Let's Change Education

Challenge. Discover. Lead. Change.

The Dilemma of Do

Reflection’s Reality: A Summer Series from the Project 180 Classroom

“They won’t do anything. You can’t just give kids an “A” and expect them to do something.” Though I heard lots of reasons why I shouldn’t move away from traditional grading by giving kids an “A” for the year, this objection, raised by teachers, students, and parents, prevailed. Basically, boiled down, the sentiment was, “You can’t give to get.” Wait. What? Isn’t that what we were raised to believe? That if we wanted something, we had to give something? I wanted something. And I was willing to give a lot–everything–to get it. So I started thinking.

Education tends to stress an over-reliance on the to-get-a-grade-you-have-to-do-work approach. You work. I give a grade. Makes sense. But my 20 years of experience with this transactional approach wasn’t producing the learning realities that I desired for my kids. I wanted more. So I kept thinking. What if I flipped it? What if instead I took the I-give-you-a-grade-and-you-do-work approach? Would it work? Could I simply give kids an A for the year and find what I was looking for?

So I started to float the idea among my colleagues and students. Some thought it was great. Others thought it was absurd and were quick to point out the flaws in the approach, again admonishing, “They won’t do any work.” Of course, I heard them–couldn’t help but; they told me countless times, enough that it began to sink in and self-doubt chipped at my resolve. Fearing, then, the non-start, I jumped. I did it. I gave them an A. I believed they would do. And I also believed their “do’s” would be true. The do’s would stem from commitment, not compliance, for there was no grade to get, so I placed my bet, gambling that kids would do for the sake of learning, that they would enter a contract of commitment. I had already spent 20 years working from the compliance contract, but I often wondered and worried about the true of that do. So I took a risk, embarked on a yearlong journey, and made some discoveries about “doing” along the way.

The Do of Compliance

If you do the work, I will give you a grade. If you don’t do the work, your grade will suffer. Fear. I know this is a blanket statement, which does not fully cover the body of traditional grading, but it is the pervasive logic in most traditional classrooms. “You don’t get something for nothing.” In this there is truth. In my first 20 years of teaching, my kids did, and I gave. A lot of grades. And in those 20 years I made a lot of observations of kids’ doing.

  • Copy. The did-you-do-the-homework do. If I have seen it once over my two decades of being in the classroom, I have seen it a million times. Okay, maybe not a million, but it is a near-daily occurrence: kids copying each other’s work. And not to pick on math, but more frequently than not, it is math homework. Sorry math.
  • Do the minimum. The if-I have-to do. Whether it’s getting the D, being content with the C, or securing the A, these are the kids who always want to know, “What do I have to do to get…”
  • Cheat. The dirty do. This is the get-a-grade-or-get-caught-trying approach. When fear is a factor, even “good kids” can get sucked into this.
  • Do for the grade. The transcript do. These are the kids who have to have an A on their transcript. They don’t always care about learning; they are often minimum doers, too.
  • Don’t do/Won’t do. The no do. These are the kids who, despite any risks or rewards, just never seem to muster a do.
  • Do to avoid trouble. The hell-to-pay do. These are the kids for whom trouble is a reality if they do not meet the trouble threshold at home. These kids range from the just-get-a-D to the must-get-an-A.
  • Do Sunday. The procrastinator do. These are the wait till Sunday night kids, which often turns into Monday morning, which then turns to during lunch, which finally…well, we know how this generally turns out.
  • Do for the growth. The true do. These are the few who see all work as an opportunity to grow, even the busy work that they’re fed. They place a great amount of trust in the teacher, and do every bit of the work with fidelity.

The Do of Commitment

I already gave you a grade. You may choose to do the work. If you don’t do the work, you may  miss an opportunity to grow. Choice. “You don’t get something for nothing.” Still rings true. In my first year of Project 180, my kids did, and I gave. A lot of feedback. And in that first year, I made some observations.

  • No copy, no cheat. There’s no point, for there is no benefit. And in this, too, there is choice. Early on, I had a couple of kids trying to pull one over. I simply told them it was their choice. If they wanted to get feedback for someone else’s work, then I was okay with that. It didn’t take long to sink in.
  • Do what I can. Not completely unlike the “minimum” above, but in the 180 classroom there was a distinct difference. The work was discriminately challenging, meaning the work found the kids where they were along the continuum, which revealed their being in different places. And as such, I would encourage the kids to do what they could. An honest attempt yielded authentic feedback. Sometimes the challenge was such that it was beyond any “do,” but even honesty here gave us an entry point into the learning, allowing me to provide the necessary support for that kid, even if it meant starting over. Honesty is key here.
  • No grade. Did this intentionally. Gave them an A, so they would forget about grades. Even so, it was hard for kids to unlearn their grade-mongering behaviors. Later in the year, it became a joke. “It’s not like I’m gonna take your A away.” Or. “Man, I’m gonna give you an A for that.”
  • Don’t do/Won’t do. Not sure there is an approach out there that will ever fully resolve this issue. But, my approach, pushes no penalty, only responsibility. My kids have the responsibility to own their choices. I tell them that they need to make big-boy and big-girl decisions.
  • Still trouble. I can’t control the trouble threshold at home. As a means to keep parents “in the know,” I would report practice completion and performance scores in Skyward, our electronic gradebook. So, missing work yielded some trouble for some kids. This I believe is a remnant of traditional grading where missing assignments could often be catastrophic in the form of zeros.
  • No Sunday stress. Since there was no penalty for late work, the Sunday-night-turned-to-Monday-morning-until-time-ran-out approach vanished. I would take it whenever they finished it. But this was also a result of my carefully crafting practice, so that, regardless of when it was completed, there was benefit. No penalty. Just opportunity.
  • Do for growth. This was the sweet spot this past year. The desired, this-is-what-it’s-all-about culture that I was looking for. This is what I got for giving. This is where we operated for the majority of the year. Kids did to grow. Yes, it took them awhile to get there, but once they got there, most–not all–did the work, and in that doing, they grew, for there was really no other reason for them to do. My risk reaped the reward.

The Do Dilemma

“They won’t do anything. You can’t just give kids an “A” and expect them to do something.” My critics were neither wrong nor right. Some kids did not do. Some kids took advantage of my “give,” and I did not “get” what I wanted for all. But the majority of my kids took the gift of freedom and did what I hoped they might: they took responsibility for their learning. Still, Project 180 was not a success for every kid in the room. But, as I reflect back on my first 20 years of traditional grading, the same was just as true; it was not a success for every kid in the room. What’s more, I was not–and still am not–convinced that the “success” of my kids was not suspect. Were they really learning? Were they really growing? Were they committing? Or were they simply complying? Not sure. But I was suspicious, so I made the leap to learn.

In the end, with either approach, there is doing and there is not doing. No escaping that. And while that has been the dilemma in traditional circles forever, with too much emphasis on the don’t and won’t do’s–the impetus for my critics’ admonishment–there is perhaps a different dilemma to ponder. How true is the do? And if our wonder leads us to suspect the do is not as true as we’d like, then we are faced with another dilemma. Do the same? Or do different?

I chose to do different. I chose to take a risk. And I would encourage others to do the same. However, I am not suggesting that you leap as far as I did with the give-em-all-an-A approach. I never intended to stay on that far end of the pendulum swing. I expected and desired that it should find its way back to the middle. I only did the “A thing” as a radical first move to call attention to our grading practices, to take grades completely off the table.

Next year, I am moving to a select-and-defend-a-grade approach, an approach that still gives my students the keys to their learning, an approach that still allows them to make big-boy/girl decisions about what they do and don’t do. Of course, I want them to do everything. But more, if they do, I want it to be true. That is the culture I want for my kids. I can give them that.

Coming Soon! Reflection’s Reality: A Summer Series


The perversity of such an approach was seductive; what was there to stop me, aside from my own fear of  being “unscientific”? I knew that if I told people I was studying “what it’s like to be a plant,” some would dismiss me as a joke, but perhaps others might sign on just for the adventure. Maybe hard work could stabilize scientifically shaky ground. I didn’t know for sure, but I felt the first delicious twinges of what would be my life’s enduring thrill. It was a new idea, my first real leaf. Just like every other audacious seedling in the world, I would make it up as I went along. –Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

From the Project 180 journey comes Reflection’s Reality, a summer series dedicated to exploring the discoveries big and small from my gradeless experience this past year. Look for a new post each week as I look back on and forward from my first P-180 journey. I am thrilled to begin this next turn of the 180 adventure, even if I am making it up as I go along.

Note: Right before publishing this post to introduce Reflection’s Reality, my wife, as she is wont to do, interrupted my thinking to share the above quote from a book that she is reading because it reminded her of me, and while I am not always as appreciative as I should be of such interruptions, this one smacked me across the face, reminding me that one should always listen to his wife, especially his lovely art teacher wife who is the best teacher he knows, for it perfectly–perfectly–captures the sentiments of his P-180 experience. Thanks for interrupting me, Sher. I will never not love your interruptions again. Promise.


She Wants to Change the World

With very few exceptions, I  do not connect with students on social media until after they have graduated. Yesterday, I made one of those rare exceptions. It began with a follow on Instagram by “project_pay_it_forward.” Intrigued, I clicked on it to learn more, and I discovered that this-year student Kayla Singer was behind it. Interested to learn more, I followed the page, and sent her a comment. I have included screenshots of our conversation below.

As I mentioned in our conversation, this made my entire year. Of course, I had many proud moments with all my students, and Kayla was in many of them. She embraced Project 180. She passed the SBA with a 4. But those, to me, are nothing compared to this. Yeah, it’s cool that she worked hard and killed the test. But she wants to change the world. Nothing cooler than that. So proud of this young lady.


As the Turtle Turns: Project 180, Day 180

And then it was over. No big fanfare. No bells. No whistles. No fireworks.  No welcoming committee. Just a weary traveler 180 days farther down a road without end, coming to a quiet rest, so he may reflect and recharge for that which still lies ahead. And as he looks back on the road last traveled, he remembers the times when he was lost, alone, and far from home, asking himself, “What the hell am I doing?”  But he remembers, too, the times when the path was clear and others were present, and he wondered, “Am I changing the world?” But that is all behind, now only food for thought, as he replenishes his stores, preparing for the next turn, where he will walk in circles without knowing, for the landscape changes with each cycle, a mirage of promise, ever luring him around the bend.  And so, here he is, come to rest 180 degrees from where he began, upside down, inside out, a turtle on a perpetual path, tipping and turning, trying to find his feet, so he can find his way.

Not entirely sure what I expected with this latest half turn, but in the end I did learn. And I will take what I have learned and use it to make even better the gradeless experience for my kids next year. And while things are still coming together on what that will look like exactly, one thing is clear: I will never go back to traditional grading. What’s more, I will use I what I have learned–and seek to continue learning–to convince others that we can do differently, that we can do better. We have a choice, and if we have the courage, we can change the world. I believe that. I really believe that.

Signing off for the summer. Will post on occasion. Thank you all for your support over the past several months. Could not have done it without you. Thank you for believing in me.

Last of the Treasure

Last few coins. Had to type Ralphe’s. His handwriting…

There ought to be a hundred things I should say. Too many times in the past I’ve stood by and said nothing. I have let the world pick me up, and I’ve let it carry me where it may, but for all that I have traveled, I am profoundly grateful that the winds took me to this classroom. Grammar and language make up so much of my life, and in this classroom, I’ve learned to hone my mastery of them to a degree that I am proud of, but it isn’t that that I am grateful for because it is in this classroom, this sanctuary that I learned to expand my thinking beyond that of language and instead embrace compassion and empathy as a path to understanding, instead of simply observing. And that is the greatest gift of all. You’ve opened my eyes, Mr. Sy, and I will always be grateful for that. –Ralphe

More Treasure

Bounty of Booty: Project 180, Day 179

Wanted to share some of the students’ responses from yesterday. And while I will not pretend that all of my kids made epiphanous discoveries from their 180 experiences, many did, and the few I selected captured the essence of what I hoped they would discover on their journey.

Two more sets of finals today. Eager to see what the rest of my kids found. Sad that not all discovered treasure along the way. But for those who did, they uncovered the very things that I hoped they might; they discovered things about themselves that I hope they will cherish for the rest of their lives. And who knows? Maybe those who did not reveal any discovered treasure are just hiding their booty. Maybe they have it tucked away.  Hard to imagine they got nothing from the bounty.  But, I guess, in the end, it’s their booty. Not mine.

Happy Thursday, all. I will share more treasure later today.

The Most Important Final I Have Ever Given: Project 180, Day 178

Last fall before saying anything to my new group of kids, I began handing out wooden A’s that I had made over the summer. Along with the A, I gave and read to them a letter.

Dear Learners:

Welcome to Honors English 10. I am beyond excited to begin and share this journey with you. And while I am not certain about all that we will encounter and experience along our way–or even where we will land at our journey’s end, I am certain that it will be unlike anything we have experienced in the past.

As you entered the room today, I handed you a wooden letter A. It is my gift to you. It is your grade for the year. No, I did not misspeak, I am giving you an A…for the entire year. It is yours to keep. I will not take it back. Promise. Cross my heart.

But, my young adventurers, take heed. For, after all, what I handed you is just what it appears to be: a wooden letter A. It is nothing. Oh, don’t worry. I am not going back on my promise. I will type the A into your transcript at the end of each semester, but even that is merely a digital character, a mark on a screen. It, too, in reality, is nothing. So, before you sit back and relax with your gift and chalk me up as your “best teacher ever,” consider the following.

In truth, I gave you nothing, but I did that, young traveler, to give you everything. When I handed that A to you as you came aboard today, I really gave you ownership. I gave you the keys to your learning. I gave you choice; I gave you freedom. I gave you responsibility. And that is the essence. In the end, young friend, you are responsible for your learning. I cannot give it to you. In this arrangement that we find ourselves, I am responsible for providing opportunity and support, and I can and will give that freely and abundantly, but I am not responsible for your learning. You are. This reflects, then, the terms of our agreement for our journey.

So, we set out. 180 days from now we will set anchor in some unknown harbor. But before we set sail, pick up your A. Look at it. Feel it. Right now it is an empty gesture, a simple symbol. It won’t mean anything until you give it meaning. Months from now, as we look back on the calm and storm of our journey, and you hold this symbol in your hand, what will it mean then? I can’t wait to hear about your discovery. Thanks for letting me join you. I am honored.

Welcome aboard,


Today and tomorrow (we have a block schedule for finals), I, wooden A in hand, will read the letter again. And then, I will ask the kids to briefly pen their discoveries. It will be their final.

Yesterday, Abby got the jump on me.

She had stopped by earlier in the morning, and though she obviously had something on her mind, there were two other teachers in the room, and so, she told me it could wait. Later, in 2nd period when I had her in class, I asked her about it, and she looked around the room full of students, and again, she told me it could wait. Day got on. I got busy. I forgot about it.

After school. Abby, backpack in hand, looking a little anxious entered my room, stopping before she got to me to dig something out of her backpack. It was an A. A black wooden A. And she approached my desk, stopping in front of me, taking a deep breath.

“Sy, I have carried this in my backpack all year. And I want to give it back to you now because I feel like I have earned it.”

“You don’t want to keep it?” I asked.

“No, I’m good. I want you to have it back.”

“You, know,” I continued, “I was thinking about you the other day, thinking about your year, and how you turned it around at the midpoint, and how strongly you’ve ended the year. I agree. You have earned it. I am so proud of you.”

We high-fived, and she left. And as I sat there, A still in hand, I wondered why she didn’t want to keep it. It was a gift, handcrafted. Admittedly, I was a little hurt. Until. Until, I reviewed the letter this morning and remembered. It was nothing. It was an empty gesture, a simple symbol. She didn’t need IT, for it was never “it” to begin with; it was her. It was her all along. What a discovery.

Happy Wednesday, all.



Try to Fail: Project 180, Day 176

As I look back on the trail that now fades behind me as I come to the end of this year’s 180 journey, I feel the above graphic reflects my pursuit of, if not constant, then–at least–consistent improvement. Fortunately, I have improved, progressed a lot over the past two decades, but even so, I feel as if I have a long ways to go to get to where I want to be as a teacher.

I tried a lot of “stuff” this year, and as I failed with that stuff, I learned from that stuff. Consequently, my biggest try was perhaps my biggest fail–for some. As I have already stated in previous posts, I never intended to continue the give-em-all-an-A approach. I did it to jump from the edge, a radical first step to take grades off the table. And while for many of my kids this was a liberating, largely successful move, for others it was a leap too far. The move was too radical, the new was too unfamiliar. For them, the absence of grades was not liberating; it was debilitating, for they did not know how to fully function without the compliance-creating conditions of traditional grading. And so, consequently, their experience with 180 was less than I hoped it would be. And while I cannot go back and change the past, I can shape the future. And so, with this particular fail, I have, indeed, learned. And, as such, I have already made major changes to my approach next year, which I believe will not only continue to produce the proficiency levels we achieved this year but will also provide a better structure for individual growth. I have high hopes for the select-and-defend a grade approach next year. Looking back, this, I believe, would have better served those who never really embraced their gifted A’s this year. We live. We learn.

Importantly, this new approach is an approach, not the approach. I have not arrived. Many roads to travel. Many tries and many fails lie ahead. Thank goodness, else I wouldn’t know how to progress. Keep trying. Keep failing. Keep moving.

Happy Tuesday, all.

I Almost Passed the Test: Project 180, Day 175

Came across this checklist in the Twitterverse and decided to do a quick self-assessment, looking through the lens of my 180 year.

  1. Treat students as individuals? Yes. Evidence: choice in nearly everything they did, one-on-one conferences every chance I got, focusing on individual growth.
  2. Recognize the strengths and needs of each student? Yes. Evidence: conference, conference, conference. This is the most important thing I do for learning.
  3. Provide students with VOICE and CHOICE in their learning? Yes. Evidence:  Project after project, I would give kids freedom in the form of flexible guidelines and parameters, allowing them to take greater ownership of their learning.
  4. Encourage students to make mistakes as part of the learning process? Always. Evidence: spent a lot of time establishing, supporting, and sustaining growth mindsets. The word “yet” was in the air all year long.
  5. Give opportunities to reflect on mistakes in order to improve? Certainly. Evidence: Reflection was a part of our learning all year long, both formally and informally.
  6. Let students take chances? Absolutely. Pushed them to. Evidence: every project was a chance to push the limits and grow. With grades off the table, risks were less-risky.
  7. Provide opportunities for students to make, create, invent, and tinker? Yep. Evidence: most recently their cartoons.
  8. Take time to learn with your students? As often as I could. Evidence: wrote nearly every assignment along with them. Love writing with my kids.
  9. Model empathy for your students? To a fault. Evidence: Connor came to me, shaking, letting me know that he could not muster the courage to deliver his speech. I patted him on the back and said, “Okay.” He handed me his speech, and we called it square.
  10. Inspire your students to be better people? I tried. I really tried. Evidence: Most recently our Change the World projects. I shared my own, real, try-to-be-a-better person projects with them. Project Feed Forward. Project You Matter. 
  11. Teach students to ask questions? All the time. Evidence: the What? So What? Now What? approach has been central to our work all year long. Learning begins with questions. We have to ask questions. I also try to reinforce the idea that “Why?” may be the most important question of all.
  12. Provide feedback to students? It’s all I had. Evidence: I no longer called it grading; I came to call it “feedbacking.” With grades gone, it’s all I had. Turns out, it was all I needed.
  13. Give students the chance to provide feedback to each other? Yes. Evidence: peer feedback on writing, but also process feedback opportunities in their collaborative experiences.
  14. Empower students to take control of their learning? They had no choice. Evidence: literally handed them a wooden A on the first day, telling them that they were in charge of their learning for the year. Grades were truly off the table.
  15. Provide authentic learning experiences? As best I could. Evidence: always tried to link what we were doing with the real world.
  16. Do everything you could? No. Sadly no. Evidence: too much to do for too many kids, and it turns out–despite my many Superman shirts–I am only human. Some days, I just simply did not have the strength. Do better next year.

In all, I am proud of how I did this year. But as evidenced by the last item, I have to do better. Always have to do better.

Happy last Monday, all.

« Older posts
%d bloggers like this: