Let's Change Education

Challenge. Discover. Lead. Change.

Month: June 2017 (page 1 of 3)

A Meeting of Minds: Planning to Change the World

Met with these two awesome young ladies this morning to hammer out learning targets. Doesn’t feel like work when there’s passion involved. So excited to take a  unified gradeless journey  with these two next year. Jenna (left) and Maddie (right) are truly a dynamic duo. Thanks, ladies, for trusting and believing in me. Thanks for having the courage to turn your worlds upside down. Couldn’t do it without you.  Looking forward to doing, reflecting, and doing better with you as we venture into the expanse of the gradeless realm next year. Gonna be awesome.

#project180 Do. Reflect. Do better.

Project 180 Takes a Turn Down Under

Recently, Project 180 connected with Mr. Abe Moore and his class in the City of Glacier Park in South Australia. Abe, a fellow teacher, blogger, and Teachers Going Gradeless member came across Project 180 in the Twitterverse. Already on his own journey into the gradeless realm, he shared his discovery with his students, which then led to a rich inquiry and discussion about Project 180 and the role of grading in learning. And from their discussion, his students were inspired to create a Flipgrid  AMA (Ask Me Anything)  for the crazy bloke Monte, a teacher from Washington State, U.S.A. who gave all his students an A for the entire year. I will begin responding to their Flipgrid questions today, so be sure to check the site later or catch our interaction in a follow-up post.

In addition to the AMA , Abe’s students also recently posted reflections on their classroom blog, where they reflected on something that had resonated with them over the term. Hailey, reflected on Project 180.

In Washington State there is a teacher named Monte. At the start of the year he gave all his students an “A” and said they would get an “A” at the end of the year. He gave them work and homework but it was their choice if they were going to do it. Most of his students wanted to earn their A’s but there was a small group of students who took advantage of the situation. Why would someone give their students all “A”s? Was it a waste of time? Would you give students all “A”s? If I knew I was getting an “A” no matter what I would want to earn it because, when you do something you get something out it. Why does a meaningless grade provide motivation for a student. Do it for the experience not the grade. – Hailey

Hailey perfectly captured what Project 180 is all about. She is a pretty wise 12 year old. Thank you, Hailey. I could not have said it better myself.

A half  a world away it is winter, and Abe and his kids are still in school. Here it is summer, and my kids and I are on vacation. But, even on vacation, I am learning. Thank you, Mr. Abe Moore and the rockstar students from Hallett Cove South Primary for letting me participate. In the last few days, I have learned that there is a Glacier Park in Australia. I have also learned what Flipgrid and AMA are. More importantly, I have learned that there are teachers across the globe who are willing to challenge convention to create better learning experiences for their students. But most importantly, I have learned that Australian kids are pretty dang cool. See you on Flipgrid later today, cool kids.

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.

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.



Older posts
%d bloggers like this: