For much of my teaching career, I have lived a lie. It wasn’t a mean lie, as much as it was a necessary lie, necessary because I had to hide the fact that I didn’t really know what I was doing. So I hid. I hid behind the mantle of expert, and as I look back on it now, especially the early years, I realize the absurdity of the lie (and it was surely more mean than I believed, for kids suffered at my ignorant hand), but it was an absurdity for which I can only accept part of the blame, for the system in which I was educated, the system in which I was trained, the system in which I have now taught for over twenty years, failed me. No one taught me how to grade.
Oh, I went to college. In fact I have two degrees in education, but in all that time, no one ever sat me down, and said, “Okay, here’s how this whole grading thing works.” Of course, now I realize that this never transpired because no one knows–I mean really knows. Do we? If so, I would have to believe that there would be something that we could put our hands on, something that could guide the way, a touchstone from which we could seek wisdom to prepare and provide a valid, reliable, equitable approach to that which carries so much weight in our students’ present and future: grading. If it exists, I have not found it. But I seek it. I have sought it among my colleagues for over two decades. For twenty plus years, from numerous colleagues I have directly and indirectly sought “the way.” But all that I have found are numerous, similar-but-never-the-same approaches to grading. Seems no one ever really taught them, either.
I have sought it among the literature, where I have found some promising possibilities but no definitive answers, other than there is little to no support for that which is commonly practiced in the form of traditional grading. And it was–and still is–that particular revelation, where I the finally fully felt the burden of the lie that I had been carrying for the majority of my career. So I quit. I quit pretending that I was an expert because I was a teacher, and I started shedding my traditional grading practices. Slowly at first, I got rid of zeros; I stopped penalizing kids for late work; I even stopped failing kids. And before long, the shedding became a cascade, culminating in my completely getting rid of grades last year, a move that led me to where I am today, in the realm of the gradeless, a realm of like-minded teachers who I believe somewhere along the way, shed, too, their skin of old, in search of that which would better serve as a means to support and communicate learning. But importantly, I have not found the gradeless realm to be the place of answers. No, to be sure, it is a dimension of questions, inhabited by seekers. We do not have the answers. But we seek the answers. And that is what matters. We are here to learn. We are here to share. And as we are here to learn, we live an existence of learning; we walk a path of perpetual questions, seeking answers not to become expert, but simply to become better.
By now, most of my readers and gradeless peers know that I am always chasing better. And that pursuit is paved with questions. This past week, seeking better with my new gradeless team, we encountered some questions in our discussions that will hopefully lead to better.
Select and Support
This year, we are using a select-and-support approach to grading. At the end of the term, kids will select and support a grade in a teacher-student conference providing evidence in answer to the questions:
- What evidence do you have that you met the focus standards?
- What evidence do you have that you achieved growth with the focus standards?
We are happy with this. This is what we want our approach to be this year. But there’s a problem, a problem that revealed itself from… questions. Damn questions, always leading to problems.
Do we need to provide delineated descriptions of grades for the kids?
Are we just going back to traditional grades if we provide what a grade has to be?
Will the descriptions just become a checklist?
Will we create a system of minimums again? Meaning, will we recreate the reality we sought to get away from where kids ask, “What do I have to do to get an A?”
What if a student asks, “How will I decide which grade to pick? What’s an A?”
What if a parent asks the same question at Open House?
What is an A?
What is a B?
What is a C?
Hmmm. It all seemed so easy. Kids select. Kids support. We put the grade on the transcript. And we would move to the next grading period. Nope. Full stop. We had to come up with an answer, an answer that fit us, an answer that protected our belief that kids must own their learning, an answer that supported the kids in their taking that ownership. So, I went home and slept on it. Here’s our answer.
- We are going to ask kids to individually indicate what they believe is required for an A, a B, and a C. Before we share our grading approach for the year, we are going to hand each kid a 3×5 card (see graphic above), and ask him or her to provide information about each grade. We will ask them to write their names on the cards, and we will collect and store them.
- At midterm, when we are required to put a grade on the report card, we will ask our kids to complete a mid-term progress report. We will not conference with the kids, but the process is essentially the same. The kids will select and support a grade with evidence. To help them in the process of selecting their grades, we will redistribute the “grade cards” they made at the beginning of the year. We will re-collect and store the cards. The kids will take their progress reports home to share with parents. They will return them signed. And we will enter the grade.
- At end of term, we will once again give kids their grade cards to assist them in their grade selection before conferences. During the conference we will ask the kids if they want to make any changes to their grade cards. We will keep the cards.
- Repeat process for second semester.
- For the final conference, we will ask kids to revisit their grade cards, and as part of their final conference we will ask them to share their reflections on grades from the year.
But, wait. Kids can’t decide what a grade is. They are not experts. Teachers have to decide. Okay, let’s walk down that path for a moment. Yesterday, I spent the day with my colleagues from Cheney High School. Seventy teachers and 4 administrators. Let’s imagine that I had given them the same grade card I am going to give my kids, asking them to describe what is required for each of the three grades. And though I cannot claim to know exactly how it would have played out, if I had to guess, I would offer that there would be a great number of variances among answers, leading one to wonder which answers were more “expert” than the others. Oh, I am sure that there would have been some general semblance of excellent (A), good (B) , and average (C) among the responses, but I have to wonder if the kids won’t arrive at the same general concept. And if so, what might that reveal? Are we trained experts on grading? Or are we just more experienced products of the system? In truth, don’t most teachers–out of necessity–end up grading how they were graded? I did. I had to. There was nothing else to turn to. So, I wonder. I wonder if kids might not learn more from the experience if I give them the opportunity to set their own standards. Of course, I don’t know. But there are a lot of things I don’t know. And as it turns out, I am not sure I know any better than they what an A is. Sure it’s a risk, and in the end, it could prove a mistake, but I will own it. I will learn from it. I will do better from it. All I can do. I’m no expert.
Do. Reflect. Do better.
- Beyond Rules: Relying on Roles, Routines, Rights and Responsibilities to Create Culture
- Resources: Links to Documents