Shifting the Conversation from Grades to Learning

This is Part II of a piece about Why I’m Quitting Grading

The most important part about quitting grading is the focus on a continual dialogue with students about their learning process. The conversations have to move away from “when is this due?” “how much is this worth?” and “when will we be done?” and start broadening to “why is this text relevant to me?” “what connections can I make to my life?” and “what do I already know that connects to this topic?

When kids start learning how to think in these terms, their need for the information stored in grades (which is overly complex and synthetic, not to mention varies from teacher-to-teacher and day-to-day) begins to shrink.

The toughest students to get on board of this train of thought are the “good students” who are compliance-minded. I’ve had several students in the past year who just couldn’t grasp concepts that I didn’t tell them were on a test, in a paper, or for a grade. If it didn’t have to do with their path to an A, they literally had no reason or way to learn it. What they did know, very well, was how to get grades and obey orders.

The kids who were on board right away, as you might guess, were the “slackers.” They rejoice at the phrase “no deadlines” but… didn’t quite know what to think, when I followed through with high expectations and support in their learning. When they stopped worrying about how they’d rank in comparison to the rest of the class, or to the kind of grades they were used to getting, they actually started paying attention. The started to discover what intrinsic motivation felt like even if they had never heard the term.

I didn’t take up a lot of time in my class explaining beforehand that I would be a “teacher with no grades or deadlines.” I talked a lot about English, about writing and reading meaningful texts and creating our own instead. I focused on the kids’ lives, the content, and the class context. I didn’t start the conversation about grades, deadlines and homework unless I was prompted. In those cases, I tried to subtlely blot out their use of those words. I knew if I could neglect to even use the word “grade”, I would be focusing them on more meaningful verbs.

When students are focused on what they are doing and thinking in a given moment, they learn to leave out adjectives completely. Good and bad grade or student ceases to have meaning because they become more interested in themselves as writing students or inquiring thinkers. Those are engaging processes that have objective value rather than some other person’s subjective rating.

The conversation extends to teachers too. In an article I wrote for, I spoke about the dangers of the good/bad teacher debate and how labels are damaging our ability to look critically at real pedagogical decisions and actions. We can’t just “fire all the bad teachers” as Newsweek’s cover so cavalierly put it last year. We certainly can’t “get rid of all the bad students” either as a truly scary number of teachers I talk to see as a solution (“well at least that kids out of our school…”).

As educators, we owe it to all children to provide an enriching experience which teaches them how to live and work in a world which they will eventually create for us. If we think dumping out “bad” teachers is a solution, that’s exactly what such schools will do to “bad” kids. If those are solutions, we’re going to need a lot more investment in prisons than schools in the next fifty years (a trend that is already going in a frightening direction).

Teaching kids to think and learn without concern for grades or points is not about having no consequences. It is not about having no rules or low expectations. You have to push kids every day to go beyond what they think they can do and know. They need to feel challenged and supported by you and their peers as much as possible. I hold my kids to high standards and I do everything possible to help them learn.

Teaching and learning in my classroom does not look like laziness and indolence as I pussyfoot around some hippe feel-good “non-grade” system. My kids know they get a grade at the end of the semester, but their role in shaping it is alive and dynamic rather than prescribed and static. They know that if they want what they see as a meaningful grade, they have to talk to me, a lot. They have to show me they have set goals and explored the process by which they grew and challenged themselves. As a teacher, I had to understand that my letting go of bestowing grades on kids would free them to take ownership and develolp autonomy. They do nothing just because I tell them to, my job is always to validate where is kid is coming from when they enter my door and open their mouth. If they know that’s my goal, then they start to open their minds.

When talking to my administration in the last two years, I’ve always made the conversation about what the kids were reading, writing, and discussing. I didn’t talk about an “upcoming test” or a “big deadline” for which I had already drawn up a bell curve of predetermined rankings. I talked about each child’s learning story specifically. My principals and fellow teachers have never turned away from hearing about kids learning. No matter what kind of hard core assessment program they support in your school, if they don’t listen to you talk about the kids, you can feel comfortable pressing them on that.

When a principal hears that you have kids years behind in their tested reading ability who are reading and writing willingly every day, they have to be crazy (and I’ve met some crazy ones) not to buy in to what you are doing. Most leaders in schools really do care about kids and want to do right by them. I made it a very important goal to be non-adversarial with my school, district, and all the stakeholders with my choices in the classroom. I am no white knight.

Nothing I did could become about me doing something great in a competitive or confrontational manner; that’s why I spent a year writing and considering the impact of my last post. Your school and community are key to your ability to learn whether you’re a kid or an adult. That’s exactly what we, as teachers and principals, have to model for kids: the willingness to learn and grow when what we’re doing just isn’t working.

Why I’m Quitting Grading

I’ve been trying to write this post for a long time. I started this draft nearly a year ago. Perhaps the most intriguing–and divisive–topic in education is grading. Why we do it, how we go about it, and when we report it are all issues of contention among educators, parents, and students. Figuring out assessment and its role in your school is a vital struggle for being able to do effective work in the system where you teach.

If you’ve ever set foot into a college Education classroom, you’ve probably heard of Alife Kohn. Maybe you’ve even read excerpts from Punished by Rewards or No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning. To a traditionalist, these concepts are heresy. The more “rigor” the better. Students should be under the weight of more content, deeper assignments, and even steeper bell curves if they are going to be able to compete in our economy.

Sounds familiar right? It’s been the standard message of “work-harder-endure-the-torture” education reformers status quo proponents for over a century. Kohn stands in opposition to those ideals, but he’s only a theorist and easy to write off. I love theory, but in my own journey through exploring learning, I sought out a more real-world teacher example.

That’s when I came across Joe Bower, a teacher from Canada on a mission to abolish grading, rating, and ranking in his classroom, have the tough conversations with parents, students, and administrators, and really explore what Kohn only writes about.

As a new teacher, rocking the boat is usually the last thing you want to do. Whether it’s standing up to blatant censorship or defending your own fledgling beliefs, it’s hard to not think of your mounting student loans, rent, and bills. You’d like to keep your job, ethics be damned.

That’s why, until now, I’ve stayed away from writing about this idea. I didn’t necessarily think I’d be let go, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to have the ensuing conversations with those above me. Joe has a list of people on his website who are participating in a Moratorium on Grading; they’ve each written about their decision and position in the process. I sent Joe a message on Twitter and explained that I was taking my time to write a thoughtful and intentional response before going public.

What spurred me to finally sit down and write about this last Summer was the AMC show Mad Men. I’m not the first person to write about education and this show. Education advocate and writer Sam Chaltain has written two pieces about democracy, capitalism, and education in the show, one for Huffington Post and the other on his blog. His pieces explore the important role that choice and desire play in our lives.

My ah-ha moment came about when Don, the bold protagonist and ad man, goes against his entire agency–and profession–to stand up to Big Tobacco. His firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had Lucky Strike as a client for three decades and they represented half of their business cash flow. When they left unexpectedly, the company was thrown into turmoil. After work that day, Don sits at his typewriter writing into the wee hours of the morning. His character is an objective capitalist, but also deeply philosophical and pondering. The product of his scheming is this earth-shaking ad he places in the New York Times:

Seeing the effects of this on Draper and his firm was eye-opening; a true foil for my own profession’s struggles as Kohn, Bower, and others see them. His ad forced a sea change, something “rich and strange” as Ariel sings in The Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

I knew I had to write my own letter to the world, to my profession. I felt ready to plunge into the cold black sea, no matter how unforgiving it may seem. Writing his letter led Don’s firm into an ad campaign with the American Cancer Society in direct opposition to Big Tobacco. Maybe mine will help me start some real conversations about learning rather than grading. Maybe people will start to think beyond the false choice of carrots or sticks and start thinking about true assessment, which really means “to sit beside.”