Is it strange that my first two gradeless weeks with my English 11’s went pretty smoothly? I am quite shocked. I expected blow back, push back, and setbacks from my English 11 New Media kids. After all, these kids had never been introduced to gradeless. They had never heard of gradeless. But they sure knew about letter grades and had a lot to say about their learning this week.
On the first day of class, I hit the students with two profound questions.
First, I asked them, what do you expect from school? Their responses were honest and mature: teach me, prepare me, and give me the opportunity to succeed. They wanted teachers to focus on the curriculum but also give them the skills to meet 21st century expectations.
Then I asked them, what does school expect from you? Their responses were vibrantly speckled with anger and frustration: see me as someone who has life after the bell rings, give me more class time to complete assigned work, and recognize me as someone other than the grade attached to me.
Underlying that same conversation were feelings of fear, fear that they wouldn’t be adequately prepared for life after high school because of the general sense that teachers rush too quickly through content, pigeonhole students as successful or unsuccessful early one, and toss aside their genuine mental health problems.
The second question’s response hit me right in the feels, but it also carved the perfect path to my gradeless explanation. I took some time to let them decompress. I thanked them for their honesty, and then shared my gradeless assessment plan with them. They needed to hear it at that moment.
I told them that I wanted to treat them as individuals on a learning journey. I didn’t want them to compare themselves with anyone but themselves. I didn’t want them to worry about playing the game of school. I would give them all the feedback in the world but would NOT put a label on them. I would use a learning scale to assess their progress at report card time. Until then, I would give them loads of feedback, multiple opportunities to work on skills, and never EVER collect numbers and average scores.
Their eyes bugged out of their heads. Initially, I wondered what were they thinking? Did they think I was nuts, bonkers, off my rocker? There were a few odd looks and then some of them looked at each other in what I could only interpret as a bit of confusion mixed with surprise. But then a few piped up, asked me a few honest questions about the process. All and all, no one looked like they wanted to put me in a choke hold or bolt from the classroom, so that was good. Okay, one student tried to push my buttons a bit, but when their classmates openly schooled them on my rationale and process, I knew they had bought in…at least for the time being. So it wasn’t perfect, but between the opening discussion and my thorough, passionate discourse (if I do say so myself), they got it. So, off we went into the gradeless unknown…
Over the last two weeks, I established some norms including smiles and frowns, five minutes of mindfulness, and Ted Talk Wednesdays. This English 11 course is a New Media course, so incorporating Ted Talks fits nicely. Even better, it gave me the opportunity to use my favourite talk, “How to practice emotional first aid,” by Guy Winch. On Thursday, students built TQEs, and we had our first small group and whole class discussion on our novel. We co-constructed criteria for the comprehension competency, building a single point rubric as a class, giving them the chance to critically think through an exemplar of proficiency and actively engaging in assessment. They completed their first annotations, and, true to my word, I gave them feedback only, assessment for learning.
Students also wrote their first paragraph for me, a benchmark piece that gave me an idea of their writing strengths and weaknesses. I gave them the topic, what is the hardest part about school? The topic is not exactly thought provoking but given how swept up in the day one discussion they were, I felt it timely and appropriate to use this assignment to dig a bit deeper into their psyche. They were brutally honest. Each paragraph gave me the unique opportunity to absorb their point of view.
Teachers should give us more time to learn material instead of pushing us to write a test we’re not ready for, and then moving on to the next unit.
I can’t juggle four academic courses, but I have no choice, since my timetable is programmed like this.
I play high calibre baseball six days a week, but my teachers expect me to do 2-3 hours of homework every night. I come to school tired every day.
I have a hard time managing my ADHD. I understand that I’m supposed to focus in class, but there are some days when I get overtired, and I just can’t focus.
Pretty enlightening, right?
I tried to use these first two weeks as a platform to show my English 11 students that I would treat them fairly and compassionately. I wanted them to know that they aren’t just a typical classroom of teenagers, but a unique community of learners. Every student has a voice and could use it. They could use that voice to show their learning if they struggled with writing. No one would be excluded, but all needed to be respectful.
Sure, like most semesters, I’m still struggling with getting a few to provide some initial evidence of learning, and I have already busted a student or two for skipping, the usual high school woes. Some kids’ get up and go has got up and went by period 3, especially if they’ve been up until 2am studying for Biology 11 or spent lunch with their Pre-calculus teacher, so lighting a fire under them can be really hard.
But I started the semester on a high note because I gave them some authentic opportunities to express themselves and I pushed myself to follow my gradeless convictions into the senior grades. I’m excited and nervous to see what the next couple weeks will hold. I’ve yet to hear, what’s my grade or what did I get on this? so that makes me very happy. I think the trick is, for lack of a better term, is to keep talking about gradeless and to keep reassuring students why. So, I’ll keep bringing it up as I return assessed work and I’ll also use the curricular competencies as unique opportunities for the students to unpack them using their own language. I want them to have a laser-like focus on every single one of them.
More importantly, I think I learned more about these grade 11’s than they learned about gradeless. And I hope every high school teacher reads this with their eyes wide open. We need to change our practice because we beed to grade more authentically. We need to change our practice, listen to kids, and give them a voice in their learning.