This year I threw out letter grades almost completely. Only almost because I am still required to give my fourth grade students a letter grade on their trimester report card. I thought I was crazy, doing this, and I am sure I wasn’t the only one. I thought I was going to regret it for sure, face uphill battles from confused parents and upset students, yet instead, nothing…
I have battled with grades my whole life myself, from being a student that never applied themselves enough to a staunch, anxious overachiever with a ridiculous GPA. I never quite found the balance. I just couldn’t get my grades to fit me, they never showed my interests, my smarts, my deficits. They were just an arbitrary number on a piece of paper, something that said nothing about my future or my past. Not even a snapshot in time.
So when I became a teacher, I fiddled, I muddled, and I tweaked. Those poor averages and grades I came up with never seemed to tell my students their story either. An A meant little but an F meant something,right? We finished a product, stamped a grade on it and end of discussion. So this year I stopped grading and I was terrified.
When you tell people you don’t believe in grades, they mostly think you are crazy and have no place in teaching. After all, life is one long file and rank and grades make us all fit in so nicely. And yet, my parents on orientation day believed in me. They seemed to get it because I explained to them what I would do instead. I promised to engage their child in discussions, to constantly evaluate and more importantly reevaluate what knowledge their child had secured. I promised to set up learning opportunities where their child could show off their skills in different ways than written work. I promised them to monitor, alert, refine and reteach whenever needed. I promised them that they would know what their child knew and what they were still working on. I add to these promises whenever I can.
So has it been perfect? Oh I wish. But neither were my letter grades before. Averages never told the full story, and often it was hard to fully explain why a child was a B or a C. Now I can talk about where the child stands, what they have secured, where they are developing. Now when I discuss strengths of my students, I have checklists, specific samples and conversations to refer to. The students are aware of their progress and they know what they need to work on. Getting rid of grades has meant more work for me focused on the student. It has meant more time spent talking to my students, more focus on our goals, more time to really prepare and think about my lessons instead of all that solitary grading. For me, it has meant I can hold my head up higher when in conferences with my students. For me, it has meant a new way of teaching, of preparing my students for a life that will try its best to label them somehow. A way for me to help them tell their story right now and perhaps even point them to their future story.
So that whole no grade thing, maybe not such a bad idea after all.
PS: I couldn’t have done this without support from Joe Bower (@Joe_bower), Jeremy MacDonald (@MrMacnology) and some wisdom from the guru that is Alfie Kohn.