Quitting Grades and Making It About Learning

After reading Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessments and The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn, I decided to take a huge risk. I made the transition to a No Grades class that focused on differentiation and growth. This was something new and scary for me, as it meant I had to relinquish control over grading and learning, but I knew it was the direction I NEEDED to take.

At the beginning of the semester I provided instruction to my English 9 students that focused on the class objectives. I assigned a few class projects that helped them to see what it could mean for them to address the class objectives. They were getting it and I stood alongside them providing feedback and encouragement along the way. Nothing was graded. It was either meeting standard or it wasn’t. If It wasn’t, students made revisions until it met standard. And once it was, I made suggestions for future growth. 

At the start of the second quarter I turned my students loose and encouraged them to develop their own projects to meet the course objectives. My students surprised me. They came up with projects that exceeded my expectations. We worked our way through The Odyssey and I was impressed by my students’ creativity. Some students wrote skits, others scripted out scenes, while others created games. The thought students put into these projects was impressive.

A project that stood out to me was a board game created by two of my boys. I asked them how this project was going to demonstrate character development (the key objective in English 9 semester 2) and their idea floored me. They said that the project was going to show how Odysseus learned humility and that he needed the help of the gods. Players would visit the lands traveled by Odysseus and when they arrived on a land they would draw a card pertaining to that specific land. The card would provide a dilemma and the player would “seek the help of the gods” by rolling the dice and allow the gods to determine the player’s fate. The objective was to get home to Ithaca and prove to the gods that they are needed. I was impressed by their higher order thinking.
While they worked on this project, I would periodically drop in on them to check their progress. I would ask them questions to continue to challenge them, and when they struggled with something I would help them problem solve. During this project, these boys were usually the first ones to class and the last ones to leave. It was so much fun to watch their enthusiasm. 

It took them about three weeks to complete the game, much longer than it took most students to complete their projects, and when they were done most of the class wanted to play the game. These boys were truly proud of their work. One of the boys told me at the beginning of the semester he hated reading. After he was done he told me he loved The Odyssey and had a lot of fun working on the game though he still hates reading. In spite of his aversion to reading, he demonstrated learning that exceeded my expectations.

Student created The Odyssey Game

This seemed to be the trend amongst all of my students. There was a higher level of enthusiasm and the quality of work was pretty amazing. Students were working on various projects of their choice and I stood on the sidelines supporting and encouraging them.   

I am so glad I took the risk. I have learned that my students are quite capable of more than I could ever anticipate. All it took was for me to get out of their way and provide them with the opportunity to be themselves rather than fit into some arbitrary a mold. At the end of the semester, my students were proud and confident when they conferenced with me about their final grade. They submitted an electronic portfolio and explained to me how they have demonstrated learning. 

This is why I became a teacher. I am so glad I took the risk. There is no turning back for me now. I feel that anything less is failure on my part and a disregard for my students’ potential.

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