Playing chess – Gradeless English 11 Weeks 3 and 4

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Four weeks have passed in my gradeless English 11 class. I’m in a sort of limbo. Students haven’t asked for a grade, but I haven’t really given them a reason to. They’ve read a novel, completed three weeks of annotations with descriptive feedback, participated in discussions, and started an essay. About half of the students have been applying my feedback on their work, showing improvement. But that means about half are ignoring the feedback and are performing the task because it is requested. Ugh. Up to about a week ago, the situation felt no different than if I was adding a score or not, and that meant there was still a big hurdle to leap: motivation.

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Motivation is a fickle b–ch. These kids have had years…years of practice playing the game of school. It has seeped into their skin and become tattooed into the fibers of their seventeen year old egos. Grades or no grades, they already know what is just enough to be good enough. They view their work as they would any year before, not in terms of percentages on a page but a percentage of expended energy. This was the case even when I gave them time in class to complete all their annotations. They were and are playing a wicked game of chess with me, making one stealthy move at a time, coming to class not having read their novels at home, so they have to use work time to read, inching closer to flexible due dates, setting them up perfectly to rush their work and hand in just enough to be good enough. Old habits die hard.

In week three, after reading two Starr Sackstein books, Teaching Students to Self-assess and Peer Feedback in the Classroom, I decided to push students to deeply reflect and self-assess using their co-constructed single-point rubric (the one they co-constructed in week one) with the hope of motivating the unmotivated more. So, now, instead of robotically turning in their assignment, they needed to meticulously examine the criteria as “I can…” statement to see if they hit the targets. I asked them to highlight the ones they feel they hit and leave the ones they feel they didn’t hit blank. During the self-assessment process, which was completely foreign to many of them, by the way, I told them one of two things should happen as a result of self-assessing: they could add more details to target areas they did not hit, or they can leave it blank with the objective to hit it later in the course. I decided to make it okay to post-pone learning for another time, but they had to be transparent about it.

They also needed to reflect on what they learned, what they were proud of, and what they still had questions about. And I didn’t just want, “I learned how to comprehend text,” I wanted them to pause and ponder on their process. I modeled the process to them, and I explained the importance in reflecting. I told them that I reflected all the time. I told them I blogged. I took feedback from my colleagues to heart and adjusted my entries accordingly. (Confession: I desperately hope they don’t decide to binge-read my blog at 2am because they are bored or ran out of gaming tokens, but I can’t lose sleep over that…right?)

They weren’t exactly thrilled to self-assess AND reflect, but most worked hard on it. Then…then…I saw them adding detail to their annotations because they hadn’t hit targets! Not all of them did this, but hey, when your intention is to get kids thinking and showing control of their learning…I’ll take a dozen is doing it as a win! All of them were genuine about their reflection, though. They admitted their struggles and their strengths, many of them proud of what they learned over time. Many also showed regret for not following feedback. Wow.

So am I sticking with my feedback only mandate? Two weeks ago, I set my objective to steer as far away from the learning scale as I could. But this weekend, I decided to evaluate the comprehension competency. I know I mentioned I was going to wait until interim or even report card time, but I carefully weighed the pro and cons of revealing their evaluation of this one competency. The self-assessment and reflection were the kickers for me. Finding out they are meeting or not meeting the target will not come as a surprise to them. They know, handing in their reflection and self-assessment with blank targets, where they are on the scale anyways. I wasn’t playing Got ya! with them. I also thought long and hard that showing an evaluation would give me a chance to show other stakeholders, namely parents, how the scale can function as a more accurate view of their child’s skill. It was time. Four weeks in, one competency. I didn’t want to wait until report card and flood oblivious parents with evaluations for five or more competencies, plus feedback, and a foreign-looking learning scale when all they have ever known are grades. It was time. I don’t feel bad about it.

Let me be clear, though. It is very important that if one is going to use a proficiency scale to assess or evaluate standards, not to do it without co-constructing criteria with students (or at least creating clear, grade level worded criteria), giving lots of descriptive feedback, giving time to show growth and improvement using that feedback, and collecting a self-assessment and reflection of learning…first. I never slapped Developing on any annotation. I only gave feedback. I did not and will not evaluate a competency until a child has shown enough evidence to justify the evaluation. I also won’t evaluate a competency until the reflection or self-assessment is done. And, everything gets posted for parents to see: the reflection, criteria, and self-assessment. Then, then…I will evaluate. I’ll also add some anecdotal feedback, if needed, to justify the evaluation (a sentence or two). And I will still preach the glorious gradeless concept that evaluations are not finite, and these summative assessments can become formative in a heartbeat.

I know I haven’t made a mistake. I have to feel confident and stand by this decision.

What I don’t know is how parents will interpret the scale and feedback. I don’t know how students will interpret the scale and feedback. I don’t know if the scale will motivate students. I don’t know if the scale with demotivate students. I don’t know if they learn from what they regretted. Will I find a way to work with them to eliminate this just enough to be good enough mentality? Will they discover that my classroom is a place they can practice patience and gain skills? They still haven’t asked for a grade, but I haven’t really given them a reason to. Will they, though…eventually? Lots of unanswered questions there will be answers in the next couple of weeks. I wait…excited and anxious.

This is why I’m in limbo. But I’ll embrace the limbo and roll with anything that comes my way. I might still feel like a pawn in a wicked game of chess, but I have many moves left to make.


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