Ten Tools for Changing the Grading Conversation

While I have tried to move away from giving grades over the last seven years, I have been a failure at it.  Those pesky numbers or letters keep popping up in our classroom, whether I want them to or not.  That seems to be what happens when you work within a public school system that has made the grading decision for you.  For the past seven years, I have written about how to move away from grades, but what if that is not an option?  What if grades are a part of your duties and you have to give them no matter what?  And let’s face it; assessing students through grades is easy; put a number/letter on it and it tells the whole story for you, or so we think.  Put a number/letter on it and surely a child, or a parent, will know exactly what we are communicating and how they are doing.  And yet, that is not what happens within most traditional grading; kids don’t know why they get what they get, they feel they have no control, and parents aren’t aware of the full story.

I have to come realize that while I can pine for a gradeless system, where we do not place children into such boxes, in the meantime I can work within the confinement currently presented and change the conversation itself.  So rather than focus on trying to remove grades completely, I can make sure that the ones I am in charge of giving are actually meaningful, as well as controlled by the students, providing us with another tool for giving the learning back to the students.

We start by breaking down our learning targets whenever possible, and while this sounds incredibly formal, it is more of a pointed conversation.  What are we learning and why are we learning it are questions that students should be able to answer, even if the answer to why is to be better human beings.  Students have a hard time taking ownership over their learning process if they have no clue where they are headed.

We then discuss ways to get there.  As often as possible, students need have to different pathways to reach their learning goals.  While full personalization of product would be lovely, I am not able to provide that for my students at all times.  We then look to the five tenets of choice as ways to incorporate more personalization.

Students must know themselves.  We have two central questions we pursue as an English class all year; who am I as a reader and who am I as a writer?  Both of these lead to the self-reflection and discovery that students undertake.  After all, I need each child to know themselves well enough to know how they actually need to grow and also to find the motivation to become better.  That will not happen if I make the same goal for each child. It is also telling that many of my most resistant learners do not know who they are as learners.  How can we expect them to grow if they don’t even know who they are?

We know what the end assessment will be.  We have to discuss with students and help them understand what our grade level work reads like or presents itself as, otherwise we are asking students to shoot their learning into the dark and hope it sticks somewhere.  So actual student examples, modeling, and shared conversations have to be present during our learning as guides to the students.  Make it accessible without your direction so they can access it at any time.

We change our language.  Two years ago I adopted the “Best draft” terminology from Kelly Gallagher and have not looked back.  Often students will hand in their “best draft” rather than their final product.  Final product means exactly that; final, no need to revise, revisit, or rethink.  But “best draft” means that it is unfinished, that there is still work to be done, that even if the assessment is attached to it, it is preliminary at best and can be molded by their own efforts to change their learning product.

Students assess themselves first.  For big projects, (and I need to do it more) I will not assess it unless a child has first.  Otherwise, my voice is what they will conform to rather than their own reflection on where they are on the learning journey.  I need them to do the hard thinking work of breaking down their own skills and then seeing what their strengths are and how they need to grow further.  They, therefore, need to understand the rubric, the terminology used, as well as how they CAN grow.

They come up with a next step.  While I focus my feedback on the one next step, they also need to focus on what they are working on next and how else they will grow.  It is not enough for them to place themselves into an assessment category and then do nothing about it.  Every child needs to set the next step goal for themselves and then come up with a tangible plan to pursue it.  This will be a major focus for me next year as I am still trying to figure out how to do this best with teaching 130+ students.

They direct their learning.  Part of our learning journey is figuring out how they learn best within the confinements of our time, our environment, and the curriculum we do need to explore.  So who do they work best and where in the room do they work best are parts of their self-assessments, not just a number or a letter grade.

They take ownership over their assessment.  While the number (we are standards based) is not the description of them as a learner, it becomes part of our conversation.  We must go beyond handing out numbers or letters so that students can understand what it means to create work that is at a “2” or a “3” and then move beyond that even.  Making the number or letter something that is in control of the students changes their own classification.  No child is a “2” in our classroom, the specific work may be at a “2” level; there is a big difference there.

They want more.  My students know that their score, which is often selected by themselves, is just a part of their assessment because they are consistently provided with feedback either through a rubric, written out, or a conversation.  Very rarely, except for on our spelling packets, are they just given a score with no further explanation.  That means that they know that the number is merely a symbol of something larger and not the only designator.  They know that there is more to the story.  In fact, they get so used to this that if feedback or reflection opportunity is not provided that they ask for further clarification.  This is an indicator, in my eyes, that they see how little the actual number/letter symbolizes and need more information.

The thing is with grades, they are a tool like any other.  It is when we let them dominate our conversation when they become the only thing we discuss that we lose kids in the process.  Grades were not meant to be easy, they are meant to be a conversation starter and so it is up to us to start having those conversations if we want students to truly have ownership over their own learning journey.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

A Simple Idea for Better Growth in Student Writing

For many years I have disliked grades and how they can affect the learning journey we are on.  In fact, I have disliked them so much that I dedicated an entire chapter in Passionate Learners about how to go almost grade-less, and yet, I work in a public school district that does do grades.   While my district is mostly standards based and rather progressive in its grading policy, the fact of the matter is that I still have to at some point quantify my students’ learning and assign them some sort of a number. No matter how much I detest this very thing.  And yet, having this expectation has actually allowed me to really embrace what grades can do for a conversation and how we, once again, can work within the confinements of a system and change the very conversation we are having.

One of my largest issues with grades is that it limits the very conversations we have with kids.  We end up letting the grades speak for us or we spend time leaving them feedback to only see kids do nothing with it.  And who can blame them?  If the grade has already been assigned then why should anything be taken to heart?

Therefore, I knew that I needed to change the very conversation we were having because I no longer wanted students to just ask how to get an A or a 3, especially in their writing.   I no longer wanted them to skip over their feedback and not really grow from it.  And while in my elementary classroom I was able to have a lot of time conferring with students, teaching 45-minute English classes meant that I had very little for the one-to-one.  And yet, the feedback is so very important because this is what changes the very conversation that we have with our students, especially when it comes to their writing.

So what did I change to create more meaningful learning opportunities where students actually used the feedback for something?  It is simple really, and I may be the last teacher to have figured this out but figured I would share it still.

Students turn in their rough draft a week before their due date.

Yup, that’s it.

Because my students now turn in their rough draft, I can leave them specific feedback and I also place our rubric in so they can see what they would be assessed at if this were their final draft.  They turn it in on a Friday, typically, I have it returned by Monday.  I leave them specific feedback, not “fix this…” but instead asking them questions about their writing and pointing out any significant areas of concerns.  They then get the next week to revise and resubmit.  They get the next week to ask questions.  I get the next week to confer with those that need more than just written feedback.

Does it work?  Yes!  As I assess their final writing pieces of the year, I can see just how much they have changed and refined since I left them feedback.  I can see how they have actually used the comments I have left them and have figured out how to grow their writing.  No more pointless feedback and no more feeling left out of the grading conversation.  Is it a lot of work?  Yes, I am not going to lie, but it is so worth it when it comes to seeing how they have grown as writers.  A bonus is that kids who tend to miss deadlines are now more on track since they know that they need to have a rough draft to turn in.

So there you have it, one small idea that goes a long way to give students more ownership not only over their final grades but also over the writing process itself.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

How to Make Grades About Students Again

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Our first semester ended last week.  I have been working on grades, both standards scores and letter grades, for the past 3 days.  Pondering.  Wondering.  Pulling my hair out as I try to figure out which box to place my students in as we try to assess the growth that has happened.  In the end of it all, I am reminded of how much I still hate grades.

And yet, within this process of distilling my students down to a single letter comes an amazing opportunity for conversation.  Within the very simplification of all of the learning they have done, we have had an awesome chance to change the notion of what that score or letter means.

So how can we make grades and scores about the students again?

Start with a student definition.  Our very first conversation was the definition of each letter grade; a seemingly simple topic of conversation that shows just what students think grades measure; hard work, effort, being able to follow deadlines.  Very few students really understood that grades are supposed to measure knowledge.  Not work habits.  Not personalities.  In fact, many students said that the teacher is who is in control of grades (which, of course, there is an ounce of truth in) but they had never thought about how they could control the score.  How the choices they make result in the score they get.  The light-bulb moment for some students was tangible.

Have them grade themselves.  And not just for fun, but really.  After each grading period, my students either write which standard score they should get and why or which letter grade and why.  This very simple act – it takes about 5 minutes – become the seeds of conversations we need to have next.

Have them do a semester survey.  I continually want to be a better teacher for my students and that means that I need to face some ugly truths; some students are not getting enough help, some students feel I talk too much, some students are still not reading but getting very good at faking it.  How do I know?  I asked them on our end of semester survey and they told me their truths.  

Ask them what they are proud of.  As students came up one-by-one, this was the very first question I asked.  Not what their grade should be, not what their goal is.  But what are they proud of.  Why that?  What else?  Then what are goals?  How can I help best?  How can I support?  I read their survey and we discussed things right then.  Their voices came first, not their score.

Then discuss their grades.  The majority of students had picked the same letter I would, but some had either scored themselves too high or too low.  And while this is always interesting to see,  the bigger truth can be found in why they have picked that letter to define them.  Those simple statements they use to explain their answer; I am not that smart, I don’t understand, I work hard, I can teach others.  All clues to how they see themselves and their own learning.  All clues we can use to change the very essence of the conversation, because the conversation cannot just be about the grade, it needs to be about them.  About more than what they are distilled to on paper.  About how they see themselves, about their strengths, about their needs, about their dreams.

So while I work in a system that still asks me to define students through a score, we can reclaim that very conversation.  We can change the focus of the grade.  We can go deeper, make it more meaningful but we have to take the time to do it.  We have to assure that students have a voice in the process if we ever want it to be meaningful, if we ever want them to care.  We cannot do that through a letter, we cannot even do it through a report card comment.  It is not enough.  This conversation is the very least we can do to make grades about the students again.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Ready to Re-Ignite Your Passion? Join the Passionate Learners Book Club

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With the bustle of December and all of the year-end blog posts starting to be released, the end of the year is fast approaching.  But with that end also comes an inevitable beginning; a January that calls for re-invention, renewed commitment, and also the energy to try new things.  I do so adore January for all of its passion and courage.

It is therefore that I am pretty excited to share that the first ever official book club for Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students will kick off on January 10th.

Join this private Facebook group for a casual and fun exploration of the book, find a community of your own that is trying some of the ideas, or have already implemented them into their classrooms.  There will be reflective questions, helpful resources, as well as ideas shared in the hopes to make this January the best one yet.

In the book club we will discuss how to

  • Build a working relationship with your students based on mutual trust, respect, and appreciation.
  • Be attentive to your students’ needs and share ownership of the classroom with them.
  • Break out of the vicious cycle of punishment and reward to control student behaviour.
  • Use innovative and creative lesson plans to get your students to become more engaged and intellectually-invested learners, while still meeting your state standards.
  • Limit homework and abandon traditional grading so that your students can make the most of their learning experiences without unnecessary stress.

So if you are looking for a way to re-ignite your passion, to meet new amazing educators, and find great ideas for how to engage and empower your students, join this book club.  There is no commitment once you join, pop in when you can and share when you want.

When:  January 10th – February 7th

Where:  Online via a private, closed Facebook group

Cost:  Free

Click here to join the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook.  You will receive a notification from Facebook once you have been added to the group and you can then start posting.  Please contact me with any questions.  You can get your print or e-book copy of Passionate Learners here.

What My Students Told Me – Students Take on Grades

I thought teaching 7th graders would mean that they had a cool distance to school.  That they knew that the grades we give reflect the work they do.  That a report card is not meant as a slap in the face, but rather a tool to be used as they grow toward their goal.  I thought that moving from letter grades to standards based meant students would get it better, would embrace the chance to see what they needed to focus on and then work harder to master their deficits.  Yet again what I thought has proven to not be so, so when I asked my students their thoughts on grades so that I could add their voice to the re-publication of Passionate Learners, I had to take a moment to digest what they told me.  It wasn’t what they said about whether teachers should grade or not, it was how they reacted to the grades they were given.

Once again, I am the mouthpiece for my students, they asked that I please share this with the world in the hope that it will inspire change.  In the hope that it will inspire discussion, that we will take their thoughts and use them to push our own.  So what my students wish teachers knew about grades is simple, yet significant.  I hope it makes you think.

That they feel they have little to no control over what grade they get.  Even in a standards-based grading district, where I ask them to show me mastery with deconstructed standards using rubrics we have created together, they still feel that they have little control over how they are assessed, and more importantly what that assessment means to them.  Now imagine how students feel when they haven’t created the rubric, self-assessed, or deconstructed the standards.  They don’t understand the rubrics we give, they don’t understand at times what they should know to be labeled proficient.  They don’t understand the number they are given.  They crave feedback and conversation, rather than a number or letter.  They crave classrooms that relish growth, failure, and attempts at learning.

That grades means they are done.  The minute we grade something, they are done with it.  It is the signal they need to move on, no matter that I teach in a district that allows and encourages re-takes for everything.  If we want them to continue working on something then we should give feedback but no scores.

That grades sometimes become the one thing that their parents look at, nothing else.  The minute a grade is placed on something that is all their parents can focus on.  Their parents don’t always care about the effort, they don’t always care about the growth, just what the final result is.  The conversations then centers around reaching the “3” or the “4,” to get that A, rather than what they learned, how they liked it, and what they are working on next.

That a grade tells them whether they are smart or not.  We may say that grades are in their control and that they don’t reflect how smart they are, but they are not listening.  If you get good grades, you must be smart, if you don’t well then you are dumb.  Grades are leading them to a fixed mindset, rather than the growth mindset we are all hoping for.

That publishing honor rolls or GPA’s mean that their private learning is now public.  We may see releasing these names as a way to celebrate their learning, but many of my students says it just creates a divide.  And it’s not the students who are not on honor roll that said this to me, no, over and over it was the students that made it.  They didn’t see their accomplishments as anyone else’s business.

That grades are for the future, not for the now.  So many of my students reported that grades mattered because they want to go to college, and while at first I found this to be great (they care about the future!) I soon realized that this is so far from the purpose of what school should be.  Students should keep an eye on the future, yes, but they should also keep an e eye on the now.  They should be focused on the learning journey they are currently on and be excited to see their own growth and how it will help them right now, not 6 years from now.

Once again, my students are pushing me to change the way I asses in the classroom.  While I strive to give them meaningful feedback, I have slipped from my ways.  That’s what happens when you teach more than 100 students.  Yet, the numbers I am so carefully doling out are not helping them grow, so I am not doing my job as their teacher.  My students are making me a better teacher, imagine if we asked all of our students what grades means to them?

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

Standards Based Report Cards; Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

My district switched to Standards Based Report Cards this year and at first I felt happy; after all, we were stepping away from letter grades and toward feedback based narratives, right?  Wrong.  After having sent out my first set in December, I once again realize the failure of report cards, even if they are standards based.  So while there may be some positives; they are supposed to be broader skills, narrative missives rather than just percentages, and we finally all have the same report card, I still see some massive red flags:

  • You have to speak educationalese to understand them.  Phrases such as, “Uses decoding skills, uses comprehension strategies, and recognizes and uses different genre and text features while reading” now abound on our report card without any proper explanation of what they mean.  I felt compelled to write an explanation letter with each report card so that parents and students may actually have an idea of what it is they are being graded on.  If I am doing a narrative letter, then why in the world am I also doing a report card?
  • Numbers get converted to letter grades.  We may urge parents to not think of a “4” as an “A+” but let’s face it, they do.  My students did it the first day they got them and they will continue to do so no matter how many times I tell them not to.  The only difference is that now everybody wants 4’s rather than A +’s.
  • We are still quantifying some learning,  even though you really can’t.  I have to break down whether my students ask appropriate questions or follow multi-step directions into a grade, are they truly two grade levels above in their direction following or are they just at a 5th grade level? My head was spinning by the end of it.  
  • Learning that is supposed to be differentiated is not graded differently.  So a child with special needs is graded the same way as a child without.  That way we can ensure that all kids that struggle know that although they have worked very hard and have progressed, they will never be where their peers are.  Take that you struggling learner!
  • We don’t offer learning opportunities where children can prove they are accomplished.  I have to follow a scripted math, science, social studies, and writing program.  This is all crammed into very short amounts of time.  Within that time I have to get through the lesson and then somehow leave time for enrichment so that my students can show me just how “accomplished” they are to get a 4.  That doesn’t always happen.  So although I strive to do project-based learning, I still have to get through my curriculum, and that does not allow for deeper exploration   You may be accomplished in science, but I will probably never find out if I just follow the curriculum.
  • We expect kids to learn at the same pace so we can evaluate at the same time.  We forget that children gravitate toward different subjects, learn at different paces, and learn in different ways, and yet we grade them the same.  What is our obsession with numbers and data?  We test them just so we know what they supposedly know and if they do poorly then we have to teach them how to test better.  That is sheer insanity to me.  To have a single standard you have to decide that there is only one way to learn, and we know that to be false.  When we don’t provide students with multiple opportunities to show us that they know we are not doing our job.  Or at least I am not.  
  • It is still not narrative.  Standards based report cards offer us four grading options; 1, 2, 3, and 4, and yet still leaves the recipient wondering what they need to work on.  Sure they may have received a “2” in summarizing but that “2” does not tell them what they need to work on; the teacher does hopefully through goal setting with the student.  I itched to add comments to every single box to explain exactly what the child should work on, but I didn’t, because it defeats the purpose of a quick way to show learning.  I will always feel that report cards are obsolete in a classroom where feedback is continually given and goals are set along with te student.  Having moved to standards based report cards only solidifies that opinion.

What do you think?  Are standards based report cards better than traditional report cards?  Am I missing the point of them or being too harsh?  Are they just lipstick on a pig?I would love to have a discussion regarding this.