Going gradeless is like a root canal

In my forties, I have not been able to endure any kind of major dental work, other than a routine cleaning, without the support of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. Even with that gaseous wonder, I still feel a slight panic when they cover my face with a rubber dam and inject the freezing. My heart races and for the first few minutes (which feels like an eternity) I am tempted to rip the works from my face and dash for the door. With some deep breathing, I turn my mind to other things and work through the anxiety, letting the laughing gas calm me down. About an hour later, cheek puffy, oxygen drifting through my lungs, I pat myself on the back for digging down deep and getting through it.

Today, as I lay in the dentist chair in stage three of a root canal, slobber dripping down my chin, the sound of the drill doing its work, I couldn’t help but wonder, is going gradeless like a root canal? Is going gradeless like a root canal for those who don’t really want to do it?

I think while root canals are uncomfortable they are necessary. Remaining in the same state of pain with its lows is equitable to our current state of assessment conservatism. Some are so used to their traditional ways, its easy to tuck away the underlying problems in the name of fear.

I think that most educators and especially those I work with, are dedicated, hard working individuals. But like many educators, some are very comfortable teaching their curriculum in their tried and true way. They have polished their shtick to a glistening sheen. Their form of assessment (percentages and letter grades) believed to be the only way to assess and no need to change. But with that confidence, there are serious complaints about test results, engagement and learning. Like a toothache, one can cope with the pain: eat on one side, suck cold liquids through a straw, and take ibuprofen. These are band-aid solutions with only moderate, short term gains. Perhaps traditional assessment practices, like that toothache, which, while manageable, aren’t working any more. Or better yet, while manageable, aren’t the only way to assess. Or ever better, while manageable, aren’t solving long term problems.

I’ve never felt comfortable teaching one way for a long time. I’ve said it a few times that I’m pretty sure I’ve never taught the same course the same way twice. I’m always jumping into new ideas. I’ll hit up one workshop and rush home to make changes to tomorrow’s lesson so I can try out something new. I suppose it is because I never want to be so confident as to think that I shouldn’t change with the times. Kids have changed so much in twenty years. Why would I possibly think that I can teach the same lessons, assignments and projects over and over again? Instead of complaining about the results on a test, I decided to recreate the test. Instead of complaining that students wrote terrible paragraphs, we wrote more paragraphs. Instead of being content with a mediocre scene in a one act play, we worked on that scene for two more days. Schedule shmedule. We’ll take more time and get it right. And in that process, I’ll admit that I’m partly the problem and rethink my teaching so the kids get it right.

I feel the same way about assessment. My practice has evolved over time for a reason. Traditional practices of marks, X’s, check marks, and “Good job” have been proven by research from numerous assessment pros that they aren’t as effective as descriptive/formative assessment, learning scales, and gradeless assessment. Like searching for a good dentist, I had to do my own research to see if these facts were true, but I had to invest in the time and effort to check it out. My marks book has evolved and I’m constantly reflecting on my practice to see if there are ways in which I can adjust my assessment pedagogy to meet the needs of my students better. I abandon old assessment habits with a reckless abandon. I’m not afraid to admit that there are better ways to assess students. I would rather have the reputation of being a stand up, fall down, pick myself up again kind of teacher, than one who tucks into what is comfortable because I don’t want to put the work in.

So, I supposed I am the type to jump willingly in the dentist chair for a root canal, while others would rather endure pain for months. I get it. All I know is that when the pain settles down and the freezing comes out, I’ll be able to bite into a steak without pain, I’ll be able to sip lemonade with gusto, and I can move my stash of ibuprofen to a higher shelf.

I only wish that more teachers would grab ahold of new assessment ideas and take them for a spin. Sure, like a root canal, it will be a bit uncomfortable for a while, but just think of the possibilities…and some of the pain they’re experiencing in their current practice just might leave.


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