Annotated Intentions (and Why They’ll Change the Way You Grade)

I’ve spent years searching for a fair-minded approach to grading that demands accountability but also doesn’t crush student spirits when products don’t turn out well.  

I’ve definitely been given the “hard grader” label over the years, but students have also mostly agreed with my observations when it comes time to conference.  Our district writing rubric is clear and concise, and since students are familiar with it we can have conversations using common vocabulary.  I would venture to say that most of my students are not surprised by the grades they earn.

I did once have a student respond to my feedback by shouting, “Ah, fiddlesticks!” but I consider him an outlier…

Despite being generally happy with my approach to grading and encouraging a growth mindset in my writers, I’ve still sometimes wound up frustrated with myself, or with the firm language of a rubric that feels fair until those peculiar moments when, on a particular paper, it suddenly doesn’t.    

One of the most effective remedies I’ve discovered is the practice of pre-annotation.   Continue reading

An Alternative Assignment and What I Learned

Before I began my critical reading unit on The Tragedy of Macbeth, I designed a literary analysis final product that would serve as guidance for the unit as a whole. We would read the play through a critical lens in an effort to collect evidence for our essays. In short, reading with the final product in mind would allow students to be deliberate about their reading choices while paying close attention to specific literary devices that are used throughout the text.

The issue with the notion of a backward planned unit with a summative writing assessment like this is that the product itself is not differentiated. I differentiated the reading process for many students, and the content of the unit was made approachable to each learner with tiered companion texts. However, in terms of creating multiple avenues for a successful product, the assignment was lacking.

One of my students fancies himself to be a hip hop artist and a rapper. Normally a difficult student to motivate, I sat down with him and discussed the possibility of creating a final product after reading Macbeth that would motivate him to engage in the reading process while also appealing to his interests.

This student has released several mixtapes and has demonstrated a legitimate skill in songwriting and producing. We agreed that, rather than writing the summative literary analysis that his peers were assigned, this student would write and produce a song about Macbeth, his tragic flaw, and details from the play. This mirrored the content of the literary analysis paper while providing the student with the room for agency and creativity that he craves. Continue reading

Best of 2015-2016: The “So, I Quit Grading” Series

The response to this series of posts about my experiment to give up traditional grading in my senior English class showed us that teachers are searching for a better way to assess student work — a way that helps build relationships and helps students grow. 

Here, you’ll find links to the three parts of this series: 

Part I: Introduction to the experiment

Part II: Mid-Year Check-In – How it’s going, What I’m changing

Part III: The Conclusion

5 Tips for Teachers Who Want to Quit Grading

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.)

colorsof fallfestivalWe’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. Continue reading

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!

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 2.26.37 PM

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? Continue reading

In Search of a More Meaningful, Effective, Enduring Way to Teach Grammar

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.45.25 PM

Image via someecards.com

My whole teaching life I have been in search of a way to teach grammar that is meaningful, effective, and enduring.

I have tried bits and pieces of other people’s curricula for years––Kelly Gallagher’s Sentence of the Week, Nancie Atwell’s editing sheets and proofreading lists––but I’ve never been able to find my groove with these systems. And when I pore over student writing portfolios in June, I can see that my students have grown tremendously, but a lot of the writing is still grammar-rough (I’m using this term loosely––by grammar, I’m referring to all things grammar, mechanics, and usage). Not quite publishable. Still a few too many comma issues. Run-away sentences. And if I see one more misuse of the word their…

I know it could be better. Their writing. My instruction.

But how? I’ve tried almost everything! Continue reading

Revision: A New Kind of Final Exam

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 10.23.11 PMInspired by Rebekah’s decision to quit grading earlier this year, I have been trying to take more risks with assessment in my own classroom. I haven’t gone grade-free quite yet, but I’m looking for more opportunities to involve my students in the assessment process. Since it is end-of-term time for many schools, I thought it would be helpful to share what I tried with my freshman classes for our semester exam in December.

The Dilemma: How can I return to writing without interrupting a performance unit? How can I assess students’ writing progress without assigning a brand new final exam essay?

My freshman curriculum is structured such that, by the time final exams roll around, my classes have moved away from writing workshop into a Romeo and Juliet performance activity that combines with a brief objective test to form their exam. I really like using the performance activity as part of the final, but every year, I feel like my final assessment shortchanges all the work students have done as writers earlier in the semester. I want my final exam to reflect students’ progress in reading, speaking, listening, and writing!

The Solution: Independent revision of past work with help from Google Apps for Education
Continue reading

So, I Quit Grading — Part II Update

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 11.01.21 PMThis year, I quit grading almost entirely. While I still give quarterly grades (because my students have to have them!), I do not grade individual assignments. I’ve given up traditional grading for many reasons that I explain in my first post on this topic, but the biggest of the reasons is this: I don’t think traditional grading is in the best interest of my students. 

I promised you that I would keep you updated, so, now that I have lived in this experiment for a whole semester, I will share with you what I am finding out. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

More honest feedback for all

Because I am not spending so much time perseverating over numbers on a rubric, and because I know that I can’t fall back on grades to “communicate” progress, each of my students is receiving far more feedback — not just on how they are currently performing, but also ideas for how to grow, what to do next, and techniques to try next time.

Even better than a greater volume of feedback, though, I find myself free to give more honest feedback. Sometimes, it’s downright blunt. But because my students are convinced that I am on their side, I find I can tell them the truth.

For example, here is some quarterly grade feedback I recently left for two students, one who is working very hard and growing by leaps and bound, and another who tends to eek by doing the bare minimum: Continue reading