A New Year, A New Approach

Thank you Jason for providing me this venue to share a few thoughts on learning and my journey through reform.

When I began teaching I tried to lay low, blend into the background, and cause the least amount of commotion as possible.  In my mind I was there to teach the kids, have some fun doing it, and fill my grade book in preparation for report cards and conferences.  I looked into best-practices and did my best to self-assess and reflect each day.  Not a bad start for a newbie.  This was good for a year or two, but as the last few years have gone by, I’ve learned that laying low is no fun at all.

Now I’m going to start my fifth year of teaching with a very unique opportunity for myself, my students, and my staff.  I’ve been given the responsibility of working with teachers to purposefully and effectively integrate technology into their classrooms to enhance learning and increase engagement.  I will also continue to teach half-time in a fifth grade classroom, focusing on Science, Math, Writing, and whatever other learning opportunities we encounter together.

As I approach this new year, I am looking for ways to make learning more “real” for students and find ways to encourage them to learn, take risks, and challenge themselves.  I want to make learning a meaningful process and far more authentic than it has been for them in the past; and my first step towards that goal is to make some essential shifts in my thinking with regard to what learning looks like and how we get to “mastery.”

Schooling and learning is at a pivotal point in its evolution.  I’d have to agree with Mike Rose in Why School?, when he says,

…schooling can devolve to procedures, to measures and outputs that constrain what gets taught, how it’s taught, and how we define what it means to be an educated person.

There is a lot of focus on federal mandates and AYP and NCLB and the new Race to the Top.  That pressure often trickles down from district administration to building principals and then finally to classroom teachers.  A lot of us find ourselves going through the motions just to make sure our class “knows” enough to meet state assessment standards.  We often feel like we have to teach to the test.

To be honest, I support states and their efforts to ensure their students are learning specific knowledge and necessary skills; ensuring an educated society, democratic life, and economic prosperity.  I do believe that students and teachers, both, should be accountable for that learning.  How states do that is an issue, I feel, that most educators struggle with today.  I’m not sure that education and policy makers will move away from standardized testing and incentives for higher scores anytime soon (seeing as how our current administration is picking up where the last one left off).  These tests will be with us for a long time.  That does not mean that learning cannot happen though.  How a teacher facilitates learning or delivers content is still something I feel that we can control, at least, in our own classroom.

In my class I want learning to look like this:

Students working together
Students sharing
Students exploring
Students taking risks
Students creating
Students self-assessing
Students reflecting
Students contributing
Teacher communicating
Teacher facilitating
Teacher supporting

One of the ways I hope to do all of this is to shift from an arbitrary grading system to a collaborative evaluation of performance and mastery.

I’ve recently been reading a bit of Alfie Kohn.  He presents some extremely valid points about the ill-effects of grades in “From Degrading to De-grading”; two of which struck a chord in me and my recent failed efforts to motivate kids:

The more pressure to get an A, the less inclination to truly challenge oneself.  Thus, students who cut corners may not be lazy so much as rational; they are adapting to an environment where good grades, not intellectual exploration, are what count.

The more the task required creative thinking, in fact, the worse the performance of students who knew they were going to be graded.

The last two years I have dealt with these issues and to very little avail.  In an effort to  overcome this (and becoming quickly “addicted” to Twitter), I stumbled upon one man’s passion and efforts to abolish grades.  Joe Bower and his blog, For the Love of Learning, have played an important part in introducing me to this shift in thinking and approach to student learning.  New to this too, Pernille Ripp (of Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension and The Global Read Aloud Project) and I have discussed our “no-grade” plans as the new school year approaches.

From all of this I have (tentatively) come up with the following plan to create–for a lack of better words–a healthier “grading” system for my classroom:

Why am I doing this?

It all comes down to what my purpose is as a teacher.  I’ve never felt like I had all the answers.  Becoming a master teacher is a long process; one of which I still find myself somewhere around the starting line.

I got a good education.  I was inspired by some of my teachers and discouraged by others.  That is part of why I’m doing this, shifting my focus back to where it needs to be, on the student and learning.  A lot of my education dealt with tests and preparing for tests.  My motivation was good grades.  I can’t say that I learned everything I was supposed to, but as Kohn mentioned, I adapted to each environment and learned how to get the best grades possible.

I don’t want that for my students.  I want students to be motivated to learn for the simple sake of learning.  By removing the pass/fail consequences of grades, I hope to create a new paradigm for my students–one that consists of learning, reflection, and growth.  My purpose as a teacher is to foster learning in an environment where students feel safe to take risks and make mistakes; and I feel I can’t do that if their motivation and my focus is on grades and test scores.  Removing traditional grading will allow students to focus more on the process and what they may still need to learn to attain mastery, but without the fear of negative feedback or failing marks.

Communication and Transparency

There are many contributors to the education of each student; including, but not limited to family, administration, teachers, counselors, specialists, peers, and of course, the student himself.  It is only fair that each contributor understands the direction and reasoning behind the new collaborative evaluation system.  When each involved understands the “why”, I feel that most, if not all, will support this more focused shift towards learning.  Learning is a process as will be this “no-grades” approach.  Communication with parents must be regular and meaningful in order for such a transition to be successful and learning to truly take place.

Collaborative evaluation implies a need for communication.  Marks and grades will be left off of assignments, projects and assessments and will be replaced with comments, suggestions and questions.  Students and teachers will participate in regular conversations regarding their work and progress towards mastery.  Class pacing and learning goals will be based primarily on the results of these conversations.  When report cards roll around, students will work with teachers in determining what “grade” they feel best represents their work and progress towards mastery.

What is “mastery” then?

“Mastery” is a tough word to tackle.  It is something that will have to be defined and communicated before any real expectations can be met.  As I mentioned before, my state requires certain knowledge and skills to be taught across basic core content, like Math, Language Arts, Writing, Social Studies, Science and Health.  Each content area has standards and objectives that I am responsible (by contract) to teach to mastery.  The objectives are set, but the way I deliver that content and how students attain mastery may vary.  Each student learns differently, so I must provide opportunities for students to progress and show mastery in his or her own way.

Mastery will depend on the objective.  For example, Math and Health have different standards and objectives that need to be learned during the school year.  When we approach one of those objectives, students need to know what mastery looks like.  This is another reason why communication is so important.  As the class discusses what mastery looks like, they are able to learn more about the actual objective.  Expectations for mastery can be established and students can then guide their own learning.  These expectations can be described in student-created rubrics (which may still seem a bit prescriptive, like grading, to some) or checklists that help them monitor their progress towards learning as they choose how to get there.

Student progress towards mastery

Before teaching or learning a new standard or set of objectives, students will participate in a class discussion that will help them better understand the why and the what of what is to be learned.  The discussion will determine what mastery will look like, what the expectations are (whether recorded via rubric, checklist or some other means) and what will be a reasonable time to complete the assignment or show mastery.  Another small conversation should also be devoted to the exchange of ideas of how students can show progress and demonstrate mastery.

All assignments will be reviewed, but I will only leave comments on a certain few.  All projects and assessments will be reviewed, commented on, and then discussed with the student to determine progress, mastery and what else needs to be done.

Assignments will be seen as practice.  My goal is to make them as relevant and authentic as I can.  Student discussion will help with that.  Students will be encouraged to take risks and be creative in their learning.  The point of practice is to work towards mastery, not achieve it in one try.  Mistakes will be a natural part of the learning process.  We often learn more from our failures than we do our successes.  Students should learn to use this as information, guiding future learning.  I don’t see “grades” as a fair reflection of this process.  Self-reflection and teacher conversations will help students see where they are and what may need to be done still.

Projects and assessments will mirror assignments and reflect life experiences.  Instead of just “testing” knowledge of content, I want students to understand why they learn these things and how it applies to life outside of the classroom.  Assessments will not only require a basic understanding, but will challenge students to show mastery through application, creation, and questioning.  Upon completion, the students and I will discuss the finished product.  The dialogue will include a review of the objective, the expectations and it will help the student and teacher determine if mastery demonstrated.  In many cases students will be given the opportunity to go back and do whatever else needs to be done to show mastery of the objective.  Reflection and change is a part of life, why not make it a part of their learning?

Students will keep a working portfolio for the entire year.  Their portfolios will contain examples of all their work, not just their best pieces.  Students will also create a digital portfolio–something very similar to George Couros‘s blogfolio idea–for all of their work and collaboration done on the computer and online.  Currently I am looking at creating a blog, using BuddyPress, that will allow students to share their work with their family, peers, and teacher.  These work samples will be shared as blog posts, facilitating individual comments and communication, and providing a way to archive their work.

What about Report Cards?

My school district mandates letter grades on report cards for fifth grade.  Fair enough.  I’m still not quite sure how I am going to take student-teacher conversations, portfolios, and my own observations and create an arbitrary grade (that I had been avoiding all term) for each student, but the following is an idea that I leave open to any suggestions and feedback.

Grades will be determined by students and me.  Essentially these would be arbitrary marks for the sake of the report card, but in this case I hope they will be more meaningful.

1/F –  I hope to never put this on a report card.  This will be used for students who regularly do not do their work and resist communicating, or sharing, with me ways they can better learn the set objectives or show progress towards mastery.

2/D — The student may attempt some assignments, but is still unwilling to work with the teacher find more effective ways to demonstrate learning and mastery.

3/C — The student participates often in independent/group practice.  The student collaborates well enough with the teacher, but does not make the needed adjustments, after reflection and teacher conversations, to attain mastery.

4/B — The student shows substantial understanding of assignments and performs adequately on assessments.  The student is an active participant in the learning process, individually and as a whole.  He communicates well with the me, but still needs to make additional steps to show mastery.

This is where I would imagine many students to start at as they get a feel for the “new” way of “grading”.

5/A — The student shows higher level of understanding, often questioning and creating to enhance their learning and that of their classmates.  Reflects and communicates regularly with me and successfully shows mastery in most, if not all areas.

I imagine most students being somewhere around this level by the second or third quarter, even many “below” level students–that’s the point of differentiated instruction, the objectives ares set, but how they get to mastery is personal.

Many find a D or an F to be harsh and depleting for students.  Communication is the key here.  The D or F would merely represent a lack of communication and sharing during the learning process.  If a student is not learning something or cannot show mastery of an objective, it is my job to find out why and provide that student with adequate opportunities.  If students are unwilling to communicate and share through this process, a D or an F will simply show that.

Still Learning

That’s my plan so far.  Is it perfect?  No. I’m new to all of this.  Like my students, I will also need to regularly reflect and evaluate where I need to make adjustments.  I need to make sure that I am meeting my students needs, and this will require me to rethink certain strategies and make modifications as I become more comfortable with not grading.

There will always be a fear, I suppose.  Whenever we try something new there is often that initial hesitation.  As human beings we fear failure; we fear ridicule; we fear not being accepted.  We educators have to overcome such fear and replace it with courage and sound dedication to the students.  Learning should be central to our classroom structure.  Our job isn’t about you or me, or administration, or even policy makers.  Education is about the students, young or old.

In all honesty, these could be the ideologies of a naive fifth year teacher, but I am excited to see what change this brings about.  My principal wants to change the learning climate in our school.  This is a start.  It’s not about teaching anymore, it’s about learning.

Jeremy Macdonald

2 comments to A New Year, A New Approach

  • Pernille Ripp
    Twitter: 4thGrdTeach

    As an aspiring grade removing teacher myself, I must applaud you for your inspiring post. We often find ourselves at crossroads as educators between what we know we ought to do and what others expect us to do. To go this direction requires bravery as well as research. You know that I am very supportive of this approach to the classroom and hope to implement it myself, however, I even can find disagreeable things. Would you really give a child an F? I know that I cannot do it anymore. No child, willingly, refuses to communicate with a teacher without there being some bigger reason for it. I cannot allow myself the crutch of an F for fear that I will not pursue the actual reason for the dismay. Do you think you can?

    This piece offers me many new ideas of how to present our supposed “rogue” decision of eliminating the focus on grades and being audacious enough to focus on learning instead. Thank you for your honesty and your inspiration.

  • Thanks for the comment Pernille. I’ve been traveling from one place to another, and this is the first chance I have to sit and reply.

    By no means is this idea “new”, but it is definitely new to me. I’m excited about the prospects and the classroom atmosphere I hope this creates. I’m especially excited because my principal is on board and my team-teacher is very excited, seeing as how her first 10 years in education was in a school that didn’t use grades (at least not in the traditional fashion). And per our “waves”, I’m excited to hear that your team is already discussing the topic without you even having to plant the seeds. I’m looking forward to our continued collaboration as the year progresses.

    As for the Fs, I don’t see myself using too many, if I even use one. Like you said, most children won’t refuse to communicate and discuss what they need as a learner and what I need to do as the teacher. I really don’t see that ever happening. The F is there as a “just in case”. I can’t predict what my class will be like, nor can I hand pick my students. At the same time, I wouldn’t be giving the F, it would be a joint decision. Communication is key and is a vital part of the process. If I can’t find the “reason”, there will definitely be other steps (ie-parent conference, counselor conference…) before an F is ever given as a final evaluation on a report card. In reality, I’m not sure if I’d ever even suggest an F. I guess I’ll have to cross that bridge when I get there.

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