Red light, green light

Traffic Light by Grendelkhan via Flicker  CC BY-SA 2.0

Traffic Light by Grendelkhan via Flicker CC BY-SA 2.0

Last week I posted about my plan to use narrative feedback in my classroom instead of grades. I also confessed that even though I’d planned and planned – and had the lengthy blog post with details to prove it – I was afraid to approach my principal about actually putting it into action.

Looking back, I see the slow, methodical process of all that reading and diving into Twitter chats, and even emailing those I felt had it down, to figure out what parts of everyone’s strategies would work best for me and mine as a kind of a slow, yellow light sort of a deal, minus the slapping the steering wheel in frustration.

Or was there a metaphorical slapping of the steering wheel? I had my ideas. I liked my ideas. I envisioned my ideas mostly working. But I slapped that steering wheel out of frustration at hitting a red light.

Funny thing is, it was me red-lighting myself. I lacked the confidence to ask my principal if I could try this new-fangled way of getting kids to want to learn for learning’s sake. They are so accustomed to racking up points or keeping that GPA in the spectrum that won’t lose them their phone for a month. Any time I’ve had a “what if we didn’t do grades?” conversation with a co-worker, it’s been met with skepticism. But I have had to remind myself that they haven’t read and joined conversations on the subject like I have. I had no faith that my principal was in the loop on the subject, either. For years, even before this principal, we were under a mandate of a particular number of grades per week. We were training students to rack up points. Thus, we were frustrated – but not surprised – when students would ask, “How many points is this worth?” or “Is this for a grade?”

There had to be a better way.

And there is.

After red-lighting myself for a week, I decided it was time to look both ways and prepare to go forward. I told him that students do better when they are empowered, when they have some control and choice about what they are doing. He agreed. I told him I planned to involve them in adjusting the standards, putting them into more familiar language so that they could use them in reflection about their own work. He nodded. I went on about providing narrative feedback, allowing students to continue improving work, learning as they go, improving skills as they go. He was still positive. Then I put it more clearly. I felt it was possible to put this narrative feedback into the online gradebook instead of grades. I inwardly winced, waiting for the hesitation and backpedaling. It didn’t happen. He told me this was the direction he had been wanting to go, but that HE expected opposition from many teachers who were used to doing things the other way. Wow.

He provided his version of the example I’d been using: It doesn’t seem fair that while Junior is learning something new, he makes a 60 the first time, works more at it, scoring an 80 next, but at test time, he’s got it – scores 100. Shouldn’t he get 100, instead of an average of the entire time he was learning it? Eureka! Yes! The light was about to change to green.

I told him students and I would conference together; they would provide evidence for the grade they thought they deserved, looking at the standards as guides, and he was OK with that. I didn’t even get to the part about the eportfolios.

He was somewhat concerned about pushback from parents. I assured him that I would make contact and receive responses from all parents.

His next concern was eligibility. In order to be eligible for sports or other extracurricular activities, students have to keep grades up. With no grades, there’d be no way to tell if a student should, perhaps, be pulled from participation. And, while I’m optimistic about this plan increasing student involvement, I don’t think it will necessarily save everyone. There may still be students resistant to doing anything. He was OK with my agreeing to simply watch for these, conference with any students who really are not working at a level they should be and eventually contacting parents and those in charge of the ineligibility list, if necessary.

With those items settled, he and I are both looking forward to seeing how this works out, so that next year other teachers may be ready to try something similar.

I’ve got a green light, and now it’s time to get my details in order. I have a week and a half before I meet my students and blow their minds.

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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.

2 Responses to Red light, green light

  1. Kelly Mogk says:

    Congratulations!! It’s so encouraging when you know your admin has your back, and it definitely sounds like you both have the best interest of all students in mind! I’ve enjoyed reading your blog posts about your planning process and look forward to reading more about how it goes as the year progresses. 🙂

    • Thank you, Kelly. I expect this new system to be like any learning process. There will be some tough parts, some obstacles, but I will work through them and simultaneously demonstrate to students how they can do the same so that their own learning progresses. I’m glad you’ll be around to share the journey with me.

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