How I Run A No-Grades Classroom

no grades picture   by Mark Janke

Many people question how a no-grades classroom can work, how can a teacher run such a class and still complete report cards? What is important to remember is that there are many ways to run a no-grades classroom, this piece explain how I do it and how it has benefited my students.

First I do assign the students grades, they just don’t see them. just like every other teacher I have a mark book filled with numbers that attempt to represent my students learning. While I may not personally believe the number helps my students learn (in fact I find it a hindrance), I do ensure that I am doing what is expected of me as a teacher. In my class students are given marks/numerical grades whenever they ask for them. It just so happens no student has asked me for a grade since early October.

My classroom is built upon an inquiry based learning model with student/teacher created success criteria and teacher feedback (I continue to try to attempt more peer and self feedback). It is our belief that all students need to focus on how to improve their skills and develop pride in their work. This pride must come from inside, and not be based on a number assigned by a teacher or peer. Students tell me they love the freedom they enjoy to explore topics and areas of interest yet they also feel the burden of having to take more ownership over their own learning. They agree however that the occasional stress they feel with driving their own learning is far less than they felt when receiving numerical grades. The students explained to me that after seeing a numerical grade they were unlikely to read any comments.

As a class we focus on providing feedback on specific skills we deem to be important. We use the feedback rubric (posted below) as it provides success criteria for the assigned task, an easy to read/follow format and specific feedback on student/teacher created indicators. If a student receives feedback in concerns box it means they have not yet achieved the expectation (which would correspond to a level 1 or 2). If the expectation is highlighted or checked they met the expectations (level 3). If they receive feedback in the mastery box they have exceeded the expectation which would generally be a level 4. Using this method the students have a general idea how they are doing based on the location of the written feedback and the nature of it. And yet there is no grade, level or numerical assessment.

science epic fail pic

I have seen many of my students flourish using this tool and by eliminating numerical grades. Stress has decreased, focus on improving specific skills has increased which has resulted in improved work and greater confidence. I can’t imagine going back to the assigning of grades. That being said, I do record them and make them available to any student who wishes them.

If you would like to know more please feel free to ask.

All the best,

mark

Student Voice…A Powerful Tool, Misunderstood Toxic Element or Both?

If you have read the title of this post and said to yourself, this guy is crazy. Please do not pass judgement on me until you read the entire piece. Like everything else I welcome all opinions and feedback.

I am an intermediate teacher who believes that student voice is a critical aspect of my learning, teaching, professional reflection and key to a successful classroom. When however it is implemented poorly or completely misunderstood by those who are forced to implement it without a plan , it can quickly become a poison which can cause conflict and dissension in any school setting.

The term ‘student voice’ has become the catchphrase at many school boards in Ontario and a pillar of many board improvement plans over the past few years. It is a term that is overused in education today and rarely honoured by those who espouse it most. It has become the catchphrase of many educators and administrative upcommers and wannabes who hope to make a lasting impression at meetings, interviews, camp fires etc.

The Capacity Building Series (published by the Student Achievement Division of the LNS) refers to student voice as a metaphor for student engagement. It is a means of bringing students into the role of co-learners with both teachers and parents in a positive collaborative framework.

student voice visual                                                                   student voice visual 2

While nearly all educators agree (in theory) this could be a powerful tool to encourage students become more engaged in the learning process, it has often been implemented with blinding speed by upper management with far too many negative unintended consequences.

Principals have been bullied into demonstrating how they are using student voice to improve learning in their schools. However it has been implemented in a forced homogenised manner which often leaves teachers feeling abandoned by their principals and at the mercy of their students.

First and foremost, challenges experienced in the education system over the past few years has placed a significant strain on parent-student and parent-teacher relationships. Traditional high level of respect for teachers has been replaced by anger, frustration and disrespect. These feelings are most often experienced by parents and communities who then pass this anger or distrust on to their kids. This has directly resulted in students having far less respect for teachers, schools and an ambivalence toward school work in general.  This negative cycle becomes perpetuated by students received negative message from parents about schools and their teachers and thus becoming increasing disrespectful toward teachers.

All of this has resulted in an abnormally high level of student entitlement (with little accountability being placed back onto the students).

In many places this misrepresentation of the spirit of student voice has resulted in student feeling empowered to actively pressure education professionals to do what they want without a sense of the responsibility that comes along with it. Additionally parents are being fed this false belief that they can use their negative voices (in the guise of student voice) to push personal agendas and force changes upon schools. The difficultly with this is that principals and teachers (who work on the front line) are caught in the middle of this. It has additionally become a new weapon to be used by parents, students and administration to push personal agendas in an attempt to stifle the teacher voice.

My reflection here is that student voice is a critical piece of the education model if and when it is introduced and monitored carefully. Unfortunately that is not likely to be the case.  Current evidence suggests it will be yet another new board initiative that will be poorly incorporated and quickly swept under the rug as a new catch phrase comes from a fire side chat to blow us in yet another direction.

Oh, what could be!

Student Voice is (1280x495)

Replacing Traditional Grades with 4 Words

I wish the idea was originally mine, it seems so simple and intuitive. How are traditional number and letter grades related to student learning? Yes…yes we have all heard the weak arguments about grades representing a students level of achievement related to curriculum expectations. However, this does not answer my question….how are grades related to a students learning? The actual answer is they are not! The sooner we all get on board with this reality the better our instruction practices and our students will be.

Recently I have been reading Tweets and writings from Mark Barnes and Joe Bower. These two men clearly explain the importance of learning being about the exchange of information (feedback) with students and not about providing subjective numbers on a report card or offering rewards and punishments. Barnes’s article entitled “HOW 4 SIMPLE WORDS CAN SOLVE EDUCATION’S BIGGEST PROBLEM” does a masterful job of explaining how subjective grading does little to help students learn. It is simply a relic from the past. Real learning requires the student to be engaged in reflective conversations with their teacher. I add that we need to hear and discuss with our students their ideas, points of view and perspectives on their own work so that we as educators have enough information to truly provide accurate, empowering feedback. Otherwise it is a note on a page (or rubric) which the students can not fully appreciate of understand.

Mark Barnes advocates what he calls the SE2R model:

SE2R

  • Summarize — Provide a one- or two-sentence statement of what was accomplished.
  • Explain — Give a detailed, objective explanation of what learning is demonstrated and/or what is missing, based on the activity’s guidelines.
  • Redirect — When learning outcomes are not demonstrated, redirect students to prior learning or to seek help from the teacher or a peer.
  • Resubmit — Ask students to resubmit activities, projects or assessments, after they’ve returned to prior lessons and models and made changes to the work. This way the teacher can re-assess for mastery learning.

Our report cards do not need numbers, they should be records of the reflections discussed by the teacher and student during the term. It should indicate the strengths, areas of need and next steps to achieve the identified goals. Our statistically driven society (which has been hammered into our students by peers and parents) has resulted in an increase in student anxiety and compulsion about grades. Far too often I am spending time with students and parents trying to persuade them that the numerical grade is far less important than the actual learning. Why are we so fascinated by a subjective number on a page and less interested by the qualitative description of the actual development of the child? I am still astounded by this fact.

When I look through the Ontario Curriculum I find the enormity of it to be disheartening. I believe that mastery learning based on feedback from the teacher during reflective conversations with students should be the goal of all educators. We need to start focusing more on how well our children are learning and less on how much!

MJ

George Couros and Building Relationships

Today I had the pleasure of attending a board workshop given by George Couros. At first I was apprehensive about attending. I follow him on Twitter, which is to say I have a certain perspective of him. His posts are filled with intelligent academic ideas, thoughtful questions/wonderings, enlightening perspective and a high dose of feel good messages.It is this final aspect that had me questioning whether or not this was going to be just another interesting learning opportunity filled with an ‘overdose of positive energy’ devoid of authentic learning. I AM EXCITED TO SAY THAT I WAS WRONG!

George’s message of ‘cultural innovation’ where engagement (a major buzz word at our board) is seen as a lower level goal resonated throughout the room from the beginning of his presentation. He deftly described how empowerment should be our ultimate goal, not just for students but for all members of our board. While this seems like a simple statement, we as educators spend so much time focusing on what we need (students achieving ministry goals) we forget to give them what they need. One question I was left with today (from George) was how much of what we are doing is best for kids and how much is covering our own butts? This one will require further reflection on both a classroom and school wide scale.

Rarely do I find people who predominantly agree with my philosophy of education (or so it feels like). Question practices, decisions and the dreaded ‘tradition’ regardless of who espousing it should be the norm. People in education so often cling to tradition like a lifeboat on the Titanic, it makes me want to grab a violin and play to their death…or worse to their own irrelevance. We need to seriously examine and question our practices. Keep what is relevant and working and replace the rest with the riches of our new world (new technologies, expanding base of relationships and new ways of showing our thinking).

Here is a collection of what I found to be George’s strongest messages for those of you who were not able to be at MEC today.

-Relationships are the key to everything

-School = compliance…how do we break that cycle

-Technology does not equal engagement. A computer to taken notes is a very expensive pencil

-We need to tools relevant to kids (technology) to cultivate empowerment

-would you want to be a student in your class…if not reflect and change

-kids need to be producers and creators of things

-Literate-Adaptive-Transformative (similar to the SAMR model)

-Schools should be using the same tools to teach that students are using at home (youtube, e-mail, twitter etc.)

-Digital portfolios are not simply a collection of work now, but provide students the opportunity to build skills for their futures and in the process create their digital footprint

I could go on but this blog is turning into an essay.

I would like to end by thanking George for sharing his ideas and his thinking with us today. It is rare to hear someone in his position speak so freely and honestly about how our education systems need to change. It is also refreshing to attend a meeting of educators where I felt like my views, opinions and beliefs were truly aligned with the presenter. While I may be a little less emotional or interested in heart tugging videos than George or the majority of my colleagues, I felt validated as an educator today. You can’t put a price on that.

My goal tomorrow is to make my students feel the same way.

MJ

A Second Chance…Time to Remove My Shackles

How many of you have finished a school year wishing you could have the year over again? Our job is so unlike most others. How many carpenters wish they could rebuild a house? Well, if one of them built your home, you may want to get out of there as fast as possible!

For us, there is no one strategy, no one big idea, no one framework that will ensure success. If you follow current building codes and construction plans your structure will nearly always be sound and successful. It is one exciting and ubiquitously frustrating reality of being a teacher. No one plan works all of the time.

This year (my 9th as a teacher) was both a success and failure in many ways. So much so that is has left me seriously questioning the structure, goals, organization, and future of our school system and my practice in particular. Every summer I take time to reflect on my craft and choose an area or two in which to learn more about to improve my practice. This year however I am finding that one or two areas is not enough.

I am fundamentally frustrated by the rigid nature of our bureaucratic school system and the narrow minded view of what we do as educators. I continue to follow dynamic, independent educators on Twitter and yearn to push my classroom further from the norm. The old school view is no longer good enough.

Using technology, personal learning opportunities and talking with my students, I should be able to make the educational experience much more relevant for my students and useful to their future selves.

The more I reflect, the more I realize I have allowed others in our system to limit my actions. No longer will I be talked into submission by the naysayers and fear-mongers. By limiting my own actions and suppressing my own ideas and beliefs I have shackled myself to the conformists views of the education system. This ends now!

I feel more liberated than ever before. I can’t wait for September. I am about to become the Frank Sinatra of teachers…hell I am going to do it MY WAY!

I alone have the key! Next year I will get a second chance with my class from this past year. Everyone deserves a second chance…I will not waste mine.