Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 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 their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The "G" Word - GRADES

For the life of me, I can't remember how I introduced going without grades at the start of last year. I guess I skipped writing about it, but two years ago I wrote about the day I introduced this idea to my seventh graders HERE. This year, the "discussion" (really - just me going on and on and on about how passionate I am about this subject) lasted 15-20 min. at the end of each period Friday.

First, when students walked in, the question of the day was regarding grades. "Who cares more about your grades?" Answers were - my parents, both / equally, or me.
Courtesy of @MrsSalsinger
Next, they answered how they were feeling (based on "energy" and "pleasantness") on our mock mood meter (thanks to Marc Brackett at BLC18 - more to come on this in a future post), and then we read independently. After we read, wrote about our books with a prompt, and quickly reviewed genres, it was time to talk about the G word... Grades.

I began this discussion this year by asking students to not say a word... I was going to give them ONE word, and I wanted them to write the thoughts that came to mind on a sticky note. I asked them for silence because I wanted 25 different ideas, not all one idea because someone said something aloud. They were fabulous, waiting for the word. I said, "Grades," and they all got to work. Some wrote just one word, some wrote phrases, and some wrote sentences. When pencils were down, I asked students to come to the board and categorize their sticky note as either positive, negative, or both/neutral. (Want to see what the students wrote? I share the sticky notes in a later blog post here.)
Courtesy of @MrsSalsinger
I then asked if they would've written different things on their sticky, thus moving them, if I added words to the one word... such as "Grades - in ELA," or "Grades - in P.E.," etc. Many hands went up each time I said something different. In one class, almost all hands went up when I said, "Report card grades." I continued the discussion by explaining how grades are very complex, and can be very personal. We all have stories about a grade or points, or a particular teacher. Our parents and their parents all have stories they remember - some still bring up angst, and some are positive. Either way, grading can feel very personal, and I don't want it to be. I want grades to reflect LEARNING. I want grades to reflect ACHIEVEMENT. Not behavior. And not an average.

We went on to talk about averages. How, when one week you may receive 0/5 on your article of the week, but you learn from our reflection of it, and the next week you may receive 2/5. That's a 40% increase, and yet the grade is averaged out to be 20% overall. I had many different numbers on the board, and students saw how, if they were averaged, they wouldn't be able to overcome their first attempt quickly. However, if we did not average them, and instead just worked off of feedback and "next steps," they could show me how they'd learned. What if their last four assessments showed 5/5? What does that mean?

Then came the explanation of our 1:1 conferences at the end of each term. We'll be looking at all the evidence, and talking about what it means. We'll be looking at growth, revisions, and how students took feedback and did something with it - in order to learn, not for a better grade.

During these 15-20 minutes in each class, I did most of the talking, that's for sure. I had eye contact with all students, however - most seemed to be paying attention, and trying to soak it in. I asked for questions, and they were few, at best. I asked for thumbs up, middle, or down, and got quizzical faces and unsure thumbs. So... I passed out the newest parent explanation and asked them to look through it and share their thoughts or findings. One observation was, "This side (the back page right side) has more words on it than the other side."  Yes! That led me to explain that our way of grading this year is more work - on me, on them, and on their parents.

This was the time to ask them to talk with their parents about the grading procedure, as they are able to opt out if they'd like. I may have said, at the end, that, "After talking with your parents, you or they decide you want to opt out, that's fine. You can go back to having the computer average your grades, just like it has for years." It sounded a bit snarky, and I could feel it in my bones, as well. I don't drink coffee, and yet I was BUZZING with passion about how I felt we need to do this in order to portray a more accurate grade to reflect their learning. Phew! This was a LOT. I still need to refine how I present this to students - This may have been overload for many of them. Should I spread it out over a few days?

I had one more thing to try (new to me, but I'll be doing it again)... On the door, I quickly put up a green, yellow, and pink sticky note. (I've seen this same idea with green, yellow, and red hands on the door, but I didn't think of it ahead of time, and stickies work just as well!) On their way out the door, I asked them to high five the one that best fits how they're feeling about the idea...
  • Green = Good for now. I may have some questions later.
  • Yellow = Okay - I have a question or concern.
  • Pink = What are you doing to me, Mrs. Kirr??!!

And how am I feeling after this fabulous Friday with this new group of 7th graders? Ahhhh... I am pumped up once again believing that I'm doing the right thing for me and my students. I am still worried about parent night (this Wednesday), but having this current discussion fresh in my mind, I can let parents know that I understand grading can feel very personal - to all of us. My principal said he'd stay late during parent night so I could tell parents I will stay late to answer their questions and concerns in person. My hope is that they feel comfortable enough to ask me any and all questions now and throughout the quarter, so they come closer to understanding the reasons WHY.

Want to know what those sticky notes said? Visit this post...

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. Thanks for sharing, Joy! School starts for me tomorrow and I'm thinking about different ways to introduce these ideas and have discussions over the course of our first week and it was nice to hear about your strategies. I like how you invited students to think about how they might view grades differently in different subject areas. Looking forward to more sharing as the year progresses. :)

  2. Another great post, Joy. I love your honesty and perspective, especially since so much of what you’ve done has allowed me to do what I’m doing. Any chance you could elaborate on the students and parents being able to opt out of this shift? Seems like it would be counterproductive for you and the overall purpose of the shift. Keep being awesome!!

    1. For sure it's counterproductive, Abe, but I just don't want the conflict. When I have a parent vehemently share that he or she doesn't agree and doesn't seem to read what I send home or watch the videos I created, I just throw up my hands. My hope is that students will go home and advocate for this shift themselves. The opt-out option is just a snippet on the bottom back of the parent letter. Just in case!

  3. I'm curious if you had any parents choose to opt out?

    1. Actually, I have not. I, however, have opted a child or two out of it, as we both (the child and I) deemed it was too stressful for them at this point in their lives.