New Teacher Series/ Question 5: How do I gauge student learning with 100 kids?

To do this, you will need to employ an edu-darling term, “formative assessment,” which is a fancy way of saying figure out where your kids are, either two inches or two miles away, from the standard, then give them clear feedback on how to take the next step toward it.

The first lesson of formative assessment: it’s not a thing; it’s a state of mind.  Formative assessment is not a grade in the gradebook or an activity to pass the time until the test comes around. It is the sum of all knowledge you own about the students. It is the collected and analyzed product of bell ringers, exit slips, writing notebooks, open ended responses, lab reports, quizlets, classroom observations, student interviews, homework, and portfolios.   It’s the answer to the question: where do my kids stand in relation to  where they need to be?

No one method of formative assessment is better than the next because, like a piece of exercise equipment, the best form of formative assessment is one you actually use.  Sometimes administrators force teachers to track student growth goals, but assessing kids just for the purpose of data collection doesn’t move them closer to the goals. It’s analyzing that data and modifying your teaching to move the kids up, back, right or left toward the goal that’s important.

Standards are static; kids are dynamic. Figure out where your shifting, ranging, all-over-the-map kids are in relation to those immovable standards. Think of a ladder as you map out the small steps that leads toward mastery of the standard. The correct edu-term for this is a “learning progression.”

Let’s say you have Standard A, which is a giant standard.  You break it down into 10 smaller learning goals, or ten rungs on the ladder, and design ten clear lessons to address those smaller chunks.  Each lesson should allow for multiple attempts, lots of feedback, and practice, practice, practice. Better yet, get your kids in on the action, and let them map out the ladder, wrestle with the smaller steps, connect to the ladder through their own interests.

Early in the process, design a formative assessment tool that asks questions about all ten smaller goals.  You could use a quick Google form, which provides you with immediate and collated feedback, or you could use a simple thumbs up/ thumbs down method too, as long as you get the data you need.  You analyze it and discover 25% of your class has only mastered two of the ten rungs required to climb the ladder while 50% of your class has mastered six of the ten and the last 25% have mastered eight rungs on the ladder.

Of course, it will never be exactly this easy because standards don’t necessarily distribute themselves into ten clean, small goals. Nor is the ladder always straight or OSHA certified.  And students’ abilities aren’t divided neatly into three categories (although it’s surprising how often they do.)

However, enlisting these three steps – breaking down the standard in smaller pieces, assessing the kidlets, then analyzing that data- will established a great starting place to meet their needs.   By matching an appropriate lesson to the students’ readiness, you have created differentiation.  You can also create more student ownership and investment by asking students to

  • set goals in relation to their progress and their own interests,
  • create their own rubric for meeting proficiency,
  • develop their own questions for the final exam based on the standard,
  • maintain their own spreadsheet or other visual representation of growth, and
  • analyze their own progress.

Give students many, many opportunities to apply the skills and concepts in your class to gain proficiency. Learning is not one and done.  Learning is trying, failing, re-adjustment, trying again.  Your job is to encourage, evaluate, modify, and assist. (Book recommendation: Read Robyn Jackson’s great book Never Work Harder Than Your Students about motivating kids to own their learning experience in order to create independence and autonomy.)

To assess learning, you don’t have to give a formal quiz or test.  It could be as simple as a day-to-day student reflection that you collect at the end of class.  Get tech savvy, which will save you time. Use a classroom response system, like a clicker system, that records and prints out numerical data easily. Use online Google forms that collect and display data in linear scales, pie charts, and graphs.  Check out Alice Keeler’s website. She is the master of the Google classroom and has written two books and produced numerous videos to help you figure out how to use the Google suite of utilities to gather, analyze, and reflect on your growing, but manageable data of student wants and needs.

Remember, data is not the enemy.  Unanalyzed, empty data, whose production is washed in the tears of over-tested youth, is the enemy.  Data that builds the ladders for your students to make gains is your absolute BFF.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was king.  If you didn’t know what to teach, you just started on page one and taught through Modernism or, in the case of Social Studies, the Vietnam war.  But luckily we live in an age of standards.  Standards are not “the test” nor are they curriculum; they are the expectations for what students will master by each grade level.  For teachers in the state of Kentucky, the Kentucky Academic Standards, a 745-page behemoth, lists the skills and content a student should master at each grade level, as she progresses toward graduation.

These standards are what we teach; curriculum, on the other hand, is how we teach it. In Kentucky, our standards are the same from Paducah to Pikeville, but our curriculum may be different from classroom to classroom.  A teacher’s curriculum includes “scope and sequence,” which is edu-speak for how deep and wide you teach a concept (scope) and the order in which you teach the elements of that concept to enhance comprehension (sequence). As an English teacher, you will be responsible for teaching the standards in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.  What you teach is established by the state; how you teach it is often determined by your teaching style, the students who populate your classroom, and the instructional resources available within your district.

Good districts create, maintain, and communicate to all teachers a large picture of all the moving bits of curriculum – instructional resources, materials, lessons, units, modules, assessments— that support their learning objectives and goals.  This big picture is called a curriculum map.  The curriculum map shows how the standards are taught in each grade and how the curriculum aligns vertically, so that the fifth grade math teachers know what the fourth grade math teachers covered, and the fourth grade math teachers know what the third grade math teachers covered, and so on.  The purpose of mapping and aligning the curriculum is two-fold:  so students have no gaps as they progress to graduation, and so students aren’t taught the same thing every single year.  Each year their learning should build on the skills they mastered the previous year.

Regardless of whether the teacher in the previous grade level did or didn’t teach the standards he was supposed to, it is now up to you to figure out what those kids sitting in your classroom know and don’t know. Tip: There’s nothing lamer than a high school teacher blaming the middle school teachers, unless it’s a middle school teacher blaming his student’s deficiencies on the elementary school teachers.  Impugning other teachers helps no one. Be solutions-oriented, not a blame artist.

Here are some more tips:

  • Know your grade level/content standards like a lover’s face. For an 8th grade ELA teacher, there are only 42. Learn them inside and out.  The current college and career ready standards were developed by a non-partisan task force of education commissioners, governors, CEOs, business leaders, and teachers like you.  They were designed to make American students globally competitive, and they were adopted by 42 of the 50 states.   They are quality standards. Don’t just cut/slap them onto a lesson plan template, but know them deeply and widely, and understand why these standards are appropriate and beneficial for students.
  • Do not re-invent the wheel. First, ask another teacher, your department chair or your principal for the district’s or school’s curriculum map in your content area. If this is not available, Google is your friend. There are literally hundreds of curriculum maps online. Download four or five, and use them to build your own scope and sequence.
  • Figure out what your students know. All good teaching starts there. Without knowing what your students already know, you will not be able to move them to master the skills they don’t know.  In edu-circles, this is called “formative assessment,” but I call it relationship building. This kind of data gathering can be a pencil/paper test, a thumbs up/down comprehension check, or a longer conversation that helps you begin to grasp each student’s intellectual and academic profile.
  • Be transparent and get the kids in on the gig. Give them the standards. Ask them to analyze and break the standards down into learning goals of their own.  Charge your students with calling you on any activity that isn’t connected with one of these standards.
  • Everything you teach should be related to the mastery of one of those 42 standards. Every activity and assignment should be intentional.  You only have 177 days of instruction; every lesson, every activity, every unit must count.

 

 

 

 

New Teacher Blog Series: Some Questions

This morning I met a brand new teacher. She’s bright, bubbly, and energetic.  She just landed her first full-time teaching gig. She currently works at a local coffee shop and knew I was a teacher.

“I just want to pick your brain.”  She handed me a coffee-stained menu. On the back she had written fourteen questions, jotted down, I imagine, during her shift.

A multi-tasker.  I liked her already.  I gave up this simple gratitude:  Thank you for young, engaged, smart, caring, pro-active, ever-learning, ever-growing new teachers.

I skimmed down her list.

“When does your next shift start?”

“In 45 minutes,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to scratch the surface.”

Books can, have, and should continue to be written about these questions. The questions are important and critical, especially to a new teacher who wants to do the very best job for her students.

These would make great blog posts, I mused.  And that’s how, kids, this blog series was born.

Dear optimistic, new teacher, we have three weeks before school starts. Gird your loins. In the next 21 days, I’m going to offer you some tips (First lesson: There are no real answers, only tips; anyone who says he has the answers is a company representative looking to sell your district a costly curriculum package that will, one year later, collect dust in the bookroom.) on the 14 questions you asked (plus one I’m adding into the mix) via this blog.

Below are the questions/topics.  As I complete each blog, I will hyperlink the post to its topic.  Bookmark my blog, and let’s get started!

Blog 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

Blog 2: Should I create a website? If so, what kind?

Blog 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

Blog 4: What system do you use for planning?

Blog 5: How do you gauge student learning and meeting their needs when you have 100 students?

Blog 6: How regimented should I be with rules and procedures during the first few days of school?

Blog 7: Should I create a classroom protocol list or go by school policy?

Blog 8: Keeping up with attendance and make-up work seem really time consuming with so many students.  How does a teacher organize this?

Blog 9: What are the best strategies for reading novels?

Blog 10: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Blog 11: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Blog 12: What are the best strategies for teaching writing? (You actually didn’t ask this one, but I’m suggesting a few tips anyway.)

Blog 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

Blog 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Blog 15: What is the best way to involve parents?

Spring Break Observation Logs: Teaching Kids to Witness

On the Friday before spring break, my classroom has the kind of frenetic expectancy that exists between a lightning bolt and a thunder clap.  Kids are jangly and wrangly.  Into this fray, I wade.

“I have an assignment for you over spring break,” I yell over the din. They begin to groan.  Spring break is about breaking and springing, not working. I know. I get it. But this is so important.

“I’m giving you these little notebooks.” I wave a little notebook around. Perhaps the novelty shushes them. The notebooks are pocket size with 80 small pages.

“I want you to write down anything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell or feel during the seven days of our absence from one another. Everything. Everyday.”

They are intrigued.

I’ve been passing out little notebooks over spring breaks for about six years now.  In 2009, my AP Language class read Joan Didion’s masterpiece essay “On Keeping a Notebook” and were duly inspired to take up pen and paper and practice the art of observation.

The point is simple:  develop a habit of noticing things and writing them down.

This is not a diary or a journal of weight loss, profit margins, egg sales. I want them to cultivate a writerly habit that some of my students already have: compulsive recording. But even more important than the chronicling itself is the action that comes before the chronicling: the noticing.

Everything becomes a rich opportunity.  Every detail becomes a brush stroke in a story; every drifter or butcher or bus driver becomes a character.  Or they don’t.

There’s a snippet of the lyrics “knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door” in your head, and there’s a dog that looks like your priest walking down High Street. On the radio someone is looking for used tires and they want to trade a baby crib for them. Someone has scrawled on the bathroom wall: If your parents didn’t have children, it’s a good bet you won’t either.

It means whatever it means.

In a culture of high stakes assessment, common core cramming, and standardized breathing, this project is refreshingly simple. Teaching students to observe their world with no other objective than merely witnessing it is absolutely vital.

“I want you to look like a writer,” I say to them.  “Stick this notebook in your back pocket, the string of your bikini, the side of your backpack, and become obsessed with collecting notes, looking at the world like a writer would.”

“How will this be graded?” asks the front row handwringer.

“It’s a pass/fail assignment. You’ll get a 100% if every page has something on it or you’ll get a zero.”

“But what do we write?” says the still dubious cynic in the back row.

“Phrases that tickle your fancy, phrases your geography teacher says, phrases your grandma says, phrases you hear at temple, phrases your sister whispers in her sleep. Notes from a lecture, notes from a talk show, notes from the underground. Gossip you hear, gossip you make up. Sermons. Songs. Poems. Lists. Jokes. Riddles. Lies. Mysteries. Tall tales. Visions. Dreams. Revelations. Secrets. Graffiti. Facebook updates, Twitter shout outs. Headlines, bylines, hashtags, short lines. A toast someone gives at a wedding, a farewell someone gives at a funeral. A scene you see, a scene you think you see, a scene you make up, a scene you wished you’d see. Wishes you had when you were five, wishes you had last year, wishes you have right now. Disappointments that have hurt you, disappointments that have inspired you, disappointments you’ll never get over. Fears you project, fears you hide. Lists of things your friend carries in his wallet/purse. Lists of things you carry in your wallet/purse. Conversations you overhear at the coffee shop, at the gas station, on the street, in the cafeteria. Conversations you imagine two people having, conversations you have with imaginary people, conversations your parents have when they think you’re not listening, conversations your parents have when they know you’re listening. Description of people in Wal-Mart, descriptions of people at the bus stop. A dream you have while asleep, a dream you have while awake, a dream you have while someone else is talking. A new word you want to remember, a new word you make up. The names of your future children, future pets,  future company, future empire. Good titles for your life story, your novel, the Lifetime Original movie of your life. Any more questions?”

Didion says:  “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

Here’s to a spring break they’ll never forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The No Grade Experiment: The Final Huzzah

Just to recap for those of you new to my romance with no grades:  In 1996, I decided, with a GPA-addicted senior AP Lit class, to abandon grades for a six week period, give everybody an A, and learn for the sake of curiosity and engagement.  The experiment failed miserably, but it did lead my students to reflect on their intellectual and academic motivation, and I was convinced even more of the power of a measured “end product” to shape student learning. (My thoughts on this original experiment can be found in “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation,” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28:31.)

In October 2014, I decided to do the same thing, but under much different circumstances: my students were younger, less jaded, less bought-in to the factory-grading system. And unlike the former class ( an AP content class), this class was an elective creative writing course.  During the unit, students read several craft articles plus a technique book on plotting, and they wrote every day toward an end product: the first 50,000 words of a novel   Mid-way through the experiment, I discovered some interesting things which I noted in an update.

However, the No Grade Experiment was over January 5, and I’ve had some time to decompress and think about our shenanigans and mull over some of my students’ reflections. The class of 20 was split almost exactly into thirds – those who hated it, those who loved it, those who didn’t care. Here, in their own words, are some of my students’ feedback:

I Hated It: Give Me Grades!

  • This “no grade” system would absolutely, positively NOT work in a long term period for me. I have no personal initiative or discipline, for that matter. I need the initial push to get my work done. – JW
  • The moral of the story is this: Don’t ever, ever, ever give me a choice to get a free ‘A’ in any class because I do not care about integrity. -AL
  • I have learned that once I have something I can hold, I won’t do another thing to advance that journey. Once I’ve won the trophy, I won’t run another meter. And I know, for a fact, I failed this experiment; it engulfed me and spat me out. – TG
  • I wish that the “no grade” climate could work for me, but unfortunately I am simply too unorganized and at times even too lazy to perform at levels necessary for sustainability in school. -NP
  • I would be cool with the no grades thing if everybody in the entire whole wide world were not giving out grades, but that seems like a hairy mess just waiting to happen. -BT

I Loved It: The Revolution Starts Here

  • With the no grade system, I felt relaxed and as worry-free as possible, which allowed me to truly learn and create something with confidence. By setting my own goal of finishing my novel, and achieving it, I feel much more accomplished than I would for getting an A on something I didn’t even try hard for. – RT
  • The only reason I stayed on track in this class is because I like to write. It’s not a chore to me, and to be honest, I never really thought about the grades in this class before they were taken away. But if you put something like this in my English class, it wouldn’t work. You have to be motivated in what you’re doing for this will work. -CB
  • I did find the experience to be a good one. I performed well due to my enthusiasm for this writing program. I would enjoy actually keeping this system because it shows a difference between students who work hard and those who don’t. While there are no real grades to prove this, it is more of a personal loss. –MH

This Experiment Didn’t Even Phase Me

  • The “no grades” system, in this class, never felt like a burden to me. It showed me that I didn’t need grades to drive my overall motivation. It gave me freedom from deadlines and the stress of them. I love this class, and what we do, and I don’t need grades for that. -CB
  • I am a nerd. A complete nerd. I love learning. I love doing everything to the best of my abilities. If I’m not giving all my effort in a class than what’s the point? The state has stuck me here, so I might as well make the best of my time. – HT
  • Before we started this experiment I expressed my concern that I would be too consumed with what fabulous work Julianna Margulies was doing on The Good Wife to pay attention to my writing, but I have found that the class really didn’t feel any different than it did when we started the experiment. -DC
  • My motivation to write probably comes from authors who’ve preceded myself, the ravenous need to reach the ridiculously high standard I’ve (sometimes regretfully) set myself to reach for and stay up writing into the wee hours of the night for, and/or to make real the stories and fantasies inside my head. I wouldn’t trade that motivation for any grade in the world. – KF

And for a final observation, I was struck by this lovely explanation from a student who captures all the nuances and cross-purposes of learning and assessment.

During this semester, there was no external motivation.  There were no grades, no nagging parents or teachers, there was nothing.  We were surrounded by a sort of carefree atmosphere.  There was no reward for doing the work.  There was no penalty for failing to complete it.  But I didn’t give up this semester because I wanted to do this for myself.  With all of the pressure of competing against other kids to be the valedictorian, to get into college, to get a perfect GPA, grades make the classes about everyone else.  They make the classes about competing for the perfect score, for the attention of the teacher.  They don’t encourage learning.  Grades make it so that your intelligence in that area is measured by a letter.  But how can we even do that?  Everyone starts off at different levels—not everyone enters the class knowing the same information.  So, to compare these kids right off the bat simply isn’t fair.  With this competitive atmosphere, school becomes more about skimming by on an assignment as opposed to actually learning the material.  That’s why when the grades were taken away in this class, I felt like I could finally make it about me.  Where am I with my writing? How do I want to improve?  Those where the kinds of questions I could ask myself, not do I have an A?  I am in this class to learn something, to improve who I am.  And that’s something that a grade can’t measure.

-LA

 

The No Grade Experiment: An Update

As those of you who read this blog know, I recently embarked on a no-grade experiment with my SCAPA Literary Arts students for 12 weeks.  We are now on week nine, and the results have been interesting.

The unit in which we embarked on this experiment is the novel unit, which requires four weeks of plotting, thinking, developing, sketching, and storyboarding, and eight weeks of execution:  actual writing day-in-day-out, putting black on white. It’s a ridiculous timeline and everyone knows it, but we are pushing ourselves for the experience and the practice.

From the outset, I conceded this unit might be difficult for the people whose writing process resisted plotting.  Writers generally fall into two camps: plotters and pantsers – those who plot, and those who write by the seat of their pants.  But even the non-plotters in the class agreed that they wanted to know something about it, and the class was very excited to receive James Scott Bell’s craft book, Plot and Structure.  This is a nuts and bolts book on structure— no theory, no literary hoo-ha, just plain carpentry aids.

Each night students read one chapter, and the next morning, I would give them a five-question quiz to assess their comprehension of the reading, then we had a discussion and completed an activity that would allow students to apply what they had learned from the chapter to their burgeoning novel.

It was the same format I used in the first unit on the short story. We read a craft book, students took five-question comprehension quizzes, then we discussed the chapter, and I gave them an application exercise.

Here are the scores from the previous unit when grades were actually being given.

FAILED PASSED Scored 100%
Quiz 1 11 out of 21, or 52% 10 out of 21, or 48% 7 out of 21, or 33%
Quiz 2 7 out of 21, or 33% 14 out of 21, or 67% 5 out of 21, or 24 %
Quiz 3 3 out of 21, or 14 % 18 out of 21, or 86% 7 out of 21, or 33 %
Quiz 4 3 out of 21, or 14% 18 out of 21, or 86% 8 out of 21, or 38%
Quiz 5 5 out of 21, or 24% 16 out of 21, or 76% 7 out of 21, or 33%

This chart represents what most classrooms look like. About 80% proficiency overall.

Even though I wasn’t recording grades (they already had a 98% A guaranteed), I continued to collect data to see if the lack of pressure  to “make” a grade actually impacted their performance either positively or negatively.

Here are the scores from the novel unit when grades were not going to be given.

FAILED PASSED Scored 100%
Quiz 1 13 out of 21, or 62% 8 out of 21, or 38% 7 out of 21, or 33%
Quiz 2 12 out of 21, or 57% 9 out of 21, or 43% 6 out of 21, or 29%
Quiz 3 15 out of 21, or 71% 6 out of 21, or 29% 6 out of 21, or 29%
Quiz 4 10 out of 21, or 48% 11 out of 21, or 52% 8 out of 21, or 38%
Quiz 5 14 out of 21, or 67% 7 out of 21, or 33% 5 out of 21, or 24 %

 

When no grades were on the line, the pass rate for quizzes dropped, on average, from 72% to a 39%.  But then I noticed something very interesting.  On every quiz, I had 5-7 kids who got 100% each time.  I looked back at the quizzes from the previous unit and realized those two charts were virtually identical.  For about a third of my students, grades are a non-issue.  They did their absolute best whether they were being rewarded externally for it or not.

Of course, you might say that quiz grades aren’t really a great measuring stick for actual learning, and I would agree with that, but I noticed the same results when we completed hands-on activities and exercises that were student-selected.  After reading the craft book, the tools that the students indicated they needed prior to writing the novel were:  a plot summary, a timeline of events, character profiles, and some kind of plotting device, like a story board or intensity scale, that would allow them to lay out the beats of their novel.

There was more buy-in with these activities. In fact, 50% of the students completed these activities with some degree of accomplishment and 45% either didn’t complete these activities or completed them in a manner that would have been deemed failing. I only had 1 student who turned in nothing.  And there was still those 5-7 kids who did the activities with aplomb, going above and beyond the requirements, turning out activities like they were vying for the Pulitzer.

And maybe they are.

Conventional wisdom dictates that without a paycheck at the end of the week, we wouldn’t be driving to work every day.  I can’t wait to query these high-flyers to find out why they excelled when no grades were on the line.

There are other considerations, of course.  It could be that those 30% are the true writers in the group, that they would write if the world were burning down, if they were locked in a closet with only a piece of charcoal and blank wall on which to write their story.

It could also be that those other 70% just aren’t mature enough to be self-motivated or to handle the kind of freedom that would allow them to direct their own path.  Or it could be that they were going home every night and writing reams and reams of poetry, the genre that they truly love.

 

In November, we started writing our novels, and they are keeping spreadsheets and “state of mind” calendars to chart their word count and their disposition o’ the day.  I will be updating you with their progress in a future blog post.

Stay tuned!

No Grades: A Twelve Week Commitment to Ourselves

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
  • Productivity
  • 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!