Passing the Buck and Pulling My Punches?

This is Part II of my record and reflection on Ungrading. Part I is here.

I am two weeks into the semester now.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. Revolt? Shock and awe? Between my description on the syllabus and the supplementary video I recorded for my students, I got almost zero questions about the grading system. I think I had to elaborate once or twice in six “live” sessions and not-at-all for my one purely online asynchronous class. Of my 200 plus survey responses, very few mentioned the grading system. One notable exception read:

“My concerns right now is that I have to grade my own essay and I have never done that before. Also the grading system it somewhat excites me knowing there are no more points but at the same time that terrifies me.”

Which is pretty much exactly what I would hope a kid would think and say about it…well, except for the terror.

I can relate, though. I started to feel, if not terror, then at least anxiety as I began grading, er, dammit–began reading my students’ writing samples last week. They were assigned a one page analysis of Anna Quindlen’s “Write for Your Life” so that I could get a sense of their capabilities and have a benchmark for their writing portfolios. Ordinarily, I would soak these pieces in comments, correcting typical errors, criticizing over-summarization, suggesting angles for deeper thinking.

But, this semester, I’d vowed not to make anyone cry with my feedback, so…

I tried to keep my feedback almost entirely in question form and to only post about three questions for each student to think about in revising their pieces this week. For me, though, it felt like pulling my punches. I worried that I was being too soft. After all, kids whose writing needed a lot of work might not get the sense of how deeply flawed their efforts were. Kids who really knocked it out of the park may not have a sense that they had done well. I also felt like the questions I was asking were just the same old critiques in different syntax.

So, yeah, maybe there was some terror. Fear I wasn’t doing anyone any favors.

But when I found myself writing this comment, I started to feel like I was getting it:

It was a simple moment in feedback. Last year, I would’ve just put “example?” in the margin and moved on. Or, worse, might have just slapped something like “this is vague.” But the open ended question felt like much more of an invitation to conversation than a rebuke. I started to, I think, get a sense of the ethos I was going for with all of this. So in another essay, instead of just barking at the student to be more specific, I said:

So I thought back to those kids whose work needed lots of, well, work. How much good was I going to do them by just overwhelming them with negative feedback? Wouldn’t that lead to the kind of shutting down I said before I wanted to avoid? And what about those kids who could already write a great one-page analysis (that actually took them three pages)? Shouldn’t they get more out of it than a sense of smug satisfaction? So I left them notes that part of academic writing was working within limits and guidelines and asked how they could focus on the most important elements for a one-page response? And I found questions to ask them about their ideas, too. More nuanced, more focused, perhaps. But I tried to give everyone something to think about.

It felt like progress.

But looming on the horizon is the prospect of progress reports.

My original plan was to give the students a temporary grade as feedback. I would use the BlackBoard rubric for their online discussions to give them my sense of how well they were doing and protest up-and-down that it wasn’t really a grade and they shouldn’t think of it as such and it’s just feedback, I pinky promise.

Looking back, as the first number to get slapped on them in this supposedly fundamentally different class, this now looks like a terrible, horrible, very bad idea.

Fortunately, fate intervened. There was massive miscommunication between our high school campus and the college where the students are enrolled for their Dual Credit classes and the rosters on the college side look like they were diced in a food processor when compared to the real class rosters at the high school. Going into their first weekend reading assignments that require BlackBoard discussion posts, at least 20% of my students are either in the wrong class section in BlackBoard (and would see their contributions to the BlackBoard forums erased when they get moved) or aren’t even yet able to access BlackBoard.

On top of that, I want discussion to extend throughout the whole week, but knowing my campus, we’ll have to post progress report grades by noon on Friday, leaving me very little time to actually record scores for BlackBoard participation.

Again, thank god for all that nonsense.

Because thinking “what am I going to do” got me past the cockamamy plan of just trying to grade hundreds of BlackBoard posts Thursday night–if all the kids can even get into BlackBoard by then–and made me remember that the students are supposed to be evaluating themselves. If this is their first of the necessary-evil grades, then they should, ya know, grade themselves.

So instead of me slapping a number on them as teachers always have before, in class starting tomorrow, I will take them through a BINGO game identifying common errors and stylistic faux pas in writing to let them get a sense of what issues they need to improve. Then they will read a sample student exemplar of the assignment they just turned in and write a reflection in their portfolios assessing how well they did. Then they will give themselves a progress report grade with this rubric:

A – I completed a thorough analysis in a timely fashion and took thoughtful notes on all the weekend readings.

B – I completed a solid analysis on time, but I feel I could have done a little bit better; I read the assigned readings and took helpful notes.

C – I completed my analysis (but it was late or not the best I could have done); I did some of the assigned readings and took some notes.

D – I completed my analysis late and did not get very far with the readings.

F – I did not complete my analysis.

There! Now I’ve completely acclimated to Ungrading and from here on out, everything will be hunky dory?





Passing the Buck – Prelude to an Ungrading

This is not a how-to. This is a how-I-did.

For the uninitiated, Ungrading is the name I favor for a movement in education that looks critically at “assessment” and asks the hard question: What are grades supposed to mean?

I remember first grappling with this question more than a decade ago. Wanting to be precise and purposeful–and correct–in my grading practices, I dug into resources and documentation from the state of Texas, where I’ve now taught for over two decades, looking for simple guidelines for what the grades in my course should actually represent.

There weren’t any. Not just no simple guidelines. There were none at all. No one seemed to know what grades should actually mean. Or at least, no one seemed willing to put it down in words.

I think the secret answer is “the grade just tells you which students are better than the others.”

Over the years since then, my school district has made various pronouncements about grades. For example, there should be fifteen daily grades per grading period. (See, the periods are all about grades, but we don’t know what the grades are about.) My school experimented with a push toward standards-based grading, wherein teachers should award points based solely on mastery of the relevant state standards. As a campus leader, I was neck-deep in this push. We cooked up rubrics and did trainings. But teachers kept giving extra credit points to kids who brought in Kleenex boxes for the classroom.

I stepped down from my leadership position to teach Dual Credit full time and relished the autonomy of just teaching my way–away from the sway of the very same kind of top-down initiatives that I had spent a decade spearheading. It was a good gig and I liked it. Kids feared and dreaded my “harsh” grading, but enough told me in their end-of-year reflections that my “heartbreaking” feedback made them better writers that I consoled myself with the idea that I was doing the work, making them better.

All along I watched the Ungrading movement from the side. I’d flirted with gamification one semester with an AP class, but found that none of them were interested. To the undermotivated, it seemed like grades in another form (because it was) and to the grade-hounds, they shrugged and seemed to say “if it ain’t broke…”

But it is broke. I couldn’t shake that feeling.

2020 came and the world fell apart. A pandemic ripped the economy to shreds and sent us all indoors. Until injustice dragged thousands upon thousands into the streets. Our leadership came to assert its authoritarian tendencies more and more, even as its incompetence became more and more apparent. I thought of O’Brien in 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But it didn’t seem so much a boot as an oversized clown shoe.

Yet amidst all this tumult, I was in autodrive. I was already used to BlackBoard, the online system used by the community college, so shifting online didn’t scare me. My wife recently told me about a colleague who showed up to professional development in a shirt that read “Aspiring Retiree” and that was me too. In the forefront of my imagination at work and whenever I thought about school there was a giant countdown timer. Anyone could ask at any moment how long I had until I could draw a pension. It was seven years as I faced the beginning of the 20-21 school year.

Seven long years.

After I’d spent a week refreshing my syllabus for my introductory composition Dual Credit course, a friend and colleague asked me if I’d changed anything to “reflect current topics in our nation and world…?” I think when I got that text message, I kind of bobbed my head, like I’d gotten a little slap. When I’d built my very first syllabus for the course, I’d built a social justice unit smack dab in the middle of the course, drawing on lots of exciting readings in the textbook for the course. Then, before I ever got to teach it, I had to redo the syllabus when I found out that my kids would be getting a newer version of the book, one that had mysteriously lost the texts central to that mini-unit. Thinking about my friend’s question, I started wondering why–in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times I’d ever lived through, much less these young people–I should be satisfied with only teaching them reviews of Fault in Our Stars and Dave Barry memoirs about Halloween. They were fine writings and all, but c’mon: This was 2020.

So I started rebuilding the syllabus I’d already spent a week tinkering with. I thought at first I might throw in one or two contemporary essays to spice it up. First I found an Atlantic piece of how Germans saw the Trump regime and its pushback against protestors. Then came Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech on the house floor and various analyses of her performance. Before I knew it, I’d rebuilt the first third of the syllabus as a mini-course in discourse and rhetoric.

And then something else happened. A “in for a penny, in for a pound” switch got flipped in my brain. I joined an anti-grading Facebook group. I started reading blogs. Downloaded a Kindle copy of Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein.

And I ungraded that syllabus.

According to this new plan, there would be as few grades as possible. I’d have to give out some during the course of the semester to post on progress reports and such, but I noted that these were “not final” and were meant to just be a kind of feedback. For the real grades, the 15% on each major essay, the students would evaluate themselves and I would confer. Then the real final grade would be the subject of reflection and writing for the students at the end of the semester. The syllabus read, “Grading is one of the most problematic aspects of education. The myth that a single number can communicate how much a student has learned is deeply ingrained into our educational system, so much so that many students find it hard to imagine any other way of engaging academically. For this course, grades will only be used to the extent that they are institutionally required. Students are strongly encouraged to focus on learning and on the ongoing development of their capabilities as writers holistically and not on arbitrary or limiting grade assessments.”

I recorded a video for my online classes elaborating, trying to explain the philosophy more, urging them to “focus on what you can learn through the process of engaging in discourse during the course of this semester. What can you learn from the texts you read? What can you do in writing that you couldn’t do before? Do not be afraid of what grade you’re ultimately going to get. Take risks. Forget about the grades. Don’t think about scoring an easy A or eeking by with a good-enough C. Reject all those shallow labels and focus on your growth and capability. Because at the end of the semester, you want to be able to look at yourself and assess how ready you are for college level inquiry, to be part of academic discourse. Have you learned enough and what more do you still have to learn? Being able to answer those questions for yourself will be worth a lot more than a column full of numbers.”

I sat back from this thing I had created, this plan that felt bold and audacious to me. I saw that it was good. But was it hopelessly naive? Would it lead to disaster?

I ran it by my daughter who’s just a few years out of high school. She was a grade hound in her day, but when she read my script for my video, she said she thought if she’d had a teacher tell her those things it would have really made her think. Ultimately, she thought she would have appreciated it. “Besides,” she told me. “You’re excited about doing this. You should.”

But, really, this isn’t about those grade hounds like her. They’ll be fine, I think. I want to get to the kids who just coast by or don’t even coast. Throughout my career, I’ve been vexed by a certain type of student. In both honors and regular classes, I run across capable, bright students who nevertheless just shut down, who seem to give up. I know they could do the work and get the grades, but they don’t. I’ve tried a thousand times to reason with students like this, to cajole them into action, to get through to them somehow…to no avail. Students who could’ve passed easily, but maybe didn’t know how to truly excel, just let themselves fail. It seems like a kind of learned helplessness or maybe a defense mechanism. Maybe, on some deep psychological level, if they don’t try then they don’t feel like they’ve failed.

If grades and top-down judgments from teachers have played any part in creating this sub-set of our student population, then that alone justifies the attempt to ungrade my course as much as possible. Because if that is the case, then my “harsh” and “soul-crushing” grading (yes, it’s actually been called that–not proud of that fact) must have perpetuated the trend and it is high time I pay penance.

So this year, I’m shelving the safe syllabus I built early in the summer and I’m going to run with the grand experiment.


What To Do About the Schools?

As the summer of “meh” winds down, the debate about how to handle the new school year amidst the ongoing COVID pandemic grows more raucous by the day as time to develop a good option for restarting American education (and there are no good options) runs out.

The Atlantic recently featured an article by New York ICU nurse Kristen McConnell titled “I’m a Nurse. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs Like I Did.”

Now, Ms. McConnell likely had nothing to do with that rather combative title. The construction of click-baity links is something left to professional journalists and editors, but McConnell’s argument that teachers are essential just like grocery store workers and, yes, medical professionals like herself is not far removed from the sentiment slapped at the top of her essay.

And, to be sure, some of her argument makes sense. Yes, education is essential to our society. Yes, social distancing and mask-wearing have made grocery stores and hospitals reasonably safe to resume necessary operations. Her question, then, is why not schools?

There’s no easy answer here, and that’s where McConnell is wrong. She pretends that the situation on the ground and the immediacy of the societal need is simply the same as with her grocery store and hospital analogies.

New York city just released a plan to add 2,475 new ICU beds to the system. To. The. System. City-wide. At my suburban high school, we have more than 2,475 students. Every. Day. Likewise, a grocery store on a slow day (which they should all be slow days if we’re sticking to essential shopping only) will have at least two thousand customers. In. A. Day.

But in an American high school like mine, there are three thousand bodies stuck inside a big, blocky building for eight hours. Eight. Long. Hours. Thousands of teenage bodies colliding with one another again and again like billiard balls.

It’s not the same. It’s not controllable.

And, of course, McConnell also admits that her teacher husband was doing his job even when schools weren’t in session–through Zoom, through e-mail, through whatever means necessary. (Just as she admits we’re only having this conversation because of a monumental failure of leadership in our government.)

My job in the next few weeks will not be easier. I will not have the next couple of weeks off. (Granted, the being able to wear shorts every day is kinda nice.)  We will be conducting live classes following a bell schedule, but through Microsoft TEAMS. However, we can’t bank on every student being able to log in with their schedule because of potential conflicts for students, like taking care of younger siblings or watching over elders or a thousand other things we can’t and shouldn’t presume to know about their lives at home. So students will also be able to access our recorded lessons and do the classwork asynchronously later. Taking attendance for the day to report our head counts to the state will become a fun little game of detective work! Hooray!

So this isn’t a vacation for America’s teachers and we’re not asking for one. I think most of us would prefer to go back to normal. But that’s not happening.

Social distancing in school, as Ms. McConnell suggests, means that my classroom right now has only half its desks out (the rest are piled against the wall) and their positions are mapped out by blue tape on the floor. Our current cockamamy plan is that some students will remain online in the coming weeks and some will come back, further complicating the challenges of teaching during the pandemic.

I understand that teaching elementary kids online seems highly problematic. We might expect high school age students to learn through a computer screen, but how much are little, little ones going to get out of such an experience? But, as my wife who has taught second and third grade for over twenty years will tell you, there’s something pretty unpalatable about trapping kids in their classrooms all day without breaks for PE, music, lab time, lunch in the cafeteria, etc. Those little bodies and minds don’t deserve to be stuck in socially-distanced rows, unable to circulate. The monotony and sameness is stifling.

And maybe that’s the lesson we need to learn from all of this.

Our schools are not healthy places for our kids to go back to during this pandemic, but maybe that’s because our schools weren’t healthy places to go to in the first place.

Many–myself included–have argued that this crisis presents myriad opportunities to reevaluate how our society runs. How much are we paying those “essential” workers anyhow? Why should people who suffer through weeks and months of recovery for COVID leave the hospital only to face inevitable bankruptcy because of our for-profit healthcare system?

Maybe we need to also ask: What should our schools look like?

We are still running an industrial-era school system in the post-industrial world. Kids, with their bright, curious minds, shoved into rooms with fluorescent lights for hours and hours. Asked to sit still. Listen. Take this test. Then another. And another.

Though we can’t make every pie-in-the-sky idea for transforming schools work for this upcoming school year, we should seize the larger opportunity to make fundamental change in the way we teach and the way students learn.

I’ve embraced this ethos for the upcoming semester. After years of flirting with the Ungrading movement, I’ve rebuilt my syllabi to deprioritize arbitrary numbers as a means of assessing student performance and product, and shifted toward a model that (hopefully) focuses them more on reflection, self-assessment, and meaningful learning. It’s an experiment, but honestly, it can’t be worse for kids than the mind-numbing system based on constant multiple choice testing and teacher-centered “engagement” that has dominated educational thinking in the 21st century. Through my twenty year career, I’ve watched our school system sink deeper and deeper into a morass where students are measured only based on what circles they can bubble in and where teachers are expected to run a three-ring circus of constant stimulation to command students’ limited attention spans and (somehow) work miracles.

It’s absurd. So let’s start asking some hard questions: What do these tests actually measure? Do students need to be in class this many hours? Could we redesign schools to focus less on hours of education and more on actual progress–but not measured just by standardized tests? Smaller classes for less time? More student-driven learning? Outside learning?

This is an inflection point in history. We’re seeing the limits of our politics, of our healthcare system, of our justice system, of our economy–it’s time we reckon with education as well and build something better.