Parachuting into more gradeless

person doing paragliding under cloudy sky

Semester one is over.  Semester two is just beginning, and I am up to by eyeballs in excitement, anxiety, and curiosity.

Semester one was an amazing step in my gradeless journey. I learned so much in the past five months. If you are just tuning in to my blog, I moved, this past semester, to a descriptive feedback only classroom from a very visible, standards-based classroom. In other words, I now focus solely on descriptive feedback for growth.  I track curricular competencies (skills) using a learning scale, but I chose to eliminate applying the scale to individual assessments, because I found that, last year, students were identifying each level on the scale like they would a letter grade, even if there was feedback. So, I was gradeless, but in September 2019, I moved to a more complete version of gradeless.

person wearing green pants

Learning #1 – tracking progress visibility

I over-communicated progress on Fresh Grade. After I assessed for learning, I posted the assessment (as a position on the learning scale) for parents right away.  While I wanted those assessments to become platforms for growth, these assessments became transfixed by parents as “summative assessments,” and that made it difficult to explain when a student leveled up with new evidence of learning. I learned that I need to wait until I give students time (lots of time!) to polish and refine their work, showing growth and improvement. I posted assessments too quickly, so, next semester, I will not post assessments of learning until interim and report card time. While not ideal, because in a perfect, gradeless world (in my head, gradeless is a great place…you should check it out) I wouldn’t have to post a grade until the end of the course.  Anyways, waiting until these key times, will, at least give me the time to examine trends in recurring competencies, and, when I report out to parents, I will be able to explain that this is a snapshot of learning in time and not at all finite.  And to appeal to those parents insisting on up to the minute progress reports, I will, over the entire semester, be sure to track when students have handed in assignments. Keeping parents informed as to how their child is keeping up with work, any setbacks and boosts, will, hopefully prevent any miscommunication issues.

Learning #2 – paper tracking was a pain in my derriere

Image result for peach bum pics

I used two different forms of paper trackers, a single-point style for Drama 10, and a competency/descriptive feedback style for Humanities 8. These trackers replaced my previous grade book.

I did not like using the paper tracker I developed for Hum 8.  There was too much paper per student (5 pages per student x 27 students x 2 classes…I killed a lot of trees) , I used a landscape layout, and my binder was a bloody 3” binder…and that was for only two four classes! Egad!  Now with respect to the Drama 10 tracker, the single-point one, I loved that tracker for this elective. But, I confess, I found myself ignoring both trackers because I could effectively upload single-point rubric feedback via a photo on Fresh Grade. In other words, the paper tracker felt like I was doing double the work.

A solution? After a recent discussion with a colleague of mine, (shout out to Lance Hanes, Art teacher extraordinaire!) I developed a one-pager, so I can quickly assess on the scale and monitor trends in recurring competencies.  I will continue to use single-point rubrics with the students, collecting those in their portfolio folders.  Those single-point rubrics, which double as fantastic means of self-assessments, and will hold all that awesome descriptive feedback neat and tidy in their file folder portfolios. 

The first six competencies of my new one-pager assessment tracker

Learning #2 – portfolios my way

Speaking of folders, buying a plastic blue bin and dozens of green hanging folders, one for each student, was the best thing I did this semester! They did not replace good individual student binder hygiene, but it did keep all summative assessments in one place, and the students and I could quickly and easily access them when we needed them.  As well, when students return to a recurring competency, they can go into their folders, find the feedback, and applying it to new work.  Yahoo!

So here I go into semester two…

Now, semester two starts on Tuesday, and I’m pumped to continue my gradeless journey with my Humanities 8. I have lots of great lessons and projects coming up.  But the real adventure lies in going gradeless with my new English 11 New Media students.  Ok, so maybe adventure sounds like I’m about to embark on a Jack London-esque, romantic, outdoorsy journey of sorts. The truth is, going gradeless with grade 11’s is more like I’m about to parachute out of an airplane at 10,000 feet, and I have no idea if my parachute will open or fail.

Gradeless will not be an easy sell, and I’m already worried about how I am going to deal with pro-grades students.  You see, most of these seniors haven’t experienced any form of gradeless in high school.  The gradeless mandate for grades 7-9 at my school, came in when they were in grade 10, so they just missed it (Darn it!) They are, very likely, heading into my class with a letter grade heavy, fixed mindset. It’s going to take some time to ease them into the process.

I actually toyed with the idea of using the learning scale candidly with them.  In my heart, that would be a regression into habits I ditched with my grade 8’s and 10’s for a reason, a good reason. I honestly feel that if I going to go gradeless with this bunch, I must go all in…even if it freaks me out.

The plan, err…if I can call it a plan

I’ve been reading and rereading some of my favourite gradeless resources. The one I keep returning to for support, is Starr Sackstein’s Tedx Talk, “A Recovering Perfectionist’s Journey To Give Up Grades.” Sackstein’s impressive, reflective presentation about her own struggle with grades addiction in high school, how she used grades with her own students as a bartering tool, and how she took a ginormous leap into gradeless after seeing the positive impact standards-based grading had on her own child, resonates with me.

Change neon light signage

With my new seniors, I need to start off with a conversation about what grades mean to them.  Get the kids to really pick apart why we have letter grades and what effect that has on their outlook.  I need to emphasize that they won’t get grades in this class, but students will get feedback that will move them forward on their learning journey. I will console them for the burden they have felt at every report card time, and that I want to take the anxiety out of assessment by involving them in the assessment process.  I need to earn their trust and get them to believe that I have their best interests at heart. I will, of course, tell them my own story, similar to Sackstein’s, of how letter grades defined me in high school.

That sounds amazing, right? You, my loyal reader, you understand what going gradeless means for these kids’ futures. Unfortunately, I’m dealing with teenagers, and that means teenage brains. They are currently more transfixed by Tiktok, new part-time jobs, and attaining their L’s. Will they understand my motivation?  Will they rebel, or will they grow accustomed to gradeless as a new normal?

I won’t know until I try, and the time for trying is now.


One thought on “Parachuting into more gradeless

  1. I am very interested to hear how it goes with your Gr 11’s, especially since you have ditched a proficiency scale in favour of only descriptive feedback. I just finished my first semester of gradeless with my New Media 11s and it definitely was not without its challenges! I had a few students with a very fixed “grades define my self-worth” kind of attitude who struggled to let go of this, constantly in fear that they may not be holding on to their coveted A. Additionally, I had some Gr 12 international students in the class who needed particular percentages to get into university (both at midterm and at the course end). This meant they were very concerned about “where they were at”. I had a number of students who felt that gradeless took some pressure off at midterm time, only to feel stressed out when it came time to convert proficiencies to a percentage at the end of the course. It was hard not to feel a little bit like their grades were disguised (even though they were getting heaps of feedback and showing learning progression) when ultimately we had to report out on a final mark (rather than just continue on with demonstrations of growth in their learning). I will be very intrigued to hear how this goes as you are taking this to the next level by removing the proficiency scale from rubrics as well! Keep us posted and good luck 🙂


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