At the beginning of the school year, I wrote about the necessity of throwing out grades and how that will improve my students’ ability to learn the objectives of the course. Now that the first quarter is over, it’s time for some self-reflection on how well this process actually unfolded.
This is my first year of going completely gradeless, after trying it with only my honors classes last school year. People told me that this would never work with “regular” students, but I also kept in mind that these same people are deeply ingrained in the antiquated cogs of an education system that is desperate need of grassroots reform. The process is amazingly simple: Instead of grades, I provide feedback on assignments, telling students how well they have mastered the purpose of that assignment. Because I am operating a gradeless classroom within the confines of quarterly report cards, I had students write a reflection of what they have mastered this nine weeks and then I sat down and conferenced with them at the end of the grading period.
The conferences were enlightening. Students told me what grade they should have on their report card, and they defended that grade with evidence from the assignments they completed over the course of the grading period. In talking with students, I learned about their successes and failures, what’s working for them in my class and what’s not. I learned more about their home lives. In several cases, changes in their home lives impacted their academic performance. I learned that students were occasionally clueless about what grade they should have on their report card, but they were almost always brutally honest.
For those who think that students choosing their report card grades would inflate them, nothing could be further from the truth. I have four regular English classes and one honors class. Across all class periods, including honors, 24% of students have an A, 17% have a B, 26% have a C, 1% have a D, and 32% have an F. Here is a a grade breakdown, by class period. Yes, nearly one-third of my students not only failed themselves for the nine weeks, they admitted to me during the conference that they haven’t mastered very many objectives because they have been lazy and need to try harder. It is refreshing to know that the students know exactly what they need to do to improve.
From my perspective, I have learned a great deal from operating a gradeless classroom. What I am currently doing in my classes is working in various degrees for two-thirds of my students, but the one-third that are failing are unmotivated. Some of the reason for this is out of my control, like hectic home lives and chronic absenteeism, but I also need to do a better job of building enthusiasm and increasing engagement. Additionally, I need to do a better job of providing timely feedback. As an English teacher, this is a monumental challenge, and it is something with which I have always struggled. Still, this is an essential component of a gradeless classroom, and my students need more feedback from me. I have also learned that this year’s students are struggling more than last year’s students with the paperless classroom concept. This has lead me to collect more work on paper than I would like, but my goal is to get the most out of my students, and the online coursework is a literal impossibility for some of my students to complete.
Going forward, I am energized by the difference that this paperless classroom is making for my students. Time will tell how much growth students will demonstrate during the second quarter, but, so far, it looks very promising.