Going gradeless and ending up at the Common Core

I have a confession to make.

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

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

Raise your had if this is you.

So a funny thing has happened to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll keep you posted.

This entry was posted in 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, CCSS, cultivating real learning, first gradeless series 2013-2014, grading, literacy, making change, muddling through, not grading, policy, reform, testing, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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