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,
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.
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.