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!
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.
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:
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:
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
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
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:
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!)
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:
“ 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.”
“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.”
“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”
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.