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 my resources on grading here.

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

10 Responses to Step Five: Starting the #StopGrading Conversation with Students

  1. “I do wonder why this teacher is being like this?”

    LOL. Yes. Weirded out kid on first day. Perfect.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      I wasn’t sure if the student was referring to me or Alfie Kohn with “this teacher.” Funny nonetheless. 🙂

  2. Ms.Holmes says:

    Peer evaluations served a meaningful compass for authentic assessment when I taught World Literature and Expository Composition. We hosted writing exchanges within our departments where the students rated the project, presentation, or paper under the teacher’s facilitation. Using group dynamics of six per group worked well where each member of the group has a role as captain, recorder, reporter, mediator, evaluator, director, producer.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading the blog! There is great power in peer evaluations and peer feedback. Love this idea.

  3. Mrs. Kenney says:

    I’m really enjoying your blog and am inspired by many of your ideas. Thank you so much for sharing your journey (and your resources)!

  4. Today was the first day of class in North Carolina, and I decided (yesterday!) to dump my old plans and copy your entire lesson for my seniors. They blew me away. They walked away from the first day of class knowing what I value and what I care about (I talked briefly at the end). The true joy was that they continued to talk about grades and motivation even after I officially concluded the seminar. Thanks for a great lesson idea, and for showing that relinquishing control of a classroom (especially on the first day) can result in something really special.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Hi Pierre–Awesome! Thanks for reading and for telling me about this. I’m glad you had a great first day. I’ve always found that when I can step away from the center, it makes space for my students to learn and be who they are and they always surprise me. I’d love to hear what changes you made to improve on the lesson–and keep me posted on how it goes from here. Have an excellent week!

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