even created a table for you to use if you want (it’s a google doc–you can grab a copy of it here or in the folder that you’ll see a link to at the bottom of this post).

This post started with a question–will students work if there are no points offered for each task? If the work is valuable to them, yes, they will work.

Using the concepts of backwards design reminds us that valuable, meaningful classroom work hinges on starting with valuable, meaningful learning objectives. For me, these are not strictly the standards or curriculum objectives laid out in my district curriculum guides. They are the bigger concepts, the reasons why we teach reading and writing to begin with, the most important work of my classroom. If I start my thinking and planning there, then the work that comes out of my planning for my students will be valuable.

Based on my intended outcomes for my students as a result of my classroom, I’ve found that the reading/writing workshop approach best gets us to those outcomes. My students need choice and time to work and lots of feedback and a community of readers and writers–these things all scream workshop. That is not to say that other approaches can’t work in a gradeless classroom. It all starts with your intended outcomes–what do you hope your students will accomplish as readers and writers as a result of your class? How can you craft a classroom experience that will get them there?

There are things I’ve had to set aside in order to get my students to the place where they are using reading and writing to read their complex world in order to write their futures within it. I’ve set aside the idea that my students all must be doing the same thing at the same time. I’ve set aside the idea that I should choose the books they read and that we read them all together. I’ve set aside the idea that I can read and respond to every single piece of writing I ask them to write because they simply must write more than I have time to respond to. It hasn’t been easy to set these things aside, but my classroom has been better for it. And I’m getting closer and closer to a lively reading/writing workshop every year. Trying to make workshop happen in a high school classroom has been one of the most difficult challenges of my teaching career! (Check out the phenomenal discussions about the high school workshop classroom over at Three Teachers Talk and at Moving Writers or my recent posts from #UNHLit16 if you want to think more about workshop).

The list of qualities of “A” students from my classroom/learning objectives has one central purpose: to help me plan my classroom experience around meaningful work for my students that will keep them working. That list is not the rubric for my students’ semester grades–I negotiate the grade agreement with my students ahead of the first 6-week progress report deadline so that the progress grade I post for each student is the one they determine for themselves based on our grade agreement. I wait to approach the grade agreement conversation with my students until they are well marinated in the work of my classroom and we have a healthy collection of data (mostly qualitative) on each student’s progress in the gradebook. Only then will they really be able to enter into a conversation with me about what should make an “A” for our class based on the work the class asks of them and how well they’ve been accomplishing it. And if they help to define the set of objectives to which they will eventually be evaluated, they will be so much more invested. They will own it.

The next thing I need to think through is setting up my gradebook to collect the data I need to know if my students are progressing toward the learning objectives/qualities of “A” students. So that will be the focus of the next post.

First day back to work tomorrow–I’m excited to see my colleagues and intrigued about the top secret field trip our admin team has planned for us. We see students for the first time next Thursday (9th grade only) and Friday (all grades). Best of luck to those of you who are starting with students this week.


This is the third post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

And I’d love to hear from you to help me craft this series. Either leave me a comment below or fill out this quick form.


Objective: The student is a reader with a vibrant, self-directed reading practice that will continue beyond my classroom.

  • I’ll know students can do this if they
    • Read more books than they initially thought possible.
    • Create lists of books to read in the future (as Penny Kittle says in Book Love, “readers have plans.”)
    • Read books that matter to them.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Provide ample opportunity for my students to choose what they read.
      • We will have some shared reading experiences (one whole-class book each semester) but the bulk of student reading will be individual choice or book groups.
    • Give students time to read.
      • Ten minutes at the start of every class period gives students 40 minutes per week. This also gives me time to conference with a few students about their reading every day.
    • Get quality titles in front of students.
      • A classroom library isn’t practical for me (see my post on this here). But our school’s library is fantastic–more time there.
    • Get students talking about books.
      • Student response groups can help with this as will an online collection of books students have read and what they think about them. (currently building this as a WordPress site that a student aide will manage for me).

 

Objective: The student writes to think through life, to pull ideas together, to say something important to a targeted audience and for a specific purpose. The student is intentional about form in order to meet the needs of the audience and purpose.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Make independent decisions about the form their writing needs to take depending on their intended audience and purpose.
    • Write about topics that matter to them.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Provide lots of choice regarding what they write about and how they structure it.
      • The weekly draft structure creates space for this–students turn in a draft each week of their choosing with their choices scaffolded by the punch list to be sure their choices enable them to hit the requisite course curriculum objectives.
    • Give students time to write.
      • I’m planning for notebook writing time on Mondays and Tuesdays and then writing time with computers for some or all of block days and Fridays. Any of these blocks of writing time will give me time to conference with students one-on-one or in small groups.
    • Show students many many models of different types of writing to imagine possibilities for their own.
      • Putting mentor texts in front of them every single week will be important, as will building some sort of resource where students can revisit past mentor texts to consult them again (WordPress site?)
    • Help students to come up with ideas for writing–from reading, from discussion, from responding to what’s going on in their lives.
      • I can teach brainstorming strategies and engage them in conversation (conferences, small group, socratic seminars)

 

Objective: The student revises extensively to improve a piece of writing.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Work on individual pieces of writing over lengths of time, achieving several different drafts.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Provide the opportunity for students to revise writing, not just to produce it.
      • I can ask students to revise for a few minutes after a short time of notebook writing to get them in the consistent practice of revision.
      • The thorough revision task does ask students to revise extensively–they’ll do this three times per semester.
      • I’ll teach revision alongside peer feedback so students see how feedback from writers drives revision.
      • With frequent mentor text use, I’ll show students how they can turn to mentor texts to get ideas for revision.

 

Objective: The student asks complex questions and persists to research answers to them.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Stick with a singular research topic that interests them over a period of time, beginning with a research question of their own design.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Provide space for meaningful research tasks and instruction in how to navigate the research process.
      • The first semester feature piece task after Thanksgiving break will be a research task based on students’ own questions and interests. There will be mini lessons along the way on various pieces of the research process and the semester punch list will help students focus on doing research work.
      • I will also conduct a research project and model my process for students so I can teach from inside of the task.

 

Objective: The student seeks out mentor texts–for writing, for text form, for thinking, for reading–and uses those mentor texts to grow.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Locate their own mentor texts to help them think through a writing or reading task that they are taking on.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Provide access to high-quality mentor texts and show students how to use them as guides for their own work.
      • I’ll put mentor texts in front of them every week and show them how to learn from them.
      • The online database of the mentor texts we use will be available for students to use on their own.

 

Objective: The student maintains a writer’s notebook as an important thinking/reflecting space.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Bring writer’s notebooks to class every day and will work with them carefully.
    • Show evidence of thinking and reflection in their notebooks, inspired by what we do in class.
    • Turn to their notebooks to do this work without direction from me.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Create my own writer’s notebook that shows students one possibility for their own thinking/reflection tool.
      • I need to decide if I want to continue with the writer’s notebook I already have in process or start fresh with one for the beginning of the school year. I usually start fresh. But I really like my current writer’s notebook…
    • Provide opportunities for them to share awesome tidbits from their notebooks with the class in small and large groups.
      • Write, turn, and talk activities provide opportunity for this.
      • I also plan to acquire a document camera so I can put notebook pages up for students to see, both from my notebook and from students’ notebooks.
    • Have students write in their notebooks for meaningful reasons nearly every day.
      • I don’t collect notebooks ever but I do monitor how students are using them in class and we look at them together in conferences.
      • I will continue to assign class prep work to be completed in notebooks–work that I check by having students show it to me quickly in class. (e.g., Socratic Seminar tickets)

 

Objective: The student manages digital tools and digital spaces effectively to keep track of work.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Master our digital tools/spaces.
    • Persist in working through confusion regarding how a digital tool/space works.
    • Use digital tools and spaces consistently and effectively for class work and collaboration.
  • In my classroom, I’ll need to
    • Choose just the right set of digital tools/spaces so that these are manageable and not overwhelming.
      • This year I’m planning on Google Classroom as my main classroom hub and I’m anxious to see how it plays well with all the other Google tools my students have been using:
        • Google Docs for writing, revision, and peer feedback
        • Google Slides for presentations
        • Google Drawings for graphic organizers
      • I’ve built one WordPress site to be a space for book conversation and recommendations. I may build another to be our resource for mentor texts we’ve used in class.
      • We have a class blog to publish student work.
      • I expect students check Infinite Campus frequently to see the story that builds there about them as readers and writers (I use it to keep track of my conference notes, for example, and after time this becomes a detailed story about a student as a reader and writer in my class).
      • I expect students to check their district gmail account frequently.
      • I’m considering using Twitter more frequently than I have in the past–if for no other reason than helping students to become more literate with this powerful social networking tool. How might it enhance our classroom community and our work?
    • Provide enough instruction to each student to show them how to use the tools/spaces effectively.
      • In-class time on computers is critical as it provides opportunities for me to walk students through how to use our digital tools/spaces if needed.

 

Objective: The student is a positive community member: provides high-quality feedback to peers on their writing, participates earnestly in small group and whole-group conversations, moves through our classroom spaces (physical and digital) with kindness.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Create a positive, vibrant classroom community.
    • Listen to each other.
    • Take great care in responding to each other’s work.
    • Share their ideas with each other in class conversations.
    • Help each other through struggle and support each other’s work.
    • Disagree kindly.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Work on teambuilding and communication to create an atmosphere where groups can thrive.
      • I’ll structure students into small 3-4 person response groups as I usually do, spending some time getting to know them and having them get to know each other first before making the groups.
      • They’ll stay in response groups for the duration of the semester as their home base in the class. I’ll expect that they look out for each other in the groups.
      • Provide lots of opportunities for small-group conversation.
    • Teach students how to do peer feedback effectively so they can help each other with revision.
      • I plan a feedback/revision book camp in the second full week of school so we can establish a focus on this right away.
      • A feedback circle might be a great way to do this–worked great with my 9th graders last spring.
      • Then as we go through the semester, I’ll monitor the conversations with each other on their writing via the comments they leave in the margins of each other’s drafts and look for opportunities for continued instruction with individuals, small groups, or the whole class.

 

Objective: The student demonstrates successful student habits: meeting deadlines, reading and following instructions, asking questions, seeking help and support.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Hit deadlines.
    • Turn in work that shows they have read and followed instructions.
    • Ask questions when they have them.
    • Seek out help and support when struggling.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Give students access to the tools and materials they need to be successful: clearly posted deadlines, simple and straightforward instructions, and opportunities to ask questions and to ask for help
      • I’ll use the gradebook to record data on how they’re doing with these things so they and I can see patterns and trends that need to be addressed.
    • Make it a safe atmosphere to struggle, to ask questions, and to seek support.
      • As I work alongside them, I can share my struggles with them and ask my students to help me find ways to navigate them. This makes it okay to struggle and help each other.

 

Objective: The student takes risks in order to learn.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Take risks in class discussions.
    • Take risks in pieces of writing.
    • Take risks in the books they choose to take on.
    • Make mistakes and learn from them.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Make risk taking (and the mistake making that is part of it) a valuable piece of the classroom.
      • By working alongside them (i.e., doing the work I assign them), I can model risk taking and mistake making.
      • We can celebrate mistakes made and the learning that comes from them.
      • Conferences will be important places to help students learn from mistakes and to encourage them to take risks.

 

Objective: The student practices effective self-reflection, self-evaluation, and metacognition. Students know what they already know, what they want/need to know, what they’ve learned, and how well they’ve learned it.

  • I’ll know my students can do this if they
    • Use curriculum objectives/standards throughout the year to help them think about, plan, and evaluate their learning.
  • In my classroom, I will need to
    • Provide opportunities for students to do this important planning and reflection.
      • As I’ve done in the past, I’ll ask students to choose focus standards for themselves from the CCSS for each semester, to paraphrase them into their own words, and to explain why they want to work on each standard they chose.
      • I’ll ask students to reflect on their work toward their target standards
        • In writer’s memos on pieces of writing
        • In conference conversations with me
        • In 6-week progress report self-evaluations
        • In the letters they write at semester’s end to negotiate with me for their semester grade
    • Show students what it looks like to plan their learning and reflect on it effectively.
      • I have umpteen examples from students past to make available to current students.

 

Posted in #StopGrading, blog series, CCSS, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

It takes a village to #StopGrading

folder-23397_1280

Okay people, a clever reader (you know who you are SRG) wondered in a comment on the first post in this series if we should have a shared folder or forum or something for people who are taking the gradeless journey. Maybe we could all share resources, talk to each other, help each other out.

I love this idea.

So I set up a google drive folder to work as a drop box for you to share your resources with each other (and with me!). 

Let me know if you have any suggestions to make it work as awesomely as possible. I’ll include the link on all future posts in the series. And I’ll move my folder of resources into that folder as well so we can all work on this together.

Thanks, readers. You rock.

(Do we need a Facebook group too?)

Posted in #StopGrading, blog series, collaboration, colleagues, fall 2016 blog series, grading, not grading | 1 Comment

Step One: What’s in a Grade? #StopGrading

step one

For the purposes of keeping this post laser focused, I’m going to briefly describe a few things about how I’ve been going about grading for the last five semesters. I’m planning later posts on these things, but for now here’s what you need to know:

  • I no longer put any kind of point-based evaluation on anything, not any single minor assignment, not any single major assignment, not the semester final grade.
  • Because I teach in a school that uses numerical gradebook data for a variety of purposes beyond my own (like weekly athletic eligibility reports and counselors checking in on students and admin pulling reports on students who are earning low grades to get a sense of where to target some extra supports), I must keep some numbers-based data in my gradebook at all times. I use this to reflect the only thing that makes sense to me to quantify: completion. I have to constantly remind students and their parents and everyone else, “that is not the grade. It’s a number that reflects how much of the work you’ve completed that the class has asked of you.”
  • Other than completion data, I record short, narrative notes on students in the gradebook so I can build a detailed description of each student’s work, struggles, and successes.
  • At the end of the semester, I negotiate with each student for the semester grade, based on a grade agreement that the class and I write together that defines clearly for everyone what makes an A, B, C, etc. in the course.
    • A key component of this grade negotiation is students demonstrating what they’ve learned toward a few, self-chosen learning objectives/standards for the course.
  • That negotiated semester grade becomes the only thing that calculates into a student’s official grade for the course–I remove the completion data from calculating into that overall grade in the end. It was just progress data.

So what’s in a grade?

In a points-based classroom, the grade represents how many points a student has earned out of the points possible. A semester grade is the result of many individual assignments of various point values and how many points a student earned on them. Hence, a points-based grade shows (most simply, and I know I’m simplifying here) how many points a student has collected.

Of course there are sophisticated ways to set up one’s gradebook so those points reflect something more than mere point collection. I’ve spent much of my career trying to figure out how to do this best. I’ve used weighted categories so the most important assignments carry the most weight in the grade. I’ve used rubrics that spell out in detail what the points mean for each different aspect of a task.

But in the end, my students’ points-based grades reflected points collected more than anything else, and that’s how my students saw them too. “How many points is this worth?” heard again and again in my classroom suggested that the relative point value of a task correlated with how much a student would care about it.

In the world beyond my classroom, grades mean something too. They show up on transcripts that students use for college applications, scholarship applications, even job applications. A principal actually did ask me in an interview once about the C I had earned in an upper-division English class during college. He was joking with me. I still got the job. But the fact that he even pointed it out says something about how audiences beyond our immediate classroom read the grades we broadcast.

For those audiences, the grades reflect more than mere points collected. They aren’t aware of all of the tiny calculations or extra credit or assignments redone or percentages rounded up that may have gone into the grade. They just see “A” or “B” or “C” or “D” or “F” and come to their own conclusions. “A” students are smart, right? They do their work. They meet deadlines (late work penalties would surely bring the grade down). They persist. They are responsible.

If it’s an “A” next to a math class, it means something different than an “A” next to an English class. It says something about the student’s strengths. And if a student’s transcript shows “A”s across all subjects, that student is well rounded (and really good at playing school). Just the kind of person you want to admit to your college or hire for a job. And don’t forget that straight-A students receive discounts on car insurance too.

The point of all of this is to say that the grade says lots of things to lots of stakeholders. I’ve always struggled with what some argue about the grade, that it should reflect achievement toward learning objectives and nothing else. That we should make our grades as pure as possible–no extra credit, no completion, no late work penalties, no points for bringing in a box of tissues for the class stash. I’m not sure I would want a student who showed up at the end of the semester–without attending a single class–and rocked my final assessment showing mastery of all of the learning objectives to walk away with an A, but in a pure standards-based classroom, this might fly. The future employer who looked at that grade on the student’s transcript would not have the complete story.

The quest for purity–grades that reflect students’ achievement toward learning objectives and nothing more–seems to underpin the standards-based grading movement. I am not writing that off whole-hog. I don’t know enough about it to do so. But I’m certainly not presented with adequate resources–time, student load, and the right gradebook tool–to be an evaluator of 155 students toward a set of multiple standards for each of them. If I had 10 students or 20 or maybe 30 total, maybe I could manage this. But with 155, it’s impossible.

At Penny Kittle’s and Kelly Gallagher’s workshop at the UNH Literacy institute this summer, Penny said how much she worries that students who are not readers are walking away from an ELA class with “A”s. I worry about this too. An “A” in a 12th grade language arts class should mean something about a student’s abilities as a reader and a writer, not just as a point collector. It was possible for me as a 12th grade student to collect enough points for the grade I wanted without reading the books my teacher assigned. It was possible for me to do this as a college student too.

Ultimately, what should an “A” reflect in my class?

  • The student is a reader with a vibrant, self-directed reading practice that will continue beyond my classroom.
  • The student writes to think through life, to pull ideas together, to say something important to a targeted audience and for a specific purpose. The student is intentional about form in order to meet the needs of the audience and purpose.
  • The student revises extensively to improve a piece of writing.
  • The student asks complex questions and persists to research answers to them.
  • The student seeks out mentor texts–for writing, for text form, for thinking, for reading–and uses those mentor texts to grow.
  • The student maintains a writer’s notebook as an important thinking/reflecting space.
  • The student manages digital tools and digital spaces effectively to keep track of work.
  • The student is a positive community member: provides high-quality feedback to peers on their writing, participates earnestly in small group and whole-group conversations, moves through our classroom spaces (physical and digital) with kindness.
  • The student demonstrates successful student habits: meeting deadlines, reading and following instructions, asking questions, seeking help and support.
  • The student takes risks in order to learn.
  • The student practices effective self-reflection, self-evaluation, and metacognition. Students know what they already know, what they want/need to know, what they’ve learned, and how well they’ve learned it.

I know that these objectives are not exactly with you might see in the standards or the curriculum guides for the classes I teach. But these objectives capture the work of my classroom. The standards are inextricably there–they are the basis of students’ self-reflection and self-evaluation of their own learning. And the standards are the foundation for the curriculum I teach so I plan with them to be sure my students are doing the kind of work they outline.

But let’s be honest–our grades represent more than students’ achievement toward the learning objectives we see in our standards documents and curriculum guides. I agree with Penny Kittle–it’s not okay for a student to leave high school with an A in language arts without actually being a reader. But “being a reader” is not an expressed curriculum objective or standard. Success on all standards is improved if students are readers. Hence, I want to make this an specific goal of my classroom.

I invite you to make a list on your own of what you want an “A” to represent with your students. What’s the work of your classroom? What qualities should “A” students embody? What would you hope they will continue to take on in their lives beyond your classroom?

Let’s make our grades actually mean something beyond being just a collection of points. And once you know what you want the grade to reflect, now you can figure out how to get your students there. That’s the next step–planning a classroom experience for your students that will enable them to do the meaningful work you’ve outlined in your list of what you want an “A” to represent with your students.


This is the second post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

And I’d love to hear from you to help me craft this series. Either leave me a comment below or fill out this quick form.

 

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, planning | 2 Comments