Giving Up Grading: My First Steps

NoGrades

After eight years of traditional(ish) teaching in my English classroom, I am excited to begin another new year. I look forward to new books and fresh faces, building relationships and encouraging learners. I’m ready to greet every student with a smile, put the world of writing at their fingertips, and open their eyes to new titles in the library.

You know what I’m not ready for?

Grading.

As an English teacher, grading is my arch nemesis. The Joker to my Batman. The Lex to my Superman. The Voldemort to my Harry.

I spend hours grading assignments every night, poring over rubrics and guidelines, often agonizing over the final number posted in the grade book. Will this be high enough to make Sally feel validated about her work? Will it be low enough to encourage Billy to revise? Will it be in a satisfactory range to prevent Eddie’s dad from sending me another e-mail? Will it completely demoralize Alli who has poured her heart and soul into this piece only to have it reduced to two digits in a grade book online?

I love giving students feedback to hone their craft and refine their work, but I hate giving it a score, so easily compared and discarded.

And so, I have decided to take the leap that’s been at the edge of my thoughts for years. I am finally going to give up grading. Gulp.

Step 1: Inform Admin and Staff

Fortunately, my principal is very excited for me to experiment with this new idea, but I know I will need to keep communication open for the logistics. I also want to let other staff members know my plans. Our school has a student mentoring program, and each teacher is responsible for checking a select group of students’ grades regularly. If those teachers see no numbers in the grade book, they won’t know what I’m doing in my classroom or how to help.

Plus, starting the conversation early can only foster collaboration and inspire more big ideas.

Step 2: Inform Parents

Every year  I send home a letter to parents with an overview of my pedagogy and expectations for the year (at the end of this letter, I add a small paragraph personalized for each student about why I am looking forward to having him/her this year). This year, a big chunk of my letter will be used to explain WHY I am giving up grading and HOW I plan to keep them informed on their student’s learning.

I will also provide parents with articles about this practice, like this one and this one.

Step 3: Inform Students

While I have experimented with no grades on a few isolated assignments with positive results, I know it will be a major shift for my students. I will need to work extra hard to ensure they know where they are with their learning and what steps they will need to take moving forward.

In the first week of school, I want to read articles with my kids about grades, the stress of school, and the importance of learning. We’ll read, journal, discuss, and repeat.

As a students myself, I remember being driven crazy in college when a professor would mark “B+/A-” on top of my paper. All I could think was, “Wait, so is it a B+ or is it an A-? My GPA depends on this!” I can’t imagine how I would have handled no grade at all!

I can empathize with my students who have been trained to focus on the score, not their work, and I’ll have to remember my own anxiety to help them work through theirs.

Step 4: Practice 

Before I give my first major assignment, a narrative piece, I want to give the kids a scaffold, both for the writing and the grading. Students will write a short excerpt (a snapshot, a dialogue section, etc), and I will give them feedback on it. No grade.

My feedback will need to highlight a skill they are using well and should continue, and point out a place where they need to push themselves, plus the resources for how to get there.

I admit, I will still be working long hours every night to accomplish this, but the difference is my time will be spent with their work, not their grades.

Step 5: Reflect

I love reflection. It drives my classroom, but it’s not enough for me to be the only one reflecting. After this first scaffold, I need to give each student the chance to reflect either in writing or in a conference to tell me what they got out of the feedback. Is what I wrote what they read? Or did they totally miss the encouragement and focus only on the critique? Did they understand my comments? What needs to be more clear? What could I do differently next time to be even more helpful?

My students’ answers to these questions will shape the feedback I give as we begin our first major writing piece. With this information, I can learn to give better feedback for the formative assessments, and they can refine their own learning process with what helps them best.

This is all new and scary, for me and the students. After the first 9 week grading period, we will take time to reflect in a big way and decide together if this is how we want to continue or if we need a change.

Check back to find out how the first weeks go!

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