Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms, says “students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply.”
Recently, I decided to embark upon a test of this theory. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am no fan of grades. I am disinclined to grade my students’ creative efforts as their writing is always plodding somewhere along Wallis’ Model of Creativity between preparation to incubation to illumination to verification. Some students move through these stages at lightning speed and start other projects; some nurse their projects along for months, deliberating and considering every step in one stage before bursting forth into another.
However, teachers in our district are required to update our online grade books weekly, so I’m required to record something. After a particularly ugly round of reading quizzes dropped my A-addicted students into the B category, the natives were restless. I proposed to my students a radical system: what if I gave you an A, so you could stop obsessing about your GPA and concentrate on writing instead?
“Is this some kind of mind game?” said Blair, a whip-smart cynic in the front row.
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m going to give you an A, so we can get on with the greater business of Art.”
Grades, unfortunately, are often used as goads to motivate the academically inert. But unlike the majority of classes I’ve taught in a general education population, I don’t have to convince these kids that writing, reading, or learning are worthwhile endeavors. My students have chosen to be in this program. They auditioned and were selected from dozens of applicants seeking a spot in the Literary Arts program, and they have the drive, talent and zeal to write that goes beyond a mere grade.
That being said, I’m still a little leery about embarking on so radical a stance since my students are products of nearly a decade of being told that grades were somehow representative of their mastery of a subject.
I have put this theory to the test before. Eighteen years ago, I was teaching AP Lit in a rural public school in eastern Kentucky. My students felt the pressure to keep their grades up was interfering with their ability to enjoy, engage and commune with, and ultimately understand the literature we were reading.
I drew up a contract granting them a 98% for one six weeks period; I would continue to teach, issue tests, assign essays, and give students real and meaningful feedback on their mastery of the subject, but no test they took or essay they wrote would be given a numerical score. They already had an A. With the grade question effectively settled, we could embrace quality learning, driven only by curiosity and intellectual engagement.
The first two weeks after the contract was signed, I thought I had hit upon the elusive educational magic bullet; my students were on fire. We read Crime and Punishment. We had brave discussions. We scribbled out lusty essays on themes and motifs and symbol. But, as we continue through the unit, I noticed a decided flagging of enthusiasm.
By the middle of the unit, only two kids read Sons and Lovers, and by the time we got to Jude the Obscure, I carried the discussion, all of them looking forlornly at the floor, ashamed at their lack of motivation. They reported later that their other classes that were still demanding grades took their attention. They stated honestly they didn’t have the maturity to learn without grades. Ultimately, they needed something external to motivate them to stay on track.
At the time, I concluded learning must be somehow linked to a measurable product, and I parlayed this experience into a nice article (Mandrell, Liz. “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation.” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28-31). I resumed my regularly scheduled programming the following six weeks, but I never forgot about the nascent experiment that had lost its brilliance in the waning days of my students’ senior year.
I was 29 then; I’m 47 years old now, and I hope this experiment will be different for a variety of reasons. Different classroom culture, different season of my teaching career, and a different grade level. My current guinea pigs are freshman and sophomores, not seniors who check out by March anyway.
This time, I let the students vote on this experiment. In a class of 21, eight students wanted grades, and thirteen students did not. The students who did not want grades, however, were convinced by the effective arguments of the thirteen, and all 21 students signed contracts that granted them a 98% for the progress period.
This time, I also let students set their own group norms, so that the group—
instead of the individual student working up singular motivation to stay on track without grades—could encourage, support, and ultimately, police each other. Their norms are:
- Participate in workshop and feedback
- Best effort always
- Respect the community with support – Golden Rule
- Hold each other accountable
- We are All Leaders
- Prove Ms. Prather wrong!
- Be mature human beings.
- Keep on keeping on.
- Set personal goals to keep individuals motivated.
And so it begins… I will be blogging throughout the next twelve weeks on their progress. I am as excited as they are about the possibilities of this brave new classroom!