I do not require a list of grades in order to come up with a report card mark. I have no gradebook, because I don't need a gradebook. And yet I still provide a grade on the report card.
When I share this with people the first question I get is:
If you have no grades, how the hell do you come up with a final grade?I answer that question here.
Today I want to focus on the detoxing period students go through as I wean them off of school's drug of choice - grades!
These six stages roughly summarize my experience with students and their withdrawal from grade use. Not every child will react this way, and some will relapse more than others, but I have taught with no grades for five years, and these steps reflect my experiences with detoxing students from grade use.
Stage 1 is intervention
Starting day 1, I explain to the student that the report card will be the only time they will receive a grade. In their place, I will provide written and spoken feedback in the form of information that will help them improve thier learning. Depending on their acheivement level, they respond uniquely.
High Achievers: These kids are usually a little wary of the whole idea. After all, I am removing their 'high'. No longer can they define themselves by this metaphorical pat-on-the head. However, most of them are used to complying with the teacher, which all too often helped them to become high achievers in the first place. But nonetheless, they are more than a little suspicous of me.
Average Achievers: These kids are mostly, if not all, appreciative for the removal of grades- perhaps only because it is something different from the monotony school has offered for so long. They thirst for something different, even if they don't really know of any alternatives.
Low Achievers: These kids are so desperate for someone to cease the beatings that they nearly fall over with something that looks half like exuberance and half like exhaustion.
Stage 2 is honeymoon sobriety
Everyone slowly but surely forgets about grades. People naturally want to learn, and kids are people, too. They are starving for an opportunity to learn for its own sake. This stage just kind of happens because grades are something we only talk about when someone continues to artificially induce them. If the teacher stops throwing them in kid's faces, the kids have no real desire to talk about them. However, for those who can't cope with quitting cold turkey and need to a grade, I do offer them the opportunity to come and speak with me in private. I then ask them what grade they think they should get. This leads to conversation where we agree on a grade of some kind. I can probably count on two hands the number of times I've had to do this in five years - for the most part, kids aren't interested in grades.
Stage 3 is the shakes and will breakout with no warning
Everything will be going fine. Stage 2 will appear to be prevalent when all of a sudden one of your students will start to panic as if they were deep sea diving and realized they forgot their oxygen tanks. They come to you with what Alfie Kohn coined as a kind of existential vertigo. They'll run up to you with this ghostly look on their face and beg you to give them a grade. Here is an example.
It would be expected that high achievers would experience the shakes, but you may be surprised to see how many low achievers will develop them as well. All students have been exposed to grade use for many years, some as early as kindergarten, so when you wean them off of grades, they all will experience a kind of withdrawal. Regardless of their achievement level, all students, in some way or another, have come to define themselves by their teacher's judgment. So when the teacher no longer passes judgment, some students panic.
Alfie Kohn explains why all students are candidates of grade withdrawal:
First, it is said that students expect to receive grades and even seem addicted to them. This is often true; personally, I’ve taught high school students who reacted to the absence of grades with what I can only describe as existential vertigo. (Who am I, if not a B+?)
Just as a high achiever may have come to identify himself as an A student, the low achiever has become accustomed to identifying themselves as an F student. The point here isn't that we would want more students to define themselves as A students; rather, we would want children to understand that there is a hell-of-a-lot more to school than simply collecting As - and we don't want anyone to define themselves based on any grade.
Art Costa may provide us with the will to persevere through these signs of withdrawal:
We must remember that our purpose for assessing children is so that one day they may be capable of assessing themselves.Stage 4 is sustained sobriety
I teach my students language arts and science for 104 minutes per day, Monday to Friday, for ten months of the year. Despite a few instances of withdrawal, my students spend more of their time focusing on learning. I never hear students ask those nagging questions like, "is this for marks?" or "does this count?" Rather than having students look at my class syllabus to figure out if something is worth their time, they are attracted to learning for the sake of learning.
While it is true that I still have a curriculum and that I still have assignments that I like students to consider doing, I have to be flexible. Sustained sobriety from grade use means that things like autonomy, choice, initiative and creativity will pop up as symptoms of success. This is evident when my students ask me if they can do poster projects, blog posts, research and science experiments. They upload pictures and videos to our class ning. They blog about their learning, inside and outside of school. You must be flexible too, because you are no longer in control (and rightfully so) of their learning. We all want our students to show initiative and creativity, so don't be dissapointed when they want to learn something other than what your state or province (or even you) dictates. Don't be surprised if your over prescribed, content-bloated, externally dictated standardized curriculum gets in the way of your students learning.
During sustained sobriety, they see each other as allies to collaborate with, rather than as obstacles to be avoided or defeated in competition. They see me, the teacher, as as safe and caring ally rather than a judge-in-waiting that they must keep their distance from while showing only what I want to see. I accept them unconditionally and allow them to experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information.
In essence, I am saying that sustained sobriety from grade-use brings on an accute case of real learning. And it is awesome!
Stage 5 is falling off the bandwagon on the way to high school
At the end of grade 8, my students prepare themselves for high school. During this stage, it is inevitable for them to start thinking about how things will be different. Most of the time, they are thinking of their social lives, but many of them will ponder how their education will change.
Some will revisit stage 3, the shakes, as they begin to panic. Some may even turn on you, their sobreity sponsor, because maybe you prepared them for the rigors of high school. Some students and parents may wonder if you've actually set them up for failure. After all, you've given little to no grades, while the high school lives on them. For this, I have to share the wealth of stories I have heard from my alumni students when they come back to visit. My conversations go something like this:
How's high school?
I have tons of homework. We have so much to get through in so little time.
What is the biggest difference between last year and this year?
Tons of homework, and grades are important. I have to study a lot.
What are you studying?
This term mostly biology.
What are you studying biology for?
To do well on the test.
Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of teachers at the high school who are better teachers than I am, but the system is driven to distraction - it's rotten. We've taken our eye off the ball (learning) and our children are suffering for it. So much so that even when the kids see good learning happening in my class, they become suspicious and express doubt in whether they are being 'prepared' for something else.
To temper this latest round of panic and shakes, I take a chapter from Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth which he titled "Better Get Used to it". He explains it better than I can: [parenthesis are mine]
Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework [or grades] on children just because other people will do the same to them when they're older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the enviornment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they're small in order to get them ready.
There is a reason junior high schools were renamed as middle schools - and it was not just a change in symantics. The purpose here was to acknowledge that middle school children are not simply high school students in-waiting. They are their own selves with their own unique needs.
Kohn explains the distinction between vertical and horizontal curriculum in The Homework Myth:
Lilian Katz, a specialist in early childhood education, refers to this as vertical relevance, and she contrasts it with the horizontal kind in which sutdents' learning is meaningful to them at the time because it connects to some other aspect of their lives.
Horizontal criteria for deciding what to teach are the exception in our schools. Vertical justifications, on the other hand, are employed at just about every grade level. Countless middle school teachers, for example, spend their days disgorging facts and skills not because this is the best way to promote learning, much less enthusiasm for learning, but solely because they've been told that their students will be expected to know this stuff when they get to high school. Even good teachers end up routinely engaging in bad instruction lest their kids be unprepared when more bad instruction comes their way.
John Dewey summarize this all very well:
Education is a process of living, not just a preparation for future living.
Obsessing over preparation for vertical curriculum, justified by "better get used to it" directly contradicts Dewey's wisdom.
Stage 6 mindful reflection
Students will go to high school and experience the rigor of high-stakes tests, grades and homework. They will play the game and jump through the hoops on their way to writing a state or provincial high-stakes exit exam. And if they come back to visit, they will provide you with some very interesting stories that contradict much of what they did in my grade 8 classroom. It is my experience that this step does happen, but for the most part, you may never know it, because not every student will come back and visit you. But from the anecdotal samples that I have collected from alumni students, an overwhelming majority of them experience the feeling that their learning would have been much better off if we abolished grade use.
Remember, friends don't let friends do grades!
For more on abolishing grades, check out this page.