Going Gradeless & Robert Frost


It was round about the third email I had received, all past 2 am on a school night last year, that I decided that I had had enough.

Mind you, I wasn’t awake to see these emails, but one of my students was (and the student was a freshman). 14 years old, up emailing a teacher, and about the latest grade crisis.

Not to diminish the anxiety of the student, but at the time their grade was about a 95%. My initial not-quite-safe-for-work response was: What? The? Heck? (Or something close to that).

Following thought leaders like Arthur Chiaravalli , Sarah DonovanMonte Syrie, Sarah Zerwin and Cristi Julsrud, I have decided to ditch grades this year – as much as possible (the whole “building an airplane while it’s in the air” thing, you know). Though I still need to give a grade three times a year (two progress reports and a final grade for the semester), I’m trying to keep the focus on the learning and not so much on the grade (A focus on grades or grading can yield a series of negative outcomes).

I had started the year trying to at least delay grades, but then publishing a just a few, which only intensified students’ interest/awareness of those grades (Sigh; not off to a good start for the semester).

I received an email recently from one of my students who wanted to talk about their grade. It felt good to email the student, “If you’d like to talk about making progress toward learning goals, that would be great. But if you want to talk about your grade, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have much to say.” Small steps.

Ah yes, the difference between the Ideal and the Real

So, there’s how I pictured the grading conferences and then there’s what happened.

What happened was that they revealed how far I still have to go in properly preparing students and myself as, heading through my first end-of-the-semester conferences, I realized I’ve made some missteps and mistakes:

  • I started much too late in the semester, causing me to rush through some conferences
  • Perhaps my biggest mistake: not giving students enough tools to come into the conference prepared. Students are still saying phrases about work ethic and other compliance-based thought processes (“I turned in all my work”). This is goal #1 to fix in the spring semester. At the start of the year, we had a big class discussion where two senior classes identified, essentially,  the most important part of getting an A was “turning in all the work.” A solitary voice spoke up and noted that quality was important. Out of nearly 70 students, many heading off to “competitive” colleges, and just 1 mentioned the quality of work. #changeisdifficult   

A few things have gone well, but still need improvement:

  • Making the focus on learning. A few students did note their best work was done only after learning how to better use feedback.
  • A few students talked about doing their best work at the end of the semester (perhaps peaking at the end, like a track athlete peaking as they head into league finals?)

Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”

“And miles to go before I sleep” is the iconic line in Robert Frost’s poem. My process of going gradeless makes me think of this line. Trudging through snow is a perversely pleasant task. There are miles to go for me as I figure out how to be better at my profession; lots of them. At times, the snow will be deep, but it’s worth it.

My students inspire me to do better so they can get the experience that they all deserve. Yes, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” which sounds just fine.  





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