I’m so done with letter grades. I’m done with having to generate a symbol of learning that is banal and meaningless. To me, putting a letter grade on a report card is the equivalent of putting onion flakes on the perfect hot fudge sundae. Yuck.
Take my Drama 10 class. Over six weeks, they worked on a show to perform in front of students, friends, and family. Over this time period, not one kid has asked for their mark. I also don’t dare bring up a learning scale or assessment because I feel like I am going to ruin the moment. That’s because what has happened over those six weeks has been akin to magical.
The process. I blocked each play. I made tweaks to lines, movements, entrances, exits, and vocal expression. Students offered up suggestions. When kids were struggling, we spent extra time on their particular skit. They rushed in each day, as show time drew nearer, assuring me that now they had their lines memorized, and that they had practiced by running lines with their siblings or recording their lines on a voice memo on their phones. When they had any moment of free time, they asked if they could work on their skits. They were responsible to bring in costumes and props. They watched each other practice. They gave each other feedback. They pumped each other up when they felt down. We built strategies for success when success felt so far away. We created cheat sheets so students with learning disabilities could have that crutch. We let students bring a costume from home because their mental health wouldn’t tolerate the drama room ones. A tech student was assigned to each play and this individual; in this case two students who felt smothered by the idea of performing on stage, stepped up with a different kind of responsibility. They still had an extraordinary responsibility: lights, cues, sound effects, music. It was all a beautiful, exhausting chaos.
Regardless of the role, descriptive feedback was done every second of the blocking process. Students knew exactly what they are doing wrong and were given strategies to move forward. We practice until we got it right. We practiced until I saw improvement. Do they always meet my expectations? No, they don’t. Do they all grow from the first day of rehearsal to the performance day? Absolutely!
More important than any assessment, students worked towards a big goal…to perform in a big theatre in front of peers, family, and friends. Not all of these kids wanted to do it to start with, and some were downright terrified, but it was always instilled in them that the show would be a group effort. They were told that big, small, walk on or part with lines, their part is important, and if they don’t step up in some way, they could let down the ensemble. I remove marks completely from the conversations. I set up a timeline and goals with expectations for those goals. I don’t assess any student until they complete the ensemble performance. I don’t want a menial assessment of learning part way through the learning process to bring any of the learning to a full stop. I have learning scales, but I keep my feedback to anecdotal and assessment for learning.
Are they working towards a skills assessment? Of course. Never, ever, do I compare them to anyone but themselves. If I compared students to students, I’d never have a successful Drama program. The naturally talented kids would always outshine the weaker kids and the weaker kids who can never see themselves reaching the level of the talented kids would bolt.
“But, Schinkel, aren’t you the learning scale queen who uses learning scales as assessment for learning and not just of learning?” Yes, yes I am. And I do that in my Drama class as well. At the start of the year, all the same skills students are working on for their show were assessed at the end of a short duologue (two person play) unit. They know what level their skills are at (voice, body language, blocking, concentration, etc.) and were given feedback and next steps. They were also informed that those skills were assessed as a snapshot of learning. Assessments are never fixed. They will have the chance to grow and improve in those skills throughout the semester. I reiterate that sentiment throughout the semester.
It’s still about using the learning scale, but it’s also about when to use the scale. I cannot emphasize that enough. When I use learning scales as a tool for learning in all of my class (Humanities, English, or Drama), I don’t hover a scale over students’ heads from day one and have students self-assess every day. I use the scale when students think they have completed a skill. I’ll take kids to the scale and challenge them to see where they are on the scale. By offering “next steps,” students see how they can level up or as I like to put it, “fill the cup.”
In Drama, the tension building up to a show is extraordinary. It’s wonderful tension. But it’s still tension. It’s simply the wrong time for “next steps” and how can we “fill the cup” the day or even week before a show. Along the way, it’s more practical to just verbalize “next steps,” and have group reflections that help students polish and refine learning.
Additionally, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs becomes far more important closer to showtime, than any of Bloom’s taxonomy. In a Drama class, students look to me as their sort of security blanket or protector. I am going to go on stage now, Schink. I’m going to act in front of 500 of my peers. I got this, but you got me too, right? It will be ok, right? I assure them of several things from the start:
1) I will never give them a part they cannot do their best at. From day one, I tell students that I will give them a part that they can be successful at. This is student specific. For one student, that might mean being challenged with extra parts and skits. For another, it might mean one part. For my special needs student who refused to participate in most of the course, I decided to have her introduce each skit with a poster that she and her EA made. In the classroom, she wouldn’t participate. At the eleventh hour, in the theatre, during dress rehearsal, she walked on stage with a poster. My jaw dropped. A few minutes later, before another skit, she did again. On the day of the show, she went on stage more than eight times! I wanted to cry. All she did was walk on stage with a piece of 2’x1’ cardstock, but it was amazing!
2) I will make the show more than just about them. One of my favourite additions to my program in recent years has been the addition of a Personal and Social Responsibility charity. My Drama 10 shows are always free, with the addition of donations for a charity of the students’ choosing. This year, we received donations for BC Children’s Hospital and The Canadian Mental Health Association. These charities were picked, defended, and voted on by the students. Instant buy in and meaning for all the students in the class. Now, they aren’t doing it for themselves or an assessment. They are doing it to help others. Mic drop.
3) I will always make sure the show is about team building. One of my favourite moments is right around the time stress is mounting and I can feel the tension in the room. They start getting snippy with each other and worried about the success of their pieces. It’s normal. It’s also the perfect opportunity to bring them in and have a group talk. I circle the kids up and ask them to examine the person to their right. They must think about that student’s best drama skill and something they appreciate about them. It is the most corny, beautiful bit of team building you will ever see. Young men who seem too cool for school will tell their friend of many years that they think they are greatest improvisational actor on the planet and that they feel grateful for their friendship. Aw. The young girl who sometimes feels like she doesn’t fit in, is told that her duologue performance was spot on and she is appreciated for her willingness to help with in group who needs her. Double aw. It’s awesome. Warning…this activity might make you cry. It might make your students cry. All of that is ok. It will feel so good! It’s emotional wonderfulness.
4) I promise to protect my students from scrutiny. I am incredibly defensive and protective of my students and how they are received by an audience, especially a juvenile audience. That doesn’t mean I have laughter and applause cards to condition the audience, but what it does mean is setting up clear expectations for teachers on how to teach their students to use proper theater etiquette. Additionally, I make sure that young audiences know about the hard work that has gone into a show, but that the show itself, still might not be perfect, but it has been a labour of love for them to enjoy. It’s about instant forgiveness when little setback occur. It’s about creating a culture of students who appreciate their peers and their grit. When my students know that I literally have their back, they feel comforted.
5) Lastly, remember Maslow on an individual by individual basis. Students have lives outside the theatre. Of course, the show increases in priority as we get closer to show time. Sports come second. Jobs come second. Trumpet lessons come second. Even other classes come second (sorry academic teachers, but it’s true.) Mental health, though, trumps all the above, including the show. It takes a bit of finesse to make sure that mentally, they feel understood and appreciated. I never have a conversation like, “can you put it all aside and get on stage?” It’s more about having the conversation that allows them to vent and feel mentally held. I always tell them that the cast and I have their back no matter how they are feeling. I give them breaks and repeatedly check in. I feel a bit selfish sitting down with a student and having a heart to heart when their world is falling apart, because I know, deep down, that it’s about getting that kid on stage. The bigger picture here, is that this kid has worked hard to enjoy this moment alongside their peers. It’s about giving them the mental space to perform and the comfort to know that their feelings are respected.
Doing a show means a lot of extra work on my part, but the onus is on the student not the teacher to bring it to reality come show time. They are all brave, beautiful little humans who put sweat into a production and one simply cannot assess those beaming smiles of pride after an event like this. Nowhere in any of those five promises to my students are marks or learning scales involved. I can, once the show is over, go back to my gradebook and think about their individual progress and how well they “filled the cup.” Did they meet my expectations and fill their own cups? Did they go above and beyond when I pushed them? Did they improve, but could have done a bit more? That’s how I assess them. They already know. Those who put in the energy, gave the performances of their life and they don’t need to see their assessment. Those who chose to skip class instead of rehearse or still needed a prompt during the show, they will tell you that if given another shot, they would have done it differently and could have done better. Accurate, empathetic, and clear self-assessments set the summative assessments in stone. They always do.
So, I may be the learning scale queen, but first and foremost, I am a teacher. I know what my students need and I want them to see the value of what they have done in the theatre. And that means guiding them to see their own value. When they line up on stage and bow, my breath is always taken away. Not one kid bowing is worried about an “A.” That’s because they know there is no ‘%’ in ‘TEAM’.