“I don’t know how a grade would reflect my learning process”

I began interviewing students last week about their self-evaluations in order to negotiate their English grade. The conversations afforded wonderful insights into each student’s mind. One tenth grader, stumped, said she wouldn’t even know how to go about giving a letter grade to her learning, and used the above (title) sentence.

She had pinpointed the difference, without my directly expressing it, which led to a helpful dialogue about that difference– between earning and learning. She knew that getting the work done was not equivalent to learning. I suggested other things she could rate herself on, such as finding humor in Pride and Prejudice. She imagined that only if she were to explain the book to another person less familiar with it would she really have demonstrated learning.

Asked if she had done that with a sibling, she said that yes, in fact, she had talked about the book often with her mother and sister, who knew the film versions but not the novel. I asked if it would be fair to evaluate herself on how well she explained the book and its characters to those interested parties, and she began to feel more confident in finding ways to talk about what she called her learning process.

Such one-to-one meetings are proving valuable to me, and time will show whether students, too, find them so. I suspect that they have not often been given a chance to contribute so deliberately (deliberatively) to a grade at the end of a marking period.

Since Alfie Kohn’s announcement on Twitter that he had written the foreword to Joe Bower’s book De-Testing and De-Grading, I have been investigating alternatives to traditional grades and formulations. My only certainty at the moment is that offering my students a voice in the grading process is a good thing, one that involves them in the reporting process, and begins to make me even more accountable to them for the meaning of a grade.

At the very least I can use these interviews as a chance to ask students to tell me anything they think would help me to meet their personal learning goals. One today said, “We’re all kinesthetic learners, so the more hands-on learning we do, the better!”

But at their heart they are proving richly rewarding conversations that shed light on how students see themselves–their proficiencies, areas to grow in; at my faith-based school it is also a chance for some to respond to my open question about growth or change they notice in their reading, writing, thinking, or faith.

I encourage you to personalize the grading process in a way that reflects your goals for your own class. You could pass out a short self-evaluation sheet for a unit or quarter, possibly considering essential questions, 3-5 class and individual goals, or proficiencies and standards the class has been targeting, for the purpose of inviting students to reflect on their learning during the period. The completed form or journal reflection could be brought by the student to a 5-minute meeting during a time when others are reading, studying, or writing. On two I directly asked what letter grade they thought would reflect their learning, but on a third I avoided connecting the evaluation (of their small group experience and decision-making, partly) with a grade, and merely used it to start students thinking about their progress.

I think giving students a voice in the reporting process is one way to help them see that class exists to serve their purposes, as Gordon Pradl has said. It does not cost anything to share authority this way. It did involve carving a good-sized niche out of the routine schedule of class activities, but students are grateful for additional free reading or study time. Through these meetings I have been able to watch and hear my students actively evaluating themselves as learners, searching almost painfully for the right words to express their ideas, their eyes casting about the ceiling for a solid hold.

20140113-144352.jpg Penny Kittle taught us about reading and writing conferences, now it is time for grading conferences; soon it will “abolish grading” conferences?


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