Teaching the Teacher: Lessons Learned in Shift to Gradeless

Over the past few years, I have inched closer to a system that eliminates grades altogether in my 7th grade English classroom. My grading practices have evolved to include a focus on student self-assessment and goal setting. I do my best to confer regularly and provide personalized feedback via Kaizena. Although I am still required to provide a letter grade at each quarter’s end, it is primarily based on student self-assessments and growth.

Much of the evidence for the gradeless movement focuses on its positive effect on students, as it should. However, when reflecting on the impact of deciding to shift away from traditional grading practices, I realize how much it taught me.

Lesson 1: Relationships are everything.

Building relationships will always be the best part of my job. However, with traditional grades, the looming specter of a graded assignment can harm the teacher-student relationship. The old me never stopped to realize the scores kids received could build barriers. No matter how much I emphasized the importance of feedback, every kid focused on that single letter. Shame on me for thinking otherwise.

Despite a too cool for school bravado, an overwhelming majority of our seventh graders crave our approval. For example, in February our school surveyed students asking What things make you feel the most stressed? 70% of seventh graders mentioned grades. However, only 13% chose social connections (did they forget they’re middle schoolers!?). When grades are thrown into the mix, it can often make it difficult to connect with kids. They want to please their teacher but know judgment day is coming: the red pen, the report card, the returned rubric. All that angst puts a strain on the student-teacher relationship which can turn into a business transaction rather than powerful connection.

Tree Reflection

Since becoming feedback focused, I’ve noticed my conversations with students have become about THEM. We are having real discussions about strengths, weaknesses, growth and their needs. The relationship dynamic has evolved so, rather than being the evaluator or judge, I get to be their support, their coach, and – on the good days – their cheerleader. Tough love is part of the package sometimes, but, when we are not caught up in the punitive world of losing points; it is easier on both parties to hear what the other is saying.

Though only 13% of our students claim to be concerned with social connections, we can’t rule out the impact that a feedback focused classroom has on peer relationships. With grades, competition is a noticeable side effect. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. So, of course, my seventh graders fall victim to the wandering eyes whenever an assessment is returned.  That alone contributes to a culture of winning and losing, severely impacting a student’s self-esteem and willingness to take risks. Now, we spend a lot of time in the fall discussing the importance of feedback and goal setting. That has allowed kids to apply a growth mindset and not get stuck in the world of comparison. They support each other’s success and buy in to the concept that it’s all about the growth.


Lesson 2: Expect more than just compliance from kids.

Four years into my career, I thought I had it all figured out. I was garnering a reputation as a tough teacher with high expectations. I seldom gave out A’s, especially in the fall. My students worked hard, made gains, and many earned those coveted A’s by the Spring. I realized that grades had become the prize in Room 104; they had become the WHY. Instead of a supporting growth and independent thinking, I was creating a culture of direction following.

I confused compliance with engagement and knew that something had to change. But this change went beyond taking letter grades off rubrics. My whole approach to feedback had to change. Rubrics are a critical tool to helping, but when they are too specific they aid that culture of compliance. The reflection that happens after an assessment is completed is often as important as the assessment itself. Although each assessment has specific learning targets that are outlined on rubrics, the emphasis on reflection and goal setting has forced my students to focus on their individual growth. Rather than checking off boxes, kids engage in the work and have real conversations about where they are and what they have to do next.

Helping kids get to this point is always exciting because it creates a student-centered, differentiated classroom. Regardless of ability, students learn to incorporate feedback and make progress. This progress is possible because they engage in the pursuit of their own personal best. Compliance can’t accomplish that.

Lesson 3: Motivating students is all about the WHY.

My favorite argument against going gradeless is – Without grades students will be less motivated. In 7th grade at Parker, we teach the bowling pin method of argument, so let me model how to knock those pins down. If we rely on a grade to motivate students, then they aren’t motivated.

Even the ones who pine for all A’s and the High Honor Roll certificate are going through the motions for a stamp of approval. I think it’s great so many students want to do well, but I am concerned that they only correlate success with a letter. I want them to see success as crafting a piece of writing that creates a buzz, as stepping out of a comfort zone, or as being kind to peers. Most importantly, I want them to see success without me (or a rubric or a score) telling them they’ve been successful.

Lightbulb in Hand

At my school, underperforming kids are not motivated by the threat of a report card peppered with Ds and Fs.

I don’t have the answer for fixing that. But I can say with certainty that finding learning opportunities to spark interests is a start. Are there some kids who don’t like reading and/or writing? Absolutely. But that isn’t going to change by threatening an unmotivated student with a failing mark.

In order to change students’ perspective of success, I must create learning experiences that have authentic purpose. For me to expect that my students are motivated, everything we do needs to start with one basic question: WHY? My students have a right to see relevance in learning and I have an obligation to show them.

Lesson 4: If they are struggling they are learning.

Sometimes we want students to succeed so badly that we forget how much learning happens from struggle. In a gradeless classroom, it’s easier for students to embrace struggle because they don’t have to focus on an average being ruined. Instead, they can focus on learning from each experience and get better over time. Those are the life skills that lead to success throughout life.

There’s always the concern that students will not work hard in a gradeless class. There are probably times that some of my kids don’t give their best effort because there won’t be the immediate consequence of a grade. That is where relationship kicks in. When teachers know their students, it’s easier to challenge them and expect and honest answers to is this your best work? When the answer is no, the result isn’t a punishment; it’s a conversation to promote learning.

For instance, during a fishbowl discussions, I used to fill out a rubric for each student. Apparently, I thought it was reasonable for everyone to participate in the exact same way. Now, students set goals and complete reflections after each discussion. Since moving to this method, students are more engaged in the discussion and less focused on trying to get their check marks. Our discussions have evolved from tally marks and points to deeper understandings and reflective thinking. Most importantly, kids are insightful and honest when self-assessing. They could inflate their reflections, but they don’t. Instead, they establish specific, goals to push themselves further next time. That’s because they own those goals, not me.

Lesson 5: The learning never stops.

When preparing to write this piece, I stumbled across a a blog post I wrote in 2014 describing my first jump towards gradeless. When presenting a portfolio-based assessment to a pilot class, one student observed that “if I get an ‘A’, I’m know I’m fine; I’m good. If I get a ‘C’ then I know I need to pick it up.”

Since that discussion, the word “fine” continues to echo in my mind. I don’t want my students to be fine with being fine. I want them to be critical thinkers. I want them to be purposeful writers, thoughtful readers, and relentless revisers. Most importantly, I want them to know what the best version of themselves looks like without being told by someone else. That is the kind of self-awareness and intrinsic motivation that takes learners to new heights and cannot be documented in a grade.

Passion Led Us Here

The departure from traditional letter grades has made me more accountable to the people who matter most: my students. I frequently reflect on a lesson’s effectiveness with my students and am always impressed with their feedback. But I don’t just ask them to give me a score and average them together. There is a genuine dialogue that leaves me with great ideas on how to improve. Sometimes, I’ll even kick off the next day by discussing how the feedback from a particular group made the lesson better. I do this because a) I appreciate the feedback and b) I want students to see that learning is about being open to change. This is how we grow, and this is what I want to model.

In June, I completed my ninth year teaching. Life is busy, I am perpetually exhausted, and yet, I find myself more in love with my job than ever before. The reason is simple: I’m learning to identify what matters. Without the concern of how to score this or weight that, I focus on my students as individual learners and people. Nothing brings me more joy than reflecting with them throughout the year and witnessing their growth.

Since beginning this journey, my preconceived notions of what school should be have been shattered in the best way possible. Instead, I’m envisioning all that school can be. That is my WHY, and I can’t wait to see where it takes our classroom next.  

Andrew Spinali is a 7th grade English teacher at Parker Middle School in Reading, MA. You can follow him on Twitter @Mr_Spinali.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching the Teacher: Lessons Learned in Shift to Gradeless

  1. Pingback: Accountability and Community | Re-Vision

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