Tuesday, August 3, 2010

So I Wrote to Alfie Kohn...

This weekend marked the first ever Reform Symposium, which was an incredible experience of people involved in education all coming together to tear it apart and perhaps puzzle it all back together.  There were many stellar talks but my favorite presentation was by far Joe Bower´s on Abolishing Grades, although I must admit I am partial here because I already admire Joe´s work and dedication.  Joe did not disappoint and the backchannel talk was lively as well.  I certainly only became more passionate about my quiet revolution in my own room of perhaps, just maybe, removing grades.

However, to do so though there are people I must get on my side, the first one being my principal, so as any passionate teacher does, I have been gathering my research, thoughts and ideas as I prepare for it.  Once again, it has been a wonderful experience to find that I am not alone in this frustration with grades and a particularly grateful thanks go to @MrMacnology and @Joe_ Bower for their non-exasperated answers to my endless questions.   

And yet, I wanted to see if there was anything I was missing, so I decided to write to Alfie Kohn and by golly he answered my request for help to speak to my principal.

Here is my plea for help:

Dear Mr. Kohn,
I am 3rd year 4th grade teacher struggling with why I grade students.  For 2 years now, I have fudged grades, assigned worksheets to make sure I have enough stuff to make an average from, and dashed students love of learning when they received a poor grade.  For 2 years I have fielded parent phone class on why their child got a particular grade and graded papers until i was ready to fall asleep.  I have dozed off during meaningless book report presentations, and fought with homeless students to turn their homework in.  I am done with grades but have to still convince my principal.  Do you have any strong points that i should bring up to him to convince him that learning should be for learning's sake and not to produce a grade? 
Pernille Ripp

Here is the advice I received:
Thanks for your note.  I've written about why grades are unnecessary and harmful in two books (Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve) and in two articles (www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm and www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/grading.htm).  The first of those articles is a little more accessible, I think.  It's focused on grading at the high school level, but I think one can argue that its points apply more strongly to teaching younger children since there is even less of a case to be made in favor of giving kids grades.  (One can't even rationalize them on the grounds that colleges care.)
A Canadian teacher has lately been working hard to persuade other educators to join him in refusing to give grades on individual assignments (even if they have to turn in an end-of-term grade).  Some of the resources on his blog may be useful to you:  www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html.  Of course, persuading the principal to stop using grades at all -- on a schoolwide level -- would be much more desirable.
Also of possible interest:  this account of a middle school administrator and a high school teacher who have gotten rid of grades (www.alfiekohn.org/miscellaneous/newsarchive.htm#grades) and the first two clips from my DVD that summarize some of the key reasons that grades don't make sense:  www.alfiekohn.org/gandhvideoclips.htm.
Any or all of these resources can be shared with parents and other teachers, the idea being to organize opposition to grades so you're not fighting this all by yourself.
Good luck!

-- Alfie Kohn

I am once again amazed at the power of reaching out to others for help in this quiet revolution against grades.  I am excited to meet with my principal, and hopefully persuade him to let me try this.  And most of all, I am excited about joining up with all of you that think,  discuss, evaluate and listen every single day; never too tired to ponder, "Are we doing the right thing?"


David said...

Way to go on taking the bull by the horns! I am so relieved to be teaching where I am. We have a "simple" report card system in K-2 (not so simple for teachers, but it is more meaningful I believe) that uses ED (experiencing difficulty), AD (Appropriate Development), SP (Strong Performance). None of the work my students do goes home with a grade. I know what standards my student has achieved, and what they need work on.

In Language Arts (and hopefully next year in Math) I have worked with students on a goal for them to reach. Being given a goal is so much better than being given an F.

While it is not completely wiping out "grades," it's a system that I am much more comfortable with.

Joe Bower said...

Pernille, thank you so much for sharing this with me.

I am so glad to hear that you are working to abolish grading so that your students can focus on real learning.

If I can ever lend a hand in your work, feel free to e-mail me any time joe.bower.teacher@gmail.com

Kathleen Cushman said...

I'm with Alfie--grades are harmful to kids. Kids tell me their motivation to master something goes up when 1) they see something done well and admire it enough to try for it, and 2) someone supports them in taking the right size steps toward that so they can feel successful. (I write about this in my new book, see www.FiresInTheMind.org for more on that).

In a grades 7-12 Massachusetts charter school I helped start 15 years ago with Ted Sizer, we don't use any grades--the whole school shares common "criteria for excellence" (in 12 areas, simple enough for all to understand & apply repeatedly over 6 years). Narrative assessments let students know whether they are "just beginning" the standard appropriate for their development, "approaching" it, "meeting" it, or (in rare cases that are out of the box for some reason) "exceeding" it (which does NOT "equal" an "A" btw). You can find those criteria at www.parker.org.

I'd love to hear from other school-wide efforts to leave grades behind in favor of "practice toward mastery"!

Joe Bower said...

@Kathleen, I bought your book. It's on my to-do list. It looks like something I will very much enjoy.


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