No grades, reflection

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.

Be the change, No grades

My Best Advice on Going No Grades

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of sharing my de-grading story with the wonderful teachers at
CISVA.  Before I spoke to them (and lost my voice subsequently) I thought about what I would tell
them if I could only share five things.  So why not share that with everyone else as well.
Find your purpose.
      It is important for you to know the “why” of what you are doing, so take time to soul search to come up with your own words for why moving away from grades is important and then continue to reflect as you go.  Coming up with your own narrative for the “why” will help you refine your process.
Stay true to you.
There are many ways to do no grades and you have to find the one that works best for you.  Perhaps that means creating other types of rubrics or feedback forms, perhaps that means having students self assess with set guidelines.  Whatever will work for you to make this process easier and manageable is great in my book.
Make it work for you.
Keep it simple; after all, you are the one that has to do all of the work.  You know how your brain works for gathering feedback and artifacts to support student learning, so incorporate those methods into your process.
Involve students.
Students, even at an elementary level, know how to set up evaluations and are surprisingly tough on themselves.  I love the rich discussions that come from asking what a finished product should look like and how we can decide whether we met those goals.
Explain, explain, and explain!
You will inevitably run into people who think you are nuts so have your facts and reasons ready.  One way to involve parents is to be very honest in your reasoning as well as your methodology and engage in a meaningful conversation with them.  I always am open to discuss all of my philosophies and actively solicit feedback about them throughout the year; this tends to diffuse any negative situations or misunderstandings that otherwise may occur.
And finally; reach out!  Help each other, find someone who is working through it as well whether in your building or not.  Ask questions of those who have gone before you and continue to reflect and refine to make the process work for you.  I will gladly help as much as I can.
assessment, feedback, No grades, Student-centered

How Do You Assess Without Grades? 5 Tips to Ease the Transition

Two great questions came my way yesterday in regard to assessing without grades and then communicating that information.  We are so used to the ease of a letter grade that gets recorded in a book, averaged out and then translated into a letter, that moving away from that can be daunting and just a bit overwhelming.  So two years into my process I thought I would share some tips I learned the hard way.

  1. Discover your goal.
  2.  Whether they are based on district standards, common core, school outcomes, or even those listed in the curriculum, figure out what the goal is for each thing you teach.  These can be large or small (don’t do too many small ones though, trust me) and then figure out what the outcome should be.  Everything you do should have a learning goal because without that there is no point to the lesson.

  3. Determine the product.  What does it look like when students have accomplished the goal?  What is finished?  What is just another stepping stone?  How will students show that they have mastered the goal?  I love to have this discussion with my students, they have amazing ideas for this.
  4. Determine assessment.  Will it be written feedback?  Will it be a rubric?  Will it be a conversation – great tip; record these with a Livescribe pen and you have it for later!  Once again, ask the students, what type of assessment will help them?  How do they learn best?
  5. Keep a record.  This has been my biggest hurdle.  I have had charts, Google Docs, grade book notes, relied on my faulty brain, and yikes.  This year I am bringing my iPad in and using Evernote to keep track of it all.  Students will each have a portfolio in Evernote with conversations, pictures of work, links to blog posts, as well as videotaped events.  This way, everything will be at my fingertips when needed.  
  6. Communicate!  Assessment is not helpful if kept to yourself so have the conversations with students, take the time, write things down, communicate with parents.  All of these things need to be taken care of for this to work.  The allure of letter grades is just that; the ease of communication, nevermind that they can mean a million different things.  So when you step away from those make sure you replace that with communication.  Give students ownership of their goals and have them write a status report home, send an email, make a phone call.  Something.  Everybody should know where they are at and where they are headed throughout the year.

My 5 biggest tips for today and something I continue to work on.  Whatever your system is, take the time to reflect upon it, refine it, and make it work for you.  Ultimately stepping away from letter grades should lead to a deeper form of assessment, not a larger headache, but for that you have to have systems in place.

achievement, alfie kohn, assessment, being a teacher, No grades

Not Grading is Awful

I am just going to admit it; not grading sucks!  Not grading means I cannot assign an average, translate it into a grade and be done.  Not grading means I have to have anecdotal evidence to back up my final grade on the report card, anecdotal evidence I have to collect throughout the year and then actually keep in one place.  Not grading also means that my students have not been given percentages at any time throughout the year, which means that when I have to give them a letter grade (as mandated by my district) it is my job to make sure that they have an idea of why they are getting what they get.  Not grading means I cannot just zip through a pile of papers, correct them according to my answer key, and whip out my calculator.  Not grading means that a product can take weeks to truly be complete because that student has to rework it or revisit it in some way.  Not grading means I have to find the time in our super packed schedule to have discussions with kids about their progress.  And it sucks, honestly, because it is so much work.  I am not going to lie.  It is a lot of work not to grade in the traditional sense.

And yet, despite all of this, not grading in the traditional sense of percentages and letter grades makes so much sense to me.  Giving feedback rather than a letter leaves room to start a conversation.  It leaves room for the student’s voice to be part of the deliberation.  It leads to more learning situations as I cater my curriculum to fit the needs of that particular student.  It leads to much more time spent with the student rather than at home going through their piles.

For one, sitting down with my students to discuss why they have assigned themselves whatever grade is eye-opening.  To hear 5th graders take control of their learning, to own up to where they should have worked harder, to set up the future path for learning they need to travel, wow!  I even used my Livescribe pen for some of these conversations just to record what the students had to say, even though no one but me would listen to it.

Second, I am amazed at how often my students and I land on the same grade.  These kids really know where they are in their learning journey and they know why they are there.  It is rare that I have to steer them toward a different grade and even then it is something we discuss.

Finally, having these reflective discussions is a great way for me to culminate the year.  The students give me feedback on what worked for them, they give me ideas on how to improve and we discuss where they are headed.  All of them set learning goals for the summer, not through assigned homework, threats or promises from me but because they want to read or want to remember their math concepts.

And yet, I still struggle with taking that conversation and distilling it to a letter grade.  That letter seems so shallow compared to the rich discussion we have had.  That letter doesn’t seem to reflect all of the growth they have done.  That letter doesn’t seem to describe their journey at all but instead boils them back down to a percentage, to a number and a grade that says nothing.  So I return to my constant state of reflection on grading; what am I trying to accomplish with it?  What is the true purpose?  What am I trying to classify and portray?  How can I ever hope to capture the essence of a child’s growth in a mere letter?  And the time?  Where will I continue to find the time as our school gets more focused on tests and data?  I am not sure I have all of the answers but in my heart and mind I know what I am doing makes sense for me.  Even if it is one of the most time consuming changes I have ever integrated into my room.

assessment, being a teacher, discussion, No grades

Throwing Out Grades Doesn’t Mean Throwing Out Expectations

I used to be the queen of the “F.”  If a student wasn’t handing in their homework, I whipped out the calculator and quickly showed them what would happen to their percentage if they kept getting zeroes.  If a student wasn’t paying attention, I would show them how they would probably not do well on the test and boy that would lead to an F as well.  And what if they didn’t behave, well somehow, the threat of an F could be used even then because I couldn’t have a child who was being disrespectful get a good grade.  They simply didn’t deserve the good grades if they couldn’t sit down, listen and be good students.  So that 60% nipped them in their heels, waiting to swallow them up if they ever slowed down in our academic race.  We had things to do, papers to complete, and projects to hand in.  Get on it or that F is coming for you.

Now I don’t worry about the F because in my 5th grade room a child cannot get it as a grade.  And before you throw me in the fires of being an unrealistic teacher who isn’t teaching their students what the “real” world is like, let me explain.  The students I get to teach are all learning.  Some faster than others, some more deeply than others, but even a child that hands in a mediocre project at best has learned something.  They have garnered some sort of knowledge and that to me means they have not failed.  That F is removed from the equation because it ends up being meaningless when grades are not used throughout the year.  It loses its strength, its threat, and frankly I don’t miss it.

Instead we discuss strengths and goals.  We conference on where the child wants to go with their learning and then hatch up a plan.  I don’t talk about their weaknesses but rather what they still need to focus on, where they need to go, and then the students set their goals.  I don’t.  Because it is not my goal to own.  I am there to participate in the conversation, to hopefully ask the right questions, but I am not there to make the final decision of which path they need to travel.  I am not there to talk as much as I am there to listen.  

So as I get ready to write the year end report card that I have to write, I am also getting ready to have the conversations with my kids.  I am ready to ask them if 5th grade was what they hoped it would be, if they feel they have learned as much as they wanted to, if they feel ready for the next year.  I even ask them if they are smart.  Why?  Because their answers reveal more about their coming learning journey than a grade ever could.  Because to a kid being “smart” is something an adult tells you whether you are or not, and that ties directly to self-confidence and how they will tackle challenges.  And when the last kid leaves on the last day of school I take all of their answers with me, wanting to become a better teacher for the next group.  Wanting to serve the next set of kids even more, help them take control of their learning as much as a 5th grader can, help them set goals and then attain them.  I want them to come in as learners and stay that way.  Not because I threatened them into it, but because they took ownership.  No F’s in this room, there simply isn’t the need for them

education reform, No grades, no homework, punishment

We Say it is All About the Kids

Time and time again I hear the statement, “I do it for the kids…” or “It’s all about the kids.”  This before I hear any educational philosophy or methodology, but I have yet to meet a teacher that does not think it is all about the kids.  So then what happens from that statement to our classrooms?  Where does the disconnect start because how can you say it is all about the kids and then assign punishment or rewards?  How can you say it is all about the kids and assign hours of homework even at an elementary level?  How can it be all about the kids when there are no re-takes, no extra chances, no resources allowed on tests?

So if it is true that it is all about the kids, then perhaps we need to rethink what that means.  The way a lot of educational systems are set up is apparently all about taking time away from the kids and making sure the teacher is in focus and in control.  Do we not think that all about the kids could mean the kids had a say, were more in control and were even listened to?  Because if inane classroom management, pointless homework, letter grades with no explanation, and test upon test is what is meant by being all about kids, then no, I am not all about the kids.