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gradeLESS and powerLESS


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.


3 Replies to “gradeLESS and powerLESS”

  • Thank you Monte. Thank you Aaron.
    Your thoughtful and humble reflections affirm my own experience and give me courage to persevere.
    I wonder if each of you might offer your insights, and suggestions if you have them, regarding this piece of going grade-less: (from Monte’s post-) “If a kid and parent were okay signing a blank learning log, then, well…”
    Please help me to finish this sentence because this is where I get stuck. That moment when my student is stalled at “not yet” and won’t risk moving forward… that moment when a parent explains: “He had other work to do and since this isn’t “for a grade” I told him not to worry about it.” Those moments when a student, owning her own learning, decides she’s learned enough — but I know she can do more! How do I accept that she doesn’t want to re-do an assignment or try again on an assessment? I strive to form authentic and respectful relationships with my students and yet, when I perceive that they are “quitting on ME” — I take their choices personally and, to be honest, find myself reaching for a grade as punishment, as a negative consequence for what I deem a poor choice. Monte, I found myself nodding like a bobble head doll as I read this: ” … but I alone could not do the walking.” I truly believe that it is my responsibility to help my students learn all they can. It’s when they choose not to engage that I struggle. Honestly, I must acknowledge that my ego is tied up in their achievements. My emotions are also connected to their reluctance to take risks, learn from mistakes and accept challenges. Monte, I am going to try to emulate your: “influence of example,” and to complete the assignments that my students seem most likely to avoid, along with them. Any other advice/suggestions/words-of-wisdom would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you both for inspiring and encouraging me!

    • Good morning, Kathy. Wow, you’re keeping me on my toes. Great questions. No easy answers. But I will try to share some insight.

      I think each kid meets us at a point. A rare few never meet us because they don’t “need” us. Some rush towards us, meeting us before we are even out of our desks. Many meet us at various places in the “middle,” no two exactly the same. Some require that we come to them because they won’t get out of their desks. And a rare few retreat, and we will never meet them, for they will not let us in, no matter how hard we try. This, I believe, presents a rough sketch of the engagement spectrum between teachers and students.

      So with this in mind, I will attempt to answer your questions. “If a kid and parent were okay signing a blank learning log, then, well…” …they are making a choice. If I am confident that I have done my best at that time as the provider of opportunity, support, and inspiration, then I have learned to be okay with that. I know that sounds dismissive and even counter to what we expect from great teachers, but in my “culture of commitment,” it is the stance I have to take. The “ground” I stand on in this culture is predicated on choice and the autonomy that comes with that. If I preach that kids must own and be responsible for their learning, then I have to honor that, even if that means I let them make a choice that is unsettling to me. And it is almost always unsettling, especially when it involves the personal, at times, ego-driven attachment I develop from the situation. It’s hard not to take it personally. And, I don’t believe, we ever fully get away from that. For my “knowing better,” will not make me immune, and I will take it personally this year, next year, and…
      But, even so, I have learned–more aptly, I am still learning–to let go. And I know that is a cheap sentiment, but it’s where I am in the journey. I, armed with opportunity, support, and inspiration, will meet each kid where they meet me. Of course, that will change over the course of the year, as relationships develop and strengthen, for the points are not static. And there will be times when the culture of commitment seems not enough and I want to revert back to compliance-making practices, but I resist. I have to. Can’t go back. I had to let that go, too.

      We are each on our own journeys, on our own paths, in our own places. This is where I am, and this is what is currently on my horizon. We, in many ways, seem to be on parallel paths. And I am not sure that my answer will be your answer, but it has helped me be okay with the things that came from my turning things upside down, which reminds me that our kids have been conditioned to be compliant, to have grades dangled in front of them “to do,” and so it is not their fault that they are ill-adjusted to a completely different culture, and I try to remember that. It is part of the deal. And as much as I want to grab a grade to motivate a kid at times, it’s what I vowed not to do, for it’s the very thing that I sought to escape when I set out on my journey.

      I hope this helps, Kathy. This gradeless ground is a new territory, and we have to keep that in perspective. My earlier post,”The Dilemma of Do”( has also helped me adjust to the new realities of the gradeless frontier.
      Have a great day. If there are other things that I can speak to, I will. Thank you for the opportunity to extend my own thinking.

  • Why do we do it? Why do we feel so inclined to protect something so meaningless as an A or 100%? What potential did I crush when a student turned in writing that exceeded my own ability to write but I would give it a 98% because I found a comma splice error? It shames me today to think I was so focused on finding fault that I missed the promise. Why did I give more credence to the error? Why couldn’t I say, “This is incredible work. You are an eloquent and gifted as a writer. I wish I had your skill”?

    Was it to protect perfection and teach grit or was it to protect myself and my own insecurities?

    I am trying hard to relinquish my role as gatekeeper and become a finder of potential. It is a difficult role to give up, but I am trying and this coming school year I will be a better teacher to my students than I was last year because I am going to try harder.

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