As one might have gathered from previous posts, I am feeling pretty miserable about grades right now. Not miserable about responding to student work, which is what helps learning to happen, and not assessing the progress of student learning, but the assigning of letters and numbers to student work. The problems of ‘grading’ are many, and not the subject of this post (look here and here if you want a primer, Joe Bower has collected some really great thoughts on the problem and some of the solutions), but I took a shot at it a while ago here, and Doc Z has some thoughts here (although she really needs to change her terminology, because that post is about responding to students with effective feedback, not grading).
So rather than wingeing about grades, I wanted to share something I’ve done recently that seemed to help. We are in the middle of parent conferences right now, and while I genuinely enjoy talking to parents about their kids, even on the best of days it has always left me feeling a bit empty. A bit like I missed something important. I always ended up talking about missing assignments and what overall percentage the student had and if that percentage was likely to change. None of which was inherently bad, but really isn’t about anything I care about. That conversation didn’t get to what is really important.
So I changed the conversation. Last semester, and again this semester, I printed out a blank spreadsheet with an big open space next to each student’s name. Then a day or two before conferences I took an hour or so, and with some student work in front of me, made brief notes about each student: what they were doing well, how they had grown, what they were struggling with. With a bit of student work in front of me it was actually pretty easy, and only took about two hours (I have 98 students right now). I wasn’t responding to the student work while I did this, just using it as a reference point.
Then, at conferences, when a parent (or parents) plunked down in front of me, I didn’t look at my grade book, I just shared my thoughts on where students were in terms of the learning goals of the course. And what do you know, very few parents asked about grades. Exactly two out of 45 the other night, in fact. I felt like I was really talking about how their kids were doing, and I think they felt like they were actually getting some meaningful information from someone who really cared about their kids.
Doc Z was sitting behind me, as she always is, and she even commented during a lull in the proceedings “wow, you are having really rich conversations with the parents.” And I didn’t feel empty at the end (though as always, I was exhausted).
Not a big thing, but a step in the right direction. Don’t like grades? I don’t blame you. I learned to stop talking about them.
Change the conversation.