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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.

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.

Should We Fail Kids? A New Chapter to an Old Story

Failing them teaches them a lesson. If we don’t fail them, they will never learn, so we have to fail them…so the traditional narrative goes in education. But does it work? Does it really teach them a lesson? I’m not sure. For many of the kids who fail in high school, it is not a new phenomenon, and many become our frequent “failers,” apparently not “learning the lesson” from past-failed classes. And sadly, for many, in high school, they are set on a track from which it is difficult to deviate, and they struggle to learn from the tough-love lessons that we provide. Some simply give up and disappear. I wonder, then, if we shouldn’t consider a new course of action, a new track, a new narrative. What if we didn’t fail kids?

Did the kid fail the class, or did we fail the kid?

Learning isn’t simple. It is complex, and as we’ve learned, it is different–distinctly different–for each kid, and certainly, one size does not fit all. At least that is what our talk suggests. But a look around suggests that we still walk the same old walk, forcing kids to wear a universal shoe as they make their way through our system. To be fair, perhaps we have made some progress in regards to differentiating learning in recent years, but for the most part, it is still the same old approach, a factory model still stuck on the same default settings from the beginning. And while I think there are a lot of dedicated, passionate educators who champion change and promote progressive practices that move us away from such a model, the slope is steep and the mission may be impossible.

I, like most high school teachers, have roughly 150 students per semester. I see them for roughly one hour a day, 180 days per year. Sounds like a lot of time. It’s not. I feel like my presence is barely a perceptible blip on the radar of their educational experience. Truly. Even so, I, as most, work hard in that precious space of time to do the best I possibly can for each student. Think about that. One hundred and fifty souls, all with different needs, for whom I am charged with an enormous task that I take beyond seriously. And I fail every year. I fail every day. I fail every period. No really. I am not trying to heap on the pathos here. I am simply stating the truth. I cannot possibly meet the needs of every kid, and so, I just try hard each day to help more than I hurt, getting by and succeeding where I can.And that’s the reality.  For my average and above kids, this generally works, and I fail less. In short, we do the best we can. But what about my kids who don’t fit into the average-and-above category, my kids who are disinterested, distrustful, and disenfranchised? Sadly, it doesn’t work, and I, hand-on-heart, am not so sure that when these kids fail, it is not I who failed  instead of they.  And it is my terrible, guilty burden.

Sadly, the same saga plays out every year, and not enough is being done to change it. And while I am not certain if we can or even know how to re-pen the story, I think we have to find a way. It’s too dark a tale to continue, for students and teachers alike. There has to be a way. The mission cannot be impossible.

A New Chapter

I wrote this over a year ago, before embarking on Project 180, before learning what a gradeless classroom can do to make the mission possible. And now a year later, with the first year of Project 180 behind me, and some timely and sage advice from Aaron Blackwelder, I am poised to present, along with my Grade -10 team at CHS, a unified grading approach that does not fail kids. To earn credit in our courses, kids have to demonstrate proficiency with our “Must-Meet” standards. If they do not, they will be given an “Incomplete” until they do (see specifics here http://www.letschangeeducation.com/?p=1854 ).

This new narrative tells our kids that learning isn’t something that they fail at in a push-them-through, one-size-fits-all time frame. Rather it is something that requires flexible circumstances for each of them as they make their way through their own learning journeys. It is something that never ends; it continues. It always continues. I used to subscribe to the former. I had to. It was all I knew. But in that “knowing,” I knew, too, that something wasn’t right. And so I sought to change it, and after a lot of trial and tribulation, I feel as if I have arrived at a new important chapter that I can contribute to the narrative. And though it is far from being ready to push through the printing press, I feel with each edit, it gets a little better.

We have the power to re-pen the story, and after connecting with more like-minded people at Teachers Going Gradeless ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/277181926058422/?ref=bookmarks ), I believe it more than ever. The mission is possible.

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