#StopGrading Presentation Resources #NCTE16

Hello friends–we now have a bunch of new ones! Thanks for coming to our #StopGrading presentation. We enjoyed talking with you.

Thanks to Kate for the photo!


Here’s the website full of resources that we shared in our presentation. Please share as widely as you wish and let us know how you’re navigating your journey away from traditional grading in your classroom. Our emails are on the front page of the website. Keep in touch!

Also, I’ve been writing a blog series about this topic since August. Check out the first post here.

In case you’re wondering, we were a little anxious as the crowd filed into the room…


Posted in #NCTE16, #StopGrading, assessment, balancing, gratitude, not grading, on the road again, presenting, professional development | Leave a comment

Hope Among Escalators, Elevators, and Revolving Doors, #NCTE16

Escalators were the theme of the day for us.

We took the bus from Boulder to the Denver airport and took a very long escalator up from the bus depot to the terminal. A bus driver had told Tracy that it was the longest escalator in the country. We didn’t think that was the case–I can remember an impossibly long escalator in the D.C. subway system from a couple of years ago that I’m certain is longer than the Denver escalator.

We had no idea there would be so many escalators today. Down to the plane train at the Atlanta airport. To the MARTA station, around inside of the MARTA stations, up from the MARTA stations, up into the hotel, down into the conference center, up to the ballroom for the opening session… on and on. While we were on the train from the airport, we even got the following text from Jay: “Meet you in the lobby. Loooooong escalator at Peachtree.”

Up, down, up, down, at snail’s pace, often in crowds, often encumbered by luggage…out of control of the pace, at the mercy of the machines that take you from one place to another. There was even a moment when Claire and I both started side by side on two separate escalators but hers was moving more quickly than mine, and she got to the top first.

I’m not a fan of big machinery that I can’t control. Elevators. Revolving doors. Escalators. I’m worried I’ll get stuck in a dark elevator between floors, or hit by the revolving door behind me if I don’t move fast enough, or caught up in the cogs of an escalator due to an errant shoestring or edge of a shoe. I try to stay clear of the dangers, keep myself safe, remain balanced so I don’t teeter off the edge.

And what on earth does this have to do with my first day at NCTE this year?

As teachers in American schools–especially in public American schools as my colleagues and I are–we are often at the mercy of machinery over which we have no control. We’re on an escalator or elevator heading up? heading down?–sometimes it’s not clear which direction we’re going. But we’re often moving at a pace set by someone else and we have no control and there is danger of getting caught in the cogs or trapped in the darkness. Or we’re caught in the middle of something revolving–and you have to keep up or your might get knocked down by the things spinning spinning spinning. Just stay on your feet and keep focused on getting through.

Maybe while you’re reading this, you’re thinking about budget cuts or education policy or testing mandates. Or maybe you’re thinking about the uncertain next challenges for schooling considering the recent election results. The machinery manifests in any force beyond your control that impinges on your teaching world–often without being focused on what best serves your students.

Diane Ravitch’s Skype conversation with us at the opening session hit on the machinery currently at play. She said she thinks that we’ll see more and more efforts to privatize public schools–an assault on our democracy. She said that we’re grading schools, teachers, children to no end. She said forces blame schools for failing, but it’s the wider societal machinery that is failing instead. We need to defend our public schools against the forces that want to destroy them.

She also said to find something that gives you hope and to cling to it with all you’ve got.

I find hope in my students–they are wise and clever and kind.

I find hope in the thousands of ELA teachers temporarily residing in the hotels surrounding the convention center here in Atlanta. I can see a wall of hotel rooms outside of my window, lights glowing through curtains, TVs flickering, and I feel I am part of a band, a nation of warriors. We are here because we believe in the power of reading and writing to remind humanity that we are all in this together.

I find hope in my umpteen teaching colleagues across the country who are right now at home on a Thursday evening, maybe reading student work, maybe planning lessons, maybe helping their own kids with homework, maybe reading a book. There is something that unites us in the work that we do.

Doug Hesse reminded us today that all teachers are writers. I find hope in words. I find hope in struggling to find words to capture ideas, to work through confusion, to reflect over experience, to connect with others.

Thank you for being here, all of you. Despite the machinery we all exist within and alongside, you help me to find balance so I don’t teeter off the edge of an escalator step. You help me to remain focused so I can make my way safely through the revolving doors. You help me to stay calm if trapped in a dark elevator.

I can’t wait to learn from you over the next few days.

Cast of characters for NCTE16: Sarah, Paul, Jay, Tracy (who have been to several NCTE conferences together now), and Claire, who is on this adventure with us for the first time.



Posted in #NCTE16, balancing, gratitude, the system, things made of awesome | Leave a comment

“All the candidates do is bicker and fight and high schoolers in this class are better at talking about things.”

I got to the point last Tuesday while watching election returns that I couldn’t focus anymore on what was unfolding on the US maps the news commentators kept describing, so I wrote a few emails, shopped for some new running shoes, made an appointment to get my hair cut–anything to distract my mind at the time.

And ever since, I’ve wanted to write something here that would help me to achieve some clarity, some vision, some understanding. I’ve started umpteen posts in my head, none of which have made their way here.

Every so often, I dip into the cacophony that makes up my social media feeds, hoping for some new understanding, but all I come away with is confusion from the many voices speaking from a stance of their own absolute rightness: Oprah says to give the President Elect a chance! Oprah is horrible for saying that! Trump says he will spend weekends at Trump Tower. Trump says he will never leave the White House because he wants to govern 24/7. Wear a safety pin to show you’re an ally. Your safety pins are meaningless and stupid. Trump’s son-in-law wrote a strong defense of his father-in-law–he’s no racist, he’s no anti-semite. Trump appoints to his transition team a known anti-semite. Obama says that if the President Elect succeeds, we all succeed. If Trump succeeds, that means all the horrible things he said he would do will actually happen so we want him to fail. Trump won’t even make it two years. Trump will be the best President ever. Abolish the electoral college. Convince the electors to vote their conscience. Faithless electors are a threat to our very democracy. The mainstream media is normalizing our President Elect. Nothing is normal about our President Elect. Trump vows to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Children with undocumented parents fear that their parents will be taken away from them. Calm down everyone–it’s going to be okay. If you’ve not walked in my shoes, you can’t tell me to calm down. You’re minimizing my very justified fears…

And on it goes.

I shut off my phone, close my browser window, take a deep breath. Look around at the physical objects on my desk: the blue Swingline stapler, the beach rock from Maine, the funky 70s-era ash tray (now collecting paper clips and such) I just recovered from the boxes of things in my parents’ garage. I begin to feel grounded again. At least for a moment or two.

How can I expect my students to see their way through all of this when I am struggling to make sense of it myself?

* * *

About three weeks ago, I asked my students to watch and study a Ted Talk in preparation for a Socratic Seminar. It was my election season lesson for them as their teacher of language arts, so I wanted my lens to be about how to navigate the complex conversation surrounding the election. They are seniors–age 17, 18. Some of them were poised at the moment to vote in their very first presidential election. We have very clear policies in our district to guide us during election seasons. We are to create safe spaces for student dialogue, not dominated by our own political views. Outside of school, we can campaign for candidates, knock on doors, make phone calls, put stickers on our cars and signs on our lawns, but in school we must remain neutral.

I didn’t want to tell my students it was an election season lesson. I wanted that focus to be a bit of a twist. I wanted to create a space for them to talk and listen to each other in conversation little facilitated by me. Socratic Seminar was the perfect forum for this.

Our text was Kathryn Schulz’s 2011 Ted Talk, “On Being Wrong.” We watched it together in class on a Monday. For that week, we were focusing on writing to explain something complicated, a key skill they would need for the magazine-style feature pieces they are working on now. We looked at mentor texts where writers worked to explain something complicated and we practiced this writing ourselves (you can see the week’s lesson plan here).

Why this text? Schulz shares what she discovered when she studied how wrongness plays out in human interaction. We don’t like thinking we are wrong about something. It doesn’t feel good. So we get stuck in a feeling of being right, and “this attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly,” explains Schulz. Rather than considering we might be wrong about something, our minds go through what she calls “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:

The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.

I love this description of what our minds do when someone disagrees with us, and this helps me to make at least some sense out of the cacophony I described at the beginning of this post. If we’re not careful, we become voices thinking we’re on the right side of things, and our sense of “rightness” keeps us in our own personal echo chambers, further dividing us, separating us, making it impossible for us to work together. Schulz goes on:

This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, and we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well that’s when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or torpedoing the global economy. So this is a huge practical problem.

I hoped that these ideas from the Ted Talk would resonate with my students and give them something to think about as they navigated the conversation swimming wildly around them regarding the upcoming election.

The seminar conversation happened on block day (Wednesday or Thursday), and I asked students to do the following as their ticket into the seminar, all centered on our focus for the week, explaining something complicated:

  •  Write the following in your writer’s notebook:
    • What complicated idea is Schulz working to explain in her Ted Talk?
    • What are the top three most important concepts of her explanation? Write a few sentences about each one.

The most successful seminar ticket tasks get students into the text and ask them to identify some important moments/ideas that they can then use to support their ideas in the seminar conversation. The ticket task often is very different from the opening question, which was the case for this seminar. Here was my opening question:

  • What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?
    • Follow up question (to pose when it seemed like the right time): Why did I ask you to consider this text and this question at this point in time (election season)?

I’m lucky to have an awesome student teacher for one of my three senior classes this year, and she was in charge of this seminar for that class. Hence, I was able to capture the class’s seminar conversation in my writer’s notebook. Here’s how a portion of it played out:

Student teacher: What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?

(conversation went pretty immediately to the election)

Student 1: When you align with one party, it can make you blind to other ideas.

Student teacher asked about the two party system and then asked why this text, this Ted Talk, now?

Student 2 asked if it had to do with voting.

Student 3 made a connection to what we had been discussing earlier in the week surrounding Stegner’s essay “Living Dry.”

Student 4: The world and issues–we’re being brought up to believe that it’s not okay to be wrong.

Student 5 said this reminded him of conspiracy theorists.

Student 6 had initially decided not to take part in the conversation but she was getting visibly frustrated at her desk at the outside of the conversation circle so the student teacher invited her in.

Student 6: Stop just writing off the other side. Don’t let two stupid candidates ruin relationships with people we care about. Rather than saying “you’re wrong,” maybe we need to say, “I’m wrong.”

Student 1: Our sense of righteousness… when something goes wrong, we don’t look at ourselves.

Student 7: The President is only one person who cannot represent all of us.

Student teacher: What keeps you from admitting you’re wrong? Pride?

Student 6: Politicians don’t seem able to apologize. Is it a generational thing?

Student 3: It’s not generational. It’s more who you are as a person.

Student 2: It depends on your situation in life.

Student 5: Getting criticized in public is not easy. The whole world is watching.

Student 2: Can they say they’re wrong? Will they use their supporters?

Student 3: Society conditions people that being wrong is a weakness. Candidates can’t afford that.

Student 6: Nixon and JFK: JFK in the first televised debate looked stronger. To win, you need to look strong.

Student 1: Bill Clinton’s speech on cracking down on immigration from Mexico–he got a standing ovation. Trump says it and it’s not okay.

Student 2: The political views of the country are different now.

Student 1: We’ve become more accepting of it.

Student 4 presented as an example of this Hillary’s changing stance on gay marriage.

Student 6: Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong.

Around this time the student teacher ended the seminar to provide time for the critique–starting with the students sitting on the outside of the conversation listening in. Here’s what they noticed about the conversation:

  • There were strong arguments but people were open to hearing from others.
  • There were some intense moments but the conversation was respectful.
  • There was some real passion for the ideas shared. 
  • All the candidates do is bicker and fight and high schoolers in this class are better at talking about things.
  • The conversation went off of the text and into talking about life.
  • Props to Student 6 for speaking her mind.
  • The conversation was focused on the election.
  • I learned a lot.
  • The students respected each other’s opinions. 
  • There was no shouting!

As I listened to my students talk with each other about the election and as I listened to the things they noticed about the conversation, I was hopeful. They did hone in on the big ideas in the Ted Talk and used them to think about the dialogue surrounding the election. “Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong,” said one of my students. If only this was the guiding principle of political discourse…

I usually keep my mouth shut during Socratic Seminar conversations (other than for posing the opening question, for making space for students to speak who are having a difficult time entering their voices into the conversation, to end the seminar conversation, and to facilitate the critique). But with this seminar, I did get on a bit of a soap box. I asked my students to pay attention to the timber of the conversation about the election, to think about Schulz’s series of unfortunate assumptions and to look for places where people write off those who disagree with them as ignorant/stupid/evil, to be the ones who are above the fray, to seek to connect with people who think differently than they do, to understand where others are coming from and to value the experiences of others rather than minimizing them. If we all demonize those who disagree with us, we’ll never be able to move forward together.

I know this is difficult work, especially when it means connecting across a chasm that seems to widen more and more. But I know my students can do it.

I know we as a country have to.

* * *

My father passed away very suddenly in February. He is the person I want to turn to now to help find a way through the mess we’re in. He dedicated his career to improving the lives of others–from the pulpit during the 60s, from non-profit organizations for nearly 30 years, and from the college classroom for almost 15 years where he taught fundraising and financial management for non-profits to students who wanted to save the world. He taught his last class the day he died. One of his students even took a photo of him that day. It was just a snapshot of the room to text her brother back quickly to let him know where she was. She had no idea it would be the last photo taken of my dad:


He is listening intently. One of his students must be speaking. He used to say to me, “Sarah, those students are going to change the world.” You can see it here–he really does believe that.

I share this with you because I know that my father–a bleeding heart liberal to the nth degree–would have been devastated by the election results, but he would have gone right into his classroom the next day and continued his work. He would have reminded his students that they can have an impact, that they need to care about the lives of others and work to improve them, that they need to connect across divisions in politics to work together to solve the problems of humanity.

I did not know three weeks ago that the cacophony would be louder now, that it would be even more important for my students to be able to engage in conversation with others that hinges on listening, on questioning one’s own standpoint, on knowing that we humans tend to get attached to our own sense of rightness and this keeps us from being able to work together to solve problems.

Our standards ask us to teach students to not just speak but listen. Our standards ask us to teach students to read widely–informational texts that describe our world and artistic texts that invite us to cultivate empathy for the experiences of others. Our standards ask us to help students to discern bias, to determine which sources are credible, to effectively manage the flood of information coming at us from everywhere. Our standards ask us to teach students to write to inform, to argue and persuade, and to use story to communicate important ideas. We are lucky that this is our work–to teach our students to read our world so they may write their future–our future–within it. This work is more important now than ever. Let’s keep at it.

I can only hope that Schulz’s closing words will continue to resonate for them:

We think this one thing is going to happen and something else happens instead. George Bush thought he was going to invade Iraq, find a bunch of weapons of mass destruction, liberate the people and bring democracy to the Middle East. And something else happened instead. And Hosni Mubarak thought he was going to be the dictator of Egypt for the rest of his life, until he got too old or too sick and could pass the reigns of power onto his son. And something else happened instead. […]

You need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say,“Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, cultivating real learning, engagement, making change, reflections, teaching | 4 Comments

#NCTE16: Stop Grading. Survive Teaching. Rock out with Jay.



We have two more days in our classrooms before we board a jet plane and head east to Atlanta for NCTE16!

We’re thrilled to be traveling and presenting with a few of our colleagues this year, and we’re looking forward to catching up with our NCTE friends.

Join us for some conversation–we’ve been thinking about ways to move away from traditional grading and we’ve been thinking about how to survive teaching (and somehow there is a lot of crossover between those two topics…). We’d love to hear about what you’ve figured out in these areas too.

And you may not know that one of The Paper Graders is a singer/songwriter. Jay Stott will be performing on Friday night at a coffee house just outside of Atlanta. Looks like it’s an easy ride on the east-west MARTA line to get there. We enjoy populating his audience when he plays in Colorado. Join us for this Georgia gig?

Safe travels everyone–see you in Atlanta!

Posted in #NCTE16, balancing, grading, not grading, on the road again, presenting, professional development, things made of awesome | Leave a comment

Step Nine, Part Two: My Finalized Grade Agreement with My Students for this Year

As a follow up to a previous post about the process my students and I went through to craft our grade agreement for this year, I wanted to share the finalized grade agreement we ended up with.

Here it is.

The contrast between this grade agreement and the ones I’ve had for the last two years reveals some ways that I hadn’t totally made the shift away from grades as usual when it came to determining the semester grade. What I had before was much more like a checklist, a rubric, a list of things students had to achieve. The semester grade was based on how much of those things they achieved. Here’s that list from last year’s grade agreement:

  • Do your best and put in the work required toward the purpose of learning something new (as seen in your documentation of growth toward three of the standards you chose for this semester).
  • Work authentically (no B.S.) in all areas of the course (reading, writing, research).
  • All weekly drafts and thorough revisions in and complete (ANY missing drafts/revisions will result in an INCOMPLETE grade for the semester).
  • No other assignments missing or incomplete.
  • Very few late assignments.
  • Follow instructions.
  • Complete the semester punch list.
  • Post on the relevant standards pages in your google site portfolio links to your work and reflections on how you’re doing toward those particular standards.
  • Read 2-3 hours per week outside of class consistently.
  • Be a positive community member: provide helpful feedback on writing, engage in effective conversation in class, help others, navigate our classroom with kindness, and do not distract others.
  • Do meaningful work for all end-of-semester projects (having an impact, final exam task)

Whereas this list of things to achieve was really easy to evaluate and the grade became clear pretty quickly (do all of this for an A, do most of this for a B, do some of this for a C…), I remember a sneaking feeling last year that this list wasn’t about learning but rather compliance. The only item in the list that is really about learning is the first one. But it gets swamped by all the other list items that are school as usual: compliance to get a grade. (You can see last year’s full grade agreement here.) 

The new grade agreement is really different. It’s a set of learning goals that students identified themselves as most meaningful, as goals that would inspire them to do useful work for themselves. Here are the goals they came up with that ended up on the grade agreement:

  • Improve your reading and writing ability by working for you, not for the teacher, not for a grade.
  • Utilize peer feedback to revise your writing and help others to do so.
  • Manage your time and get your assignments done.
  • Help prepare us for the future WOOOOO!!
  • Develop your own style of writing.
  • Become self-aware and proactive.
  • Read more.
  • Take risks.

These learning goals different from what made up last year’s grade agreement because they are written by my students and then chosen by my students (out of a list of about 30 that they came up with) as the most meaningful. They are not checklist items, tasks to complete. These goals are much more about learning, and they reflect the learning that my students want to do.

I’m a little nervous about this grade agreement to be honest with you. It feels… squishy. What we came up with eventually was that basic competence for the course was being able to show evidence of meeting the top three goals (the first three in the list up there). This would be a C. For a B, students would choose one more goal to provide evidence for. For an A, students will choose two more goals to to provide evidence for.

I hope this isn’t too onerous for them that it isn’t meaningful. I want the work that they do to pull together their evidence for their grade requests to be useful, for them to learn something from the process, for them to see the task as worth their time. The grade agreement does list possible sources of evidence to examine for each goal–it’s the qualitative gradebook data I’ve been collecting for them (including my notes on conference conversations and my notes about what they work on from revision to revision), it’s the body of work they’ve each produced, it’s the reflection they’ve done in their writer’s memos on every single piece of writing. My hope is that looking over the evidence with these learning goals as a lens will help them to see clearly what they’ve learned and where they’ve grown and what more they want to focus on for next semester.

But what about the curriculum standards? Where are they? Shouldn’t the grade ultimately reflect how well students achieve toward those standards? Yes, it should, and it will. The standards are everywhere–I plan with them to be sure the course asks students to do work the work outlined in the standards and my required curriculum over the course of the semester. I ask students to examine the standards and choose their own set of them as their focus for their work (more about this in the next post). Students identify a standard to guide the revision work they need to do on each thorough revision and write about how they targeted the standard with the revision work that they did in the piece. So we are working with the standards–they just aren’t immediately visible in the learning goals for our grade agreement.

If students are going to really own their learning and drive it, then the standards belong in the background. They are my job. They are not for my students. It is my job to make sure my course gets students doing the work outlined by the standards. And it is my job to make sure my students make progress toward them. But in the end, if I want my students to really own their reading and writing work and growth, why not have them work toward goals they wrote, goals they chose, goals that matter to them as they look over their work for the semester to determine what grade best reflects what they learned?

If I do my job well of crafting a course that is based on the required standards, then the learning goals my students write themselves after they’ve been doing the work of the course for a while should reflect those standards.

At the heart of all of this is a value on putting students at the center in all aspects of my classroom, from making individual decisions about the focus and direction of their work to what the final semester grade will be based on. I build scaffolds to structure their work toward our required curriculum and standards, but they are merely scaffolds. Students need to build their own learning upon them. They do the learning, the live it, they decide how to fill in the scaffolds I create.

This is paradigm shift–student centered, student ownership, de-centering the teacher. Students’ goals in their words, not the teacher’s. By shifting the locus of control surrounding what makes for semester grades and by keeping the conversation and work focused on learning rather than compliance, hopefully my students really learn and grown and do work that matters to them. I want them to be readers and writers, not point collectors, not checklist finishers. Especially when it comes to the semester grade. That’s the only grade we deal with, and it’s the last piece of the course that can show students that my classroom really is about their learning more than it is about me or the curriculum seemingly imposed on them by unknown adults who wrote it.

I can see now that my last two grade agreements weren’t really focused on my students’ learning–they were focused on my students’ compliance. I want my classroom to be more than that, more than grades per usual. In our efforts to make grades “objective,” quantifiable, and overtly tied to a set of external standards, the whole process becomes too complex and less about student learning than it is about accountability.

I want more for my classroom.

I want to harness the one grade I must record for my students, the one data point from my class that “counts” on their transcripts, as an opportunity for meaningful learning and reflection based on learning goals that my students care about because they wrote them. 

This is the fourteenth 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. 

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, CCSS, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

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. 

Posted in #StopGrading, fall 2016 blog series, feedback, grading, making change, muddling through, not grading, presenting, the system, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Step Nine: Coming to a Grade Agreement with Students as You #StopGrading


The first semester I went gradeless, I didn’t have in place any kind of agreement with students regarding what would make an A, B, C, etc. once we had to put something in the gradebook at the end of the semester. This meant that we had a few uncomfortable grade conferences:

Student: I think I’ve earned an A.

Teacher: I don’t think you have.

[Awkward silence because we had nothing to reference to help us through the conversation.]

So for the next school year, I gave the students a document that defined what it would take to get an A, B, C, D, or F. And when I did have a student or two saying they thought they earned something more than their performance suggested, all I had to do was point to the grade agreement and our path forward became clear. In other words, students would either see if they could do more work to get where they wanted to end up with their semester grade or they agreed with me and all was fine.

And the next school year, I invited the students to help create that document with me–but because I gave them the grade agreement from the previous year as a starting place, the content of the grade agreement we ended up with was pretty much the same save for a few changed words here and there. And rather than spelling out in great detail what made an A, B, C, D, or F like the grade agreement had the year before, this version just articulated what it took to get an A and said that a B was most of that, a C was some of that, a D was little of that, and an F was not doing the work period.

This year, I want the grade agreement to reflect my students’ goals as learners much more authentically. You may be wondering why, after a few years of doing this, I don’t just craft a grade agreement that would be efficient to use and clear for the students to understand based on my experiences with the previous two grade agreements. I could do that. Yes, I could. But involving the students in the process of determining the grade agreement is a critical step toward providing students the opportunity for them to own their learning. It’s messy, and it takes time, but it’s so so worth it.

The week before last was the week I had identified as the time to craft the grade agreement. I identified that week because the first 6 week progress report grades were due to be posted by that Friday afternoon. Rather than me putting in a grade for this progress report for each student, I wanted the students to do some self evaluation and goal setting against the proposed grade agreement that we would build together. This would get them USING the grade agreement at this early stage in the semester, at a point where they could change course if needed now before they get too entrenched on a trajectory that might lead them away from whatever semester grade they were hoping for.

I was nervous about engaging this conversation.

My students are writing–a lot. They are turning in drafts week after week that are (for the most part) genuine and authentic on topics that matter to them. They are reading and responding to each other’s work with care and thought. They are reading (over 90% of them actually read Into the Wild in its entirety!). They are preparing for and participating in Socratic seminars. They are working in their writer’s notebooks. And they are doing all of this without me paying them with a single point or grade in those first six weeks. My gradebook is overflowing with qualitative data about their work and already we are seeing growth.

I worried that by engaging a conversation about grades I might throw off all the good vibes we had established, that I might harm the classroom community of writers and readers we are building, that students might stop working for them and start working for the grade instead.

But I knew we had to have the conversation. It would be unfair to not define the work it would take to get to the semester grade, the one high-stakes data point for my classroom. The last thing I want is for a student to get to the end of the semester, thinking he’s earned an A, but for us to have completely different ideas about this. So we had to have the conversation.

And I totally blew it in the first of my three senior classes.

Within a few minutes, they weren’t with me anymore. I thought I had orchestrated a conversation that would engage all of their attention, but instead, they were breaking down in side conversations and working on other stuff at their desks or tinkering with their phones. They were physically in the classroom space with me but they weren’t doing the work with me anymore. I had lost them.

I had started the conversation by giving students individual printouts of the gradebook data I had collected on each of them. I pointed out that the number at the top was not their grade but rather an indication of how much of the work for the class they had each completed. I told them that if the number wasn’t 100%, they had something they needed to take care of. I asked them to look over their data and identify what they needed to do to get that number to 100%.

I still had my students’ attention at this point–when I asked for a few examples of what they needed to work on to get that percentage to 100%, several students offered up personal goals:

  • I need to remember my writer’s memos.
  • I need to go back and figure out what I missed in the instructions on some assignments.
  • I need to take care of some missing tasks.

It was with my next questions where things started falling apart. I asked them, what seems to be the work of this class? What should it take to get an A on that work?

It was halfway through working on the second column that I realized I was working on it alone.

I made a table on the google doc I had up on the screen and begin filling it in as I asked them for their ideas.

As you can see, we never finished filling out the table. Collecting their ideas for the column about the work of this class went pretty well and quickly. It was when I was collecting their ideas for the second column that I lost them.

I realized it felt like I was doing the work myself.

So I stopped. And I asked them what happened. “I don’t feel like I have you all with me anymore.”

They got quiet right away–the energy shifted, their focus returned. One student spoke up:

“This feels like grades as usual.”

“If one thing that it takes to get an A is to put writer’s memos on my drafts then I’ll do it but I will only be doing it to get the A, not because I care about writing the memo.”

Huh. Interesting. I asked,

“How could I have set up this conversation so that we didn’t end up there?”

Their reply?

“Don’t bring up the word ‘grade.’ Don’t make it feel like a checklist. Keep the conversation focused on the learning this class is asking of us and what kind of support we would need to learn those things.”

They were right.

The way I had set up the conversation shifted their focus from the learning we had been all about since day one now to that same old grade conversation, and they didn’t like it, so they checked out.

Every single time I have had these conversations with students, they tell me that they want the grade to reflect growth, improvement, learning–not mastery, not meeting requirements. Yet there I was guiding them toward making a list of requirements for our grade agreement.

Looking back over my grade agreements the last two years, I can see that they have been basically lists of requirements. They were rubrics. I felt like I needed to have something that was very clear and objective in the end to help us with grade negotiations. I felt like I needed something in place to ensure that all of my students didn’t give themselves As, especially if they hadn’t really earned them. I felt like I needed something that made it very clear what kind of evidence needed to be there to get that A. But making it clear brought me to a rubric, a list of requirements, a checklist of stuff to take care of. These are all the things I’ve been avoiding with my move away from traditional grading.

I am grateful that my lesson plan blew up on me with that first class. The honest conversation I had with my students after things fell apart helped me to realize that I needed to shift MY thinking on what the grade agreement could look like. My students were asking for something different–something really truly focused on the learning that mattered to them rather than a list of requirements that a teacher put together.

With the help of that first group of students, I changed my questions for the next two classes. I still started with the printouts of the gradebook data I had collected on each student and the conversation about what the number at the top meant and time for each student to examine what they could do to get that number up to 100%. This was an important first step–it got students steeped in the data records of their work so far this semester, connected to just what the class has been asking them to do, work on, and think about.

But from there, I threw out two new questions:

  1. What is this class asking you to learn?
  2. What work do you need to do in order to accomplish that learning?

After some brief writer’s notebook writing in response to these questions to fill their heads with ideas to talk about with each other, I got them onto a shared Google Doc with a table ready to collect the ideas they had about those two questions. Here’s what that next class produced:

This was looking much more productive. It’s less a rubric or checklist and more a list of what my students thought the class was asking them to learn.

Immediately I see student language rather than teacher language here. That suggests to me that they own the goals you see articulated here. The grade agreement we’re working toward will be theirs, not mine.

After they filled the table, we spoke briefly about what it would take then to get an A. “Is this the work? Have you already defined it?” I asked. They had some more ideas.

I did the same process with the last of my three senior classes–even took a time lapse video of the google doc as they filled it with their ideas, all of them on the same google doc at once.

Here’s the result of their work: 

Here's what that third class put together to articulate the learning the class has asked of them and the work it will take to learn.
Here’s what that third group of students put together to articulate the learning the class has asked of them and the work it will take to learn.

I loved seeing things here like “how to revise your writing and help others to do the same” and to “enjoy LA again by writing and reading what we want to learn about” and “write a lot. A lot. Like, just before too much.” I love that these are their words, not mine. I love that they are articulating work that is meaningful and genuine.

I love how much this doesn’t look at all like the grade agreements I’ve put together the past two years.

I needed to turn in progress report grades for the first 6 weeks within the next 24 hours and my initial plan had been for them to self evaluate on our shiny new grade agreement and set goals for themselves for the time ahead. The grades they chose and the goals they set for themselves is what I planned to put into the system for their first six weeks progress report.

But what I had was two awesome lists of student ideas about the learning and work of the class–but neither of these were something that could function as a grade agreement. The lists were long and there were overlapping ideas. What to do?

I didn’t want to narrow the lists down. I wanted my students to do that. So I set up a google form to collect students’ self evaluations for progress report and to have them help me narrow down the lists. I combined everything my students had come up with into one list, called them “goals,” and asked students to identify up to ten goals from the list that would inspire them to work genuinely and authentically in the class.

This shows how many of my students identified each of these goals as something that would invite them to learn authentically.

I also asked them to determine what grade they would give themselves at this point imagining that the goals they checked off were the ones that the grade connected to.

Here are the grades my students gave themselves for the first 6-week progress report.
Here are the grades my students gave themselves for the first 6-week progress report.
Here are my students' target grades for the semester.
Here are my students’ target grades for the semester.

But I still don’t have a grade agreement from all of this.

I sought the top identified goals that students said would inspire them to work genuinely and authentically in the class–12 seemed to come to the surface for this. I made a table lining up these goals with ideas for possible evidence toward each goal. For example, for the goal “improve your writing ability by writing for you, not for the teacher,” the possible evidence includes

  • Examples of where students have accomplished this.
  • Conference notes in the gradebook.
  • Revision memos showing which of the target standards a student is working on for individual pieces of writing.
  • Writer’s notebook writing/thinking.
  • The punch list (a document that is essentially a list of tasks for the semester–types of writing to work on–to guide students’ choices from week to week for their weekly drafts).

I was pleased to see that the work I’m asking students to do does indeed provide a body of evidence for the goals my students identified themselves as meaningful work for the class. And I was also pleased to see that there was some overlap between my students’ list of goals and my list of learning goals for the class that I wrote over the summer in that time when there’s actually space to think deeply about these things.

But I worried that the list of 12 goals that my students identified as most meaningful would be overwhelming for them. Twelve goals–would they need to provide evidence they’ve met all 12 of them for an A? This felt onerous to me. I don’t want the end-of-semester reflection/self-evaluation work to be a huge, silly task to students. I want it to be meaningful, I want the work they do on it to solidify what they’ve learned, and I want my students to be proud of their work and not annoyed for having had to do it to begin with.

So I think I’ll send the list back out to my students and ask each to identify their top five. The collective top five is what I think I’ll give them as their grade agreement, and I want to keep things really simple:

A = provide thorough evidence you’ve met all five goals.

B = provide thorough evidence you’ve met four goals.

C = provide evidence you’ve met three goals.

D = provide evidence you’ve met two goals.

F = don’t do the work.

Incomplete = you still need to finish some of the major tasks for the class.

But I will propose this to them and see what they think. I’m actually pretty nervous about this. It’s got so much more wiggle room than what I’ve had before. I have to trust my students more with this grade agreement. But I have a hunch that the writing I’ll get from my students explaining which grade they think they should get and how they know based on the work they have done and the data I’ve collected on them will be an opportunity for truly meaningful reflection on their learning.

My purpose here is to present them with something that clearly defines what it takes to earn the semester grade that they want but that doesn’t feel like grading as usual. This approach is sufficiently different from what I’ve done before that it might actually get us there. The vagueness here (read this article for a college professor’s reflection on vagueness) is somewhat unsettling for a teacher who has operated for many years on the assumption that I had to define very clearly and specifically what success looks like. I did that with rubrics and checklists and things that felt like they were objective.

Let’s just get over that right now.

There is nothing objective about evaluating readers and writers and thinkers. The fine-tuned rubrics and point systems we’ve built and use appear objective but they revolve on subjectivity.

I’m working to become more and more comfortable with that.

I know that when I give students a meaningful launch point, a general direction, examples/mentor texts that provide intriguing possibilities, and support and time to work, they are capable of much more than I can imagine.

This is the twelfth 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. 


Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, muddling through, not grading, student feedback, surprises | 6 Comments

Drafting Presentations Part 1: Addendum

Finished the presentations today. Nothing I saw changed my thoughts from my initial opinion. Which reminded me of a pedagogical principle: if you need to ‘grade’ or assess a piece of work, you need to read every student’s work. If you just want to know what to teach next, you only need about five samples from the class. That will probably tell you everything you need to know to plan the next lesson or learning.

I knew what I needed to do next after six presentations. Did we really need to see all the rest? What effect would it have had on the class if I had just said ‘stop?’ Would they have been put off? I’m not sure, but it was an interesting reflection. I’m reading a stack of 9th grader’s writing right now, and I knew what I needed to re-teach within the first five.

So choose wisely, and know WHY you are looking at student work- if you just need to know what to do next, you probably don’t need to read them all.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, making change | Tagged | Leave a comment

Drafting Presentations Part 1: Epiphany

I was sitting in class today, listening to the sixth of seventeen group presentations I will hear in the next three days. They were pretty much bad. Not bad in the inarticulate way, but bad in the ‘we’re going through the motions but we haven’t really thought about what we are doing’ way. There were gestures towards some key vocabulary, there was some use of terms, there was a little sense of organization. But not much.

I was taking notes on the rubric that is the instrument for assessing these presentations (this is an IB class- this was a preparation for an IB assessment). Each group will get feedback on the rubric as well as a narrative from me. And I was keeping a page of general class notes of issues I could address in the group as a whole.

But to be honest I was having trouble paying attention. And so was the rest of the class. Because these presentations had very little real effort or energy in them. So part of my mind was working on where to go next. If it was a piece of writing, I’d just return the draft and have them keep working on it. But these are presentations, about fifteen minutes each.

And then it hit me. These are first drafts. Of course they suck. I would never assess a first draft of writing. I’m going to make them do the exact same presentations again. When we’ve made it through this round, which will be Monday, I’ll return each group’s individual feedback, give the whole class the general notes (I’m working on slides right now- see here), then give them two prep days, and have them give the same presentation again.

Will this burn a lot of class time. Yes. Will I have to move content. Definitely. But I’ve noticed the same problem with presentations that we used to have with writing. Feedback that isn’t immediately applicable to the work the students are doing is wasted. Completely wasted. We changed our writing instruction when we moved to a more organic model of how writers actually write. Presentation is essentially the same thing. I’m going to give them the feedback, and let them do it again.

So we are going to try drafting. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Z has been burning things up with her series on grading, you should read it. It’s awesome. I have been struggling to write. I have three or four posts started but languishing. So I was talking through this with Z (we’re in the doldrums of the last night of parent teacher conferences), and she said ‘write that.’ So I did. Which is good, but a lot of my writing energy is sidetracked by my secret other life as a rock star right now (that’s not a joke actually). So I’ll report back in on this little experiment in a few weeks.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, cultivating real learning, making change, speaking, teaching paradigm | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

I don’t want to talk to parents about grades at parent/teacher conferences #StopGrading

You know the drill.

Parent sits down for a conference at parent/teacher conferences.

You pull up your grade records for the student.

You walk the parent through the grade data, pointing out what the student is doing well and what the student needs to work on.

You ask the parent/s what questions they have.

You talk for a few minutes about the class and what everyone’s working on and what’s coming up.

The timer goes off (we’re supposed to use timers to keep conferences moving) and you shake hands and ask the parent to keep in touch and then the next parent sits down.

Rinse and repeat.

No more.

It’s been a few years since I’ve taken that approach–but it is the approach I used for conferences for many many years. I’ve been really trying to make conferences a space for a different kind of conversation. Jay stopped opening up the grade book in conferences a few years ago in favor of notes about each student’s reading/writing progress on a roster that he would use to jog his memory for descriptions of the student’s work and progress. And around that same time, I started reading to parents the first paragraph of a student’s most recent piece of writing in conferences so we could actually look at the student’s work together and talk about it (turns out a lot of high school students don’t show their parents what they’re writing for language arts!).

But this year, I tried something very simple to start the conversation that yielded shifted my conversations with parents toward information that will be really helpful:

“Tell me about your kid.”

That’s it. “Tell me about your kid. Tell me what I need to know about your student as a reader and a writer. Tell me about your kid’s history in language arts.”

And then I listened.

The stories I got. The things I learned. The strategies I collected–all so valuable. I know my students better. I have plans for inspiring them. I have insight into their past struggles so I know better where to support them, where to be flexible, where to nudge them to do more. I know about past successes so I can help students build on them.

I did some talking too. I shared a few awesome pieces of writing with parents, pieces of writing they had not yet seen. I told stories about how awesome their kids are in my classroom community. I connected with parents as co-members of the village of support around their students.

We’re all in this together, people.

If I get only three to five minutes with each parent or set of parents, why would I spend that time doing anything but finding out everything I can about my students from the people who know them best?

And why did it take me 21 years of parent/teacher conferences to figure this out?

I’ve stopped grading, and now that I’m not focused on the points, the grades, and justifying those points and grades, a whole different universe of possibilities has become visible.

I was at school for 13 hours today, and the schedule is the same tomorrow for another night of conferences. I’m tired and I need to sleep but I’m energized. I feel connected to the network of people who care most about the students who bring life into my classroom each day.

I’m full of gratitude.

This is the eleventh 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. 

Posted in #StopGrading, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, gratitude, making change, not grading, relationship, things made of awesome | 4 Comments