Trust your students, trust yourself, and #StopGrading.

My colleagues and I did our #StopGrading presentation at our state ELA conference a few weeks ago. Seeing as we’ll be doing the same presentation later this month at NCTE in Atlanta, we distributed notecards to the teachers who came to our session and asked for their feedback to help us improve the presentation.

One person wrote on a notecard that we gave a dismissive answer to one person’s question about how to move away from traditional grading in a school culture where it seems like students would never actually work without grades.

Our dismissive answer was to trust your students. Trust yourself.

I can see how this might come off as dismissive. I can see how someone might leave our session thinking, “well, they teach in Boulder and of course it works there but it would never work in our school.” I can see how someone might think that we teach in a school that doesn’t share the same challenges that their school deals with on a daily basis. And I want to figure out a way to keep our session attendees from writing off what we offer based on all of this.

But it really does ultimately come down to trust.

Moving away from traditional grading is terrifying. Schooling swirls on a grades-for-compliance exchange, a paradigm that organizes everyone’s ideas about the purposes and practices of school. The teacher asks students to do something, promising to pay them with points if they comply, and students then trade in those points for grades that they use for high school diplomas and college acceptance and discounts on car insurance.

It can absolutely seem dismissive to tell a teacher to just step away from this ubiquitous paradigm and trust that everything is going to be okay. I see that. I get it. I’ve been there. As proof, I offer an excerpt of a post I wrote on this blog in March of 2012:

And why must I grade? I have too many students and not enough time to manage them effectively. In an ideal world, I would dive deep into the writing process with every single student–conferencing at length over rough drafts, giving nothing but feedback on multiple drafts, never affixing any sort of symbol on a paper until I absolutely had to and then not without a substantial conversation with the student over the final product where the student and I decided on the “grade” together. I dream of this ideal world. It’s a place where I have dreamy-small classes of maybe 15 students in each. It’s a place where I teach maybe three classes tops. It’s a place where I have ample time built into my work day to respond to student work and meet with students and plan my instruction based on the systematic assessment I do of my students’ work.

We do not live in that dreamy place. We teach in a large, comprehensive public American high school where we regularly carry a load of 150 students (or more) in five classes…

When I wrote those words back in 2012, I was arguing with Jay that there was no way I could step away from grading, that the contours of our job in a large public high school made it impossible. My issue wasn’t that I didn’t trust that my students would still work without grades–my issue was that I didn’t trust that I could still manage my job efficiently without the apparent efficiency of points and grades.

But yet, here I am, four years later, asking other teachers to trust that their students will work without grades, that they can manage their jobs without traditional points-based grading, that parents won’t flip out without what they are used to seeing in the gradebook, that administrators will be okay with you approaching things differently.

It does not all happen automatically, however. It does not all fall magically into place just on the basis of a teacher’s announcement to a class that it will not be grading as usual. Paradigm shift is not easy or automatic. It takes time and conversation–conversation with students, with parents, with colleagues.

When I ask my students to do something different from what they expect without explaining to them why we’re doing it differently and how that other way doesn’t serve them well as learners, I should expect pushback and students not stepping up to do the work. I learned this the hard way. But when I really truly engage students in conversation about school, about learning, about how well school has supported their growth as learners and LISTEN to what they have to say, they start to trust that I’m on their side. They see that I value their experiences in school. They see that I care about their dreams and goals for their lives. They see that I want to make my classroom a space where they will do work that matters to them. They will start to believe that we are really, truly, stepping outside of the game of school as they know it, and they will come with me.

I know that school is an incredibly complex system and that every school is a separate universe with its own landscape, values, and challenges. I’ve taught in five different high schools in three different states over my 21 years in the classroom, each one a completely different planet. It can be easy to look in at my current school from the outside and assume that we’ve got it easier than other schools–but we do have our challenges too. Some of our challenges are really similar to those in other schools. And some of them are unique really only to our school.

My colleagues and I haven’t ended up here automatically. It has been a journey of years. And we’re still on it. Some of the things we’ve tried along the way haven’t worked out very well. But the ones that seem to fire up our students a bit more, that get our classrooms humming along more productively, that provide space for students to do work that matters to them–those are the things we build on and keep doing. Workshop. Not grading traditionally. Asking students to do authentic work. De-centering ourselves as teachers so our students can step forward and do the real work of reading and writing.

The truth is that high school students want to read and want to write, as long as that work matters to who they are as human beings. Kittle says in Book Love that “teenagers want to read, if we let them.” We just have to get the hell out of their way. And we need to take our traditional notions about grading with us. Strict rubrics. Unyielding point systems. Late work penalties. Grading scales. Gradebooks that broadcast up-to-the-minute percentage-based grades with high stakes attached. Weighted grades. We built all of this–because we thought that students wouldn’t comply? Because we thought that students wouldn’t do any work without these things? It doesn’t really matter why we built it–we can also take it down.

We don’t need to pay them with points. They want to do work that matters to them.

Sometimes teachers try to move away from traditional grading and it doesn’t work for them. When teachers say they aren’t grading traditionally but then they still kind of do, students see the disconnect and they don’t trust that the teacher really means it. It won’t work if teachers don’t have enough conversation with students about why the game of school doesn’t support them as learners. Students know–we just have to ask them about it and listen to what they have to say. It doesn’t work very well when the class is still teacher-centered, not providing enough space for students to make choices to do work that matters to them. And it doesn’t work very well if teachers don’t provide enough feedback and qualitative data to students so they know how they are doing, even without the points and grades they are used to.

I’ve learned all of these things because I’ve been through them myself.

And yes, at the root of all of this is trust. Trust that students will work. Trust that the classroom won’t fall apart when the grades-for-compliance paradigm that has been at the center of it forever is no longer there. None of it will work without that trust. And depending on your school culture, you may have to very deliberately build that trust. I cannot speak to the contingencies of the culture of any school but the one I teach in–only you can navigate your school landscape.

Students will follow you away from a classroom experience that rewards them with grades for their compliance IF they can see clearly that they place they’re headed to is worth it. Show them that it is.

It’s scary for them too. Students have become comfortable with the system we’ve created. They are used to working for points. They may need some help stepping away from that.

But trust that students can go with you. Trust that they want to.

And trust that you can lead them there.


This is the thirteenth 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 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.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, fall 2016 blog series, feedback, grading, making change, muddling through, not grading, presenting, the system, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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