I would wager that grading is probably the very least favorite element of teachers’ jobs. (I would also guess this is quickly followed by complaining parents and senseless, top-down mandates.)
We’ve all had the fantasy of the perfect teaching job that would exist if only we weren’t bogged down in numbers and rubrics and gradebooks. And on Monday, I posted a final installment of a year-long series reflecting on my attempt to do just that — to quit grading.
It’s summer (or just about!) Time to start thinking about next year! I’ve walked you through my story this year, but I thought it might be helpful if I synthesized some of what I’ve learned as a list of recommendations for you as you begin considering new ways to approach grading in your classroom.
Do not try this if you are looking for a solution to your paperload.
Friends, this has been a wonderful and meaningful change in my classroom, but it has not made anything easier. In fact, I have given more feedback. I have had many, many more conferences. I have struggled to find ways to organize daily reflections on students’ performance and participation, their continual struggles and their growth.
If you want to quit grading so that you have a cleaner desk and fewer papers in your tote bag, this isn’t the way. For me, this has been amazingly transformative, but there is nothing easy about it.
Have your ducks in a row & your answers at the ready.
I dove headfirst into this experiment last August. But diving in isn’t the same as winging it. Before you launch this with your students, you need to have a very specific plan in place that you can clearly articulate to them, their parents, your colleagues, and your administrators. Play devil’s advocate and think through all of the objections that are likely to arise. Have answers ready.
And once you are in the midst of your non-grading year, keep data so that you can quickly answer the question, “How is it going?” Routinely survey your students to see how things are going and what might need tweaking.
Anchor your system in something.
Since I first tried this with my IB students, I anchored our no-grade system in the IB Learner Profile, a list of characteristics that IB learners are supposed to embody. It was a natural and easy choice. However, I will need a new system — new boundaries, new goalposts — when I try this in the fall with my freshman who are not in the IB program.
Whether your grading system is rooted in school-wide goals, in specific behaviors and characteristics, in a set of fundamental skills, or in a rubric you develop alongside your students, you will need a bottom line. It won’t be enough to say, “Be a good student, we’ll talk about how you’re doing in a few months.” When you decide on an anchor, make it visible and refer to it often to remind students what they are striving for.
Keep it as clear & simple as possible.
Clarity and simplicity are important. You are turning something upside down that has been well-established for eons. For mysterious reasons I don’t understand, many other grown-ups you encounter (some of them educators!) still believe that grades are purely objective measures that you are throwing out the window into a tumultuous sea of subjectivity.
You will need to explain your philosophy and your plan over and over again — to students, to parents, to colleagues, to administrators. You need to have a system that can be clearly communicated in a few minutes (and maybe also in a one-pager that you can send home and post on your website).
I am often tempted to misstep here, erring on the side of spectacular but overly-complicated ways of having students demonstrate their learning. (What if there were a video portfolio? And students had to post each week about their progress, what they’ve learned, goals for next week? And then they switched with other students and left feedback? And then they published them. And then they added a soundtrack. And then …)
Remember: you are not trying to replace numerical grading with a new series of hoops for your students to jump through. You are trying to give them better feedback and grades that are fair. Keep it authentic. Keep it simple.
Make your students your PR team.
If your plan is clear and simple, if it’s anchored in something specific that both you and students can point to, then your students themselves should be well-equipped to explain it. And you will need them to!
When your students feel confident in outlining the basics of the grading system, parents will feel more at ease. Your students will debunk myths whispered in the hallways among students or among teachers (“I heard Mrs. O’Dell doesn’t give any grades. It’s just a pass fail class. You don’t even have to turn work in.” or “I bet Rebekah has it easy now that she doesn’t have to look at any of her students’ papers!”) Your students will put your nervous administrators at ease when they ask, “How do the students know how they are doing in your class?” and the students can answer!
When you do what is in the best interest of your students by working around traditional systems of grading, your students are your very best asset. So, dedicate class time to training them, to including them in the process, to letting them ask lots of questions and try the rubric on for size. It will be well worth it.
If you haven’t yet quit grading but want to, what are you still nervous about? What questions linger? Where could you use additional support?
If you have tried a similar system of feedback-rather-than-grades, what would you add to this list of recommendations?
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