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Reflection’s Reality: The Why of Things

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

For this third Reflection’s Reality post, I decided to go back to the roots of my madness, to why I decided to give all kids an A for the year. Funny that it all started with why. And as I continue to meet others here in the gradeless realm, it seems, in that, we share a common bond for our gradeless journeys: we were not content with the what of things, so we changed them. We were not afraid to ask why or why not. I have never found comfort in the way things are. Last year, I finally found the courage to change the what of things. Below is the beginning of the 180 journey.

Originally published June 7, 2016

Yesterday, it was my turn to deliver my injustice speech. I thought–hoped–that maybe with the craziness of the end of the year the kids would let me off the hook, but that was not the case. So, Sunday morning, I wrote my speech. Our speeches, as many of you know, had to address an injustice. I chose to speak to the injustice of the status quo, using my plan to radically change my grading approach next year as the backdrop, attempting to reveal the “why” behind my crazy.

I delivered my speech four times yesterday. We caught it on film during fourth period, and I posted it on Facebook (link below). I have also included the script–as delivered. The kids made me give a target time, and they insisted on filling out the PVLEGS feedback forms, too. I was pleased with how critical they were of my performance, sharing such things as “gestures seemed forced” or “relax and be more confident.” They also shared some warm and fuzzy sentiments. Some were just tickled that I said the word “ass.” Twice. Kids.

Anyway, wanted to share. Not sure how I feel about the video. Always tough and weird to see and hear myself on tape. Glad it’s behind me. I was more nervous than I thought I would be. But, importantly, I shared that with the kids, so they understood it never really gets easy; we just learn to manage our nerves, but that only comes from experience. I am so glad the kids and I shared this powerful experience. Truly felt it was a triumph for all.

Feeling a little guilty about being a year late on my “give-all-an-A approach,” I awarded a 100% to each kid who delivered a speech (only one didn’t). In truth, it’s the least I could do for these lovely little souls. They have been perfect partners in my tentative experiments this year. Truly, I owe them more than I can give them. They have given me the courage to bend my own trees. I only hope that I have inspired them to bend their own.


Ask Me Why

Ask me. Go on. Ask. Ask me why. Ask me why I do what I do. And I will speak. I will seek to answer what you would know.

But be careful, for “why” is a stick with two ends, a piercing probe sharper by far than the blunt weapon of “what.”

And you, my friends, you are well-acquainted with “what.” True. You picked him up long ago. We dropped him before you as you crossed the threshold of your education.

Of course, “why” was there, too, but he fell in the tall grass when we dropped him, and we let him lie, hoping he remained hidden from view, and you, distracted, did not see.

But for the better we believed, for why is poky and sharp, better for kids not to play, with that which is dangerous. And with that, “what” became enough.

Didn’t it? Every day. Every day, you walk in here. And every day you ask me, “What are we doing?” But you never ask me why.

Is it that you are afraid? Is it that you don’t care? Or is it that we hid it so well that you never learned to dare. Why? Why won’t you ask me why?

Is it simply that you are young? Or, is it more? Maybe it is more… because even the adults in the building seem to find little comfort in the why of things.

No, it’s true. As a staff, we have established norms to follow when we interact with each other.

What? Adults need rules for engagement? Oh, my young friends,  if only you could see a staff meeting.

Indeed, one of our staff norms is, “Seek to understand.” Apparently, “why” was not readily found by us either when we entered our education. Funny that we have to have a rule for digging into the why of things. But why?

Is it that we, too, are afraid? Is it that we, too, do not care? Both, I suspect.

And so, I wonder. I wonder about next year. I wonder if the “What is Syrie doing?” Will also come with the “why?” Will they seek to understand? Can I make them understand?

Friend or Foe, it will not be easy to explain, for it runs counter to the very “what” of our existence in education, but I, discontent and disturbed with that what asked why, and, then, I asked why not?

And that has given me the courage to proceed, to turn upside down that which no longer makes sense in my search to understand. And though it would not suffice, I, when pushed to explain, would prefer to lift from the page a piece from Bradbury, which aptly intimates the very why of my crazy.

“I hate a Roman named Status Quo!’ he said to me.

‘Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said,

‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds.

See the world.

It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.

And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away.

To hell with that,’ he said,

shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.

And that is the essence. I wish to knock education on its ass. With great impudence, I wish to land the sloth flat on his back and make him suffer for the lie that he is, for the damage he has done, and for the apathy that he has aroused, kicking him again for good measure, releasing my rage, Banging my staff on the Bridge of Khazad Dum, crying, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

But I will not. I cannot. For the savage in me will win no friends, and so I will simply, humbly share that I wish to learn, patiently and prudently explaining my journey to those who will listen. And that, my friends, is the “why” of my next year.

But, too, I wonder about your next years. I wonder if “what” will be enough.

I wonder if you will be content to hang upside down on the lower, more stable branches of “what,” or if you will seek the higher, more dangerous limbs in the top, daring to bend the tree with your “why’s?”

So, go on. Ask me. Go on, ask. Ask me. Ask the world. Ask why. Be not content with the “what” of things, else you become the sloth of the world.

And while I truly regret that I cannot gift you an “A,” this year, I can instead offer you a word. WhyI wish I could give you more.

Do. Reflect. Do Better. 

Link to video (Facebook) of my delivering the speech.

Ask Me Why


Connecting with Aussie Kids through Flipgrid

Hi, all, Wanted to update you on the AMA (ask Monte anything) Going Gradeless Flipgrid from the kiddos in Australia. I did three video responses today. It was fun, and I am so impressed and inspired by what Abe Moore is doing with his 6th and 7th graders. If you are interested in viewing their questions and my responses, click here.  I responded to Luke, Paige, and Noah’s questions today. More to come.

Pretty awesome to be connected with a classroom halfway across the world. Thanks for the opportunity, Luke, Paige, and Noah. Hope you are chuffed with my responses.



gradeLESS and powerLESS


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

Upside down. That was my goal with Project 180 this year. I sought to turn traditional grading on its back. I expected that turn. I wanted that turn. So, with eyes on that road, I set out on my 180 day journey to change the grading culture in my classroom. However, shortly after I was underway, I discovered that I would take many unanticipated half-turns, as I careened along, alternating between comfort and discomfort, a turtle on his feet one moment, only to land on his back the next. And though I had many feet-in-the-air moments, one of my most uncomfortable, for it was perhaps the strangest in this strange new land, was losing the power of grades. For twenty years, I had used–and sadly, on occasion, abused–that power. But now it was gone. Fine fix I had created for myself–feet in the air, indeed. How does one simply “unpower” after twenty years? I didn’t know. But only a few days down the road and with many ahead, I quickly had to learn to lead a “powerless” classroom.

The Sins of My Past

Twenty years. For twenty years I relied in varying ways and to varying degrees on the power of grades. From not accepting any late work from my seventh graders my first year to protecting the “A” for two-full decades, I used, misused, and abused the power of grades, largely out of ignorance, for I didn’t know any differently. In the absence of any real training, and in the absence of any alternative, I did what I thought was to be done, for it was done to me. I didn’t know any better. And so armed with a force greater than I could understand and a well-intentioned, though misguided, approach, I released my newly bestowed power upon my world.

I would teach them the harsh realities of the real world, for at the wise age of twenty three, I knew well all the ways of a world not kind. And in the real world, there were no breaks, so I wouldn’t give them any. They would thank me later. Tough love. I would accept no late work. It was a necessary and even logical step to teach them responsibility. And after a few, this-will-teach-them zeros in the gradebook, they wouldn’t dare miss an assignment. And I would be the hero from whom they would learn to survive in a cruel world.

I was an idiot. Zeros didn’t scare them straight. And all that they were learning about the cruel world is that cruel people make it so. I was making it so, creating a culture that didn’t foster learning but instead dealt in fear. Fortunately, I eventually saw the err of my ways, and I changed. But it was gradual, and only somewhat less cruel as I then explored the full spectrum of late work penalties: 10% per day, a full-grade deduction, 50% off, etc. And once again, I found myself practicing from a place of ignorance. No one showed me the right way. But that was the bottom, the place of failing. Surely, I had it right at the top. No one had to tell me or show me that excellence was to be protected at all costs. The A grade was only for a select few, and it was my right, my duty to guard that gate. But I didn’t have it right. To be sure, my sins ranged from top to bottom, and I was paving my way to hell with what I thought were good intentions.

In a recent, informal discussion with some folks from  Teachers Going Gradeless, Aaron Blackwelder, a TG2 co-founder, shared a past perception form his own experiences as a gatekeeper of grades. “I would look for ways to make sure students did not earn 100%. I felt it was my job to protect ‘perfection’ and make sure not all students achieved it.” And in a rush, I was reminded of my former gate-keeping moments, my tell-tale heart beating ‘neath the floorboards of my not-to-be-forgotten past. Without knowing, Aaron, through his own admission, had called me out, and echoes from the past haunted in whispers. A’s are not for everyone. A students don’t take days off; they are on all the time. We can be flexible D to B, but we cannot be flexible with A’s; we must protect the A. I was so worried about protecting the A that I was not focusing on what really mattered: learning. And, to be honest, the A became a power play. I was not protecting the sanctity of excellence in my classroom. I was creating a culture of impossibility, based on little more than, in truth,  what I alone deemed the unreachable peak. I held the power at the foot and top of the mountain, and all points in between. I got what I wanted. And if I didn’t, I used–abused–my power to get it anyway. Last year, even though I had eventually over the years learned to redirect my power in ways more fair, it all came to an abrupt end. I lost the power of grades.

The Lessons from My Present

From protect-the-A to give-them-all-an-A, things definitely took a turn this past year. I flipped it all right. It was what I wanted–a culture of learning without the hindrance of grades. But caught with my feet in the air, it was not exactly what I expected, and I had to approach things differently. I had to learn–quickly–how to wield influence. I had to learn to motivate and inspire without the power of grades. Here are some ways I adapted this past year.

  • Influence of relationships. I have always believed in relationships. They are THE thing, the key element to success in the classroom. In the 180 classroom, I had to lean heavily on my ability to form and sustain relationships with my students. I have always believed that relationships are investments into which we have to make generous deposits so we can make the necessary withdrawals. I invested heavily last year.
  • Influence of choice. With grades out of the way, the kids were put in a position of responsibility, in a position of choice. Learning was up to them. They would choose to engage and do, or they wouldn’t. When they were ready to meet me partway, I would be there. We would meet somewhere in the middle, but I alone could not do the walking.
  • Influence of words. I have always been inspired and influenced by words, so I started coming up with mantras to inspire my kids. At first, it felt a little cheesy for all of us, but after awhile, it took hold, and the kids came to expect my cornball mantras. In prep for public speaking practice, I wrote the mantra in the picture above, and we all recited it together. I will use more mantras next year. I will use more mantras next year. I will use more mantras next year.
  • Influence of relevance. I tried really hard this year to point to relevance in everything that we did. Of course, some of that was academic, but much of it was “real world.” I also tried to develop, through interest and choice-based assignments, my kids’ abilities to discover relevance on their own.
  • Influence of community. Like relationships, community can be an important investment. Through activities such as Community Circle and team-based learning, the kids came to know and became accountable to the members of our classroom community.
  • Influence of growth. Reflection. Reflection. Reflection. My kids had to reflect all the time in various ways, logging their learning. This was their “look in the mirror.” It was a consistent reality check, as they were forced to face their learning. It was the only thing I “forced” them to do; it was the one small string attached to their A’s. They and their parents had to sign their learning logs. Completing them was optional, but if they wanted the A, they had to sign; they had to own it. If a kid and parent were okay signing a blank learning log, then, well…
  • Influence of example. We are more likely to follow people who walk the walk. So, as the lead learner in the classroom, I did the vast majority of the assignments along with my kids. This paid dividends in so many ways. So many ways.

Of course, these approaches are not exclusive to the gradeless classroom, most of them are and can be used in the graded classroom, but without the grade-power in reserve, they–at least for me–felt more authentic than ever. I had nothing else. And though there were some trying times that made me long for the power position of old, I find influence a far more-preferable place.

The Hope for My Future

As with any look into the future, my hope is to continue to learn. I want to find more and better ways to motivate my kids to embrace the learning opportunities in my classroom. Things will be a bit different next year with my select-and-defend approach, but the same principles will apply. They will own their learning. They will make choices. And I will be there to support and influence them in this new reality, a reality where I proudly GRADE less and POWER less. Turns out, I didn’t need either all along.

Do. Reflect. Do Better.


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.

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.


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.

Want to Get Started with Transforming Your Grading Practices? Get Rid of Zeros.

“A zero has an undeserved and devastating influence, so much so that no matter what the student does, the grade distorts the final grade as a true indicator of mastery. Mathematically and ethically this is unacceptable.”

Rick Wormeli quoted in O’Connor, K., A Repair Kit for Grading, ETS/ATI, Portland, 2007, 92

A Journey Begins

This post is likely to open a can of worms. For better or worse, in the end it seems that everything comes down to the final grade, which generally generates a source of anxiety for kids and a source of contention among stakeholders when disagreement or confusion presents itself in regards to how the grade was determined, and perhaps most importantly, what the grade really means and if it truly indicates learning. In short, one little letter has the power to make a huge impact on a kid’s life. Of course, this is nothing new. It has always been the case, and little has changed. Grades have been and remain the center point in education, which are often accepted as the final word on learning, the final indicator of success or failure. But what if the final word is flawed? What if grades are not really true indicators of learning, success, or failure? I wonder. And though my wonders may lure me to wander into a huge realm full of questions never asked and answers oft ignored, I will stick to one worm in the can for now: zeros.

The great majority of kids who fail do so because of the dreaded zero, which is most generally the result of a missing assignment, not necessarily an indicator of low-or-no proficiency with course content. So, invariably, zeros kill grades, often creating holes that kids cannot crawl out of, resulting in many giving up and failing a course. So, too, even kids who do not fail courses suffer the unfair penalty of zeros, which often drastically decrease their grades. So what? If they didn’t want the penalty, they should have completed the assignment. One should not get something for nothing. Kids need to learn. Yes, they do, but some lessons make more sense than others. And zeros don’t really make sense when we examine traditional grading scales.

Most grading scales roughly reflect a 10-point-increment scale, moving down the scale from A (100 – 90) to B (89 – 80) and so on. Again, this is nothing new. We all were subject to such a scale, and kids still are today.  And, as we continue down the scale, it remains uniform until we get to F, and then it abruptly dives from 59 to 0. F’s should stop at 50. There are no G through K grades, only F’s. In terms of numbers, scores given in this range may reflect a degree of completion (a kid did 3 of 10 problems, so he gets 30%), but in terms of learning, scores given in this range whether it’s 59, 34, or 17 reflect one thing: failure. When kids or parents see scores below 60, they generally understand that that indicates a performance well-below standard; students have not been successful with the content. When we start assigning numbers within this range, what are we really seeking to communicate?  Let’s take a 52%. Are we really meaning to suggest that this is a lesser fail than a 33%, which should then suggest a greater fail? This then continues down the scale, approaching the zero, a sign of complete and utter failure. Kids in this range for various reasons are well-below the grade-level standards that we have established in our classrooms. That’s the message, generally intended and generally received. This is clear.

What I wonder is if we also have to attach a punishment in the form of a sub-50-point score? Somehow, it just doesn’t seem fair. Why can’t we let an F be an F? We let A’s be A’s and B’s be B’s. Why not F’s? Why do we have to let the bottom drop out? A bottom that drops the kids off a cliff they can rarely re-climb, especially in classrooms where they cannot turn in late work or redo assignments. Is this really fair for kids? Is this ethical in an arena where the stakes are so high? I’m not sure.

Four years ago, I quit zeros. They are no longer allowed in my classroom. I still have F’s which communicate, in number and learning, performances well-below standard. Kids still receive failing scores in my classroom, but I don’t tack on punishment, additional insult to injury in the form of sub-50% scores; 50% is now the lowest score possible in my class. The kids know from the mark that they have failed to meet standard; I don’t need to crush them more with added penalties. It makes sense to me, it makes sense to my kids, and it makes sense to parents. It’s also beginning to make sense to some of my colleagues, who, too, have adopted a no-zero policy. But not all. Some of my colleagues have accused me of malpractice, suggesting I am ruining kids’ lives by not teaching them a lesson. And I guess of that I am guilty. But I sleep at night knowing that I have given kids a fair shake, and while I may not be teaching them the harsh lessons of life, I am giving them opportunity by creating a realm of possibility.

Farther Down the Road

I wrote this over a year ago as I was making my way through my own transformative journey to change my grading practices. Of course, I have now made the large leap to a gradeless system, so the no-zeros approach is no longer relevant to my own practices, but for those teachers who find going gradeless a leap too far, beginning by doing away with zeros can be a simple but powerful way to move towards a system that is more fair for kids.

I came across the no-zeros “fix” early in my change-my-practice journey when I stumbled upon Ken O’Connor’s “15 Fixes for Broken Grades,” and it played a significant role in my rethinking my approaches to grading.

So, for those of you who find going gradeless too big a worm in the grade can, no-zeros can be a more manageable nematode, an effective first step to worm your way into creating an approach that is more fair to kids.

More Creative Cartoons

More fun. Kids rock.

Sneak Peek: Project 180, Day 166

Here is a preview of our grading policy that we will implement next year in all sophomore language arts courses, both regular and honors. Of course, the Focus Standards will vary some between regular and honors courses, but our grading approach will be uniform. And while we certainly do not claim to have arrived at “the” way to grade, we do feel as if we have come up with an approach that more accurately communicates student growth and proficiency. We are excited to learn and grow with our kids next year, and we feel that this is a great launching point to do so. We would love any feedback that you are willing to offer.

Biggest change from Project 180? I am no longer handing kids an “A” as they walk through the door next year. Why? Well, it was never my intention to continue down that path. My giving an “A” this year was what I felt to be a necessary, radical move to take grades off the table and swing the pendulum to the opposite end, calling attention to the myriad issues surrounding traditional grading practices. I wanted to discover if kids would work, if kids could learn without the threat of a grade hanging over their heads. And while my anecdotes and SBA results (96.5%) are not scientifically conclusive, they do point to the possibility that we can step away from tradition, that we can take risks and kids can still learn.

But next year will be different. Following a hunch and advice from Aaron Blackwelder, I decided to let kids self-select and defend grades at the end of a term. I wish now that this is what I had done this year, but we live and we learn. And I learned a lot this year. Another factor that influenced my decision to abandon the “gifted A” was that I wanted to provide a path for others to follow, and for most it was a leap too long, so I closed the gap, and others can now follow with more confidence. More to come on how this year has influenced the path ahead, but for now, I am pleased to announce that my grade-level team has joined the journey to turn grading upside down. Welcome aboard Jenna Tamura and Maddie Alderete.

Happy Tuesday, all. A special thank you to Aaron Blackwelder for his courage and wisdom.  And another special thank you to Jenna and Maddie for their hard work and dedication.

Cheney High School Grade 10 English Language Arts Grading Policies


The tenth-grade ELA teachers at CHS utilize a non-traditional grading approach. Our desire is not only to provide a system that more accurately communicates achievement and progress but also to provide a system that empowers students to take greater ownership and responsibility over their learning. The details of our approach are outlined below.

Focus Standards

Each semester there will be 10 – 12 Focus Standards adapted from the Common Core State Standards that will be at the center of our work for the grading period. 4 – 6 of the Focus Standards will be designated as “Must-Meet” standards.

Must-Meet Standards

Each semester there will be 4 – 6 Must-Meet Standards that students must meet to earn credit. If they do not demonstrate proficiency by the end of the grading period, they will be given an Unsatisfactory until they demonstrate proficiency with these standards.  Students will earn credit once they meet Washington State Proficiency Levels on the Smarter Balanced Assessment at which time their grades will be changed to Satisfactory, giving them credit for the course with no effect on their GPA.

Final Grades

Students who meet the designated Must-Meet Standards will select and defend a grade at the end of the term. Students will present their grade selections and evidence (see below) during an end-of-term conference with their teacher. The students will answer two central questions during the conference.

  1. What evidence do you have that you met the focus standards.
  2. What evidence do you have that you achieved growth with the focus standards?

Students who do not meet the designated Must-Meet Standards will be given an Unsatisfactory until they demonstrate proficiency (see above).


Our grading approach relies heavily upon evidence that students collect over the term to demonstrate proficiency and growth with the term’s focus standards. Students will maintain an “evidence portfolio” that houses all major assignments and assessments. These documents will be the necessary formal evidence for students to defend their selection of grades. However, this is not the only form of evidence that students may use to defend their selected grades.


Skyward will be used as a means to report progress. Progress will be presented in two ways:  Completion and Performance.

Completion will be used to report on practice. It will be presented with a 3-point scale.

3 = Complete. 2 = Near Miss. 1 = Far Miss. 0 = Missing

Performance will be used to report on proficiency. It will be presented with a 3-point scale.

3 = Proficient. 2 = Near Miss. 1 = Far Miss. 0 = Missing

Mid-term Grades

Mid-term grades are simply a formal progress report. As with final grades, students will select and defend a grade, but unlike the final grade, there will not be time for a conference. However, there will be a formal mid-term progress report, which students will complete and share at home. A parent signature will be required.

Key Terms

Proficiency – demonstrates success with standard

Growth – demonstrates continued progress with standard

Mastery – consistently demonstrates progress above standard

Practice – informal feedback opportunities designed to develop the skills necessary to achieve proficiency with the focus standards

Performance – formal feedback opportunities designed to demonstrate proficiency with the focus standards

Satisfactory grade – Under teacher discretion, a student may be given an “S” (Satisfactory) grade that awards credit for the class, but does not impact a student’s GPA in a positive or negative way.  If a student progresses through a class and displays effort and adequate understanding of content, but due to a variety of circumstances, would not be able to earn a passing grade, an “S” grade may be given.  (Cheney High School Grading Policy)

Unsatisfactory grade – Under teacher discretion, a student may be given a “U” (Unsatisfactory) grade that does not award credit for the class, but also does not impact a student’s GPA in a positive or negative way.  If a student does not progress through a class, display reasonable effort, and adequate understanding of content, a “U” grade may be given.  A “U” grade may be changed to a letter grade, including an “S” grade, when a teacher determines that a student has adequately completed the class.  (Cheney High School Grading Policy)

Keepin’ it Real: Project 180, Day 161

After a week of “heavy” speeches, Sam provided some much needed levity with his speech on the injustice of parents on social media (see below). It gave us all a good laugh. I love it when kids keep it real. And there are few better than Sam at keepin’ it real.

Down to 19 days. Kids will continue working through their Change-the-World projects today, moving into the planning stages. I am excited to see what they generate. They have come up with some pretty awesome ideas, but now they have to begin turning their ideals into realities. No big deal, really. They just have to change the world. And ya know. they just might. They just might.

Happy Monday, all. I hope you enjoy Sam’s speech.

The Injustice of Parents on Social Media

When signing up for social media networks, there are many restrictions and blanks to fill in. You have to give your name (first and last), address, birthday, phone number, gender, and you also have to meet the minimum age requirement which tends to be 13 years old.

 This is good and all but there seems to be one thing missing. Where is the maximum age requirement? Where is the blank at the end of the registration that tells my parents that they are too old and too out-of-date to use these social media services? Where is the blank that gives me the freedom to not have adults looking over my every move? Where is that blank? I’ll tell you where. It doesn’t exist.

Every day thousands and thousands of people sign up for different types of social media such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and many more. These aren’t just teenagers and young adults who want to see what’s going on with their friends. Some of these people are adults, who similar to my mom, only get the apps to annoy the crap out of their children.

In the summer of 2016 my sister made the biggest mistake any of us kids could ever imagine. She did the unspoken. She did something we would never forgive her for. She showed my mom Snapchat. She showed my mom how to send random, unimportant pictures to any of us whenever she wanted. She opened the gates to hell and we were all forced to walk through it.

To this day, my siblings and I endure the suffering of having a “hip” mom that Snapchats us at free will. Many of you are probably saying “Why don’t you just block her” but the consequences of such would be more far more devastating. The constant nagging and complaining of “Why did you block me?” and “Add me back on Snapchat” would be far more than I could handle.

This speech is not a plea for help, for I have already fallen to this monster. This speech is a warning. A warning for all of you to keep your parents away from social media at all costs.

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