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Show Your Courage, Take a Calculated Risk

This year I changed it all.

The grade book. The tradition. The home district. The way I've always done things.

Fear, worry and excuses, ran scared as I barreled toward the water without pause. At full speed, I jumped in. Headfirst, eyes open, without even dipping a toe in the water first to test the temperature. 

Because I knew if I tested it first, I'd surely lose my confidence and succumb to comfort; it would be too easy not to. Ironically, as I revise this post from the first time it was published on my Education Week Teacher blog in October of 2014, I recognized how much of it is still appropriate.

Perhaps the last 18 years have been my wading process; climbing down the steps at a painfully slow pace, getting used to the water one year at a time. Each step a further dabbling into different philosophies, questioning past beliefs and feeling my way into what felt right for the kids.

After many steps, a lot of reading and consideration, I was ready to take the plunge.

When this post first published, it was when I decided to give up grades, now it is when I left my traditional position in a school district. It's pretty amazing to see how many people have started to adjust their assessment practices since before I wrote Hacking Assessment.

But no one else came with me at my old school when I gave up grades. Few came with me in the school after that and when I was a leader, I was lucky enough to have a few brave folks willing to try. They were watching and waiting for the feedback, for my reaction and more importantly to them, the reaction from everyone else.

Fortunately for me, what everyone else thought/thinks wasn't my priority; it never has been.

Early in my trials, I would have been lying if I said I felt like a success. I'm certain that it's a question of when not if, but I'm surely practicing what I preach each day, not allowing minor setbacks to get me down; I have faith in the risks I am taking. 

"It takes practice. Practice takes time. Things change usually when we don't realize it. Keep practicing because change will happen. It will get easier," I keep reminding myself.

In many ways, this year is like my first year of teaching all over again and I surely did get better with time.

It was only October when my students were already speaking differently about their learning, so perhaps I'm did better than I thought.

In retrospect, each crazy risk I took, even when they failed, paid off for the kids. We were learning together.

It's not just about content anymore (like it was 19 years ago - just getting through days hoping not to be wrong); now it's about learning and the process it takes to become a successful person, able to discern the right tools for different tasks and then apply them accordingly. 

Does it really matter what the color white means to scholars in The Great Gatsby or is it more important that kids are reading and discussing what they find important, then writing about it regularly? 

Does it really matter if a student wants to sit on the floor while they work, or listen to music if it will help them focus and attend to their learning?

Should we really be depriving kids of their electronic devices because they have the potential to be a distraction?

Or should we be teaching students to use the tools they have at their disposal, making learning more accessible and kid friendly?

The absence of grades was the most challenging change for me (and probably my students too). One my colleagues chided that kids need grades; there's no way she'd give them up. But I think the truth of the matter is, that most teachers need grades because it gives them a false sense of control. All they have to do is wield the grades card and scare students back into learning submission.

Works every time.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that that was me for a long time, but I don't want it to be me anymore. That's the real reason I took this plunge.

Teaching in the beginning of my career was really about what worked for me. Sure, my students did benefit most of the time in spite of my practice; I've always cared, but that doesn't make it right.

School must be about our kids: the decisions we make, the pedagogy we choose, the choices we offer. Everything we do must revolve around their needs and their learning and that requires all of us to make changes regularly.

So although I feel like I'm treading water right now in the pool of risk I've jumped into, I'm certain my arms and legs are strong.

Because I don't like my alternatives.

Because I refuse to go backward.

Because that's not the message I want to send to my students.

We really are in it together, learning as we go.

Change is happening and perspectives are shifting. More time is needed before judgment is rendered; not enough information has been gathered to assess against the standards yet.

Time for more practice.

What have you been practicing since the beginning of school? Please share.

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