You’ve spent a week working on the lesson.
You’ve taken into account individual student need for creativity and diversity.
You’ve spent more hours than necessary choosing just the right fonts for the instruction sheet.
You stand at the front of the room quivering with anticipation. You are excited for the knowledge journey upon which your students are about to embark.
The learning that will take place will be joyous.
Finally, with a great smile and sigh, you wrap up the opening presentation.
In the charged atmosphere of great learning that is about to commence a student waves their hand in the air, reaching their body out of their seat, so motivated by your intro that they are practically begging for theirs to be the first question answered.
You smile benevolently, and point to their outstretched arm.
“How many marks is this worth?”
Cue the screeching tire soundtrack as it all comes to a crashing halt.
This scene played out too many times in my classroom.
I’ve decided to write this blog because I have found a path that combats this focus on marks.
A grades free classroom, concentrated on feedback and the opportunity to re-do assignments has drastically changed the learning and motivation in my classroom
I am by no means an expert, but I invite you to join me on this journey as I struggle to change how we have taught and learned for generations. Through this blog I hope to share some of the techniques and experiences that have changed the way I look at teaching and, I believe, how my students experience learning.
Here’s how I began:
Have you ever gotten to the point in your teaching career where you just didn’t think you could teach one more year?
About four years ago, after teaching for over 20 years, I began thinking that I might need to look for another job. I was not inspired by my students, I was pretty sure I wasn’t inspiring them, and I just couldn’t find the joy I had always had with teaching.
On one afternoon after handing back a stack of essays and watching my grade 12 class collectively look at their mark, compare it with the people around them, and then shove it (some of them quite literally) into their binder, I decided I was done. I had spent a good part of my weekend making comments on their papers, fixing their grammar errors and making suggestions for future writing. They didn’t care; why should I?
I went home that afternoon and started Googeling “Jobs for teachers that aren’t teaching”. In case you’re wondering I didn’t find much under that category. But somehow through some convoluted search from site to site I came across Alfie Kohn’s article “The Case Against Grades,” and my life was changed.
I started doing more research on this idea and found Mark Barnes and Starr Sackstein and started putting together ideas on how I could implement these changes into my own classroom. I was inspired.
I asked my principal if I could take my one grade ten essential class and not grade anything, just give feedback and see what happened. I came prepared with articles to back up my claims and I think I talked non -stop for five minutes on how great and epic these changes would be.
Amazingly, he agreed. We decided that I would conference with the students and still come up with a mid-term and final number grade because that is how our system functions. With that, I was off and running on the path to grades free teaching.
Within the first year I had a teaching moment that convinced me that I was on the right track.
“Seth” was a tenth grade repeat student. His attendance was spotty, he had a child with his girlfriend, and he was less than motivated to improve his writing and reading skills. I had taught Seth in grade nine and his unsuccessful attempt at grade ten. I had seen him shut down when I returned his, usually incomplete work, so I knew I was in for a challenge.
On this particular afternoon Seth and I sat down to conference about his work. He answered my questions and had a good understanding for his first set of tasks. But when I asked him about the second task I got his standard shoulder shrug and mumbled answers. I kept up the questioning until I discovered he didn’t understand one of the words in the question.
We discussed its meaning and then I asked, “why don’t you go and finish that question and then when you come back you’ll have met all the expectations?”
He sat for a minute and said “like, go and do it now?”
“uhm…Ok. I’ll be back in a minute.”
The old me would have taken his work, assessed it, given him a failing grade on question two and we would never have talked about it again. He would never, on his own, have asked for help or admitted he didn’t understand the question.
But the most beautiful part of that day was that not only was Seth successful on his own tasks, but he stopped the student beside him on his way to conference with me and asked him if he had done question two. His friend laughed and said no. Seth said “well, she won’t give you ‘met’ then” and the two of them sat together and worked on the question until they both had a good answer.
At the end of the day I realized how much I had failed Seth, in the past. I had been more concerned with getting my marking done rather than taking the time to think about how that mark was affecting my student. Feedback and conferences, and not grades, is the way to encourage learning in our students.
I’d love to tell you that Seth was successful that year and that he continued to help his peers and develop a love of learning. However, that’s not often how it works in real life is it? Other life issues got in the way for Seth and he eventually stopped coming to class. But in the years following I have met other “Seth’s” and have witnessed them achieve success because the threat and anxiety of a number on a page was removed.
One small change, but a big reward. Have you thought about going grade less in your classroom?