News from the pathway to student self-assessment

Students must take ownership of their learning. That’s what it all boils down to.

That concept is new and challenging to many, if not most, of them.

I began this school year on a new path to implement a no-grades school year. Students would receive continuous feedback from me, both verbal and written, the written occurring on Google docs, on hard copies of their work, even on sticky-notes, as it turned out. This feedback – with no letter or number attached – would provide them the real information they needed to improve their work, continue to develop their skills, to shoot for the target again. Isn’t that how we learn most things, from riding our bikes to manipulating our parents? When something doesn’t work, we apply the feedback (skinned knees or lectures), and we go back to the drawing board (or back on the bike), and we try again … and again. Soon we’re flying down the street with a trick or two to show, and we have Mom thinking it was Dad’s idea and vice versa. Feedback helps us grow and develop much more than does a number like 72, and that’s how I explained it to students and the (very) few parents who inquired.

And so it began.

Working with the students

Yes, students did the work – at least the students who would have done the work anyway. So grades are not the driving force behind getting kids to work. There were a few, as there always are, who didn’t do the work for one reason or another, and grade or no grade, they did not complete assignments. Some loved the opportunity to re-do content until they got it better and better, learning from feedback how to construct better sentences, what to capitalize and where description can improve a piece. Some simply appreciated it on a simpler level. Some followed procedure (or not) and mostly did what the teacher wanted. For those few, it was hard for me to tell whether they preferred this do-over at no cost over one-and-done with a grade.

Knowing reflection was a big part of what I wanted to implement, I “assigned” reflections, showing them by example what I expected. To say some got it and some didn’t is pointless, because that’s how everything is in the classroom. The real problem here, was that I was still providing feedback on the assignment itself and didn’t follow-up well on the reflection portion, so not everyone did it. Since I didn’t follow-up, I lost credibility.

Posting to the gradebook for transparency

When I posed my plan to my principal, I described how I could create the assignments in our digital grade book (we use Infinite Campus) as I always had, using standards as tasks (instead of homework, daily work, tests, etc). But then, instead of posting a grade, I would make the assignment worth zero points and mark it as either “Incomplete”, if they were revising from feedback, or “turned in” when they were finished. In the comment section, I would compose a tweet-sized remark based on Mark Barnes’s SE2R feedback system, with a more complete explanation on their document. That all actually worked for the most part. I did fall behind in posting what I had planned, just like many of us fall behind on grading. For some classes with more specific assignments, it was easier. For some, creating the “assignment” is what held me up, as three of my classes are very differentiated.

Teaching reflection and self-assessment

Though reflection had been an issue earlier, I did require it at the end of the semester. Taking an idea from Sarah Donovan, I had them write it in the form of a letter to me, reflecting on the main standards our work related to, describing that work, their experience and how it did meet, did almost meet or did exceed the standards, and assessing themselves for a grade. I provided a guideline for what constitutes an A (over and above), a B (on target, basically), C (might not have finished everything or done all revisions), D (did some work, but too little to assess well and little revision) and F (no evidence). Then I began meeting individually with them. I have six classes, five preps, but relatively small class sizes, so I was able to get through all in about three days. My classes are Reading for Fun, two sections of Intro to Journalism, Newspaper production, Yearbook production and Digital Communication.

Conferencing with students

In the conferences, I would pull up their reflection from Google Drive (had usually already read through them and offered feedback) and we discussed it. This gave me a chance to talk to them about what assignments they enjoyed, what they found tough, why some were never finished (I had a list on a clipboard showing what assignments were finished or not for each student. For DigiComm students, I just had to pull up their blog as evidence of what was/was not done; for Reading, I used their Gdrive reading log). I even asked some of them what they thought I should add or drop to make the class better. In most cases, they were pretty spot-on with their grade. The fact that they had to cite evidence from their work to back up their grade request is where owning their work comes in.

When my old grading self wanted to creep in and make me second guess my strategies or how accurately the students had assessed themselves, I reminded myself that, learning cannot be measured. If I’ve been arguing that grades and grade-point averages do not reflect real learning, then why would I now worry that the grade the student and I have settled on isn’t accurate? Everyone is different, so their learning will be different. What’s important, I believe, is how they approach learning. That’s where I want to make an impact.


Though we went through the entire semester with feedback instead of grades, and each student either took advantage of learning and progressing or didn’t, at the end of the semester, they had to be the judge of how they did, and I think that was the right way to do it. They saw that they had had control of their learning, their grade, the entire time. Some realized it early on; some not until that conference. If they did have to give themselves a C or even a D, I asked what they could do differently next semester to learn more, improve skills, complete work, meet deadlines. The answers usually came from them, but I could make some suggestions when it seemed they didn’t know how to improve, how to use resources to their advantage. They have control, and that’s what I wanted them to see. One told me he wanted a B, but figured he deserved a C. We talked about his work, what he had and hadn’t done, what others had helped him with or taken over for him, what he could have done differently. It was a good discussion. Then we looked at the grade guidelines again, and the difference between a B and a C was unmistakable. So I asked what he could do differently next semester to earn that B or even an A – he’s perfectly capable. He made suggestions that were all pretty good. With that, it was resolved that, though he accurately assessed himself at a C this time, he could easily do better. I know he wanted me to “give” him a B, but then he’d have had little motivation to do differently next semester. He gave himself the grade he knew he’d earned. And he gave himself a plan to do better. #owning.

A few students who had not taken responsibility for producing their content, also did not take responsibility for writing the reflection or assessing themselves. These were not at school for their conference. I am left with no choice but to assess for them, and this displeases me. I want them to own their experience like everyone else has.

Making improvements to the plan

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. I do believe feedback instead of grades is the better way to go. I believe self-assessment is a good eye-opener. But as I reflect on my part in all of this, I, too, have goals for the coming semester:

  • Talk up front about owning, about controlling their own learning experience. Make expectations more clear.
  • Plan ahead better. Avoid flying by seat of pants from time to time on lessons or about when the deadline is expected.
  • As I plan lessons, post assignments in Infinite Campus so I can more easily post feedback when it’s time.
  • Get feedback to students sooner. It’s more effective if received right away.
  • Make sure I’m not just working with the squeaking wheels. Too many try to fly under the radar. They count, too. May have to keep a blank roster spreadsheet on a clipboard and note when I’ve connected with whom on what assignment.
  • Set aside time every week to post to the gradebook. This will mean that I have to tell students who have dropped by to ‘hang out’ and visit that I have work to do, but I have to do it. Students hang out in my room at lunch, before and after school and even during my plan period. I want my journalism lab to be open for my journalists and for students who need to catch up, and I want to be a listening ear for students who need one, but I have to draw a line. I have a commitment to the students in my classes for timely feedback and a proper learning environment.
  • Finish some critical reading:
    • Finish Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. This is an all-in-one, simplified version of what I’m trying to do. Much of it, I already have implemented, thanks in no small part to my friendship with Starr and her openness to sharing what she has learned, but I haven’t had a chance to finish reading.
    • Starr Sackstein’s Teaching Students to Self-Assess. I got it late in the semester, too late to get a good plan for teaching reflection in place.
    • Finish Erik Palmer’s Well Spoken. We’re at crisis level getting students to present or even speak within small groups. Too much cram and test. We’re not teaching life skills like communication, and I want my students to have this advantage. I want to implement more, early, easier opportunities to speak before presentations.
    • Finish Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius. In another post, I discussed my disillusionment with Passion Projects in my digital communications class this semester. It’s too valuable to scrap, so I need to fine tune. I need my own passion back.
    • Read George Couros’s The Innovator Mindset. Amazon’s one-click has nearly gotten me in trouble, but I think this one will be valuable. Just need to find the time to read so I can improve my capacity to motivate my students to create and innovate!

Do you have experiences to share, advice to offer or questions to ask? Let’s get a conversation going.

Active vs. passive learning

One of the changes I am trying to incorporate in my narrative-feedback-instead-of grades classes (NFIG) this year is allowing the students to seek knowledge instead of having me serve it up via lecture/slides/notes the way I have in the past. Frankly, I believe that I try to be a good lecturer, using that method as little as possible and keeping it varied, interesting and informative.

Nevertheless, I’m still being the sage on the stage, no matter how entertaining. And, frankly, it’s often exhausting. Even if I’m entertaining, the kids are still on the passive end of the learning. And after reading ROLE Reversal, I saw that that needed to change.

Flipping the learning

Taking an idea from Mark Barnes’s book, I used a lesson for my Intro to Journalism students, one in which we learn about news elements, and I flipped it. I explained briefly what news elements were – elements that make news, news. Not all stories qualify as news. We read newspapers and talked about the stories and what drew us to them. Throwing those words on the board headed us in the right direction. But the set of “news elements” is what we needed to round up and define. I told the classes that depending on which text you read or what slide presentation or PDF document you find online from a journalism class or teacher, this set of news elements will vary. Some say there are seven, some say eight, some say 10. Their task, then, instead of watching my slide presentation and taking notes or taking notes from my very good textbook, Inside Reporting, by Tim Harrower, was to find the news elements themselves. I grouped them into threes and fours and had them use whatever means they wished: phones, computers, those cool textbooks. As a group, they were to discover what the common list of news elements was, and define the terms they had decided upon. I gave each group a sheet of blank 11X17 and access to colored pencils and markers so that they could posterize their list and definitions.

Near the end of the hour, I started with one group, putting their terms on the board and having others from the group define it for the class. I moved to the next group and did the same. In some cases, they had a common term. In some cases, they had a different word, but we decided it was the same as one on the board. For example, first group said “immediacy” and second group said “timeliness”. Same thing. Sometimes another group would come up with a term that the first groups hadn’t. An occasional term was a similar topic but not an element of news, so we discussed how that didn’t fit like the others did, though it was relevant in a different way.

After all the terms were on the board, including the duplicates by another name, we decided as a class which ones would make up our list.

Creating artifacts for portfolios

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and will have to continue this next week. I plan to have students create their finalized list of terms in some form to help them remember. They can create their own slide presentation in Google slides or PowerPoint; they can create a digital poster in Smore or another app, digital flashcards or some other creation. The creation will help in retaining the information, as well as be a resource for later. They can save the artifact in their Google portfolio folder for referencing later on, and it serves for meeting both a vocabulary standard and a technology standard. When they begin reflecting on standards to assess their learning for the quarter, they can reference this to back up what they learned and the request for the grade they believe is reflective of their learning.

Reflecting on what needs improvement

Now, a few things did not go as well as I’d wished. While about half or more of the groups were so anxious to get to the searching that they had a hard time listening for all the instructions (that darn sage on the stage wouldn’t stop talking), and they did just what I had hoped, a couple groups did struggle. I noticed one group not talking to each other. They seemed to be researching independently, as if they were going to compare notes after a brief time, so I let them be for a bit. Another group was crowded around one of the journalism lab’s iMacs, and appeared to be quite focused – and they were, just not on the right thing. When I checked in on them, one said, “we found our story.” Indeed, they’d found an interesting news story, one I’d have filed under “oddity” if I were filing under news elements. But that wasn’t the assignment. The main spokesman hadn’t understood the assignment, but hadn’t sought to clarify. The others didn’t think he was looking for the right thing, but were largely hesitant to bring up that point. I think one girl had said as much, but no one paid attention, so they continued reading the odd story. I restated the assignment, and I discussed how, as a group, each has a responsibility to make sure the work is on track and that each is being held accountable.

Heading back to the independent studies group, I saw that they were still studying independently. One had a laptop and was jotting down the elements she was discovering. But the others were not sure what they were supposed to be doing so were using their phones for a variety of things, some related to the assignment, some not. They were, however, not collaborating at all. So I talked about collaboration, how they needed to talk to each other, compare what they were finding, make decisions together and share tasks. They really struggled with this and the awkwardness was palpable.

I need to figure out how to teach collaboration. I need to differentiate a bit between my two sections because one works well with collaboration, and one does not. I shouldn’t let them off the hook of talking to people; I just need to figure out how to help them ease into it in a way that doesn’t make them too uncomfortable.

Have you considered flipping your teaching so that students are responsible for gathering their info? How would that look in your classroom? And if you have students who are hesitant to work with others, how do you handle it? Comment, and let’s get a conversation started.

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.

The Plan: NFIG?

My first try at Google Draw

My first try at Google Draw

I’m not a risk-taker. I plan. I envision. Before I set anything in motion, I learn all I can, and I imagine, play out all the possible scenarios in my head. I want it right before I begin. That’s not to say I don’t handle failure well. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, actually. Failure can be part of the planning process if you look at it in a bigger picture kind of way. It didn’t work that way; let’s try it another way.

In that way, last school year was planning and trying out small changes in order to transition to “The Plan.” I want to use narrative feedback instead of grades. But I’m afraid to ask.

The directive at my high school for the past several years has been “two grades per week.” I did express to my principal two years ago that I did not like that rule and explained that it didn’t work with my classes. And I’ve learned so much more since then.

Last year I implemented a few things I knew I could:

  • No zeros. A 50 is an F, and that only happened when no work was turned in.
  • No reduction in points for late work.
  • I quit making students feel guilty for needing to go to the bathroom. If you gotta go, you gotta go. Just let me know. Guess what? It was not abused.
  • I had my publications students (newspaper & yearbook) grade their own production weekly. This involved setting goals, keeping a log, reflecting and assessing. Frankly, they didn’t like it much.
  • I provided written, narrative feedback (and taught students to peer edit), so that they had multiple chances to improve work before they turned it in. I had kids thank me for this service.
  • In some cases, I mini-conferenced with students to arrive at a grade on part of an assignment. I need to build my confidence on conferencing.

These changes did make some improvement, but where I really wanted to see improvement – more student participation and assignment completion – well, these changes weren’t enough to effect the kind of improvement I’d hoped for. They weren’t enough because the biggest change I needed to make was still a glaring problem. There were still grades. Kids were still labeled “D”, “F” (I can’t win. I don’t know what to do.), even “A” (I don’t need to work very hard; I’m already there).

Now I need to go full throttle: No grades. Well, I’m calling it “Narrative Feedback Instead of Grades.” NFIG? Not as pretty as TOG, but I think Throwing Out Grades gives the wrong impression, and I have to worry about that as I pursue The Plan.

I spent a huge chunk of yesterday writing up, in narrative form with lovely bullets and bolded parts, my proposal as I plan to present it to my principal – soon as I gather the courage and he has a chunk of time in his schedule. School starts in three weeks. What I produced yesterday was five pages, but I included links to reading material with summaries and a page or so of FAQs so I’m prepared for what he/they might ask me.

For you, dear readers, I will try to be brief (but it’s hard. You see how I wordy I am?)

The Plan

  • I will use narrative feedback instead of grades. On assignments, this will look like Mark Barnes’s SE2R formula (Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit). This feedback will be on their Google Doc in most cases. In cases where there is a hard copy, I’ll (egad!) handwrite it, being careful to remember that students now have little training in cursive (omg). In the online gradebook (we use Infinite Campus), I will check the “Incomplete” box and write a brief (I swear I can) version of the SE2R in the comments section. When the student turns in his/her final version, I will check the “Turned In” box and make a new note (leaving the first in place, each with dates), that the goals were met or exceeded. I think this can work. An administrator or parent should be able to see this through the online portal, and wouldn’t this bit of information be more informative than a 72?
  • I will “unpack standards” with the students, an idea borrowed from Starr Sackstein. I do have to decide WHICH standards. Oklahoma repealed Common Core and is in the process of finalizing new standards, so we are one more year with what we used before, PASS. I “invented” journalism standards to use last year by doing a mashup of what I saw from other states. So my options are: CCSS ELA + ISTE or the new Oklahoma standards in draft form + ISTE. My journalism standards were too tedious, I decided, and they don’t apply to digital communications. Either way, the “unpacking process”, as I will apply it, means the students and I will learn them, simplify them, tossing what we don’t need, combining some, and putting what’s left in their language. Through all this, they should have an understanding and ownership of them. How to do that with five classes of four preps (2X intro to journalism; newspaper; yearbook; digital communications) still puzzles me. Input? What we come up with will be the categories I use in the online gradebook where my peers use “daily work”, “quizzes”, “homework”, and “tests” or something along those lines. As I create an assignment in InfCamp, I will note which standard it applies to. When it hits two or more, it’s entered that many times so that we focus on each standard; i.e. a writing one and a tech one. Whew, I gotta work on brevity.
  • I will teach reflective writing. I learned last year (and, really, before that) that it isn’t common sense. Few “get it.” Reflective writing, especially as it has to do with self-assessment, standards and evidence, has to be explained, modeled and feedback given, just like other work. Hopefully by grade reporting time, they’ll be used to it and will be able to manage reflective self-assessment with evidence for the grading period. I plan to use Starr’s book on reflection as my Bible for this. It will be published in October. She has also written about reflection quite a bit on her blog.
  • Students will create digital portfolios to curate their work, track their progress and do their reflection writing. Intro to J and DigiComm have always had blogs on WordPress, and I’ve encouraged newspaper to have blogs also, but the whole thing needs fine-tuning. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Choice. I love that idea. All my students use Google Drive. It’s the one thing they all have in common. So – eportfolios can be as simple as a folder in their Drive marked “eportfolio” with obvious organization within. Or, students may choose to create a Google site. I’ve only dabbled in this myself, but I don’t mind learning alongside my students. Absolutely love it when one of them teaches me something and you can visibly see their pride swell as they get up to show the others. Students could also opt for using their WordPress blog, though to me, that may be too public to be reflecting on their progress and grade, but it’s up to them. And if they come in telling me they have experience with Weebly, that’s cool too. Gimme the link. If one starts with a Google folder but after a few weeks gets brave and decides to create a site, well, we probably have a tech standard he can tie to for some reflection on progress. The goal is to curate work and track progress so that they can be ready for self-assessment at grade-reporting time. And that reflective self-assessment? I’ll probably go the “choice” route again: written in a Google doc; screencast; video; Voxer; whatever; but a conference will happen too.
  • In each class, I’ll have One Big Ongoing Assignment, handy for when some finish a project early and others are still working or reworking. Also great for sub days or THOSE days when I just don’t have my stuff together. For newspaper and yearbook, it’s obvi: their publications and anything extra they want to put into them. For DigiComm, I’ve had them do Passion Projects (just bought Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius and can’t wait to dig in), but I had a tough time figuring out how to do this for Intro. In Mark Barnes’s ROLE Reversal, he talks about having his 7th grade ELA students do a Read All Year (RAY) project with lots of novels and big team goals. There’s no grade attached, but there are different activities kids can do when they complete a book. So I borrowed and tweaked this idea with a little help from Mark. I want my kids to read long-form narrative journalism. That could be feature articles in magazines (think TIME or The Week) or book-length journalism (think All the President’s Men, All the Right Stuff, Into the Wild). Collections of essays and journalist biographies could work, too. Time to go to some used book stores. I’ll contract with each student, just outside his/her comfort zone, but quantifying will be tough. At Mark’s suggestion, we’ll count pages instead of books. So for the first grade-reporting period (9-weeks or semester, I haven’t decided), a student might contract for 150 pages (small book or multiple longish articles) up to 300. I’ll set up some sort of celebration board where kids can post accomplishments, but I also want to encourage them to do something for each piece they read, though I won’t be keeping tabs (they will, in their portfolio). They could write a review, a reflective blog post, a mini review on Instagram or Twitter with a shoutout to the author, discuss the item with classmates in a small group “book talk”, create a book trailer or just Vox about it. I’ll pose it as collecting info for our library of potential reads. Classmates and students who come after will appreciate having another student’s take on a piece to help them make a decision about reading it. One thing I envision is a tab on the class website that functions as our “library” with the book and article lists. Some articles could be linked to their sources online, but in all cases, student responses could be linked beneath each title as a reference to future readers.

So there you go, too many pages, but that’s my plan. Now I just need confidence to ask for permission and to get it all in motion. How can you help me? Can you poke any holes in this? Offer any suggestions for improvement? Suggestions for proposing? Did I help you with anything?