Ways to keep your students working without points (#StopGrading)

In conversations with teachers about alternatives to traditional assessment, especially skeptical teachers, I often hear, “there’s no way my students will work without points.”

I get it. I do. My journey to here has been lengthy. Paradigm shift does not happen immediately. In fact, you can see on this blog where I argued strongly with Jay that as good as it all sounded to stop grading, I just couldn’t. I needed those points, those grades–my classroom orbited on them. No way I could step away. (I went back and forth with Jay in these three posts: But I am grading, 28 February 2012, Blog throwdown! “Grading” and other offensive words. Bonus tuba solo, 2 March 2012, Without Systemic Change, we Grade, 15 March 2012.)

The thing is that students WILL work without grades and points.

They want to do work that matters to them.

Penny Kittle reminds us that our students want to read and they want to write, if we let them.

So in true internet fashion (I’m moving my thinking slowly back into work world after a lovely holiday break), here’s my list of ways to keep students working without points:

ONE: Engage students in conversation about WHY you’re not paying them with points and grades on everything that they do.

If you just stop doing what your students are accustomed to after years of schooling, they may meet your efforts with resistance. They’re caught up in the grades-for-compliance paradigm that organizes school too. But if you invite them to dialogue with you about grades, about learning–if you ask them about their experiences with these things in school and really listen to them, you and your students can become partners in shifting their focus to learning instead of grades. They will voice some opposition–there is discomfort for everyone in stepping away from grades. They may ask, How will I know how I’m doing? What happens if I think I’m doing fine but then at the end of the semester you think I have a D for my semester grade but I think I should have an A? Be ready for these questions and explain that their concerns are valid and you’ve thought about them and want to continue hearing them.

My post about starting the conversation with students walks through how I approached this on the very first day of school this year. But the conversation continued throughout the semester. Commit to the conversation–listen, think it through together, work diligently to get your students on the same page. If students know WHY you aren’t doing grades per usual and HOW it intends to help them, they can build a completely different stance toward the work in your class. Rather than doing it for points/grades, they will have the opportunity to do the work for themselves, to learn.

TWO: Make the work as meaningful as possible.

What do your students really need as readers and writers to have a success future as human beings? Yes, we’re all working with curricula and standards that we must use, or even external AP or IB tests that we’re preparing our students for. But even in the context of these forces, we can design classroom experiences that anchor on work that students see as valuable and meaningful to their future as human beings.

Why do we read? To know ourselves better. To know our world better. To imagine the experiences of others and develop our empathy. I tell my students that the characters, plot twists, and conflicts in their lives will be more challenging than what they read in any book, but reading books will help prepare them for those difficult moments. No matter what we ask students to do with the reading we put in front of them, if we don’t couch it in these bigger reasons for why their very existence as human beings depends on their ability to develop lives as readers, the reading will not be meaningful. This means lots of discussion centered on students’ ideas about what they read–I love as a starting point for class discussion Kelly Gallagher’s very simple but powerful question, “What’s worth talking about?” If I tell them what they should have noticed or what we should talk about, the focus of our work becomes MY reading of the book. I’ve already read it. It’s not about me. Everything we do with text in my classroom must be centered on my students’ ideas about and experiences with the texts.

And why do we write? To understand ourselves. To make sense of our world. To join in a wider conversation. To learn. No matter what we ask our students to do with writing, we must contextualize it here. Writing should not be a meaningless task of meeting a teacher’s requirements or writing something that fulfills a predetermined formula (I’m talking about you, 5-paragraph essay). If we make decisions for students about the content, form, and purpose of their pieces of writing, we don’t ask them to develop their writing muscles. If students see that writing in your classroom is not an exercise in giving you, the teacher, what you want but rather an opportunity for them to develop their own words, ideas, and voice, they will want to do the work.

The mantra for my classroom that I hope captures all of this is “Read Our World to Write Your Future.”

THREE: Put student choice in the center.

The moment I realized that not all of my students had to be doing the same thing at the same time, my classroom opened up in really powerful ways.

Yes, there is value in everyone in my classroom reading the same book at the same time. We do this twice a year. And I’m very careful to choose books that I think will be engaging for as many of my students as possible. But for the rest of the semester, my students choose what they read. Sometimes it’s free choice with just a bit of guidance from me so that their choices help them make progress toward their semester work. Sometimes it’s choice bounded by a few selections for them to read in book groups. Sometimes I even have the class vote on the books that we read together as a class. If you are choosing all the books your students encounter in your classroom, you are bypassing the most powerful lever for student engagement as readers.

As for writing, my curriculum might specify certain types of writing my students need to complete. But they don’t have to do those all at the same time. I can ask students to choose when they want to tackle each of the different required types of writing, for example. I can ask them to choose which pieces they want to revise. I can rein in the chaos that this all suggests with standing deadlines, with a clear scaffold to guide student choice toward course learning goals and objectives, and with space for writing conferences so I can coach students through their decision making about their work and give them individualized instruction on their unique reading and writing goals. My colleagues and I accomplish all of this with our weekly draft/thorough revision structure and semester punch lists. These organizing structures help to keep together a classroom where students need not do the same things at the same time.  

FOUR: Individualize your instruction

Students will be more likely to work if they see that you recognize them as individual learners and that your classroom responds to their sets of unique needs. You can better accomplish this if your students spend class time doing the work so you can coach them individually as they read, as they write.

Of course my students do need to put in some time outside of class to get their reading and writing work accomplished for my class, but I dedicate huge swaths of time in class with students for them to do this very important work. This gives me the opportunity to individual instruction through conference conversations with individual students and small groups of them.

Why do a comma splice lesson for the whole class when only a few of your students show that they need it? Have a student who needs more support? You can provide that in conferences–more scaffolding, more ideas about how to put a piece of writing together, more help in how to get through a difficult text. Have a student who needs to be more challenged? You can provide that in conferences–help the student to design reading and writing work that really engages them and then have conversations to keep that student working.

One-size-fits-all classrooms can provide too many places for students to check out, to feel unseen, to just go through the motions to get the work done. But if your students know that you SEE them, that you value them, that you are learning to understand them, and that you want to help them grow and learn, they will work with you.

FIVE: Use workshop pedagogy?

You may be thinking that I’m talking about a reading/writing workshop based on what you’ve just read. Reading/writing workshop is a powerful way to get students doing meaningful work, to put student choice in the center of your classroom, and to individualize your instruction. My classroom is a reading/writing workshop, and it’s something I’ve been working toward for several years. I’m not totally there yet–there’s so much to learn about effective workshop pedagogy. But I’m getting closer every year. I love workshop so much that I find myself wondering why every language arts classroom isn’t a workshop. As I’ve put meaningful work, student choice, and individualize instruction in the center, these concepts have forged a clear path straight to workshop in my world. But there are other ways to accomplish these things, and I know that. I see it in my colleagues’ classrooms–I teach with some very talented and inspiring teachers, and my department includes both traditional and workshop classrooms.  If your classroom isn’t a workshop, where can you ask students to make choices about what they read and write? Where can you ask them to do the most meaningful work possible? Where can you make more space for individualized instruction?

SIX: Let students know how they are doing.

So you’re not giving students points and grades on their work, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get feedback from you so they know how they are doing. There ARE numbers in my gradebook–the only thing that makes sense to me to quantify: how much of the work my students have completed.

The gradebook broadcasts a percentage throughout the semester, and I have to train my students and their parents to know that the number there is NOT the grade. It’s a number that shows how much work the student has completed. If it’s not 100%, the student has work to do. This lets students know if they’ve got work they need to take care of and helps to keep them working.

I also use the gradebook to provide more meaningful, qualitative information to my students about their progress. I record notes there from conference conversations and from my feedback on their writing so that my students and I (and their parents, and their special education teachers, and their counselors, and their administrators) can see how they are progressing as learners. It’s one thing to have conference conversations with students–powerful enough just this. But looking across a semester’s worth of notes on conference conversations can reveal trends and patterns and can illustrate a fuller story about a student as a learner. (I wrote much more about this in my post about hacking the gradebook.)

SEVEN: Provide incentives that have nothing to do with points.

The pull of “extra credit” is so strong that even in my gradeless classroom, my students still sometimes ask for it. Extra points are something we’ve all used as incentives to keep students working. But in a gradeless classroom, this makes absolutely no sense. I don’t want grades or points to be the reason for my students to do anything in my classroom. I don’t want students to do something simply because they’ll lose points if they don’t.

But incentives can be powerful, and I have two that I use to keep students working. Every Wednesday, there is a chunk of time in the middle of the day, 45 minutes, designated as “teacher access time.” My school carved this into our schedule a couple of years ago, recognizing that when students’ and teachers’ off periods do not line up, students may have a difficult time meeting with their teachers when they need help.

We can assign students to come to access time if they are behind in our classes, and I do. If my students are missing any major tasks for my class (their weekly drafts fall into this category), I assign them to come to access time. Getting the work done so they don’t have to come to access time is a powerful motivator because access time comes right before lunch, and they can have an extended lunch period instead. The school backs us on this–missed assigned access time means detention.

The other powerful motivator I have is flexible attendance on Fridays. This is something we’ve done for years with the senior class I teach. If students are totally caught up on their work (and their parents/guardians have signed off that they want their student to have the option to choose), Fridays are optional. Students will work incredibly hard for the opportunity to control their time–an excellent motivator. And this allows us to better differentiate the course, spend more time with the students who need the most help, and give students an opportunity to manage independent time effectively now before they head off to college next year.

What in your world could you offer as an incentive that has nothing to do with grades?

Students will work without points and grades to coax them along.

Engage them in the conversation.

Trust that they want to do work that matters to them.

Trust that they want to focus on learning more than collecting points.

But be warned that it will not happen immediately just because you announce that you’re not grading anymore. Students who are still entrenched in the grades-for-compliance paradigm may see this as an invitation to stop working. Put in the work to get your students on board and work on designing your classroom space to support them as learners doing work that matters to them.

How do you keep your students working without points and grades? Teach me in the comments below.

This is the fifteenth 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, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, motivating students, not grading, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ways to keep your students working without points (#StopGrading)

  1. Jay Arellano says:

    This is a great post and just what I needed this evening. I have spent most of the day preparing my classroom organization for kids to return next Monday (and I’ll spend the next few days doing this). Having been on this grade-less journey for a year and a half now, I am coming to terms with a slow and steady mentality (it is not possible to do everything you want to do all at once, and even if it were, some of those things will change midway through the semester, and half of them will change by the next semester). All that to say, it really is inspiring and motivating to see other teachers who have been doing this far longer than me still working through this each semester and still finding ways to improve. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Hi Jay! Thanks for reading. And yes, it’s a journey, and I don’t think I’ll ever actually be totally there. I’m working on another post about having students evaluate their own learning, and you’ll see that I have more questions than answers about how to do this most effectively. Maybe you’ll have some ideas for me. Enjoy the rest of your break–best of luck into the new semester!

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