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.