Let's Change Education

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Month: August 2016

Giving an A: Project 180, Day One



Well, probably too late to back out now. After months of thinking, writing, and talking about it, it’s finally here. And while I am crazy excited to embark on this journey, I am also quite anxious as I now prepare myself to take the first step a few short hours from now. Ready or not, Project 180 is underway.

Today, I will begin the school year  by giving my students an A…for the entire year. Out of desire to create something both tangible and novel, I spent a good many hours crafting 120 A’s out of wood, and as my kids enter the realm of room 211 today, I will hand them what I hope comes to represent a path, a way to changing and bettering teaching and learning in American public education. Of course, as I pause on this precarious perch before taking flight into places unfamiliar, I am both thrilled and terrified by the possibilities. It is possible that I will succeed. It is just as possible that I will fail. Fortunately, my drive to succeed holds sway over my fear to fail. For now. But the two will no doubt clash time and again as the power of each rises and diminishes over the coming months, testing my conviction and fortitude. And only when the dust settles two years hence, will I see what has come. Right now, two years seems a lifetime. I hope I can find the courage to continue when the road gets rough. I hope.

Yep, too late to turn back. So, then, I will embrace the journey. Might as well. It’s gonna be a long haul.

Happy new school year, all. Thanks for joining me. I will need you.

Project 180: Why?

Morning, all. Project 180 will officially get underway in less than a week. And while I am excited about this new adventure, I would be less than honest if I didn’t also share that I am scared. And that anxiety makes me live in my head, thinking a lot about the possibilities of success and failure, especially failure. Of late, I have been thinking quite a bit about the number of conversations that I will likely be engaged in as others ask me about what I am doing, and why I am doing it. Here are some of my rehearsed responses as to the why, in no particular order.  Thought I would share.

  • I want to learn.

  • I want to see if kids will learn without traditional grades.

  • I want to see if kids can learn better without traditional grades.

  • I want to challenge conventional thinking.

  • I want to challenge the status quo.

  • I want the focus in my classroom to be learning, not grading.

  • I got tired of playing the grade game.

  • I want to call attention to the absence of any real foundation for traditional grading practices.

  • I want to expose the incredible amount of autonomy that teachers have over their grading practices.

  • Am I not entitled to the same autonomy as every other teacher?

  • I believe education has to change.

  • I believe true motivation is intrinsic.

  • I think learning is a process, a long process in which different learners arrive at different stages at different times, and our traditional practices don’t honor this. In fact, I think our traditional practices unwittingly punish this.

  • I believe students must take ownership of their learning, and I believe this happens through commitment, not compliance.

  • I have to face 20 years of doubt and misgivings about my own grading practices. I can no longer ignore the haunt of those ghosts.

  • I want to grow.

Happy Friday.


Dear Students

Morning, all. Here is a draft of the letter that I will hand and read to my students on day one to introduce Project 180. A little context: I am making 4″ wooden letter A’s to hand the kids as they walk in the door on the first day. Hopefully that helps as you read the letter. Wanted to share. Happy Wednesday. I have lots of A’s to make.


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,



Resources: Super Standards and Super-Student Profile

Morning. I have had some inquiries about what my Super Standards and Super-Student Profile look like, so I have pasted the standards and profile below. These reflect the core of what I will be using this year to assess learning and learners. I have also included links to previous posts that provide the thinking behind both. There are likely to be some tweaks in the coming weeks, but for now, this is what I am moving forward with. Please contact me if you have any questions/suggestions. Hope this helps.


Focus: Morning Minutes, May 17, 2016



Super-Student Standards
I can determine the theme or central idea of a text.
I can analyze a text for speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, and tone (SOAPSTone)
I can distinguish between analysis and summary and demonstrate proficiency with both in my responses to a variety of texts.
I can integrate cited text evidence into my writing to support my thinking.
I can successfully complete all parts of the writing process.
I can construct an effective argument.
I can achieve the big-six real-world writing purposes.
I can use effective speaking skills to engage an audience.
I can identify, use, and avoid errors with a variety of clauses and phrases.
I can use parallel structure.


Super-Student Profile
I have a growth mindset.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I take responsibility for my growth as a learner.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I read to learn.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I practice to learn.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I collaborate to learn.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I participate to learn.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I reflect to learn.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I am a good listener.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I demonstrate independence and resourcefulness.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I ask for help when I need it.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I am respectful of others’ views.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I contribute to my classroom community.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I am punctual.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I use class time wisely.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always

I observe and follow classroom norms, rules, and procedures.

Hardly ever     Occasionally     Sometimes     Frequently     Almost always


Dear Parents

Morning, all. Below is a draft of the letter that I plan to provide for parents this year to introduce Project 180. Just wanted to share. Happy Tuesday.

Dear Parents/Guardians,

Welcome to the 2016/2017 school year! My name is Monte Syrie, and I will have your child in my Honors English Language Arts course this year. This year marks the beginning of my third decade as a teacher in public education. And with that beginning comes a significant change in how I will approach learning in my classroom, a change that I wanted to share with you, for it will certainly impact your child’s experience in room 211 over the days to come. And while it will seem a radical departure from business as usual, please know that I have thought deeply about this, and while I am prepared and committed to seeing it through, I do expect to make adjustments along the way, as I try to make learning the central focus in my classroom, not grading. Please know that, above all, as we progress through the year along this rather radical route, I have your child’s best interests–both present and future–in my mind and in my heart.

After years of suspecting that traditional grading gets in the way of real learning, I have decided to part ways with convention. In short, I have decided to do away with traditional grades, adopting something that resembles a standards-based approach, but with a twist, a twist that I feel is necessary to truly approach learning differently, a twist that will no doubt raise eyebrows and objections, but one that I believe is critical to bringing about change and improving the learning experience for all kids. I am giving each student an A–for the year. Aside from one minor catch/requirement, your student will get the A on day one and keep it for the rest of the year.

In the attached packet, you will find details on how I will report learning in my classroom this year. Please know that, despite my taking grades off the table, I hold high expectations for your children, and I will do all that I can to push and support their learning for the next 180 days, but I will not dangle the “grade carrot” in front of them. I will instead intimate and impart to them that they have an opportunity to “build themselves” in my English Language Arts classroom, and it is up to them to take advantage of that opportunity, to whatever degree they choose. Of course, I expect that you will play a large part in encouraging and supporting them in their pursuit of developing their literacy skills this year as they prepare for their important futures.

I suspect by now you have a number of questions and/or concerns. I anticipate that, and I will work hard to address those questions and concerns both now and later, to whatever extent necessary. I have included my contact information below, and I am always willing to meet with you in person to discuss the important matter of your child’s learning. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any concerns–big or small. And while I am sure that this has been perhaps overwhelming, I am excited about and hopeful for the changes/improvements this can bring about. Imagine, for a moment, that in my class you and your child will not have to play the grade game. You will already know the grade for the rest of the year, so now instead of asking about the grade, you can ask about the learning. And that is the essence: learning. An old teacher adage suggests that “grades are earned not given,” but that is simply not true in the vast majority of classrooms. Grades in many cases and in many ways are given, and so I am doing as most do, giving a grade–granted it’s an A, but a grade is all I can give. I can’t give learning. Learning truly is earned. I really only provide the opportunity. I look forward to working with you this year.


Monte Syrie




In Their Own Words: Calling Out Injustice

Happy Monday, all.  Many of you may remember that my students last year prepared and presented injustice speeches. You may remember, too, that I was quite proud and pleased with their products and performances. Even more, a few may remember my mentioning that we were going to try to put together a “highlight video,” if you will, showcasing students’ topics and positions on their self-selected injustice topics. Well, I am pleased to announce, due entirely to the hard work of Ms. Kiersten Gasper, that said video is now complete, and I have posted it below.

To provide some context and explanation, the kids were asked to share a line from their speeches, a line that they felt captured the essence of their message. Sadly due to logistics and time running out on us, we were only able to get about a third of all students to contribute. Still, we felt it was enough to put the piece together. As you watch the video, please keep in mind that you will not have the full context or specific topic from each student’s speech, but what you will have is a thoughtful, honest perception from this generation.  I am so proud of my kids. Enjoy.

Thank you, Kiersten for your all your hard work and expertise. Couldn’t have done it without you, kiddo. Thank you for “living into the A” I gave you in June for your final Independent Learning Project.



Let the Work Begin: Morning Minutes, August 8, 2016

Morning, all. Well, after a nearly two-month break, it’s time to get back to work. I am so excited to get Project 180 underway this year, but I have lots to do before it begins on August 31. As a first step, I submitted the article below to Edutopia this morning . For my regular readers, it is nothing new, so don’t worry about reading it. It’s just packaged a little differently. I eagerly look forward to reconnecting with everyone this year. Hope your summer has been and continues to be great.

Project 180 is the first step in an effort to transform education by turning it upside down–challenging the status quo and disrupting convention. For the next two years, I will set aside traditional grading practices in my high school English classroom, seeking to improve my students’ experiences by making learning, not grading, the central focus.

For now twenty years, I have been unsettled by and dissatisfied with traditional and conventional grading practices, suspecting that there had to be a better way to approach learning, that grades–in the traditional sense–did little to help and, in many cases, made worse the learning in my classroom. I have dabbled in and experimented with standards-based grading and found it to be a promising alternative to tradition, but I think that–though it is radical in its own right, it is not radical enough to bring about the necessary shift in a system far too settled in the it’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it-rut approach to education. So, in an effort to turn things upside down, I am going to give my students A’s on day one. I am going to take grades out of the equation by giving them what they, their parents, and society have come to believe is the golden stamp of approval in American public education: an A. Then for the next 180 days, I am going to give them an opportunity to learn, to grow, free from the pressure and pretense of grades.

Can students learn without grades? My instincts say yes. But my critics–including the ghosts of my own self-doubt–will suggest otherwise, clinging to the deeply-seated standard of traditional grading as the way, the mark of learning. But two decades in, I am going to listen to my gut and take a monumental risk to learn and grow, and ultimately, hopefully make better the learning experiences in my classroom.

I first flirted with the idea after reading the Zanders’ The Art of Possibility. In one of the chapters, the authors discussed the “practice of giving an A,” an approach where students were given an A at the outset of the year during which they had to live into the A, proving in the end the end that they had earned it.

And though I found it intriguing, it never amounted to more than a casual fling, for I could not fully wrap my head around taking such a crazy path in a traditional, public-school setting. That was ten years ago, but now armed with the confidence–maybe craziness–that change not only must but can happen, I am ready to get this journey underway. We can change practice. We have to change practice. But it will happen neither easily nor expediently. It will take effort. It will take time. I am devoting both.

My original intent was not to gift A’s to all my students. My original plan was to give each student a P for pass, a seemingly simple, harmless way to take traditional grades off the table. However, after discussing the idea with our lead counselor, it became clear that a “P” could be problematic on students’ transcripts when it came to college entrance and/or scholarships. So, wishing to never do harm, I decided to go with A’s for all, which I believe better set the desired course anyway. One, it took traditional grading out of the equation. Two, it was radical enough to call attention to the shortcomings of conventional grading practices. Thus, the stage was set. But how was I going to do it?

Below is a rough sketch of my plan. But before we get there, here is a necessary preface. Students (and parents) will be given full ownership of their learning in my classroom this year. As the lead learner in the room, I will provide opportunities for students to learn and grow in an ELA environment. I will provide direction, feedback, and encouragement, but only they can provide the motivation to learn and grow. They already have their A’s for the year. Now it’s their turn to live into their A’s by making the experience what it should be in the first place, an opportunity to build themselves over the next 180 days, not a year-long sentence to get a grade. They will grow or they won’t. I can only provide the opportunity. They have to own their learning. Here is how I plan to do it.

  1. Actually, there is a possibility of two marks in my classroom. There is a qualification to the A. An A requires the signature of both students and parents on any and all “progress reports” (details below). They do not have to complete the report, but they must sign it. Failure to sign, will result in a “P,” which indicates credit for the course with no effect on GPA.
  2. Our work for the year will center around what I have come to call our 10 “Super-Student Standards,” standards derived from not only the Common Core but also my 20 years in an ELA classroom. I basically approached it with, “these are the things that we will hang our hats on this year, the things that we will learn.”
  3. In addition, I came up with a “Super Student Profile” emphasizing 15 habits/behaviors of learners, things that matter, things I want my students conscious of, things I want parents to know, but things that would never be attached to a grade (in the traditional sense).
  4. “Reporting” will happen frequently. Every day, students will reflect on their learning in their notebooks. Every two weeks, students will complete learning logs: self-assessments on standards and profiles (must be signed by student and parent). Every nine weeks, I will complete a progress report that is created through conferring with each student. The students will either agree with or challenge my assessment. Challenges must be supported by evidence. Nine week progress reports must also be signed by student and parent. Every semester, students will complete a student-led conference, a comprehensive review of their growth (must be signed by student and parent). For practice, I will use our online grading system to report completed practice.
  5. Learning experiences will primarily occur within the context of project-based learning.

There are so many more details to share–many more, too, that I will consider and discover over this two-year project. But for now, I hope this provides a skeleton for my approach.

Why project 180? Well a few things. One, 180 degrees turns things upside down–a necessary step for change. Two, there are 180 days in a school year–this endeavor will be the most difficult thing that I have done in my career, so I will have to take it one day at a time. Plus, I plan to share my journey one day at a time on my blog. Three, because “upside down” is uncomfortable it must be set upright again–another 180 degrees, bringing things full circle, at which point, I hope I have learned to make learning better in my little corner of the world. If you are interested, please join my journey this fall, as I daily post the stories from the adventure.

Crazy? Maybe. Determined? Absolutely. We have to change education.



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