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.
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 my resources on grading here.