I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Not Grading - Up Against So Much

I felt the pressure - big time - this past school year.
It was much tougher to go without grades this year than in the previous two.
One upset parent was the start of the pressure in October.
Migraines made the pressure worse.
I run into so many walls.
I feel up against so very much.

  - Students prioritize other classes first.
  - We still have to condense all they've learned into one arbitrary letter at the end of each quarter.
  - No matter how much I communicate home to parents, it never seems to be enough.
  - I do not know the percentage of parents who look at the feedback I provide.
  - I do not know the percentage of students who look at the feedback.
  - I do not know if students will remember these grading lessons learned.
  - I do not know if students challenged other teachers' grading practices this year.
  - I do not know if students will challenge future teachers regarding grading practices.
  - The old ways of grading are so ingrained in our students and parents.
  - In my opinion, standards-based grading can't come soon enough to my district.
  - I have written reflections and how to go without grades on my blog, but it will never be perfect.

I'm stressed out about trying this for the fourth year in a row.

So I'll look at what I've learned - again and again...

I DO know...
  - many students stop working in May, no matter the grading practices.
  - some students wait until the last minute to revise (just like when I was using points).
  - some students often see themselves as "A" or "C" students, no matter the proof.
  - video feedback on student writing is powerful - IF students watch it.
  - there have been no requests for extra credit the past few years.
  - some students (and parents) don't understand how arbitrary grading can be.
  - some parents appreciate the feedback instead of the averaging of points.
  - some parents care more about the final grade than the students.
  - I (most likely) keep parents in the loop more than any other teacher on my team.
  - students who want to do well will put forth the effort.
  - the more relevant our assignments, the more buy-in from students.
  - 1:1 conferences are non-negotiable. The more, the better.
  - it did sink in for some students that "It's not about the grade; it's about the learning."

I'm grateful for supportive administration.
I'm grateful for a supportive co-teacher.
I'm grateful for students who say not grading made a difference for them.
I'm grateful for the lessons students teach ME about grades and feedback.
I'm grateful for the 1:1 conferences we had each quarter.

What will I change and what will I keep next school year based on how this past year went?

I am considering going back to points next year,

IF I DID go back to points...
  - There will not be 100 point scales on anything.
  - Students can continue to revise writing.
  - Comprehension checks can be deleted/excused if/when students show progress.
  - Heck - ANYTHING can be deleted/excused if/when students show progress.
  - I will attempt as many standards-based moves as possible.
     This means homework, effort, compliance, neatness and behavior will not be included. Ever. It will probably always make me cringe just thinking about including those!
  - I will continue to have 1:1 conferences - about reading, writing, progress, and goals.
  - I will continue to do my best to make the curriculum relevant.
  - I will continue to share with parents what's wrong with grades along with keeping them updated on our lessons in class.
  - I will continue to be an evangelist of using quality feedback and goal-setting over points/marks.

I am considering an "opt-in" option (to no points), although it may mean different work for me - but less stress. Perhaps I could host an extra parent night to explain the reasons why and to share how it will look with just those parents who are interested. The plan would be that this would help parents and students make the most of the narrative feedback in the online gradebook. I would love to make this meeting mandatory to all who opt in. This idea seems like too much, but maybe it's how I can make it work for certain students.

I will leave the decision open until September, because we never know how our next classes will go, how my outlook can change, and what I can learn from my PLN that will help me make this decision. As always, comments, suggestions, and links in the space provided below are so very valuable and much appreciated! I'm sure there will be more thoughts on this to come as they percolate through my head all summer - such things happen when educators are so passionate about something.

I've got to share this online binder once again... tinyurl.com/FeedbackBinder

July 15th Update - Grading Thoughts Half-Way Through the Summer

My "gradeless" resources so far: "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
                                    Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents to inspect
                                    My own reflections on this journey


  1. Joy,

    What about your team? What do they do? Have others on your campus "bought in?" How is administration support?

    Sorry, lots of questions...

    1. Hi, Lesa! I haven't really shared the process with others on my team. They are using "typical" grades. Hence the prioritization of the other six classes students take. Administration is very supportive - right from the beginning.

  2. Wow, Joy, lots to process here.
    It isn't easy to swim against the stream...I have not been challenged in quite the way you describe, but share so much of your experience. Now, as the semester is coming to a close, I can see that my students are prioritizing other things. They perceive my flexibility as a tool they can use to procrastinate; their confidence in the fact that I won't give them zeroes means they don't feel any sense of urgency. I fear that I have been branded an 'easy' teacher, which is not my goal.
    I have been assessing by standards this year and I really love it. I have been not considered going back to points but would like to give students some indication of their level of mastery; I worry that this is a pull back in the wrong direction. Maybe a simple 'met' or 'not yet' for each standard would be enough.
    My students portfolios were so wonderful they brought me to tears, and I started conferencing with them today which has been amazing - a wonderful, respectful, humane way to end the semester.
    I hope that the summer brings some time to rest and reflect. You have your students' interests in mind, so no move is a bad one. Wellness is important, so you need to make choices that will keep you healthy and happy in your work with kids.
    A friend shared this article with me, and it made me think carefully about whether it is possible to teach students to value/view grades differently. I don't know if it is possible, but I enjoyed the read:

    Take care. :)

    1. I'm with you, Amy! I could have said this, but you said it better - "They perceive my flexibility as a tool they can use to procrastinate; their confidence in the fact that I won't give them zeroes means they don't feel any sense of urgency. I fear that I have been branded an 'easy' teacher, which is not my goal."
      I'd love the "met" vs. "not yet." Next step - how to turn those into one letter that the district requires?
      Going to read that article now, and add it to the binder if it's not there yet. Thank you for all your thoughts!

  3. I appreciate so much your transparency. I have been struggling with this concept over the past few years as well, as so much of grading applies only to executive functioning. One of your statements stood out to me: "Students who want to do well will put forth the effort." My experience with gamification mirrors this. My attempts (many, multiple iterations) to engage unmotivated learners through gaming proved that intrinsic motivation is what produced success. In other words, those who already excel...excelled more. I wonder if the entire grade or the entire school must create a culture of no numbers for this concept to work. In isolation, it is a tough sell. A wise man in my community once told me, "It takes a while to turn a cruise ship. Turn too quickly, and it tips over." I love that you have the ability for "opt-in" and think that it is the way to go. Students who are comfortable with this style of growth will use it to push themselves. Those who are unable to change the percentage mindset need incremental markers to measure progress because it is how they have been trained before getting to you. For some students (and some teachers) innovation of any kind is downright scary. At this age, lack of specific, measurable feedback causes anxiety. While this is the culture our system has created, and not necessarily healthy, it is part of what you are having to reframe, restate, and redesign...for people who don't want it changed. My hat is off to you for your courage and compassion. Only someone who truly cares would make the Herculean effort you are pursuing. Whatever you decide, may you find positive growth and learning for yourself. Fortunate are the students in your care! Michelle Stein, 6th ELA Atlanta

    1. Michelle, I think it's true - "I wonder if the entire grade or the entire school must create a culture of no numbers for this concept to work. In isolation, it is a tough sell." I am truly excited to head to SBG as a district - hopefully soon! My principal once told me I was the Sea-Doo going around and around the cruise ship, trying to turn it. I liked that analogy, even if I'm running out of fuel. ;)
      Thanks so much for your thoughts - I'll use them to figure it out in September!

  4. Joy - don’t give up. There is research evidence that providing a grade with feedback does not result in improvements and that feedback with no grade leads to the most progress. Maybe consider using a three point scale, “Not Yet”, “Got It!” and “Beyond Expectation”. This Information along with feedback might alleviate some parental concerns if they know that “Got It” equals about 75%. I would not recommend a hybrid model, i.e., some students with grades and others gradeless. I encourage you to press on. In your own reflections you have identified some pretty significant reasons to do so.

    1. That research (my favorite from Dylan Wiliam is so spot on. If I were to continue, I'd need to have time embedded in class for students to open their chromebooks, log into PowerSchool, open our class, open the comment, and jot it down. I need a better way. It takes them so long to do this process at the start of the year that I get frustrated, and I just say individually to some - Go in and look at your feedback. Response? What feedback? It's such a foreign concept to them that it's disheartening. Some do it automatically, however. Seventh graders. Hmmm.
      Question - why would "Got it" = 75%? Why not 90%? Curious on that point.
      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Tracy - you must be passionate about it, too! ;)

  5. Joy, thank you for sharing your struggles. You will do what you feel is right. I have seen amazing teachers who give points. I think what is first and foremost is that you live your convictions and above all else recognize your students’ humanity and love them for who they are.

    1. I, too, have seen those teachers that give points and are still amazing. I hadn't thought of that - I needed your contribution to this discussion. Thank you, Aaron - truly!

  6. Hi Joy, I've thought about this a fair bit because I'm on contract from year-to-year, so I could very well end up working in a school that isn't as supportive or flexible as my current one. What I've settled on is that I could (reluctantly) return to grading if needed and, as you point out, still maintain most of the complimentary pedagogy that go with being gradeless. My "why" for teaching revolves around how I want students to feel in my classroom, my success rests on this. Everything else is contextual and I can and will work around systems and constructs to try and do what is best for students and me. Your classroom seems like a pretty great place for kids to be, I doubt that will change regardless of how you choose to grade. Good luck!

    1. Abe, you always send calm vibes. I need to be around more people like you. Thank you for your thoughts. Always going back to the "why." Focus is on the kids.
      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!!

  7. First, I think we should meet for breakfast some time in July to talk this through. I hear and can relate to everything you are saying here. I have stopped talking about no grades or not grading in my classes and just talk about 2-1-0, as in meets, let's revise, or missing. These points are temporary, placeholders and a form of feedback that directs students and parents to revision and relearning steps in the feedback i and other students give. I am not sure if this "counts as points, but it has been a helpful transition process given I am the only teacher using it and given I have a new set of students every year with whom I have to break down traditional grading structure and rebuild. I love how you are acknowledging how alive and dynamic this process is...and messy.


    1. Ah! THIS is Sarah! ;D
      Breakfast is always a good idea with you. I have stopped talking about the grades for the last three years - that's always a relief. Wondering if the 2-1-0 would work in the gradebook for parents... For sure, the process is "alive and dynamic"!! ;D Thank you for contributing to the discussion!!

  8. Comments from Twitter PLN:

    @LisaBoate - Don’t give up Joy! Where you feel the greatest resistance tells you where the most meaningful work is happening. Change is slow in this beast we call education but in time students will realize just how valuable the lessons they learned from true assessment are.

    @GoSunDevils - Joy you can’t give up. You are part of doing ultimately what’s best for Ss. Worrying about learning vs earning. If Ss aren’t using feedback then maybe look at how feedback is intended to be used. My Ss are a tough bunch to teach and for me to get such high results of turn in for portfolios makes me wonder. But, I think Ss feel my passion and thru relationships they work sometimes more for me than themselves? Hard to say. Also, how many Ss would quit earlier than May bc of a negative letter grade and the feeling of hopelessness? Going gradeless isn’t 100% effective but I’d say it has a stronger effect than grades do. It is going to take awhile to see the shift whole group, Ps included. Don’t let one bad apple spoil em all.

    @AaronSBlackwelder - Joy, thank you for sharing your struggles. You will do what you feel is right. I have seen amazing teachers who give points. I think what is first and foremost is that you live your convictions and above all else recognize your students’ humanity and love them for who they are.

    @SusanCampo - I’ll comment tomorrow but for now, @JoyKirr, I’m with you, sister. I’m in my hardest of 6 gradeless classes this semester. Just trying to make it through.

  9. From @Mrs_J_of_EAMS - I had the same experience this year. I was considering going back to points, but for 3 things:
    1. I am much happier in a gradeless classroom.
    2. There will be complainers either way.
    3. I know this is best for kids.
    You are brilliant & amazing no matter what you decide! ❤

  10. Oh Joy. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful musings, which helped me reflect on my own practice. You know the right decision and what you will do. Perhaps you just needed confirmation from your tweeps that you are on the righteous path. “The old ways of X are so ingrained in Y group of people” was insightful and an allegory for one of the first steps to make meaningful, systematic change. Stay the course. The kids and the twittersphere need you.

    1. I love knowing you in person, Aric. I can see you speaking this - thanks for the support!

  11. Hang in their Joy. You were one of my inspirations when I went gradeless. Whether points or no the culture of ed needs to be on learning. It is not when points are used. Standards based seems the way to go as long as the standards aren't only content.

  12. Sorry that I'm late to the game here, Joy, but I agree with a lot of what's already been said. There are issues that need to be addressed, but there are more issues with the old way. You are one of the first to nudge me toward trying this, and, for that, I am forever grateful!

  13. NEW BLOG POSTS from readers that help keep the conversation going:

    Amy Szerminska -

    Monte Syrie -