Against the Grain

ROWLAND TURNER [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

ROWLAND TURNER [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The myth versus the reality

As much as we recognize that there are folks out there who think teachers work 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and have that long stretch of summer to play in the sun and sand, we know that most of them realize that teaching is a challenging profession. I may be naïve, but I think most people understand that corralling, entertaining and instilling useful knowledge into the minds of a classroom of young students or multiple periods of 20-35 teenagers requires creativity, judgment, organization, stamina and time – lots of time.

Other underlying challenges play into our day-to-day functionality as well. I think most teachers want to be good at what they do. They want their students to be successful. However, I also believe many have seen year after year of “brand new ideas” coming down the pike, and they’ve learned to hold on till the tide rolls through and keep doing what they do, knowing the good old ways are the best ways. After all, it’s worked for them so far. Or has it?

Failure is the best instructor

I work constantly at trying to get better at what I do, and, as in most things, sometimes it’s a one step forward, two steps back kind of thing. When I try to teach my students that failing is part of learning and growing, I have to really force myself to know it personally, too.

The more I’ve read from sources in my personal learning network, the more convinced I am that I am doing the right thing by providing more feedback and doing less grading. If my goal is to teach, to help my students learn and enable them to become more confident in the skills I am teaching, isn’t feedback and revision the way to go? And doesn’t slapping a grade label on that work effectively put an end to the development process? How can we convince the kids not to allow themselves to be defined by their grades if we keep defining them by their grades?

My venture into standards-based grading

I decided this year to use standards based grading. It wasn’t a simple decision with a simple solution. Lots of work had to be done. I teach journalism and advise newspaper and yearbook. Oklahoma does not have state journalism standards. Few states do. So I found other state standards and did a mashup. I now have Snider’s Journalism Standards. For my only non-journalism class, Digital Communications, I use CCSS ELA standards and ISTE standards, and the work we do with blogs and web-based applications and reflective writing work well with those.

I picked the brains of nearly everyone on Twitter who tweeted about standards-based grading. I needed to know how they did it, not just the theory behind it; I was already on board. Some very devoted educators, Garnet Hillman, Mark Peterson, Brad Lewis, and Ron Ippolito went out of their way to email back and forth with me in detail about how they used standards, created assignments, provided formative feedback and summative assessment, and how they set up their district’s digital grade book to work for sbg – no easy task. What I found out was that they all did things differently, but it all worked for them and their students. I felt more comfortable deciding on one way, knowing I could make changes as I needed to.

Going against that’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it culture

Then reality stepped in. The culture on my campus requires regular grades to be posted, and I can see that perspective in the situations presented. But my situation is not those situations. If we differentiate for students, I believe differentiation for classes and grading with justification should be provided. A blanket minimum-grade mandate for all classes simply will not work for all classes any more than a blanket timed, multiple choice test will work for all students.

Eligibility for students to participate in activities like athletics, band, music, even journalism, in addition to other academic competitions and field trips is based on grades and staying out of trouble. The logic is that if a student lands on the ineligibility list, s/he should have plenty of opportunity to bring his/her grade up via new grades being posted. My view is that students shouldn’t be graded on work that hasn’t reached its highest potential. If it takes us another couple days because I want them to revise based on peer and teacher feedback and learn the value of improving with multiple drafts, well, that’s going to take more time, so I may not get the minimum number of grades posted this week. Likewise, some students will take longer to accomplish a task than others. If I’m throwing out late penalties and allowing students to work on an assignment until it’s finished, which might be a few days past when the rest of the class finished, that grade will be later, too. I am also allowing for re-dos. Students can try an assignment in a standard again with different content. That way they are not just rearranging based on my feedback, but trying again while applying what they learned.

Data collecting (feedback) works for the teacher, too

In one instance this past week, an assignment that I thought had an essence of fun and challenge turned out to be too challenging as most students really had a hard time, and did not do well. I really did not want to post those grades at all. But I scribbled all over margins, pointing out what worked, what didn’t, marked the rubric truthfully and posted the grades. Then I created a similar assignment, hitting the same standard, but with more scaffolding. The classes are taking another stab at it, and the new grade, if it’s higher, which I expect, will replace the other because they will have improved in that standard. So in the end, I won’t have more grades posted, but I’ll have better grades posted. The goal is learning and applying that learning, right?

Seeing results

This system, this attitude from a teacher is new to these students. I know this because I haven’t heard any other teachers speak of managing assignments and grades this way. I also know this because of comments I heard from the students. Sometimes it was just facial expressions, but they seemed a little dumbfounded that a teacher would let them take multiple tries at something. However, when I handed the first graded assignments back, complete with written feedback and the rubric, written in “I can” language, several were shocked. Those accustomed to getting As questioned why they got Bs or Cs. Some wanted to know how they could fix it, in nearly a panic. I assured them that it wasn’t anywhere near grade reporting time – this isn’t a permanent grade. Address the problems, and try again. If it was a small matter of missing information, I allowed them to turn it back in with the missing info, and I reassessed and changed the grade. If they hadn’t done the assignment correctly or hadn’t done it well, I made it clear that they could do it again with different content. In most cases, students did what they needed to improve their work. In the following assignments, I saw an increase in quality. It worked! Instead of point chasing, these kids were working to increase the quality of their work. In only a couple cases did I see what looked like exasperation with Snider’s little system that was going to require more work to get the kind of grades they’d always gotten before with less effort. I have hope for these kids. After all, they don’t all learn at the same pace.

Weekend for tweaking

After a couple of weeks of sbg and trying to figure out how to compromise between what I see as best for students and what my administration needs from me at this time, I have decided that sbg the way I have it set up (standards as categories in the grade book) will continue to work best for my classroom style classes, intro to journalism and digital communications, where everyone has the same assignments. However, for my project-based classes, my publications classes, newspaper and yearbook, I believe I’m going to have to revert my grade book back to a points system. In a perfect world, I would give them their real-world experience of creating their publications, the content, the pages, the submission, the troubleshooting, the selling of ads to pay their own expenses – all of it, and I would keep notes on what each does. I’d have them meet with me for conferences periodically, maybe twice per semester, and come up with their grade between the two of us, based on evidence they provide in our conference that meets the standards I’ve provided for them.

But it’s not a perfect world. Their parents and my administration need more of a day-to-day assessment of what they are doing, which is hard since they are all doing different things all the time. I checked in with each during newspaper on Friday with a blank roster/spreadsheet, asking them what they’d done all week, to account for their time. Some had conducted several interviews, while some had chased people for interviews but failed to make contact. Some had done lots of editing for others, while some had been so busy writing their own stories, they’d only edited one other story. Some had taken lots of photos, while some had just learned how to use the camera. Some had been successful at ad sales, while some without drivers licenses had had to resort to phone calls, which aren’t usually as productive. No two people did the same thing or really finished something I could put a rubric to.

I could create an assignment that addresses one or two particular standards. I could interrupt the work they are doing and make them do this assignment so I can meet my mandate. But I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think they are getting the most value possible by operating their own business, the business of running a news publication.

Back to participation points I will go. It’s a compromise. I know they are learning, and they know they are learning. I will assess projects (three per month) on standards, but in order to meet minimums, I do what I gotta do.

Do you ever find yourself in a conflict with what you feel is right with your students and what is expected of you as an employee?


About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

12 Responses to Against the Grain

  1. tborash says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your story! The initial roads toward SBG are not easy ones- looks like you’re well I your way. So much of your story reminded me of my own: (especially in the section “Tell me and I’ll forget…”).

    I had similar challenges getting a standards-based approach to “fit” inside the letter grade “box”, so ended up designing a way of combining the individual standard scores into one letter grade for quarterly reporting purposes. While I didn’t feel quite “right” about it, it meant that the SBG approach was still the overarching feedback that kids were receiving, so if felt ok to me. I guess in the long run I think about the parts of the process being about a process of assessment, feedback, and reporting, and since the assessment & feedback were still standards-based, the reporting part being more of an individual “grade” didn’t worry me too much.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    • And I appreciate you sharing yours. In 2010 I had no idea sbg existed. All I knew was what I played when I played teacher as a kid: do your worksheet and I’ll give you points for the ones you got right. Even under the point system, I usually filled margins with my scrawl (that’s the English teacher in me), always looking for something to comment on and always, always looking for the positive attributes. It’s uplifting to know so many of us are looking for the best ways. *Love your writing style, too. Reckon Drew Carey got the whole points thing from the education system?

  2. Lisa, I appreciate the honesty of this post as you know I’m struggling through it right now too, but I do have the support of my administration. I think that moving toward this practice has long term benefits that won’t be seen right away…compromise as you go but keep trying. It’s a noble cause and the kids will benefit from it all.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ray Penner says:

    “students shouldn’t be graded on work that hasn’t reached its highest potential” – yes!

    I enjoyed your post and your thoughts about feedback vs grading and allowing more time for students to do their best.
    In answer to your question, yes, I do run into that conflict where it’s the question of: how much do I enforce the covering of the entire curriculum at the expense of student learning and understanding of that curriculum? I have realised that cramming in curriculum at an unreasonable pace only confuses students and confounds your efforts as a teacher.

    Thanks again, and feel free to check out some of my thoughts on teaching!

    • Thanks, Ray. I’m loving the validation I’m receiving. As far as covering curriculum, I’m a little off the hook this year. It’s my first year not teaching English. With journalism classes and the one digital communications class (that I invented), I’m pretty free to cover what I think is most important and helpful at whatever depth I think best. But I completely understand where you are coming from.
      I did check out your blog and enjoyed the post. Left you a comment.

  4. Ray Penner says:

    Reblogged this on Things you like to know and commented:
    Great thoughts on grading vs feedback.

  5. ggevalt says:


    This blog presents many ideas and dilemmas. I tried, though I suspect ineloquently, to respond on Twitter but thought I’d leave something here.

    I was a journalist for 33 years and now run Young Writers Project, a nonprofit that aims to engage kids in writing, help them get better at it and publish their best work — all over. We work with kids out of school and in school. We coach all sorts of teachers in all sorts of curriculum. We publish work of 1,000 kids a year in tiny little Vermont.

    Since I am not a full-time school teacher I don’t have direct experience with SBG, but I feel that my career had me doing that, on a practical way, every day in the world of professional journalism. I understand the discipline. I had some great teachers & mentors in my career. I worked with some great people. And the best of them taught me all sorts of techniques to get the reporters to focus more on their ideas — framing questions and approach, stakeholders, research areas, sources for direct knowledge, next steps. Often this process was compressed in a very short time frame and sometimes we had the luxury of a more flexible deadline.

    As an editor I was trained to pay attention to the energy and focus of the reporters and to check in often at the beginning. What I found was that I could check in, for a very short time, and help them keep going, gain enthusiasm, resolve problems and determine focus. Net result? MUCH higher performance at the back end — what they handed in on deadline — whether it was a story, graphic, photo essay, digital story …

    So we’ve applied that process to what we do with kids at Young Writers Project; And we work with teachers, to encourage and help them find ways to spend more time with idea development and to help them use and discover the power of a true digital classroom (we have a free platform if you’d like) that allows free exchange between students in private space. By helping teachers focus their kids on idea-storming, commenting, research and regular writing, they notice a palpable increase in energy and focus and enthusiasm for the story. They also learn much more about individual students — what he/she knows, what effort each made, how engaged he/she is with the other students, how she reacts to critique and suggestions, etc, so the teachers have an ONGONG understanding of students’ learning, progress, effort and skills base so they have a more wholistic assessment. This also, frankly, allows them, if required, to easily asses their students’ progress at any slice of time as required by parents or administrators. And we’ve had a number of teachers, particularly on the middle-school level, who say they’ve reduced the number of tests because they already know where their kids’ learning is at. Instead, they have students write a post about what they know or learned.

    All of this is not intended to imply that you aren’t doing some or all of these things. As a journalism teacher and publications adviser you do have audience, so the kids have an added purpose (though don’t shy away from finding ways to republish the best student work). I sense you are a very good teacher — love the part about failure — but you face a dilemma facing all good teachers — the increased pressure for much more specific assessment, more often and to base that assessment on standards and rubrics.

    Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous that parents or administrators want you to have so much continuous assessment (daily, are you serious? gads!) or, even, grades on individual assignments. I really think that as a professional you KNOW how your kids are doing and if the aim is, really, to get them more engaged so they are more eager to learn, than that should be the focus rather than almost busy-work of assessing each time they breathe.

    Hope it was OK to go on and on here, but the blog post really spoke to me. And, again, if my background in journalism or our present work can help you in any way, don’t be afraid to ask. We’re free. No catch.

    Good luck,


    • Wow. I’m blown away, Geoff. I guess I had my head buried for a few hours in that task of grading and reassessing how to assess, and I didn’t even realize I was missing all these notifications (I’m normally addicted to all the notification buttons – great source of procrastination!). I’m so excited that my post touched off such a response, and a very helpful one, at that. I have company coming in just now, but you can bet I’ll look into your program. Let me leave you with a sampling of what my news staff publishes: Mind you, we’re just getting back into the swing of things. You’ve given me much to think about. Thanks so much, Lisa

  6. Hey, looks like you are underway. It is a journey for sure. I had a conversation today with a few young, bright students about SBG. Truly, this is no different than any day, since I talk about this everyday and everyday and everyday with my students. One of them said, “Teacher X circles my answer, so that I know I got it wrong and marks it with a -1. That way I know how many points off I got.” I was pretty much on the floor in laughter (in my head). So, I asked about all the feedback that I’ve given them about how to improve their work and which allowed them to get better/learn more: the check mark with the -1 or the specific feedback on improvement. In the same cluster, a student asked, “Why can’t we do it like the rest of the district, you know have something K-12?” I pointed out that they didn’t get grades until MS, previous to that, our elementaries are very much a SBG world.

    It remains a journey worth taking.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

    • Thank YOU, Mark! You were a fantastic help, and I appreciate the time you took to email with me. We just finished up a journalism educator chat, #jerdchat, on the topic of sbg. A few use sbg, a few had heard about it, a few really knew very little. It was an interesting hour, and I found myself feeling like I knew stuff.
      This week, I’ve seen kids in my intro classes working for the most part toward the goal of meeting targets based on what I’ve been teaching about news writing and AP style. Most are utilizing the feedback. A few still don’t show me or share docs through Google, and I have to remember to check in with them as they work. I feel like I’m working toward a target every bit as much as they are. As a matter of fact, my teacher evaluation will be my summative assessment!
      I’m looking forward to how the system continues to play out.

  7. You’ve really generated some discussion here. I appreciate your feedback on my own blog post and enjoyed reading yours. You make a strong case and stated it well. I think I do have more support for what I am doing, but compromises are inevitable. It would be great to schedule a Twitter discussion sometime — even if we don’t have a regular chat group to discuss this in — since I recognize at least one name among those who responded here to your post. Maybe we could connect at a #SBG kind of thing sometime and air it out a little bit. Learn from each other.

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