So, I Quit Grading: Part III, A Conclusion

Before reading this post, you might want to catch up with my grand grading experiment this year in my first post and second post in this series!

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The Trinity Episcopal School Class of 2016

I cried at graduation this year. No, that’s not right. I sobbed at graduation this year. Something that has never happened to me in the previous 10 graduations I have attended as a teacher. A crazy, unexpected tidal wave of emotion slammed into me as I thought, “I’ll never be their teacher again.”

Now, I am not given to  big (embarrassing) public displays of emotion. I was caught off-guard, unable to account for my reaction. What has happened? I wondered, choking back tear-filled gasps, trying to pull myself together, hiding puffy eyes behind my sunglasses.

I think I’ve figured it out.

I expected that the way I thought about grading would shift this year in my grand experiment with my seniors. I expected that students would work harder under this new system of accountability. I expected they would own their work, and, as a consequence, own their grades. I expected there would likely be misunderstandings along the way. I expected change. But here’s what I didn’t expect:

Changing the way I graded changed everything in my classroom.

Many of my hopes for this project were realized — as I gave up bits of my control, students found their voice in the classroom and in their writing. Students became risk-takers in all the best ways. They accounted for their mess-ups and  for their enormous victories. They learned to tell me what they needed.

But something even more significant happened.  Somehow, as a result of removing grades on individual assignments, I developed the deepest relationships I have ever had with students. Changing the grades didn’t just change the classroom atmosphere or the students’ work ethic or my paper load. Somehow, changing the grades changed our hearts— theirs and mine. More than ever before, I knew them and they truly knew me.

In a career of experimentation, this particular change — this heart change — has been the most profound.

The ResultsChanging the way I graded

So, at the end of the year, how did it all shake out? Will I do it again? What will I change?

I conducted a survey at the end of the year, asking seniors and their parents to give me feedback about my new grading practices. Here’s what I discovered:

The Students:

On the Whole: LOVED it.

The Big Picture:  

More than anything, students loved the freedom that removing grades from the equation gave them. In a naturally stress-filled season of high school life, my seniors said that English was stress-free — a class they could absorb and enjoy without fear and dread. Many reported they saw the value in having to find motivation from within themselves instead of from a gradebook. And even my students who struggled most with this kind of freedom acknowledged that it was productive for them to try and fail so that they might manage the freedom better next year in college. A few students reported that thinking about their work ethic in English even bled into their other classes.

One afternoon, Katie waited to speak with me after class. Her eyes were brimming with tears as she whispered, “I’m valedictorian. And it’s because of this class.”

Now, you and I both know that it’s not because of English. Becoming valedictorian is the culmination of four years of very hard work and dedication. Still, Katie said, “If I hadn’t been thinking so much about working hard in this class, I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did in other classes. It pushed me everywhere. So, if you’re ever wondering if this works — it works!”

Some of their feedback:

In general:

It took stress completely away. I loved it. It actually let me write better papers. By far. No comparison. And I think that if there is anyone like me that’s not super great at English then this is definitely the way to go. There’s both better results and better learning because the freaking out part doesn’t affect you. – Connor

On accountability:

I liked this system because I felt like I was held COMPLETELY accountable to my grade. I couldn’t blame anyone but myself if something went wrong. I also like it because I think I can evaluate my growth and strive to be better instead of just thinking about a number. I can’t really think of reasons not to like this grading system. – Allie

I liked this system because it made me feel like I was truly earning my grade. There was no way to do well if you did not do the work. I almost felt more pressure to try my hardest because I did not want to disappoint you, and my grade was in my own hands–I didn’t want to lie to myself. – Phebe

I love this. Everyone needs to do this. This is awesome. Especially in English, where writing is so subjective, the system of grading in the context of yourself is really great.  – Mike

On how it changed their writing:

My writing has evolved a lot as I have started to discover my voice. It’s hard to switch from years of writing what you think people want to hear, to what you actually think. I still have a long ways to go.  – Phebe

I learned this year that taking risks in writing is what makes it interesting and worth reading…I also learned this year that writing is not simply a regurgitation of technical elements of the piece and maybe-sort of their impact on the writing, but rather a push and pull relationship between the writing and meaning

– Cam

English has always been one of my favorite subjects, but often the threat of a grade limited me in my creative decisions. I usually stuck to boring and repetitive structures that I knew could earn me an ‘A’. With this system, I have not only felt a greater sense of freedom, but also trust. I understand that it was a leap of faith to enact this system, knowing that it could be an opportunity for people to slack off and not turn in assignments. I think the trusting community of English class helped me feel more confident when writing papers that took me out of my comfort zone.  I need to realize that grades don’t determine the importance of an assignment, and I think this class has helped me get closer to that realization. — Ellis

On grade conferences:

I really enjoyed and benefited from the face-to-face grade conferences we had at the end of Quarters 1 and 3. I know that scheduling is really tough, and completing 50 of those conferences probably wasn’t the most fun, but I think it was really good practice in being an advocate for yourself. Asking for an ‘A’ made me really uncomfortable (especially the first time), but I had to learn that if you don’t ask for what you want, there’s no chance you’ll get it — Emma B.

Another thing I loved was the gade conferences. These were fun because talking to you about where I was academically (and let’s be honest not academically more often) really helped me see where I had to improve and where I was doing well.  – Erin

Remember how, once upon a time, I promised you I’d film some of these grade conferences to show you what they sound like? Here are three:

Claire:

Mike:

And, in the first ever buddy conference, Andrew & Jackson:

(This happened because Andrew forgot to sign up for a conference time, and he was smarter than to ask me to make up an extra time to fit him in. So, Jackson invited Andrew in on his conference. I actually think it worked masterfully, and I might use this as an option next year!)

The Parents:

On the Whole: Tepid

The Big Picture:

While I sent home a handout on grading policies and procedures (along with a handy FAQ), and I implored my students to explain this new system to their parents,  I left the year with the overwhelming sense that they never really understood what was going on. And I hate that.

I think parents were happy because their kids were happy — and that was enough for them. And perhaps that should be enough for me, though I think I will still reconsider the ways in which I share these procedures with parents.

Some of their feedback:

The in-between:

“ In the beginning I don’t know if my parents were fully on board with it, but in the third quarter when I called my mom right after our meeting to tell her that I earned an A, she was fully on board.  They were able to see that through this grading system I was able to challenge myself in my writing and in doing so, I became a better writer.

“At first I was curious about how specific learning opportunities would be created related to specific pieces of writing and analysis since the grading conference were only conducted quarterly. But as I watched the process unfold I found it to be a very analytical approach from my child’s perspective.  She was introspective and critical and probably thought more about her actual effort as compared to potential effort more thoroughly than ever before.  In the end I really liked the approach and would recommend using it going forward for this level of students in this class.”   

“I think it works well as long as the grades aren’t surprises at the end. There needs to be communication during the grading period which is why I think it has been working in your class.”

The negative:

“I liked less grade focus and grade pressure, especially the Fall of senior year. However, I think our student may have earned a higher grade if “traditional” grading had been used and I didn’t like that trade off. My concern also is that a student had to be extremely  (overly)  confident or an experienced negotiator to receive the highest grade they deserved. I suspect the students likely got lumped together although I don’t know any other student’s grades.”

The positive:

“I’m fine with no grades. School should be about intellectual curiosity, intellectual risk-taking, and fostering a love of learning and exploration. Grades have nothing to do with that.”

My parents thought this system was great! They think it’s great because “it allows you to explore within your writing and thinking, and that is what will make you better in the long run.” 

My parents feel that the system is good because “it gives responsibility and trust to the students that they can carry with them to college”.  

“Assessing senior students at a level that relaxes the constant pressure they are feeling is a very worthwhile endeavour”

Moving Forward:

Not only will I do this again, I am considering how to take baby steps in this direction to make my ninth grader’s grades look more like my seniors.  The biggest reward for me was this: relationships, which led to community. My classroom finally felt the way I’ve always wanted it to feel. I walked into class daily with the freedom to be the teacher I always want to be.

I will certainly make some changes, though. I plan to:

  • Beef up parent communication — I am beginning by designing a visual guide to my grading policy this summer. (I’ll share it with you when it’s done!) I’m hoping that by making it beautiful and eye-catching, parents will give it their full attention, and I will point to this document again at Back to School night. I’m also tossing around the idea of hosting a coffee chat one morning for any interested parents who want to talk more about the philosophies that underlie these practices.
  • Find better ways to communicate throughout the quarter – The place where I fell down on the job is in communicating about the intangibles — participation, engagement, etc. These weighed heavily when students chatted with me at the end of the quarter, but there wasn’t a consistent effort to write down my observations and share them with students. I’m considering a weekly work ethic “assignment” in the gradebook where I could record a comment with my observations from the week.
  • Stick to the rubric — As the year wore on, I referred to that beautiful rubric of characteristics less frequently in our conferences. I want it to be the focal point of every grade conference during the year.
  • Make it tangible — Okay, maybe there was a little too much freedom at times. Almost every single student reported that one pitfall in the system is that there were no numeric penalties for things like late work. While we would talk about it in the grade conference, students didn’t feel like there was a direct result in their grade. Some suggested a strikes system (after 2 “strikes”, your grade is docked by a letter) or only accepting late work for three days after a due date, or simply not accepting late work at all. I’m not sure what I will do, but I will certainly work to make late work an “upfront” consideration for the students.

And to that end, I want to work to make this entire system more tangible. Next year, I will have students compile a physical portfolio of artifacts that they want to have considered in their grade. Last year, these artifacts were more like anecdotes.  I want to make it real so that students feel like these grades are a bit more concrete.

A conclusion to a conclusion:

I’ll be honest. I have often sneered at teachers who claim to be friends with their students.  Friendly, yes. But friends? It was unprofessional! It was juvenile! And it was certainly beneath a serious teacher like me.

But something strange began happening at the end of the year. I kept hearing that word. “Friend”. About me.

Mike’s mom emailed me to thank me for “being a good friend” to her son this year. Garrett signed his email, “Your friend always”.  Anastasia wrote me a note about the impact of my “friendship” on her senior year.

At first I was offended. Affronted. I wondered what I was doing wrong. I wondered what had changed to make them think we were friends.

And then I realized — this was about the grades.

You see, for eleven years now, I have been mistakenly associating power with authority.  As a 21-year-old teacher entering a classroom of teenagers, some nearly as old as  I was, power and authority were things I desperately wanted, fought for, clung to.

Authority is what you have when you are the expert and are given respect for it. Power is what you have when there is an imbalance in a relationship. Sometimes that imbalance is appropriate. And sometimes, it’s just unnecessary. What I realize now is that you can have authority without having power.

This year, the thing my students and I both responded to so strongly is that I gave up my power — that ability to hold a grade over their head, to be the final judge and jury on their work.  They saw me as a friend not because they disrespected me but because we had a balanced relationship — a friendship — that included both give and take. Mutual respect. Shared control.

I think I like it.

As this year-long grading experiment winds up, what lingering questions do you have? What additional resources would you like to see? How have you shared the control and given up power in your classroom? Leave me a comment below, find us on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @rebekahodell1.

 

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18 thoughts on “So, I Quit Grading: Part III, A Conclusion

  1. Hi Rebekah, I’d love hear how this is going this year with your freshmen–have you posted anything on it this school year?

    Also, you mentioned Kelly Gallagher’s “fake grades”; can you point me to the book or place in which he discussed his grading system?

    Thanks so much! Your work is changing my teaching for the better!

  2. Hi Rebekah, I’d love hear how this is going this year with your freshmen–have you posted anything on it this school year?

    Also, you mentioned Kelly Gallagher’s “fake grades”; can you point me to the book or place in which he discussed his grading system?

    Thanks so much! Your work is changing my teaching for the better!

    • Hi, Kelly! I haven’t yet because Allison and I have been on a blogging hiatus as we finish up our next book. We’re only implementing this in small doses with our ninth graders, though — a daily “work ethic” grade and then a semester portfolio grade for writing. While the kids love the portfolio grade (based on revision and use of feedback in lieu of grades on individual writing assignments), I think it might need to be quarterly rather than by semester. I don’t know that they are quite ready yet to see a project through on that long of a time frame!

      On Kelly Gallagher, I have heard him say that — specifically he talked about it at NCTE 2015. He didn’t elaborate much on that, just that he fills the gradebook with “stuff” so that administrators are happy, but doesn’t worry about that stuff necessarily coordinating with the way he truly and deeply assesses student work or progress.

  3. Hi Rebekah,
    I’m just getting to reading your 3 part series now as I stare down September. My question is what did your records look like? Did you have a form for each student, google docs notes, etc, or did you keep a copy of the IB rubric for each student with notes on that? Trying to imagine how I would organize the feedback/paperwork for this amazing idea. Thanks so much!

    • Hi, Ehrin! Good questions, all. I had a Google Doc linked to the Gradebook with a running commentary on what I noticed, in class habits and behaviors, summative feedback on writing. On each major writing assignment, I gave lots of feedback throughout, summative narrative feedback at the end, and attached an IB rubric with a ballpark of their IB score.

  4. Your experiment syncs with everything I’ve instinctually felt about grades and motivation. While this approach is daunting (mostly in regards to time–last year I had 260 students), I know it’s in the best interest of the students. If I can figure out how to logistically manage the time requirements, I want to try this. I can’t ignore how much more authentic and meaningful this approach is.

    I’ll be at a new school this fall, however, and the administration has a tendency to micromanage. I expect pushback. In three weeks they will be clearing our disclosure documents, which brings me to my next question: did you explain your grading experiment/philosophy in your disclosure (assuming you had one)? If so, do you have suggestions for how I might do so?

    I plan on heavily involving my students in the setup at the beginning of the year and will also be sending home an explanatory video to parents. But…the disclosure is a necessary evil and I don’t want to spark panic.

    Thank you so, so much. I admire your work (Writing with Mentors also rocked my world) and am so grateful people like you exist in the education realm.

    • Hi, Regan! Thank you for reading, and thank you for writing! I think that we do all come to that point — with lots of different instructional topics — when we just can’t ignore what we know instinctually to be true. That said, I CANNOT even begin to imagine 260 students. You are a hero.

      By disclosure, do you mean on the syllabus? On the syllabus, I said that we would be using an alternative grading method that would be discussed at length with students the first week of school and followed by sending documents home for parents through students and at Back to School Night. Granted, my administration doesn’t micromanage at all. It might be as simple as saying, “Students’ grades will be determined by their performance according to a class rubric”? I agree — the simpler (at first) the better!

      I sent an FAQ home to parents, too, but I LOVE your idea for a video. And I will now steal that idea for next year. 🙂

      There are also ways to start small — just grading writing portfolios this way, just assessing independent reading this way, etc. Get a feel for how you’ll manage it with all those kids! My students last year also suggested rotating the conferences so that I wasn’t sitting down with every student each quarter — so split students into groups and rotate them between in-person sit down grade conferences, digital (in-writing) grade conferences, buddy two-for-one grade conferences, and a student screencast grade conference.

      Best wishes! Be sure to let me know how it’s going!

  5. I love this idea and plan to implement next fall! I wonder if making the grading more personal by using personal learning plans would add an extra layer to it? My goal is to meet at the beginning of the year and create PLP’s with each student and then use these plans as their rubric for our grading conversations. Im worried the class wide rubric might not address individual needs like a PLP would be able to. It’s a lot of work, but judging by your experience it’s totally worth it!

    • Hi, JJ. Thanks for reading! Yes! I think personal learning plans would be awesome — I think this would work well with my 9th graders who have a wide range of abilities. My IB seniors kind of have a PLP already — those IB learner profile characteristics. That’s not to say that they couldn’t benefit from personalized goals, but their goals are probably more homogenous than my freshman. Love this idea! Let me know how it goes!

  6. Rebekah,

    Fantastic work! I applaud your hard work and all the effort you put into this endeavor. What a fabulous year you all must have experienced! I would love to try this with my students. I have have always taught the older students in middle school, but this year, I put in for a grade level change. Next year, I will be teaching 6th grade. I’m not so sure this would work with such a young audience. Thoughts? Also, the parents in my district are so grade driven I would need a way to do this AND drop grades in the system because we have an open grade book that our parents can view each day. In addition, our admin expects us to drop at least two grades each week. Any advice is greatly appreciated. I would love to see all your updates to your documents, and I’ll definitely follow you on Twiiter. Great stuff, gal! 😊 Have a wonderful summer!

    • Hi, Tanya, thanks for reading! We also have an open gradebook, which was why I put in a comment in the gradebook with a shortened link to a Google Doc where I left the running narrative feedback for each student. I also had to switch midyear to include “grades”, but I just told my students that “A” meant complete and “F” meant missing. Next year, I plan to try elements of this with my freshmen, and I will likely do what Kelly Gallagher does, and put in “a lot of fake grades” — completion grades, showing up grades, grades for the sake of grades so that the gradebook can be satisfied. 😉

  7. I jumped in and gave your idea a try with my 9th graders. They fought me tooth and nail, but then realized that I wasn’t abandoning them, but was instead showing them a way to figure out their own path. I’m still working on how to completely institute this idea, but I have an administrator who is completely behind me and another colleague who is also giving this a try. Please keep posting – and I’ll keep you posted, too. 🙂

    • Hi, Ann! Wow! You are BRAVE! I experimented on seniors — experimenting on 9th graders is a different story (and my plan for this next school year!) I’d love to hear more about the details of how you enacted it. I’m glad you have a supportive administrator!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Your class rubric is fantastic. Thank you very much for sharing that as well.

    A number of teachers in our district are experimenting to see what happens when we replace “grades” with feedback. We have the encouragement of our director of education, as well as a number of school administrators. In fact, my vice principal co-teaches with me as often as she is able to. This has been a fantastic experience for both of us.

    The students I’ve worked with last semester and this semester have not, in the past, been high-achieving students. In semester one I had 18 students studying at the “Applied” level, which is a track that would typically take students to apprenticeships, community colleges or directly to jobs after high school. Many of the students had been identified with communication learning disorders. One of the amazing things to come out of our experiment was that two of my students were able to earn “Academic” credits because they had the flexibility to work beyond the expectations of the course, and I had the flexibility to assess them in a different level of study.

    Our second semester class was initially 16 students studying at the “locally developed level” which means they are our most struggling readers and writers. Two of our students were on modified programs (not for credit) and every student had been identified with some form of learning disability. Truancy and disciplinary suspensions also tended to be challenges for these students.

    I am not a trained English / Language Arts teacher, and prior to this year I had never taught an English class before. I have a graduate degree in Language and Literacy, but no English teaching qualification.

    In both semesters the students were asked to do a great deal of metacognitive work. Their report card mark (which was required twice each semester) was generated only through the quality of their self-reflection and the completion of the required work. I did not assess any of their work on a qualitative basis. Far be it from be to judge the quality of someone else’s creative work. At each assessment period, I gave them a series of reflective questions that asked them to reflect on their work (favourite piece of writing for example), what they applied from a mini-lesson or a mentor text (for example, highlighting what they did and where the idea came from) and how they would change the work if they had additional time to work on it. These ideas came from Atwell’s and Kittle’s conferencing and assessment ideas.

    There was a fairly large window for completing assignments. If I felt the window was beginning to close, or that I needed to see more completed work from a student, I would invite them to come and work with me at lunch. I didn’t phrase it like a lunch detention, but I would say, “I’m worried that I haven’t supported you enough in your learning so that you could get this completed. Let’s meet for a working lunch, and work through whatever we need to to get this done”. For the first time in my teaching career (16 years), I had 100 % completion of the work from 100 % of my students in semester one.

    In semester one I had two students who had been very nervous for our first formal conference, so they elected to record their conference on their ipads using Explain Everything. That worked brilliantly, and I will encourage more students to do that next year as it does free up a bit of time in the classroom for conferencing with those students who wish to speak together in person. We’re all on the google docs platform now, so it is very easy for us to record and share reflective videos as well.

    As we conferenced we developed a “mark” for the report cards, and we also write the report card comment right there online while we are sitting together.

    The positives from our experiment:

    A number of our students are coming to English class, even though they are often truant from other classes. I still have a couple who are absent far too often, but we’re working on it. We’ve been looking at the data and the evidence is difficult to ignore.

    I have not had a single student this year ask me what mark they got on an assignment. These Grade 9 and 10 students don’t “need” the mark – they need the encouragement. Two students ask me fairly often if they’re “passing”. We have conversations about whether they think they are or not and they are always able to explain why.

    Students are able to identify their successes, struggles, and needs with great accuracy. I feel like I am meeting these learners exactly where they are.

    Writing report card comments has never been easier or more rewarding. Because the students and I write the comments together, the comments are meaningful to the students and they can talk about them with their parents.

    Students end up with a portfolio of impressive writing. In almost every case the student had no idea what they were capable of producing.

    I use the same process with the reading, speaking and listening strands.

    The flexibility in individualized learning goals is a powerful engagement tool.

    The negatives from our experiment:

    I still have a lot to do with paper-trailing my observations. I take so much in from students as I sit and work with them every day, that I am very aware of what’s happening with each of them and their work. However, I still feel that I need more written evidence to back up my professional judgement.

    I won’t go back to grading. Ever. I am currently rewriting three online business courses for our online high school, and I’m integrating all of the same principles into that work as well.

    • Laura, thank you SO MUCH for your detailed description of what’s working in your classroom! So, how DID you track performance — was there anything in the gradebook? A way for parents to check in on a student’s progress? This is the hardest point for me as well …

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