Absence and presence

In the end, it’s not really the topic of grades that’s so huge for me— It’s the topic of no grades: what can happen, what I’ve seen happen, in their absence.

graduation JuliaThis is Julia Miller, who graduated from Touchstone long enough ago that she’s about to graduate again, from high school. Behind her, draped on the greenhouse, you can see the flag her Older Student Program group made the previous fall, just before going on their fall hiking trip. If you look closely, behind Julia’s right elbow, you can see the word CREATIVITY and the beginning of the word RESPONSIBILITYtwo of the values that group chose as their watchwords for the year. She’s about to dance–

graduation julia dance cropped–mostly as a joke, but I love the way this photograph shows her blooming along with the petunias, and reaching for the literal and figurative skies.

As they go through their experience, students in an ungraded situation aren’t thinking, “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections from topic to topic and theme to theme and school to home (and vice versa); they’re trying out different voices and different genres and new strategies for understanding the world; they’re thinking a lot about the community of each other.

Teachers who aren’t giving grades aren’t thinking “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections themselves, learning about their topics, watching and planning for ways to include other adults and experiences outside the classroom; imagining the world of each student from inside that student’s perspective; nourishing the community that can do more for each individual than any teacher’s plans.

As we went along, the missing grades barely figured in what I said about the teaching and learning I shared with each year’s class. At parent meetings, I never said, “First, I want you to know that I’m not giving grades.” It was taken for granted, invisible.

Still, that absence of grades was constantly at work in the presence of other energies and outcomes.

I saw the benefits: for kids whose learning experience had never been assessed with grades; but also for kids who had come to my school after experience with grades elsewhere.

Now and then, a transplant–or his parents–couldn’t make that transition. Most were like people woken from a long and troubled sleep. They stretched; they looked around; slowly, or quickly, they became active, in a new way, in the scene of their lives.

Still, I don’t have available the experimental control, in which the same teachers worked with similar kids and gave grades. I don’t know how that would have worked for any of us.

Close friends have said that I would probably have blown all my fuses and quit; that I would have left teaching very early in the game, if I’d been forced to translate my students’ growth and learning into graded assessments.

I wonder: how many teachers have been driven out of teaching by the necessity of an activity ultimately so alien to their original hopes and intentions? How many others, not questioning grades, have nonetheless abandoned teaching out of disappointment with the state of mind grading has induced in their students? What have we lost with this attrition, these departures?

My own history meant that I didn’t take the absence of grades for granted. I first started questioning the effectiveness of grading long before I was a teacher, long before my husband and I went looking for schools for our children. I became skeptical of grades at a time when I was being graded myself, and getting good grades. Not always, but sometimes, I could feel how addictive that was; I could glimpse how few risks I was taking; I felt, often, the price of that labeling.

Beyond that, I remember watching the effects of grades on some of my friends. I knew their talents and strengths, and wondered why their grades didn’t represent them more accurately. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any way for some of my friends to live in their strengths, in the classrooms we were encountering. Looking back I can see how the learning was often shaped to be easily measurable, easily graded.

If you’ve read previous posts, you know that I had some wonderful teachers. I don’t blame them individually. I was in the first wave of the post-war baby boom, and our classes were large. To some degree, increased testing and grading pressure attempted to manage that suddenly increased demand.

Like them, still, many teachers don’t have a choice of not assigning grades. Some give the grades they have to give, but play down the importance of those grades in any way they can, putting their energy into those other products and outcomes I tried to describe in the previous post:

  • Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments
  • Learners who know and understand and respect themselves as learners
  • Authentic and rewarding group learning
  • Deep meanings held in community
  • Powerful connections with significant content

One of those “teachers without a choice” lives under the same roof with me, and his frustrations were part of what finally goaded me into writing about not giving grades. So I want to end this series of posts, at least for the time being, with a nod to him and to all those teachers past and present, saddled with the obstacle of grades and making the best of it, for their students’ sake.

I think I’ve said this before, and I never forget it for a minute: I was lucky.

But that’s enough (finally, or at least for now) about no grades. Next time, I want to start thinking about structures to help teachers and students meet each other halfway, beginning, I think, with the seasonal feast of the Skimathon!

Five More Thoughts About Grading

The story so far: If the product of a learning experience takes the form of a grade, other possible products and outcomes have less reality and less power for the learner.

Voices speaking out against grades want to shift the focus of learners and teachers, to give priority to those other products and outcomes. I’m going to focus on just a few.

# 1  Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments

Focused effort matters, and thoughtful assessment can support that. Very briefly, here are some of the kinds of feedback individual kids could come to expect in my classroom, in place of grades:

  • one-on-one working conferences to look at pieces of writing, reading comprehension progress, math quiz outcomes, etc.;
  • group mini-lessons based on common confusions or not-quite-there efforts or emerging possibilities or spontaneous break-throughs, acknowledging and moving forward from all those;
  • quick skills checks in the form of miniboard warm-ups;
  • written responses to specific assignments;
  • long narrative progress reports twice a year;
  • conversations in preparation for portfolio sharing, and the portfolio conferences themselves;
  • feedback from classmates, students in the wider school community, parents, and other adult audiences.

The previous post has examples of some of these. The feedback for students in younger classes varied from this in developmentally appropriate ways, but always with the same goals: not judgment, but celebration and support.

Each of these activities provided an opportunity for student and teacher to observe patterns in comprehension and skill, or difficulty, and to set goals both short-term and long-term. At the same time, each of these assessment activities was an opportunity to revisit, share, and reconsider the important questions inherent in our content.

#2  Learners who belong to themselves

I remember a conversation with the high-school-aged daughter of a friend. She told me about her classes for that year by telling me her grades. She couldn’t tell me what was interesting to her; couldn’t say what she wanted to learn next; couldn’t describe anything about her learning process. Her grades were high overall, and she assumed that the subject in which she was getting the highest grades should be her major in college.

This young woman didn’t belong to herself as a learner; she belonged to her grades, and to the people who were giving her those grades–even the people who were celebrating those grades.

Especially once we were able to keep students until they were ready for high school, people observing the graduates of my school have been struck by the way graduating 14-year-old kids belong to themselves–how clearly they know and understand and respect themselves as learners.

fall projects NateInstead of pinning their student identities on their GPA, students in ungraded situations learn how to work with their real identities as learners. They learn how to choose meaningful and sustainable challenges for themselves. They know how to manage their own attention, and what to do to sharpen their memories. There may be passages through which they struggle, but a lot of the time they’re having a blast. Above all, they know, for themselves, why it matters. To the left, checking and graphing temperatures.

#3  Authentic and rewarding group learning

Teamwork flourishes best when grades are out of the picture. When I’ve talked about the amount of group work happening in my class, people have often asked, “Don’t kids get distracted by working together? How can you tell who did what?”

I’d have to be crazy to deny that distraction happens sometimes, or that timid students can become dependent on others. Still, young adolescents are ready and eager to learn how to be teams.

as Tsongas 3At Tsongas Industrial History Center, these girls are constructing a working canal system model. As usual, museum educators  commented on how well students worked together–incorporating everyone’s ideas, sharing the dirty work on the floor.

At any age, effective group work doesn’t happen automatically. In order to get the huge benefits of several minds focused on the same task, complementing and helping and challenging each other, kids have to learn how to be task-focused and team-focused both at once; how to do the social work, the intellectual work, the creative work, and the procedural work all woven together.

Kids exposed to plenty of group projects in an ungraded situation get a terrific head start. Without grading to tell them they’re competing instead of collaborating, they learn how to stay balanced within the group process, and how to help the group stay balanced so it keeps on working for everyone.

If you want an argument against grades, focused on future success, you could start with that.

tracing watershed pathway croppedAbove: Working with a parent volunteer, students help each other figure out which direction the rivers are flowing on topographic maps.

Meanwhile, freed from generating grades, I could put time into helping groups design and choose tasks that would engage them, with topics and audiences that mattered to them. The resulting energy helped their bicycle built for two (or three or four) keep momentum.

Often, when sharing work in a portfolio conference, students mentioned their partners and teammates, and told about what each of them had contributed, as I set off quiet internal fireworks of celebration. Yes!

# 4  Deep meanings held in community

As humans, we seem to have evolved to construct meaning, and experience meaning, collectively.

Stonehenge.arp.croppedMany groups of students have been inspired by the collective power of the communities that built Stonehenge, and archaeologists’ ideas about the community events held there.

Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have found evidence of the power and importance of community life and community understanding, deep in the past history of our species–and even for the other hominin species before us.

Young adolescents work hard to begin to understand huge things: life and death, economic reality as they observe it, the concept of scale, the notion of one image symbolizing whole realms of experience. Whenever I asked groups of students what they’d like to understand better about the world, I was astonished anew at the ambition of their questions, knowing this at the same time: the really heavy lifting they can’t do alone, any more than adults can.

Lizzie Bright croppedIn my own most emblematic image of this, a group of learners listens to a challenging novel read aloud. As I write, I realize that I’m thinking particularly of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a novel about racial prejudice in early 20th century New England, beautifully written by Gary Schmidt. Sharing a novel like this, the students build understanding together through their various comments and questions. Sometimes I sense their collective bravery in their silence for a tricky passage, or just after.

If somebody out there knows a way to assign grades to the quality of a shared group silence, let me know.

Now hold that in contrast to this: When individual achievement is the only test of an experience; when shared learning is considered cheating; when it’s constrained by the “level-playing-field” concept that requires teachers to do exactly the same things for every student; when teachers face such large classes that they have no way of knowing who’s doing what without completely isolated graded assessment–the deepest and truest parts of learning are hobbled, compromised, or outright lost.

It’s not impossible to nurture community, and the deep meanings community can hold, in the presence of a grading system–just harder. In fact, in my experience, over-emphasis on individual outcomes in any form–either grades or some supposedly benign substitute–works against the development of community, and the construction of shared meaning.

#5 Powerful connections with content

When grades aren’t the focus, content itself–the world!–gets more attention. The world is alarming to young adolescents–and to all of us–but also fascinating. Grades wind up being a smokescreen in the way of that fascination.

That’s what broke my heart about my friend’s daughter, mentioned earlier. She was experiencing very little actual engagement with the world and how it works and what we make of it. Her grades were like junk food, no fit substitute for actual encounters with the depth of time, or the mysteries of prime numbers, or the relationship between surface area and heat loss, or the way human history offers such contradictory evidence of both altruism and cruelty.

I think of a student long ago who wanted to read novels about the Holocaust. She had no assignment. She just kept coming back to me for more books, and talking about them to her classmates and parents. She was choosing her own path to a deeper understanding of the world.

Or I think of a student, now grown to a man, who used his sketchbook, during morning sketching time (which was completely open, unassigned), to make a very long narrative map, which continued from one two-page spread to the next, and the next, for months. The map as a whole incorporated everything that kid was noticing about the world through which he traveled: about geography, transportation, and the designs of buildings and other systems; about humor; about continuity and discontinuity.

Looking back, I remember now that this student’s family had just gone through an unusually messy divorce. His rehearsal of continuity in the built and natural worlds, page by turned-over page, feels tremendously poignant to me now. At the time, I was focused on his thinking and processing and creativity. But it seems likely, now, that the mapping was working for him on levels I couldn’t even guess. He gave himself the assignment that let him live in his intellectual strengths, and use those strengths to help him live through his family’s troubles.

Although he made me copies of some of the pages, I have no idea where they are. Hooray for memory so vivid and dear that it doesn’t need props. Hooray for learning so rich that no grade could encompass it. Hooray for the safe haven, also a highly effective launching pad, in which such work could happen.

I have a feeling I’m still not done with this topic…