The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading

Screenshot 2016-08-06 at 12.50.49 AMSeveral years ago, one of my students–a junior–ended up with an 89.4% in my class for his second semester grade. He asked me to round up his grade. I explained to him that had he chosen to complete the optional rewrites on his papers, we would not have to talk about this, and I thought we were finished with the conversation.

But then he emailed me. And then his dad emailed me. And then his mom emailed me.

And then he emailed me again. And then his dad called me on the phone. And then there were more emails.

In each instance, I explained again that had the student chosen to complete the optional rewrites on the papers to increase his grade on those major assignments that accounted for the majority of students’ grades in my class, we would not need to even have the conversation. But the student, his dad, and his mom told me how important the A was for his transcript to be able to get into college. They didn’t care that it would be unfair to the other students who also had similar grades for me to round up this one and not theirs.

They didn’t care that it was actually language arts department policy not to round grades.

They didn’t care that the student had chosen not to continue working on his writing when given the option, something that would have made him a better writer and brought his grade up along the way.

All they cared about was what an A could mean on this student’s transcript when it came to his college applications in the following year.

And then, the next morning at the end-of-year teacher appreciation breakfast that our parent organization hosts for us every year, this student’s dad walked into the cafeteria.

He was looking for me.

“It can’t hurt to ask you just one more time,” he said to me.

I couldn’t believe he was there, pushing me on this. I held my plate of food in one hand, my cup of juice in the other (I had just made my way through the buffet line). It felt invasive. It felt inappropriate. It felt way too pushy. All I wanted to do was sit with my colleagues and celebrate the end of the school year and enjoy some time with them before we all left the building for 10 weeks. I wondered how he even got into the building, or who told him where all the teachers were, or how he had the gumption to walk into this celebration to try to re-open a conversation I had already indulged for far longer than really was necessary.

I stood my ground and off he went and I think that was the last of it–with that student at least. But that was not the first or last time I’ve had a student or parent asking me to raise a grade for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the student’s learning in my class. Instead, those conversations are usually about how a grade could impact future college applications or lead to discounts on car insurance.

This is our fault. By “our” I mean society collectively. Our society is obsessed with numbers, with quantifiable data, with “achievement,” with test scores from expensive, invasive mandated tests that supposedly can tell me more about what my students need and can do than I can assess myself through my daily interactions with them as human beings.

Even though we teachers have not made the policy level decisions regarding the testing madness and many of us are doing what we can to push back at it–we are complicit in the grade frenzy. We threaten grade penalties for late work. Or we say things like, “This assignment is worth a lot of points so you better take it seriously!” We give them graded reading quizzes to get them to read. We put grades on pieces of writing and invite them to revise–not because revision makes them better writers but to “bring up their grade” on the paper. Parents sit down at conferences and the first thing we do is pull up a student’s grades and talk about what’s going well or not going so well.

None of this, by the way, has anything really to do with what students are learning.

We get to the point where we start to believe that our students won’t do anything at all in our classrooms unless we give them points. This is totally unfair to our students. They want to learn. If the work is meaningful to them, they’ll do it even if they’re not collecting points along the way.

There is a Grades-For-Compliance Exchange That Organizes Schooling

We teachers are complicit in the grade thing, but it’s pretty difficult not to be. Our schools orbit on an exchange. It’s what keeps everything organized–student behavior, power dynamics within buildings, all of it. Students do what we ask them to do, and in return we give them grades that they can cash in for the high school diploma and use for their college applications if that’s what they’re doing after high school. To our students, getting the grade can seem more important than learning the stuff–a student once told me that usually she did just enough work to get the A rather than working to learn. This was certainly the case for me as a high school student: I did only what I needed to do to get the grade I wanted and no more, and often this meant I didn’t even have to read the books my English teachers assigned me. As long as I listened carefully to what they thought about the books, I could give those ideas back to them on exams and in essays and do just fine.

I could have learned so much more.

There’s a powerful ethnography from 1977 that illustrates this exchange-based system. Willis’s Learning to Labour describes the exchange at the center of the school he studied: the teacher offered knowledge to the students in return for their respect and compliance (the book focuses largely on a group of boys who didn’t want what the exchange offered and responded with oppostional behavior). Willis goes on to outline several characteristics of the exchange-based teaching paradigm and the characteristics of schools necessary to maintain this teaching paradigm. He explains that the material structure, organization, and practices of the school he studied maintained the paradigm.

The exchange-based paradigm that our schools still operate on–student compliance for grades that they can cash in for diplomas and college acceptance–is bound up in every aspect of schools. It’s the air we breathe. From controlling students’ space in buildings (lockers, areas that are off-limits to students, etc.) to controlling their movements (bell schedules, attendance policies, etc.) to the instructional and curricular practices of the school, everything works because everyone–teachers and students and parents and college admissions–have bought in to the exchange.

Willis describes the instructional and curricular practices that the school used to maintain the exchange. Teachers made all curricular and instructional decisions. Teachers decided when a lesson began and ended. Teachers controlled the discussions in classrooms. These practices signaled to students that the teachers possessed the knowledge and were in charge of how and when it was dispensed to the students.

And to this I’ll add that teachers decide what grade represents what students have learned and done. Students generally do not assess their own learning or decide what grade represents the work that they’ve done. All of this communicates to students that school is not really about them as individual learners. Do what your teacher asks and you shall be paid with grades that you can use to get you into college. That’s the game.

Willis argued in 1977 that because the exchange-based teaching paradigm was so ingrained in society’s understanding of school, it was nearly impossible to achieve any kind of different teaching paradigm. Even though nearly forty years have passed since then, his assessment of the ways that a dominant teaching paradigm influenced how a community thought about the purposes and practices of school is still very relevant. In many ways, we still struggle with many of the same challenges.

Paradigms are very difficult to change: “a paradigm is a model or a pattern of thinking. It’s a shared set of assumptions with how we perceive the world. Paradigms are very helpful because they allow us to develop expectations about what will probably occur based on these assumptions. But when data falls outside our paradigm, we find it hard to see and accept. This is called the Paradigm Effect. And when the paradigm effect is so strong that we are actually prevented from actually seeing what is under our very noses, we are said to be suffering from Paradigm Paralysis” (Harrison, qtd. in Hill and Nave, p. 39).

Are we in paradigm paralysis when it comes to points, grades, test scores, accountability, and quantification? Are these things so much the air we breathe that we can’t see them for what they are, for the ways they are getting in the way of our students doing meaningful work as readers and writers in our classrooms?

If a book from 1977 provides such an accurate description of the paradigm that still organizes schooling today, then yes, I would say that we are paralyzed.

Revisions of this traditional teaching paradigm are essentially the Holy Grail that my student, Adam explained to me a few years ago: “The Holy Grail of teaching is to figure out a way to show students that it is meaningful and valuable.” I do not want my classroom to be simply about an exchange between teacher and students where if they comply with what I’m asking, I give them the grades they need to get into college. I want my classroom to be “meaningful and valuable” in a way that will inspire my students’ active participation and not their passive compliance.

But within a greater societal culture where a particular exchange-based paradigm is the norm, anything different may be literally a holy grail—impossible though some (such as myself) may be completely obsessed with finding it.

With the term “grading” I mean two things:

  1. The catch-all term for the work we do when we respond to student work and evaluate it. Anything from marking right and wrong answers on a quiz to marking errors on a paper to writing comments in the margins of students’ work typically falls under the umbrella of “grading” as teachers use the term. Example: “I have so much grading to do this weekend!”
  2. The act of determining an evaluative score on a single piece of student work so that a series of individual assignment scores can be averaged or otherwise calculated into the official grade for a student for the semester. This makes the grading work described in #1 above in service of justifying a score, in service of explaining why it wasn’t 100%, in service of matching to the rubric that outlines what success looks like.

Nothing in these two definitions is about writing or reading or learning. It’s about quantification, justification, and evaluation. Grading as we typically understand it has no place in an ELA classroom if you want students to actually focus on the work of reading and writing and what they are learning in the process rather than the grade. Writers need response, one writer to another. They need to revise, taking feedback from readers and thinking about how to use it to make sure the writing is best communicating the writer’s intended message. Readers need conversation, not reading quizzes, to push their thinking and to see the places where they can grow as readers.

If writers need response and readers need conversation, both takes on “grading” described above do not achieve these things. The piles and piles of “grading” we create a) function as an enormous weight we carry August/September through May/June each year and b) are so onerous that we’re unable to give our students the very best feedback to help them grow as readers and writers.

I’ve been doing everything I can to stop grading.

Welcome to the first post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom. You can read other posts in the series here. 

At the NCTE conference in Boston in November of 2013, I saw Alfie Kohn speak about grades. While sitting there listening to Kohn, it all came into focus for me. My colleagues, Mr. S and Mr. B, had been working on me for a while about moving away from traditional grading but I just couldn’t see a way around it. Mr. S and I even had a bit of a blog war about it here in this blog. So by the time I heard it all straight from Kohn, even though I couldn’t yet see clearly how to do it, I was ready to think seriously about making a shift in my classroom.

That January, I engaged my class in the conversation. We looked at Kohn’s argument in “The Case Against Grades”, and talked about how it captured their experiences in school. Then I asked them to vote–should we try going gradeless for a semester? By secret ballot, they voted unanimously to give it a shot.

Five semesters later and I haven’t looked back. I have blogged a bit about going gradeless along the way.

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.


Works Cited

Hill, Danny and Nave, Jayson. (2009) Power of ICU: The end of student apathy…reviving engagement and responsibility. NTLB Publishing.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Westmead, England: Saxon House.

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading

  1. Robert LaRue says:

    One of my primary objections to Infinite Crapus (Infinite Campus) was that it required the assignment of a numerical grade which was then combined with other numerical grades to produce some kind of average… down to two decimal places. To generate such an inappropriately precise number from a collection of more impressionistically generated numbers was a statistical crime.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Hi Bob! Yep. I totally agree with you. I’ve been hacking IC to avoid this. I no longer put points on any individual assignments. And the semester grade is not the result of any calculations. I negotiate it with each student. I provide enough data in IC to satisfy what the school/parents/students need along the way. But I’m definitely not using it as it was designed, to be a math machine. I will write about this in a future post.

      • I am very interested in your hacks. I think this is the toughest part for me, When my department requires a certain percentage breakdown (homework equals 30% of the semester grade, a paper 15%, etc.): how to work around that? And then how to work around the gradebook stuff? I will be patiently awaiting to learn your hacks on this! 🙂

        • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

          Sarah! Hello! Thanks so much for reading. I’ll write about the gradebook soon. It’s been a fun challenge to figure out how to use the gradebook differently yet still provide what my school community needs to see there (sports eligibility, progress grades, whether or not students are keeping up with their work…). Keep sending me your thoughts, and have an excellent start to the school year!

          • Thanks! I hope you have a great start to the year too. I will probably be emailing you soon with thoughts/questions. I’m writing my syllabus and the first few lesson plans now, and there’s so much coming up for me. My poor spouse is getting tired of hearing me try to talk it out with him, lol. 🙂 I’ll keep you posted.

  2. Pingback: Step 1: What's in a Grade? #StopGrading | The Paper Graders

  3. Blaire says:

    I just received the go ahead from my principal today to pilot a no grading classroom in my 9th grade ELA classes. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think he would jump to it as quickly as he did. I am no in freak mode…not really sure where to start and more importantly where it is going. I will be eagerly following!!

  4. Pingback: Step Two: Design a classroom experience to keep your students working without points #StopGrading | The Paper Graders

  5. Pingback: Step Three: Hack your gradebook to make it the data collection tool that will actually inform your instruction | The Paper Graders

  6. Pingback: Step Five: Starting the #StopGrading Conversation with Students | The Paper Graders

  7. Pingback: Step Seven: Start the #StopGrading conversation with parents | The Paper Graders

  8. Pingback: Step Eight: Build your classroom community of writers to #StopGrading | The Paper Graders

  9. Pingback: An important reminder about why I am working to #StopGrading | The Paper Graders

  10. Pingback: I don’t want to talk to parents about grades at parent/teacher conferences #StopGrading | The Paper Graders

  11. Pingback: Step Nine: Coming to a Grade Agreement with Students as You #StopGrading | The Paper Graders

  12. Pingback: Step Nine, Part Two: My Finalized Grade Agreement with My Students for this Year | The Paper Graders

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