Life without Grades
I am new to de-grading. If you are, too, or if you're wondering why anyone would want to get rid of grades, I suggest checking out Alfie Kohn.
I started my adventure in eliminating grades from my classroom somewhat 'accidentally' in September 2011.
In 2011, for the first time, I was teaching Primary. I was quite surprised in September when my students asked me when they would be getting their first Math test of the year. These are Grade 2 and 3 students we are talking about here. I gave them their first test near the end of that month, and they seemed concerned that it was not "test-like" enough. It was full of questions that were open-ended and required them to draw. One question even had them cutting out and sorting objects in a Venn Diagram! Apparently, that's not testing norm for Grade 2's. (What is a normal test for Grade 2's? Is there even such a thing??).
At any rate, after the test they all began pestering me for their marks. And would you believe it, when they found out they had all passed they were really confused about the whole thing. Did I make the test too easy? Why give a test if they were all just going to pass it? Those adorable eight year olds wanted me to sort them and arrange them and tell them who was smarter than who! Needless to say, that was the last test I gave them. And, because of the power that grades clearly had to affirm or destroy their self-esteem and make them seem more or less intelligent compared to their classmates, I simply stopped offering them any grades.
Instead of grades, I focused on goal-setting with my students. For each activity we undertake, we set a goal for our learning. My students also have many ongoing goals for reading and writing that they adjust for specific tasks and reflect on frequently. My students never ask me if they got "everything right" or what their mark is. Instead, they ask me, "How did I do?", to which my response is usually, "Do you think you met your goals? What evidence can you find to show me that you met them?" This invariably leads to my students re-reading their work, telling me something that they did that met their goal, and then noticing something they want to change. At first they asked me if they had permission to change it. Now, they yank their work out of my hands and say - "Wait! I see something I want to change!"
To date, I have no markbook. I have not used a rubric all year. Instead, I use observations and formative assessments to help shape my teaching and make decisions about what their report card grades will be. (And, because I still feel residual guilt about not having a mark book, I keep all my anecdotal notes and formative assessments in a giant binder with tabs for each of my students). In Math, for example, a major component in my assessment is interviews. I meet with students for approximately 10 minutes to ask them questions about recent topics we have covered. Not only am I assessing the depth and breadth of their understanding of the topic, but also their mathematical communication skills. This not only helps me share information with parents and students about their progress, but also helps me plan for instruction that will help all students in my class succeed.
Getting rid of grading in my Primary class was so rewarding for my students, and me, that it happened very quickly. Faster than I imagined it could! It feels like I have travelled a long way from the teacher that I was last year, seemingly overnight. But make no mistake, without grades I still have a very clear picture of what my students are learning and what they are struggling with. Without grades, my students still have a clear idea of where their skills lie and what their biggest challenges are as learners. In fact, because I have shifted focus to goal-setting, students often talk about how they can meet their goals and when they need to re-set or stretch their goal.
Now, I can see how eliminating grading at a Primary level is "easier" than de-grading in Middle school and High school. Older students are "used to" grades. Grades seem to evoke a feeling of rigor, and isn't that what Middle school and High school are all about? (They're not.) Not to mention the fact that "everyone else is doing it", so if I don't, somehow I will be failing my students by not participating in the (broken) system. I could go on - I'm sure you could, too.
My PLN on twitter and the interwebs tell me that not everyone is in fact "doing it". Some people are getting rid of grades. In Middle school? Yes. Even in High school? Even in High school. Subtracting them from their classroom dynamic. Refusing to boil a complex and never-ending process down to a number. De-grading. I'm in good company.
I'm optimistic that I will be able to de-grade my future classrooms, regardless of grade level because of something I discovered this year that is simple, but true. Kids love to learn, and the freer you allow that process to be, the more they love it. Engaged learners of any age participate because they want to learn, not because they are getting a grade.