More Than Just a Grade

My Dilemma With Grades

Prior to today I hated grades. Grades have always been my least favorite part of teaching.  For me, whenever I convert all of the feedback, discussions and work that I have done with a student into a number it feels empty.  That number has always stared back at me, almost taunting me for all my hard work.  It always felt like the grade was saying:

No matter how hard you try, I will always win.

I will be what students are reduced to.

I will be the ‘thing’ that everyone looks at and discusses.

Needless to say, when I knew that today was the day we would be discussing grades in the Innovation Academy (IA) I was a bit nervous.  I worried that this discussion had the potential to destroy the culture we have been building in the IA. I could not have been more wrong.

Let the “Crowd Sourcing” Begin

The morning began with a quick explanation of how we were going to “crowd source” grades.  This involved putting the IB grade scale on the board (a number scale from 1-7) and  having students nominate others, as well as themselves,  for the grades they felt they deserved. My skepticism about the whole exercise subsided when we began our discussion of the “numbers”. Immediately the questioning began:

What is quality? How do we measure it? How do we describe it?

What is excellent, very good and good?

How we can convert descriptive terms like good and satisfactory into numbers?

What does it mean to be a good listener?

What are the qualities that exemplify a good reader?

After sometime, we  came to a working agreement on “definitions” for the numbers as a group.  The next step was to understand the 4 categories that compose the English grade: Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing.  While we have descriptors for these in our Student Growth Chart, this exercise provided an excellent opportunity to delve deeper into what these categories “looked like.”  Moving through each descriptor we discussed  the characteristics that would exemplify excellence in each category.  As the students spoke, I was amazed at the level of discussion. Students were engaged, interested and even debating the qualities that defined each of these categories. We were building this thing together and it felt good. After an intense hour we had arrived at some solid descriptions and were ready to move on. What happened next made me proud to be a part of the IA.

Moving From a Number to a Discussion

With each sub category described, the next step was for students to nominate anyone they felt deserved a 6 or a 7 (the caveat being that they could not nominate themselves). Slowly, hands started to raise.  One by one I listened as my students nominated their peers. The people being nominated could only sit and listen as their classmates discussed why they were nominating that person and the qualities that they exemplified.  What is more, students gave each other kind, specific, and descriptive feedback on the ways that they thought their classmates could improve.  I was amazed at the level of trust, honesty and empathy that the students displayed.  I had never heard students openly tell their peers their strengths and weakness in a way that felt both helpful and caring. With step one of the process over I was feeling good, but I wondered what the next phase would bring.

In the second phase of “grading,” any student that was not nominated for a 6 or 7 had to nominate themselves for a score from 1-5.  Albeit slower than the first round, hands began to rise into the air. Students said things such as:

“I think I am a 4, because while I am engaged as a student I don’t show it.  I never speak up in class and people don’t know what I am thinking.”

“I think I am between a 3 and a 4 because my writing lacks clarity and I have difficulty listening and staying on topic while taking notes at the same time.”

The most impressive  part of the exercise was the feedback students were  able to get from their peers. When one student mentioned how he felt his blog posts lacked clarity and voice, another excitedly said, “No! I love your posts, I find them really entertaining.”  One by one students opened up about their weaknesses and strengths, while getting support and feedback from their peers.

As I looked around the room I was filled with a sense of happiness. Here we were “discussing” grades, but it was not the grade that was important. The grade was a vehicle to a discussion on quality and the components of excellence.  In addition, the “grade” enabled students to have an open and honest discussion with each other about their academic habits.  What the grade allowed me to do was listen as my students displayed their ability to self assess, critique and listen with empathy.  What made this activity different from the normal act of grading is that the students were a part of the process.  From the very beginning, students had a hand in building the criteria by which they felt they should be measured.   Students also had a chance to speak about themselves as learners and listen as others described what they saw.

We Are More Than a Single Story

Reflecting back on the day, I can honestly say that this is why I became a teacher.  It is a day that I truly felt the power of a student led classroom.  While there are many parts of the day that stand out ,there is one point that I would like to end with.  In the midst of our class discussion, one student implored another student to believe in themselves, to not fall in the trap of believing the “single story” that they were a “bad writer.”  As this student was speaking I thought to myself:

What is the single story we tell ourselves?
What is the single story we make up about others?

Just as that student pointed out, there is no use in the single story. We are multitudes made up  of our strengths and weakness. Some days we radiate success, other days we wonder if we will be anything but failures.  What matters is that we take the time to listen, to ourselves and to others.  It means not getting lost in the single story that tells us we “are” or “are not” something.  Prior to today, I had been telling myself a single story about grades.  What I learned was that I had been telling myself the wrong story.  It’s not the grading or lack of grading that makes a program.  What makes a program is the degree of honesty we are willing to have with ourselves and others. It is about trust, relevancy, and relationships.  It’s about taking the time to deconstruct the single story we have been believing in. It’s about empowering the students. It’s about building something together.

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