Can Throwing Out Grades Help Students with a Mental Health Illness?

You bet it can!

It also helps nearly all of our students reduce personal levels of anxiety. Don’t take my word for it, here are two examples of how my grade 7/8 students this year are experiencing a no grades classroom for the first time.

eliminate grades

Student A is an above average student who routinely works hard to produce her best work. Last year she would routinely worry about what grade she would receive on completed work. Often asking me to look at her work ahead of time and provide a preliminary grade so she would know how much more work she needed to do to achieve a higher grade. When she occasionally submitted lower level work for her (as well all do at times) she would begin to spiral out of control with worry about failing.

This year, without grades she is a much happier/positive person and is now finally enjoying the learning process. Recently we talked about how this year was different than last year and she told me it all comes down to not having the pressure of grades. Several times last year she came to me stressed that she lost marks (in this case 10%) on her writing piece (she got 90%) and how she could get to 100%. This past week she laughed about how much pressure she felt to get a certain grade and how she hated school because of it. Without grades she now focuses on the feedback provided and is finally able to celebrate the good that she is doing and focus on improving her skills to be ready for high school next year.

Student B is a hard working student who has academic and anxiety challenges. She explained to me that she was dumb. That it took her longer to complete her work than the ‘normal kids’ and that her grades proved that she is simple not smart and never will be. There is nothing that makes a teacher feel worse than to hear these words…you all know what I mean. She began this year with a high level of anxiety and little hope for her learning future. Her challenges with anxiety began to spiral out of control and led to some significant challenges.

After spending a significant amount of time working with her to understand the nature of her fears we realized it led back to her perception of her peers and the crushing finality of grades. Removing grades from the equation resulted in a fairly quick change in her feelings. As she expresses to me, I can now see past the number as there isn’t one. There are things I can do really well, but I did not know this before. I still struggle and get frustrated by things like math, but now I can usually get it by working hard.

In the span of a couple of months, Student A and Student B have reduced their anxiety levels about school in general, developed a more open mindset about learning in general (especially at school) and are much more invested in the learning process.

Elimination of grades = decreased anxiety

Elimination of grades = increase in positive self-esteem

Elimination of grades = focus on mastering skills, not achievement of a number

Elimination of grades = a more open mindset to learning

***Any students who wish to know their numeric grade on an assignment may simply ask me and I will provide it. No one has asked in the past 6 months.

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PD – Kudos to the ICT Staff at TLDSB

Most educators will tell you anyone who listens that there is nothing more frustrating than being forced or subjected to PD sessions that are a total waste of time. The outrageous demands placed on educators today coupled with the finite time we have to achieve them, means that we need every minute to count. With this in mind I want to dedicate this blog to the ICT staff at Trillium Lakelands District School Board.

professional-development-

Over the past 4 years I have been involved in several technology based initiatives and programs at our board. These include the Integrated Technology Champions program, the Innovation through Inquiry Program, Digital Learning Classroom initiative and a recipient of a Program Enhancement Grant. All of these programs are designed and run by our dedicated ICT staff members.

Their efforts have enabled my students and I:

-to not only integrate technology into our learning environment, but Redefine HOW WE LEARN (SAMR model) AND HOW WE SHARE IT WITH THE WORLD (Twitter, YouTube, D2L & our classroom website)

-to consistently choose the most appropriate type of technology to complete any given task (IPad, laptop, Google Drive, online application etc.)

-to engage in learning with students from other school – collaboration and group projects through the web (Dragons Den)

-to be aware of our digital footprints and how to shape them to our advantage

-to understand that netiquette is a core value of all digital relationships

-to push the boundaries of our understanding and move outside our comfort zones (infographics, sharing completed work with the world)

-to view technology, AT ITS BEST as a powerful tool which can be used to develop our best selves, while AT ITS WORST  as a video game console which can create a generation of copy and pasting plagiarizers. 

Computer-Tech

Many of the best aspects of my classroom, powerful assignments, engaging learning opportunities, positive learning environment, integration of technologies to redefine our learning outcomes can be attributed back to conversations at PD sessions led by our ICT department. Every session I have attended over that last 5 years has left me excited to return to school to share these ideas/suggestions with peers and students. How many workshops can you say that you have been to where you know there will be several ideas or learning processes that can be brought back to your classroom and will improve the learning experiences of your students. While our leaders continually provide us with training on new programs, apps, and ideas for how they could be used, they always look to see what we are attempting to achieve with our students and how we work together to share our best practices with others.

In particular I would like to thank Jeremy and Tina for all of the time and effort they have put forth over the past few years. They consistently hear the whining, complaining and attempt to fix all of the many things that tend to go wrong with technology on a daily basis. Their patience and understanding when overwhelmed by teachers’ anxiety, frustration, anger and downright rudeness is inspiring to me. Thank you to all of the ICT staff, especially those we never see. We know you are working for all of us.

Keep up the great work.

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