One reason I go to NCTE every year is to listen.
There are people I try to see every year, just to hear what they are thinking about and working on. Just to hear what they think the rest of us need to think about and work on. Ever since I first saw him at NCTE16, Cornelius Minor has become one of those people.
Cornelius was the key note speaker at the CEL luncheon–my first time ever attending the conference after the conference. At the core of his talk was a call to action: support teachers to take on their own classroom-based action research that confronts the problems that plague their classrooms. He framed all of this with a larger conversation about systems that oppress our students, about how when we remain neutral in a stream we go with it, about how when we remain neutral in a system, we perpetuate it. About how it’s not enough to just say you’re against a system that oppresses–you have to actively disrupt it. He presented a lengthy list of places where oppression hides in schools, and grading wasn’t on the list, but it certainly belongs there.
The grading system as we know it–points/grades for compliance and a constantly updating, high stakes grade in the electronic gradebook–fails to empower students to own their learning and growth. It’s a power system where the one who awards the points and grades has all the power and students are left scrambling to collect as many points as they can.
What our students need to be doing instead is honing their skills as readers and writers. Ours is a complex world to read. They need to be able read that complexity if they’ll be able to write their own futures within it.
Cornelius reminded us that what we teach–literacy–at its center is not an academic pursuit. It’s a socio-political one. Literacy sits at the core of democracy. Teaching literacy is a radical concept, he explained, and denying literacy of any human is one of the most vicious forms of oppression that there is.
My no-grades journey has always been about empowering students. It’s always been about creating a classroom where they own the learning rather than waiting for the numbers I put in the gradebook to tell them if they’ve learned anything or not. When it was about the number, the points, the grade, that is all my students looked at rather than the critically important learning they need to do.
When I’ve said in the past “stop grading,” it doesn’t really capture the work we need to do. In most cases, we can’t stop grading. I can’t. I still have to get to semester grades. But there’s nothing that says I can’t get there in ways that will lead to more empowerment for my students. I can disrupt the grading that is expected of me. THAT is what I’ve been up to for the last four years, even though along the way I didn’t quite have the right term to capture it.
So let’s disrupt grading. The blog series I wrote last fall is about that. I’m hoping to turn it into a book–that’s been my focus of late, and it’s the main reason this blog hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should.
Best of luck fellow teacher friends out there with the end of the semester. At my school, we have one more week for finals. I’m buried in semester grade letters–but the stories my students are telling me about their journeys as readers and writers this semester are inspiring. I’m loving every moment of it.
We can make grading a route to empowerment. We can make the semester grade an opportunity for reflection over and celebration of our students’ learning.
We can disrupt grading.