Grades are a Crutch

Living in Northern New Hampshire, I often feel as though my teaching philosophy leaves me stranded on an island.

I am the only educator I know that uses an iPad to teach.  I am the only educator I know locally that not only believes that grades are punitive and as such am abolishing grades.  I am also the only educator I know that will not be using traditional 3-5 question “reading checks” in my literature course.

In my twitter PLN and conversations I’ve been having with a few people in my PLN (Mark Barnes and Joe Bower) they have helped to guide me that this way of thinking is what’s not only right for me, but right for my students.

My History with Grading

The way my courses are structured are that at least three (3) drafts of each larger paper is created, discussed, revised, edited.  I have 70+ students,  and six larger papers a semester for each student.  Along with these larger papers, my students have weekly writings.  My first semester of teaching, i quickly discovered that the traditional grading scheme was not going to work for me and my students.  I had too many arguments with myself over just what to assign for a grade.  I spent more time over the letter grade than I did reading and writing narrative feedback.  I did this for the first year.

The second year of teaching, I did away with points, percentages and just graded the “final” product.  My dissonance with grading still existed, now it was just more focused.  I hated grading.  Hated placing a B or C on a paper and watching students flip past comments for the grade, look at it and shove their paper in their bags.  It felt as if all my hard work, effort and struggle was negated by that silly letter at the end.

How can I change the motivation of the students?

I don’t think students should “earn” a grade.  I don’t believe grades should be used, as they are often done, TO students without their input.  Grades are punitive and fester competition.  If students are competing with each other, their parents and the system, then when does that leave time for actual learning?  When I take the competitive nature out of the classroom by removing the grades I also take away the external motivation of the students. I no longer am saying to them, complete all areas of this checklist/rubric/etc., tally them up and there is your grade.  Grades are no longer done “to” them.

The motivation is now intrinsic.  I ask my students, “What would you do with more time?” and then give it to them.  This switch in approach triggers the students to want to make their writing better.   This leads to more collaboration between students and teacher and more student ownership.  This student ownership also fosters the change in motivation from outward to intrinsic.

Don’t we all want our students to want to do better because they know they can without being motivated by grades?

Think of how we are “graded” in real world.  Through narrative feedback and conversation with our bosses and peers.  The bank manager doesn’t give their tellers a “C”, why should we in education? Authentic and meaningful feedback is the prefered method of grading post schooling, why not match it in school?

I like to state that education today uses the act of grading as a crutch.  

Teachers, school districts and even the Federal Government assign grades because it looks nice and neat.  Oh, this school is a C school, this one fails.  Teachers manipulate grades in an effort to extort some power and control.  We hear teachers talk about not being able to “do” that activity as their students would go crazy.  The teachers are afraid to lose control or better yet, to transfer that control to the students.  Teachers who stress upon “classroom management” and expect students to sit in the desks, listen attentively and absorb all the education the teachers are pouring into the brains are often frustrated with the structure of school (even though many may not see anything inherently wrong with it).  Teachers rely on the act of grading as their last push for ultimate control of their class.  Hardly ever are students allowed any feedback for the grades they receive or are they allowed to offer their own feedback into what they feel their grades should be.

Losing the Crutch

I have looked at my grading scheme that I thought I had settled on a mere month ago; however, after attending #RSCON3 I am ready (and more than willing) to relinquish full control of my class.  I will not be assigning grades to my students come this fall.  Students will be grading themselves (I predict that they will be harder than I would have been anyways).  My plan to implement this is as follows:

  1. Discuss with students on Day 1 my expectations and what I want them to learn for the course.
  2. Create the courses essential questions together.
  3. Brainstorm a list of ways throughout the semester and with our books on how we can demonstrate not only learning, but mastery too.
  4. Sign students up for days when they lead the classroom discussion.
  5. Conference with the students at least every 2-3 weeks (or as needed) on their progress.
  6. Offer narrative feedback on all assignments and stay away from empty praise.  Note what works, what intrigued me, and question students next steps with the piece.
  7. Sit with the students and watch their work come rolling in.
Okay with Living on an Island…For Now…
I will not mind being an educational island of one come this fall.  I have my PLN that will support me.  I am looking forward to finally being able to teach without the crutch that has slowed me down for the last two years.  I am already imagining what I could do without the stress and the time of grading.
My hope is that one by one I can start to show my fellow educators that they are relying on a crutch while teaching and hope that they can then lose it.  One at a time.

We Must Pay Close Attention to the Forks

I hate doing dishes.  


Let me rephrase: I loathe deeply washing silverware. Give me fifty plates and cups and pans, yes, pans encrusted with burnt dinner. Anything but silverware.

The deal in my house is this: I wash everything but the silverware.

This typically works; however, Husband was working out of town and, well, the clean silverware drawer was empty. I spent forty minutes soaking, wiping and inspecting each individual fork, spoon, knife and cooking tool to insure that all residual food junk was off the silverware.

As I was picking dried grilled onions and leftover omelets from the tines of forks, it occurred to me… dirty silverware was very much like the students I teach.

I know, crazy mental leap, right. Bear with me.

Students are unique individuals. They have varying backgrounds and good recognize this. Great teachers not only recognize this, they embrace it and base their classroom planning around it.

On Twitter and Facebook I have been seeing posts of how classroom teachers have their full-year lesson plans complete for the entire year.

Now, I know what you are thinking… You think I mean a year-long unit outline or a basic calendar outlining concepts. No, daily lesson plans in their plan books done.

How are these teachers accomplishing this?

I struggle before the start of every semester of just penciling in general topics of studies for a block of time. A pencil is a must. I never liked pencils before I started planning curriculum. I just erase, adapt, change and alter my plans every day. And those changes occur before my semester even starts.

Why so many changes?

I read an article on the teaching of writing in English Journal, or someone on Twitter posts a fantastic link on reading comprehension or my students take a detour that I could never have planned for. I also take into account my students–who they are, where they are coming from, what do they need, what interested them.

I am there, my entire purpose, is to teach students. How could I plan any curriculumn and not take my students into account. My students must be at the forefront of all of my instructional and curriculum planning needs. Otherwise, I am do them and myself a grave disservice.

Just like my annoying silverware. Yes, there is a lot of it. Yes, there are lots of nooks and crannies that demand individual attention and must be washed one-by one.  If I don’t give the silverware the attention it needs to be clean, sparkly and food-ready, then the next time I want to use it, I need to go back to the sink and re-wash it. Except this time, instead of it being rather easy to clean, the food bits are crusted on. Almost impossible to get clean.

If I had paid attention in the beginning and given the individual time necessary to the silverware (and students) time re-washing (and re-teaching) would not be necessary.  Instead, I could spend time on baking gluten free chocolate chip cookies with my boys or going more in depth with my students.

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