This letter is part of a series taking place as a conversation between Jeremy Macdonald @MrMacnology, a 5th grade teacher in Oregon, and Pernille Ripp @4thgrdteacher, 4th grade teacher in Wisconsin; two educators who for the first time are attempting a no grades classroom as well as limited homework. We work under the confines of our districts but with passion and belief that this is the way forward. To see the first and second letter, visit us here
Ah yes, the realities of fall – catchty title and very apropos. It is amazing what we thought we could accomplish this summer as we prepared for fictitious classrooms that, of course, had some needs, some diversity, but most of all lots of eager minds. Don’t get me wrong, I had read about most of my students, labored over the notes from previous years and planned my approach to these varied learning styles. And then school started and learning began and the train was set in motion.
I remember feeling like things ended before. An assignment was given, preferably with a worksheet tied into it to show their learning and then when that had been graded, that portion of the year was done. Now, it continues, never ending as we refine our approach, chastise ourselves for missed opportunities of true wisdom and push ourselves to do more, be more, teach more. The learning you see does not stop when you get rid of grades. An assignment is never quite finished. I can never assume that something has been mastered until they have shown me through later recollection or work that it really has been settled into their brain. So what’s a girl to do? Well, like you, I have my dirty secret stash of spreadsheets. I check off my goal lists for science, social studies, writing, and math and I ponder and evaluate. Sometimes I wonder whether my spreadsheets are up to the task and some days I wonder whether I know what I am really doing. On those days I give myself a break and think of all the amazing opportunities my students are having.
As teacher, we love to beat ourselves up. And why not? We are after all the changers of the world, the people who are responsible for creating America’s future. So when we change systems, approaches, philosophies, we are meddling with real kids, not imagined ones, and so the outcome is real. That should not stop us though but instead propel us forward, cradling the immense responsibility as the gift it truly is. I know that this is the right path forward. I have 24 pretty well-adjusted students in my room that know that even if there is no grade tied to their work, it is serious business. They are their own worst critics, I have come to find out, but they are also the best suited to take control of their learning, and that is what we are letting them do. We are giving them responsibility. We are allowing them to be part of the process, the knowledge acquiring and giving them a voice in the learning process. My students know exactly what the goal of any lesson is because they have to. Otherwise they will not know whether they have mastered that goal. Never before have I had students that are so aware of what they are supposed to learn, and that is a great thing. So those checklists are ever changing as I realize that what I thought was a goal is something else entirely. I am forced to really think about why I teach something and how I can best teach and when that happens the students will always benefit. So don’t be ashamed of your checklists, but use them for the right purpose; to shape your teaching and to help you evaluate. Just because we do not grade does not mean we cannot assess.
Doesn’t it sound good? It is, but then reality smacks me in the face again. Conferences start on Thursday and what will I share with the parents? Or rather what will my students share because I have also decided to let it be student-led conferences rather than me led. This way students have to know what we are learning, once again they are asked to take part in what goes on in the classroom and not just show up. Of course, some kids are freaked out but others are deliberating their approach, figuring out how to showcase their learning, getting ready for any questions. I have provided them with conference sheets and self-assessments (And why by the way did you not share your student self-assessments with the world?). I tell them that I will be right there with them, ready to jump in, to support, which should always be our role. We cannot be the sole keepers of the knowledge, we have to be the bridge instead and by continuously creating opportunities for these kids we are allowing this to happen.
So Jeremy, we are not careless, we are dreamers. And to dream you must dare. We believe in the power of our students so now we must believe in ourselves as professionals. Our lives might seem easier at first if we go back to the old ways of worksheets and grades. Slap a sticker on it and done. But our entire philosophy of education has been irreversibly changed, and so our core beliefs will forever ring an alarm if we go back. This is our maiden voyage and every year will be easier. Will everything be figured out this year? Probably not but that is the magic of teaching. We evolve along with our students, always trying to give them the best possible educational experience. No grades to me means no more crushing dreams. I have not had the power to tell a child that if they do not finish this work then they will fail. And that is a power I do not ever want to have again, do you?