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.
I work in a school system that requires grades at the end of each term. Although I do not have points or marks during the term, I am required to come up with one often-arbitrary letter that is supposed to represent student achievement in our ELA (English Language Arts - reading, writing, speaking) class before report cards are issued. This year, the elementary schools in our district are in their second year of standards-based grading, and I'm hopeful we'll have it at the middle school level by the time I retire. Until then, I believe the way I'm trying to help my students learn without the reward, threat, stress, or constant checking of their grades is the route I need to take.
Since I piloted "Feedback in Lieu of Grades" in 2015-2016 with one class and then used it each following year, my favorite part of the year is conferring with students each quarter. (Sadly, it's also the time of the year when I get a migraine due to the stress of "getting it right" and "not making parents mad or students cry." This quarter, I blamed the migraine on the barometric pressure, but my friend and hubby may be right, as they saw the correlation before I did.) Conferring is my favorite part, as I can look through the evidence with each student individually, and they can voice their opinions on what they believe they should get on the report card based on that evidence. They reflect on the goal they made last quarter, and they either create a new goal for the next quarter, or keep or tweak the one they had. I am able to write about their achievements and habits, along with their contributions, as we sit alongside each other. I love to see the smiles on their faces when they read what I've written, even if the grade they are getting isn't that often-sought-after "A."
This quarter, one of my students lost a parent. Another has a parent in hospice. Others are dealing with hurt I can't comprehend. My focus as we started conferring this past week was compassion and celebration. I've been the calmest I've been during these conversations. I, myself, have carried less angst into these conversations, as I'm truly NOT focused on the grades. I'm practicing what I preach, focusing on what they've learned, and the habits or mindsets that have gotten them to where they are at this point in the school year.
Maybe it's because my own mindset is better this year. Or maybe it's because parents haven't complained about how they have to take more time if they want to know how their child is doing in our class (they have to go into each assignment and click "view" to see the comprehensive narrative feedback). Or maybe it's because I had one parent tell me that she actually gets MORE information from our class than from the others. No matter the reason, I'm glad my focus has shifted again. I'm glad I have enough confidence in the system I've created in my tiny corner of the school to be able to simply reflect on how the quarter has gone with each student. In this fashion, we can make a plan for next quarter and start working towards it.
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Last quarter, due to this type of grading being a bit too stressful for the grade-driven seventh graders, I switched two students over to more "typical" grading. This quarter, at least one other student is going that route. The other students aren't even aware of this, as we're still doing the same activities, and we're still speaking the same language of doing this work in order to learn... not in order to get a good grade.
I still don't have it all figured out. I still have four days of conferences this week with students and one or more may cry. I may still get an angry email from a parent. At this point, however, I am glad the students and I have the relationship we have in order to reflect honestly on how the second quarter of the year has gone and to make plans as to where we go from here.