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'You're Not Getting a Grade in This Class!' Rinse, Repeat

"Ms. Sackstein, I don't understand what it says in Pupilpath. It says I'm getting an A, but it also says I'm failing. I'm confused."

Sigh. It's time to do the dance.

Inside my inner adolescent is getting riled up, feeling like she hasn't been heard. "I know I have told them about this. I made a point of it already. I've said it many times." Not being heard is one of my deep childhood issues that still stings when

I perceive it's happening.

Deep breath. A few maybe.

And the cooler, more level-headed version of my adult self comes through, the smile on my face no longer a tight fake one, but a patient, relaxed genuine one ready to explain again.

"Remember how I told everyone at the beginning of the year that you weren't getting grades in this class?"

Blank stare and nervous head nodding, that definitely doesn't signify real understanding. It's the gesture students make when they don't understand but don't want to admit it and maybe even be embarrassed that they didn't know to begin with. This gesture makes me as uncomfortable as it does it them; somehow I feel like I've failed them.

But it's not too late to rectify it.

"Ok. Let's pause for a second," I say. "What you are seeing in Pupilpath (our student online gradebook) is a list of the standards being assessed for this assignment.

For each standard, you receive a letter:

  • E for exceeding,

  • M for meeting,

  • A for advance and

  • NI for not enough information.

If you are currently receiving an A on any of the standards, it means you aren't meeting the standard yet. This by no means should be interpreted that you are failing. No one fails if they try and are constantly practicing the standards."

Hands are already raising and the anxiety in the room is palpable. I get it, I was them once; an honors student obsessed with my grades. My value as a person tied up in a letter that turns out doesn't mean very much. I've also been the teacher who wields that grade as a powerful tool against kids. When I realized that was who I was, I knew it was time to change.

I didn't become a teacher to feel powerful, I became one to help others.

Students are trained to want a grade because the system has always deemed it necessary. So those of us looking to change that expectation need to expect a challenge and be ready to help stakeholders see it a different way. Although it would be easy to get annoyed like my inner adolescent would like, it doesn't solve the underlying issue at hand.

Achievement and learning keep the focus on education. Students need to be able to communicate their learning in terms of skills and standards, so they can replicate and apply those skills in other areas of their lives. Helping students and their parents understand this shift is essential to the larger system adopting the changes and all students seeing learning as opportunities to grow rather than work that terminates in a meaningless symbol.

Anything worthwhile takes time. That's what I tell my students when they are learning. It's what I tell my son when he practices sports too. Learning never ends, especially not because of a grade. By eliminating grades, students can stop feeling pressure to reach arbitrary goals and instead focus on a deep and essential connected learning that becomes a part of who they are.

Learning must be a conversation between teachers,students and parents; the feedback an essential part of that conversation. Only students can tell us what they know and teachers would be foolish to think they can grade it in any kind of meaningful way.

What we can do is offer students a means to discuss their learning, provide them a vocabulary by which benchmarks and objectives are made clear and then offer opportunities to practice each skill in a way that works for them using content that inspires curiosity and interest.

In what ways do you talk to students and parents about learning? What can you change to do it better?

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog Work in Progress in October 2014

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