So You’ve Decided to go Grades Free… Now What?

So You’ve Decided to go Grades Free… Now What?


I enjoy baking bread. I love the smell of the yeast as the dough rises. I love the feel of the dough as I kneed it. I love the warm smell of baking bread coming from my oven. You know what I don’t love? Waiting! Baking bread takes time. It takes planning.

It’s sort of like starting a grades free classroom.

The first step for my grades free classroom is to prepare students for a different classroom experience. While it is a shift in pedagogy for teachers to give only feedback we must remember that this is also big change for our students. By grade nine they have had eight years of training in the traditional system. You can’t expect students to embrace these changes overnight.

The first step in the grades free classroom, and quite frankly what should be happening in all classrooms regardless of your assessment method, is to make students feel comfortable.

As we move through the semester I expect students to spend a fair amount of their time editing, re-editing and developing their original answers or assignments. I teach students how to peer edit each other’s work, and ask students to share their work with each other.

Frequently, I project student work on the screen for the class to see what their peers have done. When showcasing a students work for the class, I don’t always just share what is awesome about their work, I also point out where they can make improvements.

Just one note here before we continue; I always ask students if they are comfortable with their work being shown and tell them exactly what will be pointed out to their peers. I might say something like: “I really liked how you wrote the hook for this essay. Do you mind if I use your work to show the class? Also, I noticed that you haven’t used any text evidence to support your points in the body paragraphs. I think many of your peers are doing the same thing. Can we talk with everyone about your next step and how you’re going to add that proof?” Most students agree, but if they say no, I don’t cajole or try to convince them, I say ok.

This environment requires an amazing amount of trust for students. Imagine yourself at your next staff meeting and the principal requests that he post your latest lesson plan so staff can talk about its strengths and weaknesses. You just gasped in horror didn’t you? I know I felt a little shudder when I wrote the sentence.

So not only must students trust that the teacher will be sensitive to their feelings when talking about their work, but more importantly for them, they have to be willing to trust their classmates. Trust takes time to build.

Consequently, I spend the first week of school building trust.   I do this first by letting my students get to know each other. For example, this year I started the first day by handing a playing card to each student. They then had to find their match and interview their classmate. I provided questions on the board for students who had trouble coming up with interview questions, but allowed deviation from the script for those that wanted it.

This summer I purchased “Icebreakers That Rock” by Jennifer Gonzales who writes the Cult of Pedagogy blog and podcast. I highly recommend you check it out.

Students’ lined up in order of height, and then by birthday month and then in alphabetical order by first name. They played would you rather and chatted with each other in the concentric circle activity. They loved it. I believe a big part of the draw was that they were up and moving, not stuck in their desks.

When students were a bit more comfortable with each other I had them participate in an awareness circle so they could really see the differences and similarities they shared with each other. In this activity, students entered in and out of the circle depending on their answer to many questions. Into the circle if you play an instrument, into the circle if you are an only child, into the circle if you have ever lived in foster care or fostered someone in your family, into the circle if you or someone you know has suffered from a mental illness.

Some questions can be quite personal so obviously you need to know your group and adjust questions accordingly, but as the week went on if was interesting to see how much deeper their conversations were, and how much more they were willing to share with each other.

This year my school adopted the grades free method for all grade nine and ten English classes. When our department met on the first Friday to talk about the week our conversation went a little like this:

“I feel like I haven’t done anything all week.”

“I know, me too. We just played games and talked.”

“I haven’t even had them hand something in!”

The teachers in my department have all had more than eight years in the traditional system. Not getting to the curriculum caused our stomachs to churn. “They should be handing things in!” “I didn’t teach them a lesson!” “Where is the learning?” If you adopt this method, you will feel the same way too.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Waiting for the bread to come out of the oven takes patience. That first warm piece with butter is heaven.

When you eventually get to the lessons (and you will), they will be that much sweeter because you took the time to build the base.

Happy Thanksgiving all.






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