being a teacher, education reform, grading moratorium, No grades, Student-centered

So How’s this Whole No Grading Thing Going for Ya?

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.

grading moratorium, letter to Jeremy, no homework

We Can’t Look Back

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

Hi Jeremy,

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?


alfie kohn, grading moratorium, letter to Jeremy, no homework

Remember those Dreams of Summer?

This post is the first in, hopefully, many 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.

Hello Jeremy,
Remember this summer when we had our dreams in place of how we were going to make this work, this no grades thing, and how we knew that with the right amount of dedication it would be a smashing success?  Well, guess what, the school year started and it is hard!  I still believe in it, don’t get me wrong, this has been a massive educational philosophy switch for me and one that I am incredibly passionate about.  I believe I am doing the right thing by focusing on the learning and not the grade, but who ever knew that removing most worksheets, tests, and averages would making teaching so much more time consuming?  Now when students finish a project I have to find the time to speak to them about it or at the very least write lengthy feedback on their work.  No more checking an answer-key and slapping a subjective percentage on it and calling it a day.  I have to study what they learned, how they divulged it, and more importantly figure out where to go from there.

So maybe that is why many educators do the grade; it is easy.  After all, you don’t have to change how you teach a student if the end result is just an average number based upon a semester’s performance.  You can just hand over the grade, watch the disappointment swell if it wasn’t the one they hoped for and then move on.  Parents are happy because they recognize what the grade means, or think they do anyway, and students know exactly where they fit into in the hierarchy in the class.  End of story.  Yet, when you throw away the grade something enormous happens.  At first, students are a little bit surprised, perhaps even dismayed, and definitely confused.  I don’t know how many times I have had to discuss with students why the feedback I have provided does not translate into a percentage.  Some get it, most don’t at this point in the year.  One student in particular keeps asking me how he can earn a good grade and is perpetually disappointed when I tell him that it is about the learning not the grade.  So what do you say?  Do you tell them that they are doing amazing and some would consider that to be an “A+” performance or do you stick to your line and keep pressing on with learning goals?

And the work!  Papers piling up, goals, checklists, notes from conversations all crowd my desk.  With conferences coming up, I am starting to shake a little in my boots.  Will I have enough evidence to prove the academic rigor I am subjecting my students to? Will students be able to explain what they have been learning or how it affects their future learning?  Will I be able to communicate effectively to doubting parents that although less homework is sent home, their child is still learning just as much?  And don’t get me started on report cards!  How will I translate their knowledge into a grade?

I know this is the right path, but why must it be so hard?  I know change is never easy but this makes so much sense.  So where does one go from here?