Be the change, grades, reflection


I wasn’t born a rule breaker. In my hometown of Bjerringbro, Denmark, population 7,390, I did not strive to be a rebel without a cause.  In fact I was your average tomboy, a middle of the roader, a child deemed living below their potential.  I followed the rules set forth because that is what I was told to do.  Not specifically by people, but as a child, you just know what the rules are and what the expectations were.  Of course, there were small rebellions such as coming home just a few minutes late, or perhaps “forgetting” to do my spelling words (I knew them already so why did I have to write them out 5 times?).  So my childhood was not an adventurous one and my adult life seemed to be kind of middle of the road as well.  That is until I met my husband, Brandon.

Oh, the tales of love can inspire excitement or convulsions in people.  Mine usually gets giggles and aw shucks.  You see it was the classic tale of bartender meets bouncer and the rest they say is history.  And yet something fundamentally changed for me when I met Brandon. He asked me what I planned to do with my life, and although many had asked that same question before, including my dear mother, with him, I really wanted to impress.  I became a teacher, knowing I wanted to reach children, change them, inspire them, listen to them.  And yet, I followed the rules.  Good teachers graded.  Good teachers rewarded.  Good teachers told students that if their homework was not done then there would be consequences.  

In my gut, I knew something was wrong and yet these were the rules and by signing up to teach, I had signed up for the rules.  Never did I stop to question those rules, why should I?  They obviously worked, until they didn’t.  Last year, my class was a mixed bag of emotions.  Various big personalities that needed a lot of love and a lot of patience at times.  I learned more in that year of what type of a person I am, than I think I could have in any other profession.  I started the year the same way, detailing how to get an A.  How to earn a class party, how to get on the awesome board.  Basically, how to be the best student they could possibly be.  Or did I?  Really all I did was tell them the rules and then tell the punishment there would be for breaking those rules.  How is that for inspiring the youth of America?

So this summer, after having accepted the fantastic challenge of a combination classroom and joining Twitter searching for others, searching like me, I came upon a tweet from Jeremy (@MrMacnology) to Joe (@Joe_Bower).  I stopped because I was surprised.  They tweeted about perhaps not grading, perhaps not rewarding, perhaps breaking the rules.  I lurked on their conversations, wondering if they would not mind another person asking questions.  Finally I held my breath and wrote to Jeremy asking if I could ask him questions.  We have collaborated since on a regular basis and I am proud of knowing him.

Grading degrades.  It tells a student that no matter how hard they worked, if it does not fit into our rubric, our vision, our plan for them, then they may not get the success they so hoped for.  Grades tell students that even though their parents are violently fighting and they can’t do their homework because they are scared, they lose 10% off their grade and get a zero if I don’t get it in a week.  Grades tell students that even though they devour books, when they leave the title and author off on a book report, they must not be A+ readers.  Grading tells students that have way too much responsibility at the young age of 10, that I don’t care that they had to watch their 4 younger brothers and sisters instead of doing their homework.

We know this as educators.  We see the defeat in students’ eyes when they get that grade they did not hope for.  We see it in parent/teacher conferences when parents’ zero in on the bad grades rather than all the plusses we so meticulously planted on the report card.  You cannot blame the parents; after all, they were part of this system too.  We all are.  Well, I am not anymore.  Or at least I strive to break the rules on this one.  I strive to follow my instinct and speak to students about their successes. Listen when they tell me answers that they didn’t know how to spell right.  Think when they give me an unexpected explanation.  I may not have been born a rule breaker but I have certainly become one.  It is in the best interest of my students and myself that I break these rules.  There is a better way to teach, we just must not be afraid to try it.  Will you break the rules with me?

4 thoughts on “Rulebreaker”

  1. Thanks for detailing how and why you chose to go down this road. How does this fit in with your school/district policy though? Have you faced any pressure to adhere to the 'old rules' again?This year, I'll be joining you as a 'no grades' rulebreaker but more by default than a conscious decision to change. I will be the secondary 'language skills' teacher (I work in TEFL by the way) and it's the responsibility of the other 'grammar' teacher to give marks and reports. Personally, I'm looking forward to just being able to give task-related feedback to the kids. however, some wish to interfere claiming the kids won't take the lessons seriously if there isn't a grade awarded and have talked of creating an extra test just for my class or having a standard assessed composition to write. One of my first battles of the year will be to resist that and keep my teaching programme focused on developing and using language skills.Isn't that the true aim of education after all?

  2. HI David, Surprisingly there has been more support than I thought I would get. While I still have to adhere to a trimester report card system, the parents and students so far support the no letter grades on their child's homework/tests. So to ensure that I have letter grades for my trimester report cards I have various goal lists from our districts essential learner outcomes that i compare their work too. It has been a tremendous relief being bale to strip down my learning to just the essentials and focus on that when I am working and exploring with students rather than always relying on some crazy rubric I concocted.So although I may not have all of he answers quite yet, I already feel this is the right choice for me and that they students are in a much better place to learn rather than worrying about that letter on their work.

  3. Pernille, I am just beginning this "no grades" journey and am still in the "I'd love to make this dream come true" phase. I'd like to ask you a few questions about how you're doing it:*Do you still have weekly assessments on reading, math,etc?*If so, how do you use them?*Does your district have a reading series that you must follow?*Do you send home weekly papers of any kind?Thanks in advance for the tips!

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