Thursday, January 20, 2011

So How's this Whole No Grading Thing Going for Ya?

This year I threw out letter grades almost completely. Only almost because I am still required to give my fourth grade students a letter grade on their trimester report card. I thought I was crazy, doing this, and I am sure I wasn't the only one. I thought I was going to regret it for sure, face uphill battles from confused parents and upset students, yet instead, nothing...

I have battled with grades my whole life myself, from being a student that never applied themselves enough to a staunch, anxious overachiever with a ridiculous GPA. I never quite found the balance. I just couldn't get my grades to fit me, they never showed my interests, my smarts, my deficits. They were just an arbitrary number on a piece of paper, something that said nothing about my future or my past. Not even a snapshot in time.

So when I became a teacher, I fiddled, I muddled, and I tweaked. Those poor averages and grades I came up with never seemed to tell my students their story either. An A meant little but an F meant something,right? We finished a product, stamped a grade on it and end of discussion. So this year I stopped grading and I was terrified.

When you tell people you don't believe in grades, they mostly think you are crazy and have no place in teaching. After all, life is one long file and rank and grades make us all fit in so nicely. And yet, my parents on orientation day believed in me. They seemed to get it because I explained to them what I would do instead. I promised to engage their child in discussions, to constantly evaluate and more importantly reevaluate what knowledge their child had secured. I promised to set up learning opportunities where their child could show off their skills in different ways than written work. I promised them to monitor, alert, refine and reteach whenever needed. I promised them that they would know what their child knew and what they were still working on. I add to these promises whenever I can.

So has it been perfect? Oh I wish. But neither were my letter grades before. Averages never told the full story, and often it was hard to fully explain why a child was a B or a C. Now I can talk about where the child stands, what they have secured, where they are developing. Now when I discuss strengths of my students, I have checklists, specific samples and conversations to refer to. The students are aware of their progress and they know what they need to work on. Getting rid of grades has meant more work for me focused on the student. It has meant more time spent talking to my students, more focus on our goals, more time to really prepare and think about my lessons instead of all that solitary grading. For me, it has meant I can hold my head up higher when in conferences with my students. For me, it has meant a new way of teaching, of preparing my students for a life that will try its best to label them somehow. A way for me to help them tell their story right now and perhaps even point them to their future story.

So that whole no grade thing, maybe not such a bad idea after all.

PS: I couldn't have done this without support from Joe Bower (@Joe_bower), Jeremy MacDonald (@MrMacnology) and some wisdom from the guru that is Alfie Kohn.

13 comments:

Dodie said...

Glad everything is going well!! Imagine that, actually having conversations about kids for kids :) kudos to you

photomatt7 said...

The question on everyone's mind: "How do we fix America's schools?"

The answer on mine: "Put a Pernille Ripp in every classroom."

Mrs Ripp aka 4thGrdTeach said...

Thank you for your gracious comments. I am nothing special, not an expert, just trying to figure out what works best for me.

Jose said...

Wow. Amazing. Radical even. Keep it going.

Ashley Lighthizer said...

I am thrilled to have discovered you on Twitter. Many times your blog is a direct reflection of my thoughts as a teacher. Do you ever feel you are fighting an uphill battle with colleagues & administrators? I know I often feel defeated because I am not following the traditional teacher role. I do not like grades for many of the reasons you stated, homework makes me shutter, and classroom discipline "programs" are unfair to most students. Am I a perfect teacher? No way. But I need to do what is best for my students and, most importantly, me.

Becky Bair said...

It is so wonderful to read this post. I've thought so many times how much better I would be able to describe my kids if I could just write a narrative about them. Now I'm limited to 1100 characters and very specific criteria on what makes a 5th grader proficient. But reading this reminds me that maybe I can change more people's minds and do what's best for my kids. Thanks for taking us along on this journey.

Julie Cunningham said...

I keep looking for the "Like" button on your posts. ;) (Isn't it funny how we begin to merge our online platform.... I want to retweet on Facebook, to like things on Twitter and blogs.)

@Eliza_peterson said...

That's great, Pernille. I'm so happy you are finding success. I am weary of making that first step... I would love to rid the schools of grades and make for much more meaningful assessments and feedback. Keep up the good work.

Tracy said...

I was sick of the whole grading process myself, sick of hearing from parents who wanted me to teach something "easier" so their child could get a higher grade, sick of hearing from my principal that I graded too low and parents were complaining, sick of hearing from kids that thanks to me they couldn't go out with friends over the weekend because parents thought their current grade was too low (we have a "real time" online grade book that uses percentages only). Nothing seemed to be about the work or the grades or the process or more importantly about LEARNING!
So this year I am assessing the exact same way inside the classroom, students are working harder than ever on their projects, and I am not participating in the day to day percentage grade I am/was supposed to be assigning after each class. The students and myself are having a better than ever year, with outstanding work being done by ALL my students.
Tracy R. NYC

Mrs Ripp aka 4thGrdTeach said...

Thank you everyone for you insight, your stories, and your comments on this tale. While I am not perfect, or even following a program, I am seeing the change in my students as they approach their learning. I can count on one hand how many times a student has asked me how something will affect their grade this year. What I have been asked instead is how can they learn more and how we can change our learning process. As Deven wshares his history with grade I can only nod, it is so similar to mine even thoug I grew up in a different country.

As we continue to reevaluate why we practice certain approaches in our classrooms, I am thankful for the professional dialogue that gets sparked in these comments. I am learning more and more every day from all of you.

kellimcgraw.com said...

"This year I threw out letter grades almost completely"

This news warms my heart! Keep it up :) Too many teachers adopt the grading system used by report cards and external exams, thinking that this makes life easier, or that it gets the student prepared for their result/doom. But feeding the machine only makes it stronger - and undermines the formative learning that can take place in a class environment.

Magical Ms. M said...

Mrs. Ripp,

I am so glad to hear about your successful removal of grades from your public school classroom. I teach third grade in an international school in Estonia where we have no grades (not even on reports), and I worry about returning to the states where I will be asked to implement them once again.

My students are motivated and engaged in their learning! When I want them to try harder, or dig deeper I taunt them with the words, "are you ready for a challenge?" There is no greater reward in our classroom than participating in the challenge.

I believe we are raising the next generation of creative individuals. As a school we have been inquiring into higher-level thinking, in particular cultivating creativity in our classrooms. We have been reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work. According to him, creative people are personally motivated. They seek answers because they are curious and engaged by the learning process - not because they think they will get paid more, or get an award. I believe we are helping our kids find that personal motivation by removing the reward of grades. In the end the learning, the discovery, is the reward.

This is good work. Keep it up.

PS - I think your voice comes through loud and clear. Your writing is inspired, personal and honest (with a hint of quiet revolution). You go girl!

Brian Wyzlic said...

Why do I always find myself about a month late to the party on the best posts around? Thanks for posting this again on Twitter.

I'm curious, because I really want to implement something like this in my classroom: how does this go over with the other teachers at your school? What about your principal?

I teach middle school, and I find that grades are so meaningless. My students quibble about their grades and scores, and they get frustrated with me when I tell them I don't really care about their grades. They stop listening at that point, and miss it as I finish with "I care about your learning." Eliminating grades all together would really drive that point home, I think. But I'm not sure how to make it work.

 

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