I’ve taught before at a charter school for struggling kids, where grades didn’t matter. We gave grades sort of as an afterthought because society and school boards and transcripts demand them. But our principal forbade us to have a gradebook and the only grades we really gave were A’s, B’s, and F’s. Actually the F’s were “incompletes” until the student could never be brought around to fixing them. Even then, it was easy enough for them to start over again. Classes were projects with multiple credits attached, there were no subjects either, or grade levels, no “freshman” to stuff in the garbage can. We didn’t even have seating charts or teachers’ desks, or walls.
But that was then. Now I find myself back teaching in a pretty standard, 2000+ population high school in a different state, where content, subject tracking, and grades are king. I want the other thing back in my classroom though. I want kids to focus on what they are creating and learning instead of how many points they are getting. Learning should be natural and fun, not a gnarled and twisted byproduct of subjugation and compliance. So right now the grading dragon is breathing fire and being fed and terrorizing everyone. I hate the grading dragon, always have. But now that I’ve been to a place where I’ve seen him neutralized, I’m going to do it again. Here’s how.
Step 1 – Set a trap. The grading dragon assumes he’s in control and that there is plenty of food to eat, children to terrorize, and teachers to do his bidding. He assumes he is invincible in his lair and that no one is a real threat to him. Let him think it. I am reaching back to the last time I taught in a big public high school and I used standards based grading. Back then, it was a new idea to me. Dan Meyer was writing about it in his math blog and other math teacher bloggers were joining him. It felt like a revolution and I was excited to be a part of it. You give points to kids based on concepts on targeted assessments and you track their progress on those concepts instead of assignments or unit tests. The grading dragon still loves this stuff. He sniffs around it at first and notices that it is a bit different, but he is a glutton so he takes a bite, then another, and another, until he falls asleep.
Step 2 – Design a Project. There is not one formula for this except that it should be a long-term inquiry-based learning block where kids solve a real problem. Not the kind of textbook junk where you are having a party and order pizza and then new friends come by and you need to cut the pizza differently using “math.” No, I mean something that could actually happen. They should be answering a question such as, “Which cities have the best policies toward the homeless and what would happen if those policies were enacted in our city?” or, “Why do some playgrounds look like worlds with infinite possibility and other playgrounds look like cages?” They should learn the content you were hired to teach through those projects, but in a meaningful and relevant way. But this is still not enough because kids, though they will be intrigued by your project if you have set it up well, will not be able to ignore the snorting, fuming, jabberwocky ready for his next meal. They will want to know how to game your system. This brings us to the next step.
Step 3 – Tasks. You will need some deliverables along the way for students to see how to make progress. Maybe some scale models, or a board game they design, or a new piece of music they write using geometric transformations. These products should include some of your standards that you are assessing them on. Tell them that if they are having trouble with the quizzes, these are new ways for them to show you what they are learning. This turns the standards based grading into performance based grading. While they are working, walk around and take some notes so you can catch them in the act of applying the standards to the project or teaching other kids. You’ll be surprised at how many kids are doing this naturally even though they are struggling on your quizzes. Keep your notes in a binder as evidence or whatever you need to do and change their grades on those concepts in your gradebook to reflect what you are seeing. Tell them when you do it so they see their grade increase. Watch them smile.
Step 4 – Flatten it out, open it up. Once students have seen that there are alternatives to the quizzes, tell them to start thinking of ways they can prove to you that they are learning. Ask them to create their own homework assignments, or give you quick presentations on what they are working on related to concepts they are struggling with. Tell them they need to know which concepts they need to improve so that they can create those opportunities. They will start focusing on the learning and their grades will improve to the point where they aren’t worried about them anymore. When they do something and it seems weird, give them the benefit of the doubt, assume that they are learning, try to understand them and believe in them. Give them more and more of the control.
Start with those steps, see how the grading dragon panics for lack of food and oxygen and then realizes that it is too late. Maybe you need to keep his carcass propped up so that no one gets suspicious, but he will be dead, and you can get some real teaching done.