Giving Up Grading: The Conference

It took over a week, but I finally finished my first round of conferences with my students!

With only 45 minute periods, I could only fit in 4 conferences per class. Wednesdays have an alternate schedule with a late start for teacher PD; as a result, I only felt comfortable scheduling 3 conferences that day.

I used Rebekah O’Dell’s “So I Quit Grading…” series and Catlin Tucker’s “Grade Interviews” to help me shape my own conferences.

Sign Ups
On Google Classroom, I created an assignment and attached a spreadsheet with times that students are able to edit. They were responsible for picking a day and time that worked with their schedule.

Conference Sign Up

Students are not allowed to change times in the 24 hours prior to their conference. If they are absent, they must be prepared to have their conference on the first day they return to school, and they need to pick a time outside of class to make it up.

Student Preparation
I experimented with different student preparation strategies in different classes. My 10th graders filled out a reflection answering 3 questions:

  1. What grade do you feel you deserve in the class? Give three reasons to support your answer.
  2. What is a goal you could set for yourself to work on during the next month in class?
  3. How is your independent reading going so far?

My 11th graders, on the other hand, had a much more involved process. They were given a hyperdoc to fill out. In this document, our target standards are listed out on the left, and their evidence of mastering that standard goes on the right. For the first three standards, I asked students to create hyperlinks to entire documents. For others, students could copy and paste excerpts from their writing.

This document served a few purposes. First, I wanted students to be able to identify the skills they were working on for each assignment. Second, I wanted to have one place we could both go to during their conference for quick and easy access to everything they’d accomplished so far.

Teacher Preparation
The night before a conference, I opened up that student’s Feedback Form (the running document of all our interactions and their progress that is linked to the gradebook) and every assignment on Google Classroom.

I checked to make sure I’d already given feedback for everything turned in and looked for any new revisions made. Then I updated the feedback form as necessary.

This was, honestly, probably the most difficult part. And also the most helpful.

Having students’ progress and work fresh in my mind made the conferences run much  more smoothly. In the rare instance I wasn’t able to do this preparation the night before, I felt like I was floundering in the conference. However, it was also the most difficult, because while it didn’t take very long to catch up on one student, I had four conferences in a class period, and with five different classes having conferences, that was 20 different students, each with 4-5 assignments of lengths varying from 1-7 pages.

I’m not a math teacher, but I know that’s a heckuva lot of reading to do in one night!

The Class Preparation
While meeting with one student for 10 minutes, I also had to ensure the other 27 were engaged and productive. For my juniors, this was not a problem. Every day in that class they are working on their curriculum independently and in charge of managing their time.

For my 10th graders, I flipped some instruction using ScreenCastify and gave them a list of resources on Google Classroom. I also took breaks between conferences to circulate and answer any questions. This worked better than I expected, and I will definitely be using this method in my classes more often.

Without clear expectations and practice with this level of independence prior to conferences, I can’t imagine this process being successful.

The Actual Conference
After the first few days, I found a comfortable rhythm for running the conferences. I began asking students to tell me about their reading (progress, about the book they chose, interests they have, etc). Then I let them talk a bit about the other assignments they worked on, addressing the feedback I had given them along the way.

After they discussed all their work, I asked them what goal they would like to work on for the next month. I found it very helpful to ask the students this question before asking them about their grade, because it gave me insight to where they see their own weaknesses. Goals varied from number of pages read, to reading a new genre, or from managing time in class more efficiently, to exploring a new genre of writing.

And then the moment finally came for me to ask, “Based on everything we’ve just discussed, what grade do you feel you have earned and why?”

In most cases, even with the preparation, students shifted uncomfortably and avoided eye contact, giving a nervous giggle and an “I don’t know…” to which I responded, “Yes you do! Just say it!”

And then after taking a deep breath, they finally did. And you know what? Ninety-five percent of them were within a +/- of what I would have scored them. Some of them were being modest and suggested an A- when they clearly deserved an A. Some were overly ambitious, saying they deserved an A when they still had revisions to be made and needed an A-.

In two cases (both 10th graders), I had students totally miss the mark. They thought they were in the B/B+ range when assignments were missing, done late, or done without their best effort (which they admitted to during the conference). And in those cases, it was very, very difficult for me to have to shake my head and say the reality. But it was also much more constructive than having a letter grade on their papers speak for me. The conferences gave us a chance to identify the problems behind the issues and brainstorm ways to improve them.

Reflection
I see benefit to both the questions I asked the 10th graders and the document I gave the 11th graders. I will probably do a blend of the two for the next set of conferences. However, many students expressed some confusion about the Hyperdoc. Several students forgot how to create a hyperlink within it. Others only used hyperlinks without any excerpts. Still others merely took their best guess on what went in each row, because they didn’t really understand the wording of the standards.

To fix these problems, I plan to create a Screencastify of myself filling out the document and explaining in more plain terms what the standards mean. I already explained these things in class once, with obviously poor results. Doing the same thing again and wishing for better results doesn’t sound very effective. I’m hoping by having a video they can replay as often as necessary, students will be more comfortable filling it out independently.

Also, because it was so difficult to do my preparation for all the students the night before, I plan to encourage students individually to turn in more work as they finish it, so hopefully I can give more feedback along the way rather than seeing some work for the first time the night before.

Of course, I also asked the students to reflect on the conferences. They all had something positive to say, ranging from being able to talk privately to being given the chance to explain the struggles they had to work through on each assignment. Some also had suggestions, such as me asking what their favorite writing piece was and why.

And others had learning experiences, like the girl who thought she was being modest in her grade and was then surprised (and a little hurt) when I agreed with her self-assessment. However, in this process I want students to grow in their confidence and learn to be advocates for themselves. I’d rather they learn this lesson with me than with a future employer who might ask them how much of a raise they deserve.

I have learned a lot from this experience (and from the students), but the changes I’m seeing in my learners and in myself as a teacher make it worth it!

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