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?

3rd-hour-on-grades
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:

5th-hour-grade-convo
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.

student-goals
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

An important reminder about why I am working to #StopGrading

I no longer put grades on individual pieces of student writing for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important ones surfaced this evening.

I’m making my way through the first batch of my students’ thorough revisions. These are revised versions of my students’ weekly drafts that they wrote in the first full week of school. These are pieces of writing already filled with comments in the margins from students in peer response groups. These are pieces of writing that students are handing over to me as improved from the first draft.

What about the ones I get with minimal revision? What about the ones that are only one paragraph long of just a few tentative sentences? I just got one of those, and I paused to reflect before I drafted my feedback.

If I were grading it on a rubric, it would lose points in almost every category.

If I were grading it on a rubric, the points I could award it wouldn’t add up to much.

If I were grading it on a rubric, the grade it would get might not be passing.

And how might that affect my student? I don’t know for sure, but I imagine the effect would be negative. This is a student who doesn’t seem to like to write, doesn’t like to spend much time on work for my class, doesn’t push himself to explore his thoughts through writing. I imagine this is a student who has felt little success in his past writing for school.

But yet he comes to class every day. He shows up. He’s an important part of our classroom community.

One more low grade might tell this student one more time that he’s not good at this thing called writing, so why should he even try?

Because I focus on feedback instead of points, I can hunt for the things that are working in the piece of writing and find ways to help the student grow from there.

Because I don’t apply a pre-determined rubric to the piece of writing, I can look carefully to discern what the student is working to achieve with it and provide feedback to help the student revise toward that purpose.

Because I don’t put grades on individual student assignments, I don’t have to put a judgement on the piece that might be connected negatively to my student’s past as a writer, a set of experiences with school that I cannot control.

But I can take the piece of writing seriously. I can tell the student what he’s doing well. I can choose one or two things for him to work on to improve the piece. I can help him feel a little bit of success, success that builds confidence, confidence that can eventually lead him to some risk taking with his writing, risk taking that can mean growth.

My hope is that by the end of the semester this student will be able to see tangible growth.

My job is to encourage it.

And I can’t encourage it by throwing points and grades at this writer who needs support more than anything else.

This.

It’s a huge reason why I’ve stopped grading.


This is the tenth 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, feedback, grading, not grading, reflections | 2 Comments

Step Eight: Build your classroom community of writers to #StopGrading

I am one teacher in a room of thirty (or more) writers. They need copious amounts of feedback to grow, more than it is humanly possible for me to provide for them.

But yet, we teachers of writing often feel like we must read and respond to everything our students write, else it feels like it doesn’t matter, else we think the students won’t take it seriously, else it just doesn’t seem real in the context of a classroom.

We’ve got to stop doing this.

My student writers need feedback, but it doesn’t have to come only from me. My students can in fact share the feedback load to the huge benefit of everyone in the room.

Including me. The more feedback they give to each other, the less time I need to spend reading and responding to student work.

When I say “stop grading,” I’m referring to “grading” in two senses:

  1. “Grading” is the work we do when we use rubrics, points, and letter grades to assess and evaluate our readers and writers, which directs their focus on rubrics, points, and grades rather than learning. I’m working to focus on feedback instead to address this.
  2. “Grading” is also the work we do when we collect piles and piles of student work and spend hours of our time outside of school dealing with it. In my world, making space for grading means I have to cut into my time for being with my family, for keeping myself healthy, or for sleeping. Usually I trade sleep for getting the grading done, and this is not sustainable. I’m working to train my students to help me with this work.

This past week started my concerted efforts to build my community of writers so that they can become important feedback-givers to each other in my classroom.

Monday (50 minutes):

  1. We sat on the floor in a circle and sent a bucket around the room. In the bucket were strips of paper with questions on them–questions like “what are you most proud of?” or “what do hope to contribute to humanity?” or “what kind of foods do you eat and why?” Each student had to choose a question from the bucket and answer it. I asked students to study each other’s answers carefully and to look for people that they thought they could connect with. Yes, this is the fourth year most of my students have been in the same school together, but this does not mean that they know each other. We have 2200 students. I cannot assume they know each other’s names, or that they’ve ever seen each other before, or that they know anything about each other. Some do, but many do not. My students sat in this circle with the name tents in front of them that they had made on the first day of school so that they could focus on each other’s names as they listened to each other’s responses.
  2. Students went back to their desks and got their writer’s notebooks. I handed out to them a half-sheet of paper that listed the 11th/12th grade Common Core State Standards for reading, writing, listening/speaking, research, and language. I asked them to each tape the document onto a new page in their notebooks and then to select seven standards total–2 writing, 2 reading, one each of the remaining three categories–circle them, and then paraphrase them in their own words in their writer’s notebook and write a brief statement about each to explain why they chose them. (I will write much more about this later in a post about having students monitor their own learning.) After a few minutes of silent work on this and passing the tape dispensers around the room to make sure everyone had the standards firmly attached to their notebooks, I asked them to get up and walk around the room to see if they could find other students working on the same standards as they had chosen.
  3. Based on the circle with questions and the conversation looking for students working on similar standards, I asked students to form response groups of three to four people. I advised them to choose wisely–choose people that they think will help them grow as writers because they would be giving them lots of feedback on their writing. I asked students to fill out a Google Form by Tuesday evening to inform me of their chosen groups or to let me know that they needed help getting themselves in a group.

Tuesday (50 minutes):

  1. We had a Socratic Seminar on the first quarter of Into the Wild. We didn’t talk specifically about response groups (other than reminding them to fill out the Google Form by that evening), but students had their name tents out and they listened and talked to each other–yet another opportunity for community building.
  2. Tuesday evening I looked at the groups they had sent in to me via the Google Form and worked to tetris each class into eight separate response groups, working to honor their choices and hoping I was not making any grave mistakes with the few students who had not filled out the form.

Wednesday/Thursday block (85 minutes):

  1. When class started, I put up on the screen their response groups and asked them to move to sit together in a pod of desks of their choosing.
  2. I gave them their first response group task: talk to each other until you discover three things all people in your group have in common and one thing unique to each person in your group. I told them that they had to talk to find things in common that were not apparent by looking at them, like “we all have eyes.”
  3. After about five minutes, each group reported out their findings. And it was wonderful. We discovered for example that one group of young men had in common pet fish. And that another group all had a particular fondness of sandwiches of all types. In all three classes of my seniors, the few minutes we spent listening to each group’s discoveries in this brief conversation task led to laughter and smiles and general bonding for the class and the groups. This is time well spent in my book.
  4. I let the groups know that their next group bonding task for next week would be to determine a spirit animal for their group and use that spirit animal as the basis of a small flag for their group that would hang above their pod in the classroom. They talked excitedly about that for a few moments and then I asked them to get out their writer’s notebooks so we could transition to the day’s writing focus lesson.
  5. There was a reason why this was the week we focused on community building. Last week my students wrote their first weekly drafts–something that they’ll do every week before Thanksgiving, except for the three weeks where they choose one of those drafts and revise it very thoroughly. This week’s plans included teaching them that revision process, which anchors on effective peer feedback to drive their revisions. So at this point in the class period, I took about 10 minutes to roll through a writing focus lesson to give them some ideas about where they could go with revising their drafts from last week. After the focus lesson, I asked them to turn to the people in their response groups and tell them what ideas they have for revising based on the writing focus lesson. This was important–it was the first conversation (out of many) they would have with their response groups about their writing.
  6. Next up: nuts and bolts about the thorough revision task. Rather than reading over the instructions for them and explaining it all–something I’ve been trying to do less of–I asked them to read the instructions silently to themselves and then talk to their groups to explain the task to each other and identify any parts of the task they had questions or concerns about. I’m doing less of reviewing the instructions when my students can read them on their own because I think I end up doing too much of their work for them. If I review instructions, they seldomly go back and read them on their own when they are actually doing the work. Having students explain the task to each other and then report out to me what questions they had worked pretty well. I could tell from their questions that they really did read the instructions and were trying to put together all the details of the task.
  7. Knowing something about the thorough revision task, students were now aware of the role that peer feedback would play in the work. Getting feedback on a piece of writing from peers is one of the first steps of the revision task. I started the conversation about this by asking them how peer feedback had gone for them in the past–show us with your fingers on this scale 0 (disaster) to 5 (awesome) about how peer feedback has gone for you in the past. I asked the groups to look at how many fingers each person in their groups had showing so they could know about their new group’s history with peer feedback. Each class showed a small handful of students who reported that peer feedback has been a disaster in the past, pretty much no one saying it had been awesome, and most students reported two or three fingers to indicate that their experiences with peer feedback had been okay but not fantastic. Taking a few moments for this brief conversation is important to show students who are worried about how helpful peer feedback might be for them that I know it’s possible that it has never been a positive thing for them. I was able to assure them that we would take the time to work on making it useful. I told them that there was no way that I alone could give all 30 of them the amount of feedback that they need to grow as writers. We all had to work on it together.
  8. Next I told the class that they actually know quite a bit about what helpful feedback looks like. I asked the groups to talk to each other about what helpful feedback on their writing looks like and what feedback that is not helpful looks like. From here we built a list of peer feedback norms. The bullets in the first half of the doc are the ideas my three classes shared out about helpful/not helpful feedback on writing, and it’s obvious that they get it. They know that a simple “good” is not helpful. They know that being mean is not helpful. They know that you need to take it seriously to be a good feedback giver and actually read the piece of writing and think carefully about how you can help the writer. Below their list of norms are a couple of tables, one that sketches out a framework for responding that can help students get started with what to say if they’re not sure how to start. The second outlines the reader’s and writer’s responsibilities in the feedback process. I reviewed these two tables and then set the students loose to accomplish two things: pull up the draft you’ll share with your group for their feedback and review your writer’s memo to make sure it has everything it needs in it to set up your readers for the feedback you need. Then share the draft in Google Docs with each person in your group.
  9. The last item of the class was a few moments to make some plans. I asked the groups to turn to each other and decide how they would use their time in class on Friday and when they agreed with each other to complete feedback on each other’s pieces of writing. They turned to each other and started talking it out–should we do feedback before Friday so that we can use Friday in class to revise? Should we use Friday in class to read and give each other feedback? When do you all want to start working on revisions–we should have all of our feedback completed by then, right? It would have been very easy for me to lay down deadlines about this. I could have said, “you will use your time in class on Friday to read and respond to each other’s writing and you should complete that task by the end of Friday if you can. This way everyone has the weekend if they want to work on revising.” But I didn’t say this because I wanted the groups to begin to feel ownership for this process and responsibility to each other. I provide the time in class for them to work and some big deadlines to anchor that work (these revisions are due to me for my feedback by next Wednesday), but stepping back to let the groups decide how to use their time to help each other hit the big deadline is a powerful gesture. It shows them that these mini writing communities in their response groups are theirs, that they matter, that I trust them to manage them and work with each other, that they should be responsible to each other, that they can indeed become each other’s primary feedback givers.

Friday (50 minutes):

  1. We started with 10 minutes of silent reading and reading conferences. This was really important because for me to accomplish my ambitious plan for block day, I had to set the silent reading time aside. We needed to get back in the routine of starting with silent reading. I was able to conference briefly with 2 to 3 students in each class. After two full weeks of school I’ve almost conferred about writing or reading with every one of my students.
  2. Next was a brief tour around Google Classroom to point out a few useful features. I threw them into Google Classroom without any instruction, and now that they’ve used it for two weeks, I thought it might be a good time for them to share a few tricks they’ve learned for using it efficiently. We spent maybe three minutes on this.
  3. Before we headed to the writing lab so they would have computers to access their writing in Google Docs, I asked them to turn to their groups and remind each other of the plans they made on block day for using their time in the computer lab today and for when they agreed they would have feedback completed for each other on their pieces of writing.
  4. The writing lab time was focused and humming with purpose. Every screen had pieces of writing up and I watched the margins fill with comment boxes containing lots of words of feedback. I did, though, visit each student to ask to see the target standards we started work on earlier in the week on Monday. Today was the day I wanted to see that they had completed that work–selecting their standards, paraphrasing them into their own words, and articulating why they chose them. I took photos of several examples for use in a future blog post about this. It took me most of the writing lab time to get around to each student to look into their writer’s notebook for this work and to have a brief conversation, so I did not do any writing conferences. But as my student teacher pointed out in my third class today, the peer feedback was satisfying their feedback needs for today.

And that’s really the point about all of this. As the sole feedback giver in the classroom, the teacher cannot provide enough feedback to 30 (or more!) students so that they will grow as much as possible as writers. We should provide written feedback in a very targeted manner–and only on the pieces that students will continue to revise so they actually read and consider our feedback. That’s how the thorough revision task works in my classroom. They revise, I read and give feedback and invite them to keep revising. We may go back and forth at this several times until it seems a student has learned what he can from a particular piece of writing. If I limited my students to only as many of these tasks as I feel like I comfortably respond to in a semester (that’s three thoroughly revised pieces in my world for each of my students), they would not write nearly enough. So they write more than that and I enlist their help in providing feedback to each other.

My next steps? I will look closely at the kind of feedback they’re giving to each other this first time around to see what they need to work on to get better at it. All of their comments to each other will be there in the margins when I read and respond to the revisions they’ll give me later this week. I’ll pull out examples of really helpful comments and we’ll talk about them and why they were helpful. Also, with the wonders of google docs, I can reply to their comments right there in the margins with brief feedback on how they’re doing and they’ll get email notifications that I’ve done so. I’ll just need to remind them to monitor their email. I will also continue to build community, both within response groups and among the entire class. More conversation activities. More team tasks. More team goal-setting and plan-making. I’ll make a big deal out of their team flags and get them hung from the ceiling immediately. It’s a silly little thing, but these kinds of silly little things are memorable and make a difference. They are another opportunity to put student personalities at the center of my classroom.

Don’t create more work for yourself than you can manage and also remain a healthy, happy human being. We ELA teachers are good at creating a lot of work for ourselves under the assumption that we must respond to or grade everything else our students won’t take the work seriously. Students will take seriously the work that matters to them, and it if comes in the context of a vibrant community of writers who write and respond to each other’s writing with genuine care and interest, the work will matter to them. Time spent carefully cultivating that community is time well spent.

It’s true that students do need to write a lot and feedback is what they need, and lots of it. But that feedback need not come solely from the teacher. Making the move toward feedback instead of rubrics and points as a primary response to student writing may require more time of you per each piece of student writing. To make it manageable, you simply cannot read and respond to everything your students write. Rubrics can be efficient. Points seem objective and straightforward. But neither of these move writers as effectively as genuine feedback that comes as a result of a conversation between reader and writer over a piece of writing. Train your students to do this as a part of your classroom community, and even though you might end up reading and responding to only some of your students’ writing, they’ll get a healthy and helpful amount of feedback.

Enlist your students’ help as feedback givers and teach them how to do it really well. Your entire classroom community of writers will grow and you can be less buried in “grading.” No classroom benefits from a teacher who is trading sleep for grading time. Stop doing it. Stop creating mountains of papers to get through and stop turning to efficiencies like rubrics and points that deflect your students’ gaze from learning about themselves as writers. Focus on feedback and make it a cornerstone of your students’ work with each other in your classroom.


This is the ninth 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, balancing, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, feedback, grading, not grading, teaching writing, time, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Step Seven: Start the #StopGrading conversation with parents

Back-to-school night was this past Wednesday, the evening where parents walk through their students’ schedules with ten minutes for each class. This is not enough time to tell them very much, especially if I want to leave time for a few questions. So my plan was pretty simple and straightforward: a little bit about the course, a little bit about where to find various materials connected to the course, and a little bit about grades.

It really is just the beginning of the conversation about how I work with grades in my classroom. What I said tonight went something like this:

“Regarding grades, I don’t approach this traditionally. Decades of research show that grades have a negative impact on learning. When students are focused on grades, they do not take risks, they take the easiest path to the grade they want, and cheating increases. Hence, I just don’t put grades on individual assignments anymore. You will still see plenty of data in the gradebook. But the number you see there is not your student’s grade. It’s a number that reflects how much of the work the course has asked of your student that your student has completed. You can use this to keep track of whether or not your student is keeping up with the work. If you want more information about how your student is doing, open up the full grade report and you’ll see my notes on your student’s progress as a reader and writer. Over the course of the semester, this will become a much more detailed picture of your student’s progress than a collection of points would be. In a few weeks, once the students see clearly what the work of this class looks like, we’ll have a conversation to come to an agreement about what A-level work looks like in the course so students have a clear idea of what they need to do to get the grade they want in the course. Then they will self-assess toward that grade agreement for each 6-week progress report. And at the end of the semester, they’ll write letters to me to identify which grade they think they’ve learned according to that grade agreement, providing evidence from their work to illustrate what they’ve learned, and we’ll negotiate as needed to settle on a semester grade.”

I also directed parents to two resources I have for them on my school website, a document outlining my journey away from traditional grading  and a key to help them read what they see in the gradebook.

 

One concern that came up in this conversation–a concern that students have voiced to me before as well–is that grades matter still in our world and might it be a problem that students aren’t getting constant data on their actual semester grade as they go through the semester? With the way our gradebooks are set up, they are built to broadcast just that, a number that shows exactly what a student’s grade is at any moment. The concern with not having that is this: what if we get to the end of the semester and a student thinks she is doing fine but actually ends up with a D? This would be a big problem, and it should not happen. I’ve found the key to avoiding this is to make sure students stay connected to that grade agreement once we have it. I have them self evaluate toward it for 6-week progress reports, for example. And I have had one-on-one conversations with students who are worried about how they’re doing in regards to that semester grade where we look through the grade agreement together and look over their progress and imagine what grade they would be earning if we had to decide at that moment.

One of my administrators asked me something about this once too–is it a reasonable expectation that a teacher’s gradebook should be able to reflect exactly what a student’s grade is at any moment? Online points/percentage-based gradebooks make it seem like that’s a reasonable expectation, but I wonder if teachers need to push back at that. If a grade is based on how many points a student has collected out of points possible, then yes, that running percentage is essentially the student’s grade at any point in time. But this all assumes that the best way to assess and evaluate learning is with a points/percentage system, and our gradebooks operate on that assumption as well. Rick Wormeli has argued that the gradebook should not drive the grading philosophy, but that’s where we have ended up. Instead, a grading philosophy should determine the structure and function of the gradebook. I do not think that a points/percentage system is the best way to assess and evaluate my students as readers and writers. So I hack my points/percentage-based gradebook to get it to work for my classroom’s needs. And no, it is not reasonable to expect that my gradebook can broadcast exactly what my students’ grades are at any individual point in time. My gradebook data is all about progress and learning, not grades. This is the data that actually helps students grow. I’m working to make the process for turning all of that data into a semester grade as transparent as possible for students and parents.

I teach mostly seniors this year. Senior parents don’t show up to back-to-school night in the same numbers as freshmen parents. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that even though I talked about this at back-to-school night, I’ve not yet started this conversation with all of my students’ parents. Hence, I also sent out my first weekly parent email on Friday afternoon. This is something I started doing last year. Our gradebook system makes it very simple to email groups of parents. I send out each week’s lesson plan plus a brief note about how things went in class that week and what’s coming up next. I do not know how many parents read my emails (so I still can’t yet be certain I’ve reached every parent to start this conversation about grades), but I do on occasion get notes back from them thanking me for the communication. Here’s what I sent out:

Greetings parents and guardians–

I’ve just spent two awesome weeks with your students. Seriously. They are wonderful human beings. I am so excited to spend their last year of high school with them.

I enjoyed meeting those of you who were able to attend back-to-school night on Wednesday. In case you weren’t able to be there, I wanted to pass along a few resources about SLCC. If you go to my staff page on the school Website, you’ll find a collection of links in the bottom right corner. These include the letter I wrote to my students at the start of the year to introduce my classroom to them, a folder of our weekly lesson plans in case you ever want to see what we’re up to (here’s our plan for next week), information for you about supporting your student’s work for SLCC, and information about the nontraditional approach I take to grading so you know how to read what you’re seeing in Infinite Campus. I invite you to look at the full grade report for your student in my class on Infinite Campus periodically throughout the semester–I record notes there about their progress as readers and writers that you might enjoy seeing.

We are reading and discussing Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and building the beginnings of our community of writers. And I’m having a blast getting to know them all. They are going to do some excellent work this year.

Please get in contact if you ever have any concerns or questions or thoughts for me.

Have an excellent weekend,

Sarah

How do you talk with your students’ parents about grades?


This is the eighth 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, gradebook, grading, not grading | Leave a comment

Step Six: Use conferences to focus on feedback instead of points to #StopGrading

When people find out I don’t put points or grades on individual pieces of writing, one of the first questions I get is what I do instead. I focus on feedback–as much as I can provide, and conferences are a key component of that.

I just finished my first full week of the 2016-2017 school year, and already I’ve had reading and writing conferences with over half of my students. I’m tired–conferring takes a lot of energy. But there’s nothing else that provides the space for frequent, individualized instruction–a must for helping readers and writers grow. I’m still on a journey figuring out how to confer most effectively, but I’ve gotten better at making space for conferences, at getting more intentional about them, and at keeping track of my conference conversations so that I can harness those discussions to drive my instruction.

Making space for reading conferences:

My class starts each day with ten minutes of silent reading. Students come in and get their books out and start reading right away so that when the bell rings, they’re already reading. I take attendance quickly and then grab my clip board and start conferring. I have to be honest–reading conferences have been difficult for me to actually do. Those ten minutes can be awesome for me to deal with administrivia for each class. Or maybe for me to sit and read too. But for the last few years my students are just not reading as much as I wish they would. I’ve read so much about the power of reading conferences to help students to build a reading practice, so I know I need to use those precious minutes for reading conferences.

Even so, other things got in the way too: I didn’t want to break the silence of my classroom while my students read. Wouldn’t it be annoying for them to have a whispered conversation happening somewhere in the classroom while they were trying to read? But more than this, I hesitated because I wasn’t sure what to even talk about in a reading conference. Actual reading instruction was not a very big part of my teacher training, and in my own classroom practice it is something I’ve been learning and figuring out in the last several years. A recent read, Scott Filkins’s book, Beyond Standardized Truth: Improving Teaching and Learning Through Inquiry-Based Assessment, really helped me with reading conferences. He suggests putting in front of students a list of the kinds of things successful readers do and asking them to point to one and discuss how it’s going in the context of whatever they’re reading.

So that is what I’ve got on my clipboard–a list of several habits of successful readers: monitoring comprehension, visualizing, making inferences, asking questions, using fix-up strategies, establishing a purpose for reading, etc. When I sat down with each student this past week, I started with, “how’s the reading going?” We just started reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, so invariably this question lead them to some thoughts about Chris McCandless. From there, I pointed to the first habit of successful readers on the list–monitoring comprehension, which I reviewed very briefly in class the first day we started reading conferences–and said, “tell me about your reading comprehension. What do you do to make sure the words are actually sinking in and that your mind isn’t just reciting them?” They told me about all kinds of fix-up strategies they’ve used when they realize their comprehension is breaking down. As the year goes on and I have the opportunity to review the other habits on the list, students will be able to talk about any of them. But in these short, less than 2 minute conversations, I am already learning so much about my students as readers–much more than I would learn if the only way I was inquiring into their reading was through some kind of a quiz.

Making space for writing conferences:

I have done a better job with making space writing conferences in recent school years. Last year I started planning each week with a template for the week that reserved wide swaths of time for students to be writing. Our weeks start with reading and discussion and writer’s notebook exploratory writing. By the end of the week, we take that notebook writing and work toward drafts of various genres by Friday afternoon. I want my students to do a lot of writing in class so I can be there to talk with them as they work and so they can turn to each other for feedback as they work. I’ve got all of Friday and at least half if not all of Wednesday or Thursday block periods reserved for writing and conferences.

I start conferences with “what are you working on?” There are many people who have written about conferences and how to move through them. What seems to work for me from all of these is to start by listening to students to get a sense of how they are thinking about their writing, then identify something that I can teach them quickly or challenge them to work on, and then to end with having students identify their next steps.

Getting more intentional about conferences:

Years ago, I thought that a teacher wasn’t conferring unless she was stationed outside her classroom in the hall talking to one student at a time while the class watched a movie in the classroom. Or that teachers who conferred did so by filling up their planning and prep periods with student meetings for conferences. I just wasn’t doing either of those things. But I was popcorning around my classroom as my students worked on their writing, something that I realized was essentially conferring on the fly. I was having brief instructional conversations with my students as they worked on their writing, and some days I would come out of class absolutely exhausted from all of the conversations and the constant bouncing from student to student chaotically.

I’ve gotten smarter about this. A class period full of conferences is still exhausting, but by keeping better records of which students I’ve spoken with when, I can be more certain that I’ve worked with everyone as equally as possible. I also maintain a Google Doc that lists the students I want to confer with and why I want to confer with them based on what I’ve seen in their writing as I’m reading and responding to it outside of school. These strategies make me more intentional and purposeful about conferences.

Using conference data to drive instruction:

My ability to use conference data to effectively drive instruction comes from good record keeping. This has taken me a while to figure out. After trying various systems, I’ve settled on using the online gradebook that my district requires of me. The gradebook is not built to house the kind of qualitative data that comes from reading and writing conferences, so I’ve had to hack it a bit. But it turns out that this gradebook makes an excellent system for conference notes. I carry my laptop with me and type my conference note as I’m sitting there with the student. Sometimes my students even help me compose the note.

With every score I put in my gradebook, there is a box for notes or comments, and I can type up to about 250 characters or so in that box. This is plenty for a brief conference note. I have a category in my gradebook called “conference notes” so these notes show up clustered together in their own area of a student’s grade report. The “assignments” I list in this category are “conference 1,” “conference 2,” and on as I go through the semester. In the box where a score would usually go, I type whether it was a reading or writing conference and the date–“writing 8/26” for instance. When I look at the gradebook view with the columns for assignments and rows for each student, I can see at a glance which students I’ve conferred with and when. And when I hover over a score box that has a comment attached to it, the comment pops out right where my cursor is. Hence, I can very quickly access my conference notes just by moving my cursor around the gradebook screen. I can look across a class’s conference data on one screen and I can do a deep dive into individual student data by running a grade report on just that one student.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how well this works (it’s Infinite Campus in case you’re wondering). But the biggest benefit of using the required gradebook to house my conference notes is that no longer are those notes accessible only to me. Imagine a student is at home working on a paper and can’t remember what we talked about in the conference about his current piece of writing. He can log into the grade system and find the note and remember what we talked about. Imagine a study hall teacher or a special education teacher is working with one of my students–having access to what that student and I talked about in our instructional conference conversations is extremely valuable as that colleague works to support our common student for the work for my class. And don’t forget parents–they too have access to reading my conference notes. Over time the notes become quite a story about a student as a reader and writer, 250 characters at a time. This is far more information that a series of numbers provides about a student.

In looking over my conference notes for this last week, I see that I had many conversations with students about including specific details and examples from their lives to engage the reader’s emotions as much as possible. I also frequently talked with students about how they might need to do a bit more work than simply typing up something that they wrote in their writer’s notebook for a weekly draft. I kept challenging them be intentional about genre–what form might this piece of writing take based on your intended audience and purpose? So as I look toward this week and my objective to get them working with mentor texts to help them to find ways to revise their writing, I will target these areas. I want to put examples in front of them that help students to see what I mean when I challenge them to provide more specific examples or to think more intentionally about form. My conference notes, collected in a way that I can look across them for common themes, help me to design instruction that meets my students’ needs, right where they are.

I won’t lie. Conferring is exhausting. I’m an introvert–all those one-on-one interactions drain my energy. Conferring means I’m hopping from mind to mind, each a completely different world, working to see into the reader/writer/thinker/human being to find a way to meaningfully coax that mind along toward growth. Often I doubt my ability to confer effectively–how can I possibly have just the right instructional conversation with each student every single time? I can’t actually. Sometimes my conferences aren’t great.

But I’ll keep working at it because I know that a human-to-human conversation is far better feedback for developing readers and writers than a score on a reading quiz or a number derived from a rubric on a piece of writing.


This is the seventh 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, conferring, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, not grading, teaching reading, teaching writing, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Step Five: Starting the #StopGrading Conversation with Students

“Is Alfie Kohn right or is his argument total crap?”

So went the opening question for the Socratic seminar I planned for the first day of school Friday.

Rather than reviewing a syllabus with my seniors, rather than doing any long-winded introductions, rather than previewing what we’d be doing in class for the year, I planned instead to ask students to read a short text (one page front and back of excerpts from Alfie Kohn’s “Case Against Grades”), write some notes in the margin, and then join me for a Socratic seminar conversation.

The success of my entire lesson plan hinged on this moment. I hoped that when I posed that first opening question, I would actually have a few students brave enough to be sitting there with me in the middle of the classroom ready to talk out their ideas about Kohn’s argument against grades.

In my classroom, talking in a Socratic seminar conversation is always a choice. After I briefly review my Socratic seminar guidelines , I invite students to pull their desks into the middle to be part of the conversation or to stay right where they are to listen instead. Before some students will talk in this kind of conversation, they need to feel connected to the classroom community, trusting that it will be safe to voice their ideas, certain that the teacher won’t somehow wound them by taking away points if they don’t say the right thing.

On the first day of school, there had not yet been any time to establish any of this. It was certainly a risk.

But I was banking on the text, that it would be enough to inspire students to want enough to say something that they would pull their desk into a conversation in the middle of a new classroom with a new teacher on the first day of school.

And they did.

About ten students brought their desks in to talk about Kohn’s argument in my first class, and all but about seven of my students did in my second class. It was that third class that provided a few awkward moments–I was sitting out there all alone as the students looked back and forth at each other. Slowly, four brave students started scooting their desks into the middle of the room. And after the students talked for a bit, I paused the conversation and asked the class if anyone else wanted to join in now–four more students came to the center to widen the circle.

In all three conversations, there was more agreement with Kohn than not. Students who thought his argument didn’t work focused less on grades being an important motivator (though there was some of that) and more on how they couldn’t see any way to skirt grades in our system that revolves so centrally around them.

As students spoke to each other regarding their thoughts about Kohn’s argument, I very deliberately said nothing. I listened. I kept an eye on the clock. I had one more question I wanted them to chew on. With a few minutes remaining in class I asked, “Based on what we’ve done today, what do you expect from this class?”

A few beats of silence.

And then they began to say the things that made me very hopeful:

  • I think the focus will be on learning more than grades.
  • I hope I’ll look forward to coming to this class because I can just learn and not worry about losing points for stupid stuff.
  • I think we’ll have more conversations like this.
  • I think there will be choice for us to make the work meaningful for us.

A student in my third class turned to me and said, “what about you–do you agree with Kohn?”

The whole class looked at me–it seemed that they were hoping to discover at that moment whether or not I would use grades in class as they were used to having them.

“I’ll guess you’ll have to read my letter to find out the answer to that.” I was referring to my first assignment to them, to read a letter I’ve written about my classroom  and to write me back to tell me what I need to know about them as readers, writers, and human beings in order to be their teacher.

I walked out of my classroom energized and excited. I was so thrilled that they were willing to talk and listen to each other. My goals for the day were to show them that I would expect them to work (handed them a task the moment they walked in the door), that their ideas and voices mattered (central piece of the lesson was a Socratic seminar conversation where all I did was ask two questions–the conversation space was full of their thoughts and ideas), that everyone’s voice would be heard (the critique after the seminar conversation did this–I asked every student in the room to tell us briefly what they noticed about the seminar conversation). I hope they are curious about the class and happy to come back into the classroom tomorrow. My lesson plan was risky, and they answered that by taking risks themselves.

This is a good start.

The first day conversation didn’t lay out what would happen with grades in my class. All of those details will come to them over the next several weeks. But what did happen was the start of an important foundation. They read an argument against grades, responded to it, and discussed it with each other. The thoughts are rolling around in their heads. They are ready to hear more, to understand why I won’t put a grade on any individual assignment, to know why it’s important that they choose their own learning objectives, to be ready to work together as a class to construct an agreement that outlines what it would mean to get an A for the semester.

Those pieces will come. For now, here’s a sampling of the things they wrote in the margins of Kohn’s argument–you can see that our conversation will be ongoing; lots to talk about here:

  • I’ve lost so much interest in LA over the last three years. My friends have too. I felt unsafe taking a risk, so I wasn’t growing.
  • I think a lot more about grades than learning in general.
  • I can’t really remember a lot of the things that I have been tested on.
  • How much does a learning-oriented class (rather than a grading-oriented class) improve students’ intelligence?
  • Some people are driven to learn with grades. There is a sense of satisfaction when getting back a good grade.
  • Grades take out creativity in a subject.
  • But the grades system makes sure students are learning.
  • Last minute essay writing–just throw words down to get a grade.
  • Cheat to get good grade means learning taken away.
  • Grades are a reward but at a horrible cost.
  • Grades are different to others. All students should have an independent scale.
  • Grades don’t mean you aren’t smart.
  • Grades bring stress and reduce learning.
  • Don’t like grades. They DON’T help.
  • We strive for an “A,” not for an education.
  • When given a goal to shoot for, there is little motivation to go above and beyond.
  • Pressure drives students to partake in dishonest actions.
  • I stop caring about grades if I like the class.
  • Teacher doesn’t like you = fail then.
  • Grades make me want to do well but not learn and remember.
  • Grades force you into becoming a pawn.
  • How are we supposed to know if we’re doing well without grades?
  • Students are more focused on what the teacher wants rather than their own ideas.
  • Causes students to prefer the easy way and not work for it.
  • Students don’t get the full potential out of books. Instead they skim text and don’t learn.
  • We would rather do well on something we already know than take chances and risk getting a bad grade.
  • We’re like robots who have one mindset.
  • No fun in grades. Just sloppy work just to do well. You learn more when having fun.
  • Grades are simply a number on a scale. They don’t define you.
  • I do wonder why this teacher is being like this?
  • Grades can possibly be used as a mile marker, giving students something to improve upon.

This is the sixth 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. 

And I’d love to hear from you to help me craft this series. Either leave me a comment below or fill out this quick form.

 

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, student feedback, teaching | 8 Comments