How to Have “The Talk” – Nope Not That One.


At the end of the summer, when my department discussed our approach to the feedback centered classroom, one of the biggest apprehensions was how to tell students they would not be getting a mark.

I’m sure there are all kinds of ways to introduce this topic. In fact, this is an area where I would love to hear how others have set the stage in their grades free classrooms.

This is the method I used this year:

I created random class groups of four students and gave them each a piece of chart paper and some markers. I showed this slide


and asked students to discuss and make point form notes. When finished each group took turns explaining their answers to the larger group.

“You can explain the information to others”, “you have learned something” “you get a good mark” were some of the topics brought into the conversation. We then had a larger group discussion about how you know when you’ve learned something, what exactly a “good mark” is, and what kinds of skills you need to be successful.

Then I had them discuss this slide.


I suggested, “What if you were learning to ride a bike?” “How often should you get to attempt the skills needed?” This slide required very little group conversation. Most groups concluded that they should get as many times to attempt the skills as they needed. Then I asked, “What if you were writing an essay?” How many attempts should you get then?” Most groups still agreed that they should get as many attempts as required.

“How often in school, do you get the chance to re-attempt a skill?” I asked. This question was  met with silence and confused looks. I let the silence sit there. At some point, a student offered that sometimes they get the chance to re-do an assignment, but that mostly once you’ve handed an assignment in, your done.

We then discussed if this agreed with their prior conversation about the number of times you should get to learn a skill. This conversation also lasted a while. Some students argued that in school they only have a short time (in our school a semester) so there has to be an end to attempts. I posed questions like “Yes, that is the way we have always done it, does that mean it’s the right way?” and “Can you think of a better way?” “What if you figure out what you’re doing, after the assignment is done?” “Have you learned the skill, or not?”

I then moved the discussion to consider what kind of feedback students were looking for in their assignments and what they could do with the feedback they received.

At this point, I explained that I would not be issuing grades, but giving feedback only. I told them that they may re-do assignments and that they will be required to reflect on the feedback they are given. I spoke to them about studies about student learning; how researchers have studied the increase in learning when students receive just marks, marks with comments, and comments alone. I revealed that in the studies, students who received feedback only made the most improvement.

(I always tell them I have copies of the research for them to look at if they wish, but so far no one has asked to see it. LOL – I have a dream that my students will practice critical thinking and will want to see definitive proof of what I say, rather than just taking my word for it. Ahhh my rose coloured glasses.)

I told my students that this was a change in practice for all of us and that we were on a learning journey together. I pointed out that I have been guilty in the past of not giving students enough time to review and comment on their feedback. I let them know that it would be okay to tell me if I fell back into this practice. I wanted them to know that I am also learning new skills.

The biggest question I received at the end of this lesson was “if I don’t get a mark, how will I know if I’m doing ok?” This is a valid fear for students who have spent years working in the marks based system.

I assured them that we could conference at any time to discuss their progress. The reality is that with feedback they will know exactly how they are doing. When they come and ask me, and they often do in the first few weeks, I ask them how they think they are doing? Then I ask them to tell me how they know.

Prior to students leaving class that day, I had them write their thoughts on an exit slip. Some still had reservations about knowing exactly how they were doing, but they were all positive about the increased chances to practice skills and the idea of knowing what to work on from the feedback provided.

A large part of this process is giving back students the control and confidence over their own learning. In their past, they have experienced the feeling that the teacher just magically arrived at a number. (Whether it’s true or not, at some point in our academic career we have all had the feeling that a given mark was somewhat arbitrary) With feedback they know exactly where they stand and what to do to move forward. This is empowering.

I think next semester I may give each group a few examples of feedback from this semester and ask them to assess how the student is doing. This would hopefully lead to a rich conversation about what it means to learn.

What do you think? How would you approach this change in pedagogy with your students?

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.






First blog post

First blog post

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?