Below is the e-mail I wrote to Alfie in 2006, followed by his response.
I am a sixth year middle school teacher at
Westpark Middle Schoolin . I am writing to you with two purposes: Red Deer, Alberta, Canada
1. I want to thank you for all of the well researched books and articles that you have published. I am a very different teacher now compared to when I started. I no longer give grades, assign homework, or use rewards and punishment.
2. I have eliminated grades from my classroom with the exception of the three report cards that my district policy demands, and I have replaced everyday grading with real comments and constructive feedback, but I am struggling with how I can somehow convert (or symbolize) all the feedback as a grade. (I don't want to, but I have to) Do you have any suggestions??
Joe BowerHere is the advice that Alfie Kohn provided me:
Thanks for your message and your kind words. My primary answer to your question is "Bring the kids in on it." This should be a decision you make with them, not for them. That goes for the general class policy (and the rationale for it) as well the specific grade given to each student. Some teachers meet with each student individually and decide together what the final grade will be. Others, who are more willing to give up control and empower students, simply let the student decide. (They invariably report that students end up picking the same grade that the teacher would have given, and sometimes they even suggest a lower one. But the advantages of letting the kids decide are incalculable, and the process also has the salutary effect of neutralizing the destructive effects of having to give grades in the first place.)
-- Alfie KohnI still abide by this profound advice.
Kohn's primary answer to my question remains at the heart of my assessment practices:
Bring the kids in on it.What is "it", you ask?
To answer what "it" is, I think I need to answer the question "How do you grade without grading?":
Firstly, even if a grade is demanded of you for the report card, it makes very little sense to me that the only way to come up with a final average would be to take a list of other averages and average them together to get a final average. I'm no mathemagician, but that smells fishy to me.
So if that's what I don't do, here's what I do:
1) My students collect the evidence of their learning in their paper and electronic portfolios. The paper one is nothing fancy - just a file folder while the electronic one takes the form of a discussion forum or a Ning that I created using www.freeforums.org or www.ning.com
2) I am a professional. I spend hours everyday with each of my students for 10 months of the year. I get to know them quite well, so my professional judgement and intuitive thinking count for a lot - and have proven to be quite accurate (there is a wealth of evidence to support that teachers assessment of their students may be the most accurate form of assessment we can depend on). There is no substitute for what a teacher can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears when observing and interacting with students while they are learning.
3) I ask the students to self-assess. It is amazing how close they come to picking the same grade that I would pick. Interestingly enough, when there is disagreement between me and them, they are usually too hard on themselves - and the odd time a kid over-inflates their grade, I either decide to let it go or I have a conversation with the student and make the adjustment.
Abolishing grading liberated both my teaching and my students learning. Professionally, it was one of the most successful and meaningful decisions I could have ever made.