So, if you are like me, you’re asking yourself this question a lot, and you are having to be careful about connotation and denotation, purpose, and audience of “grades” and “assessments.” First, assessments, in real time, during my English and Language Arts classes revolves around syntax, grammar, style, and punctuation. It sometimes involves technology, the furious typing on the keyboard, and other times, technology is hidden away, leaving space for the paper, the pen, an image or text, and students faced with facing up to textures and contours of plume and parliament and the swift revolutions of the wrist and the pressure of the fingers.
I started this blog with an image we’re all too familiar with. It makes us feel comfortable in our attempt to set up objective learning standards for our students; it enables us to go home at the end of the day and provide a number for an unquantifiable trait, skill, or strategy. Its sweeping rise and sudden fall sets up blockades for external doubters, only for the tail to sneak by through the cracks. Some students are excellent at playing school.
To ask the question “to grade or not to grade” among teachers at independent schools is really to ask teachers to define learning and even further, to ask them to draw a line in the sand and box in what to them defines learning in their context. Certain percentages and numbers fly through the space between dialogue: 25% for major papers and portfolios, 10% for homework, 15% for in-class participation… each of these areas then having standards for the students to meet. Each teacher is required to be transparent; it is for the benefit of the students for them to know what areas they will be graded on. It is then up to them to calculate and manage how they will navigate these varied waters, each flowing a somewhat different direction.
To return to the topic, I asked this question at a recent conference. In a salon style teachers’ workshop, I asked the question, and then I never spoke again for the entire hour. I was too busy furiously listening to my colleagues, and it was interesting to listen to some of their remarks; here they are summarized.
1) I am purposefully vague with my grading because I believe I cannot justifiably quantify one student’s “A” over another student’s “A.” They may receive A’s for completely different reasons; the most important thing is that they understand that.
2) The grading system allows for some students to “game” the system. They see that “homework” is worth 10% of their grade, so they will do only half of their homework assignments, and still be able to earn a 90% for the class.
3) As an art teacher, I cannot replace the importance of community (think.pair.share) and dialogue about a particular concept, skill, piece. I would put dialogue over grading any day.
4) At our school, students in non-AP classes will be studying alongside AP class students. AP classes are more rigorous in content. The AP students will be studying the decline of temperature in a liquid over time; they will be studying the beaker, stirring, taking down the temperatures, following the lab routine to a “t” and they will finish with time to spare, faced with the benefit of being able to summarize and synthesize their data and notes. The non-AP students will have the same lab, but they will be asking many more questions regarding the scientific method. A glimpse at their table will give you the impression that more “play” is going on, and you will either be reluctant to stop them and tell them continue on with their lab more dutifully, or you will be in awe, letting them “doodle” with the process. The AP students know and expect the outcome and work to get there. The non-AP students know and expect the outcome, but purposefully and thoughtfully see if the process truly leads to the results. The AP students will get 5’s on their exams.
I agree that it is difficult to analyze part and parcel of these anecdotes without context, but I see one common thread among them all: they all give a glimpse of what learning looks like when we makes grades matter versus when we do not.
As champions of non-grading, we’re up against a giant monopolistic entity called the status quo. It is the norm to hear teachers say that they sometimes say to their students that a specific assignment will not be for a grade; it is the norm to hear teachers say they wish they had the tools and the team to make this non-grading system work; it is the norm to see teachers some say they apply a somewhat higher grade to a student because they simply like the student’s effort.
As a tangent, I recommend this article from David Brooks on the Virtues of Learning. It talks about the fundamental philosophical differences between the western and eastern cultures as they define learning. As an exercise, I encourage you to read it, and if you are a teacher in the higher grades like I am, I encourage you write down the five most fundamental learning objectives in your class. Are these learning objectives quantifiable?
For me, here are my 10 fundamental learning objectives:
1) a student will be able to articulate, write about, and present his/her writing process as it applies to any writing assignment.
2) students will be able synthesize and analyze opposing point-of-views on a particular topic.
3) students will come to know elements of rhetoric and how to apply rhetorical devices in varying contexts.
4) students will come to understand and appreciate critical feedback from their peers by publishing fast and failing first.
5) students will explore the interdependence of learning communally.
6) students will make a visual representation of their learning everyday.
7) students will come to learn how to foster their own creativity and the creativity of their peers.
8) students will explore ways for extending their learning beyond the classroom and the school.
9) students will know their teacher cares deeply not only about their learning, but about their well-being as well.
10) each day is an opportunity for a different student to share his/her talents and passions with the class and to this end to live and practice a meaningful life.
To educate oneself out of a thirst for knowledge is revolutionary. Students want a meaningful life, and each day should be an opportunity for a student to showcase his/her meaning. We don’t say to our students enough, “You matter,” because sometimes we’re too busy inputting numbers on the bell curve.
When I dreamed of becoming a teacher, I dreamed of being true to their hopes and dreams. I dreamed of carving out a space in the content-laden and skills-based lessons of my classes for me to show them that each and everyone one of them matters. That is the Humanities. It is placing first the “human” and letting the rest unfold like destiny.
None of the objectives I’ve laid forth are quantifiable. I want my students to be authentic explorers of their own learning and authentic caretakers of the learning of others.