Online Learning Reflection

I’m writing this on Tuesday morning, just over two weeks after we started online learning. When we started our break from school, we were in the middle of writing editorials, which we will share with each other and send to the New York Times editorial contest. Last week, students revised and shared them with me so I could give them feedback. At times, giving written feedback worked great, but I often found myself wishing I could just sit down next to the student and talk about it. 

There were also some cool moments, though, times when I was surprised and impressed by the solutions students found to some of their problems. I sent one girl a couple articles that I asked her to read before revising one part of her piece. When she sent it back to me, I was blown away by how she’d used those articles to deepen her understanding of the issue so that she could write about a sensitive topic with empathy while still making her case. Others found creative ways to fix some of the holes in their initial arguments, solutions that went above what I was expecting from them.

In reading, students have continued to read each day. On our last Friday together, students stocked up on books. About 200 were checked out that day, or an average of about five per student. Last week, when some students started to run out, they sent me their requests, and I went back into school for the first time to put together stacks for them. Some were placed in bags and left in the lobby for students to pick up. For those who couldn’t come to the school, I delivered the books to their front porch. Either way, they were able to replenish their selection of books without coming in contact with another person.

Once a week, students also send me an update with their current book, page number, and some of their thoughts. I respond, and then they write back to me. The purpose of this is to replace my daily check-ins while they read in class, and there have been some advantages to this, especially the extra time it gives students and me to think about our responses compared to when we have these conversations in class. I might even start doing this in some form when school goes back to normal. At the same time, though, it’s not the same thing as sitting down next to students while they read and having whispered conversations about their books.

And this has made these last two weeks exhausting. 

Yes, planning, recording short mini-lessons, giving feedback, answering all the emails, and doing all of that while my five- and two-year-old daughters ask me to play with them every five minutes have been a lot of work. And yes, I’ve been staying up way too late now that my alarm isn’t going off at 6:00 every morning. But teaching has always been a lot of work, and I’ve never gone to bed as early as I should. The difference is that now I’m not getting all of those daily interactions that refresh my work as a teacher. My class is built around pulling up my stool next to students’ desks or sitting down on the floor beside them so we can talk about how they’re doing, so we can discuss their writing or the great books they’re reading. And while I know technology provides many different ways for us to communicate, nothing can recreate the magic of sitting down beside a student for one of those whispered conversations. I even miss getting yelled at in the morning when I don’t say hi with enough enthusiasm.

If this is it, if we don’t return to school this year, that’s what I will miss most.

Parent Videos

At the start of the school year, I wrote about some of the letters I send home to parents throughout the early part of the school year. While the specific letters have changed a bit at times, this has been my standard method of introducing my class and myself to parents and caregivers. I would sometimes send out subsequent emails to fill them in on what we were doing in class, but those tended to slow down or even stop as the year went on. This year, I’m trying something different to keep parents informed about what we’re doing as a class throughout the year. Inspired by Rebekah O’Dell’s post at Moving Writers about her parent videos (check it out if you haven’t seen it), I decided to do the same this year.

At the start of each new genre study in writing, as well as when we’re starting something else that’s new, my plan is to record a short video that will introduce the genre and why we’re studying it. I send each one to all parents and guardians, as well as my administration. So far, I’ve recorded two, one introducing our opening study of free-verse poetry and another explaining a bit about our roundtable discussions and letter-essays in reading workshop. My next one, which I’m about to record, will explain more about the process we use for our assessment conferences and portfolios at the end of the quarter. Shortly after, I’ll send one home to introduce our next genre study in writing, which is memoir. 

I’ve read about other teachers communicating through video in the past, but I was always a bit hesitant to try it as I’m much more comfortable communicating through writing. However, something about reading Rebekah’s post and watching her videos got me excited to try this. For parents who haven’t met me yet, these videos give them a chance to see me, hear my voice, and, I hope, begin to feel more comfortable with me as a teacher. 

I also think these videos will help me reach more parents. Parents are pretty involved at our school overall, so it’s possible that most of them were reading the letters I sent home. At the same time, I could never be sure how many parents read them, and I suspect that some who didn’t read my letters will watch the videos. Plus, since I’m posting them through YouTube I can actually see how many views each one gets. This doesn’t tell me definitively what percentage of families are watching them as some families might have more than one person watching at different times, but I can at least get an idea. I’ve already started to think about using these to communicate at least some of the information that went out in my various letters in past years.

Below is the first video I recorded, which introduced our study of free-verse poetry and why we begin the year with this.

 

A Question for Writing Conferences

This year as I started working with a new group of writers, I made some changes to the first few weeks of school. This led to changes in my early writing conferences too. One of my goals for the year is to more consistently and enthusiastically point out the good things I see in students’ writing. In an effort to be as efficient with writing conferences as possible and thus confer with as many students as possible each day, I have a tendency to get right into what they need help with and making suggestions, and I neglect to point out all the great things I see them doing. So this year, I didn’t make any suggestions for the first few weeks. Instead, I focused on the good things I saw. 

This also gave me space to ask a specific question a lot in my early conferences: Why did you make this change? or Why did you make this choice? I’ve asked this question in conferences before but not nearly as much as I have this year. As I’ve listened and taken notes on students’ responses, I’ve realized how important this question is. Now, I’m more interested in how students answer this question than I am in whether or not I think they made a good choice. 

At the start of the year, most of my students aren’t that knowledgeable when it comes to the features of good writing. Many of them associate good writing with neatness and correctness. They have a lot to learn when it comes to crafting writing effectively, and they will learn a lot about this over the course of the year. Thus, at the start of the year, as long as they are making purposeful choices and purposeful revisions, I’m happy because I know that if they continue doing this, their ability to make good choices is going to develop over the course of the year. 

This relates to how students are assessed in my writing workshop. The primary assessment criteria is their commitment to the process, not whether their writing is good or not. The reasoning behind this is simple: if I want student writing to improve, it improves through the work they put into the piece. In the same way, the thinking behind their choices is more important than if they happen to make the right choice on any single piece of writing.

Here’s an example. I recently conferred with a girl about a poem she was writing about a moment in a basketball game. She chose to write the poem in second person, using you. Now I generally advise students to avoid this. I even teach a mini-lesson, modeled after Nancie Atwell’s, on the importance of a strong I presence in their poetry. In the past, I probably would have encouraged her to try a draft of the poem using I. This year, though, I asked her why she made this choice, and then I listened. She took me through her thought process, and I discovered that this was a decision she had not made lightly. She had a definite purpose for choosing to write using you. In the end, I still probably would have made a different choice than she did, but that’s ok. If she continues making purposeful choices, I know she’s going to develop tremendously as a writer as the year goes on and she grows in her knowledge of craft.

A Reflection on the First Three Weeks

I always spend a ton of time planning the first few weeks. It seems like there is way too much I want to do, and I go over my plans again and again, trying to fit everything in without overscheduling. Between introductory activities, establishing the routines of our workshop, writing lessons on process and craft, and our opening reading roundtable discussions, it’s a challenge to provide enough time for the most important things: writing and reading. Somehow, no matter how much planning I did in past years, I never seemed to get it right. Days were too busy, and we never had as much time to write and read as I wanted.

As we began this year, I made three major changes to how we started the year, the first two of which were intended to free up more time:

 

Wait a couple days to start writing: This freed up more time for booktalks, browsing the library, and choosing their first book. 

 

No craft-related writing lessons for the first three weeks: This allowed us to focus on routines and process the first few weeks, freeing up time previously spent on early lessons on craft. This also means that the first piece each student finishes will show what they can do without the influence of any craft lessons, making it more helpful in reflecting on growth later in the year. During all my writing conferences, then, I haven’t made suggestions related to how the piece is written. Instead, I’ve made sure to point out positive things I see and, when necessary, help them navigate what to do next. 

 

Giving them a specific way to respond to the poems we read at the start of class: We start class most days by reading and talking about a poem, especially at the start of the year since free-verse poetry is the first genre we study as writers. Even with a list of options, it was always hard for students to respond to and talk about these poems at the start of the year, so this year, instead of giving students the whole list right away, I chose one to go with each of our first six poems. It was only after they had used each option once that I gave them the whole list and allowed them to respond however they chose.

So, now that three weeks are finished, did these changes work? 

Sort of.

Focusing exclusively on reading the first couple days was good as those days didn’t feel nearly as busy as they usually do. We had more time to talk and more time for students to select and start reading their first books. 

Students also seemed to be better able to respond to and talk about the poems we read together. After reading seven of them, most students have shared at least once, and they’ve been able to comment on them better than in previous years.

The biggest negative, though, is that I still haven’t consistently provided enough time to write and read. Moving all craft related writing lessons back a few weeks would have worked except I added a couple of new things this year that took up too much of the time we were saving. I began Classroom Book-a-Day, reading a picture book a day with my students, and I also added a couple of discussions that we had not had in previous years. Inspired by Pernille Ripp’s idea, we discussed when/why writing and reading are great and when/why they are awful. From this, students created the lists of their rights as writers and readers that is at the top of this post. I’m glad I added each of these things; it’s just unfortunate that I didn’t cut enough to compensate for adding them. So, looking ahead to next week, reading and writing time start becoming the priority they should be. Starting on Monday, there will be at least 20 minutes to write and 15 minutes to read everyday, with the writing time increasing as we build stamina. 

I’ve also already started thinking a bit about next year, about which things from the first three weeks can wait until later and which things we maybe don’t need to do at all. I might combine the first two roundtable discussions, about how we choose books and why we abandon books, into one discussion, which would free up some time. 

Another possible change next year is that everyone will make their first book choice and start reading on day one. In the past, I’ve given them a couple days in case someone couldn’t find a book, but after reading about Colby Sharp’s first day, I’ve decided, why wait? I’m thinking about it almost as a chance to test out a book for 8-10 minutes. Everyone can choose a book, start reading it, and then afterwards I’ll do my first booktalk(s). Anyone who likes a title from a booktalk better than the one they chose can switch, and if anyone doesn’t like the first book they pick, they can choose another the next day. I’m actually excited thinking about doing this on day one next year.

I’ve also thought a bit about the students’ first piece of writing. While we start with a genre study of free-verse poetry, I’ve started wondering if I should allow students to write whatever they want for their first piece. If I’m waiting to do any craft mini-lessons until the fourth week anyway, maybe I should let them write any genre they want, and then shift to free-verse poems starting with their second piece when we really start diving into our study of the genre. This is something I’ll think more about next year when I begin planning for a new year.

 

Student Surveys

Like many teachers, I have my students fill out surveys at the start of the year in order to start getting to know them as quickly as possible. When I first started doing this, I simply copied the reading and writing surveys Nancie Atwell included in In the Middle. Since then, my surveys have changed a lot. I still use some of her questions, but I’ve also incorporated questions from Donalyn Miller and Pernille Ripp, and I’ve also added many questions of my own. There’s so much I’d love to ask my students, but I also don’t want to overwhelm them at the start of the year, so I spend a lot of time each summer deciding which questions are the most important to include.

Currently, I use three different surveys, one about reading, one about writing, and one asking for other information about students. I have two big goals for the surveys. One, of course, is to help me get to know them. The second, though, is for these surveys to become a reflection tool later on. Students will complete these same surveys at other times during the year, and they will then compare their responses, noting changes and areas of growth. This is one of the ways I decide what questions to include: Which ones will help them to reflect later in the year?

As I read the surveys, they will help me create stacks of books for every student to preview. They will also help me discover which students are likely to need more assistance or attention early in the year as we choose our first books and start reading. And they will give me insights into conversations I can have with students early in the year. Ultimately, I hope that I can use the responses to help build trust.

This year, we’re filling out the surveys a little differently than before. After reading this blog post and also looking at my schedule for the first couple days, I decided to split up the surveys into parts. We’re filling them out this week according to this schedule:

  • Tuesday: Getting to Know You #1-5, Reading #1-10
  • Wednesday: Getting to Know You #6-10, Reading #11-end
  • Thursday: Writing #1-9
  • Friday: Getting to Know You #11-end, Writing #10-13
  • Monday (of 2nd week): Writing #14-19

As with my parent letters, I benefited greatly from reading the work of the teachers mentioned at the beginning, so feel free to use any of the questions from my surveys as you create or revisit your own.

There are links to my surveys within this blog post, but here they are in list form:

Introducing Myself and My Class to Parents

When I first started teaching, my basic strategy for communicating with parents was to do it as little as possible. I hoped that if I didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother me, and I could just teach my students. Obviously, this was not a great strategy.

The purpose of this post is merely to share what I send to parents at the start of the year. When I began writing these letters, I found the writing of others to be a huge help: Nancie Atwell’s letter about reading workshop, which she shares in her book The Reading Zone, was the first one that helped me. More recently, a letter by Pernille Ripp about her classroom library (if you go to the link, it’s towards the end of the blog post) and another by Joy Kirr about assessment helped me as I reread and revised my own. Since the writing of others helped me so much, I wanted to share mine in case they might be helpful to anyone else. 

I send home three letters at the start of the year. The first is about reading. About a week later I send out one about our writing workshop. Finally, last year once I stopped grading individual assignments and made significant changes to how we do assessment, I began sending home a letter about that too.

I’m sure that some parents don’t read all three letters; maybe some don’t read any of them. But for those who do, they provide a great overview of the different aspects of my class and also give me a chance to promote the benefits of my different methods and sell my vision for what our workshop will be like. This year, I’ll also be compiling every letter and other communications into a blog so that parents don’t have to keep track of lots of emails. This way, if they ever want to look back at something I sent home earlier, they can find it at our blog.

Last summer, after seeing the survey that Pernille sends to parents, I decided to create one of my own. I had always invited parents to send me information about their children, but with such an open-ended invitation many didn’t reply, and of the ones who did, only a small handful provided any meaningful information. This survey did two things, though. Way more parents actually took the time to respond (about 60%), and their responses were so much more helpful than most of the old ones. I make the survey into a Google Form but also attach a list of the questions in case anyone prefers to respond a different way. Here is the list of questions I’m using this year. 

Finally, I have one new item that I will send home sometime in the first couple weeks. One of the biggest roadblocks to helping students worry less about their grades and more about learning is the pressure they receive from home to achieve certain grades. So this summer I created a guide for parents: how to talk to their kids about school without talking about grades. I do hope the questions I listed out prove helpful for some parents, but even if they don’t ever use the questions I’ve listed, I hope the act of sending this document can be one more strong reminder to not worry so much about grades and to focus more on what matters. Some of the questions in the guide are specific to things we do in my class while others could apply to almost any writing-reading workshop. If anything in any of the documents here can help you, please don’t hesitate to use them.

My Two Big Questions for This Summer

Because of the length of this post, I almost split it into two separate ones, but I ended up putting them both together. For those of you who make it all the way to the end, I’d love to know any ideas you have on either topic.

One of the many things I love most about writing-reading workshop is that I’ll never perfect it. I will never get to the point where I have notes, lectures, and assignments for the year mapped out to where I can just pull out what I did last year on the same date and implement it. There will always be more to learn, more to try, and a new set of students I have to get to know because ultimately, their interests and needs have to drive much of what happens in my classroom. This means that every year I have successes and failures, and I learn more about how to help seventh graders develop as writers and readers. It also means that I often leave each school year with a question or two that I want to try and find answers to over the summer. Last year, it involved figuring out the best way to make my classroom “gradeless” while still working within the grading systems in place at my school. This summer I leave with two big questions, one involving the assessment plan I implemented this year, the other involving writing.

 

Question #1

I’ll start with my assessment question. I have settled on the process of how we’ll decide the grade. I won’t be going back to grading individual assignments, and we’ll continue to decide the final grade in an assessment conferences at the end of the quarter. My question, though, is this: What should students’ grades at the end of the quarter be based on? Completion of the requirements, mastery of standards, or individual goals? This year, the expectations were the same for everyone first quarter, since students didn’t have goals yet, but afterwards, it was based on their progress towards their writing and reading goals (other than this change during fourth quarter). I think all three options have compelling advantages, though.

Individual Goals (our current method):

  • Advantages: This method gives everyone, regardless of ability level, something attainable but challenging to work towards. Students who are behind their peers get to focus on meeting goals that will help them make progress and catch up to where they should be; students who are advanced are still challenged to continue making progress.
  • Disadvantages: It’s more challenging to keep track of everything because all students have different goals. It also means that someone might do better work than another student but receive a lower grade because of their goals. Maybe this is okay; it’s just a lot different than normal.

Mastery of Standards:

  • Advantages: With us heading towards a standards-based report card eventually, this would start me down that road. Of course, when we move to that report card, there won’t be a letter grade attached. This also makes the criteria consistent, simpler, and clearer
  • Disadvantages: Students who are advanced and meet the standards early don’t have as much to work towards. Also, when we move to a standards-based report card eventually, I don’t want parents to equate the descriptors on the report card with a letter grade. If I use this to figure grades now, it will make it easier for parents to make that equivalency.

Completion of Requirements

  • Advantages: It’s simple and takes care of two of my big problems this year. First, we don’t have to spend time in our assessment conference talking about the grade because it will already be decided. Instead, we can really dig into the details of the students’ work, what they’re doing well and what they need to focus most on next quarter. Second, it could help with the problem I discuss here in the seventh paragraph, the fact that the grade becomes the way students decide if they’ve had a good quarter or not. Basing the grade on whether they completed everything and met the basic requirements might help them focus more on their accomplishments during the quarter.
  • Disadvantages: Students’ grades don’t really align with their level of achievement during the quarter. With the other two methods, even though they both represent two different things, there is still a more direct correlation between students’ work and their grade.

Right now, I expect to use the same basic methods from this year, but I want to make sure this is the best method to use. I need to spend more time reflecting on this and talking to a couple other teachers at my school to see what they think.

 

Question #2

Every year, my students fill out writing and reading surveys at the start of the school year. The last question on each one asks them, “Are you a writer?” and “Are you a reader?” Students also fill out these same surveys at the end of the year. This year, I had fifty-six students, many of whom had especially bad experiences with reading and writing the previous school year. At the start of the year, thirty-three identified themselves as readers and only nineteen as writers. By the end of the year, fifty-one students identified themselves as readers and thirty-two as writers, with another three in the middle.

While I am excited by all the students who changed their answers over the course of the year, I’m always bothered by the students who still answer no, especially this year with the higher number who answered no in writing. I know that a simple yes/no question doesn’t fully capture where each student is as a writer, and there were many positives among the students who still answered no. Still, though, I want to help turn this around, to bring the numbers up to the same levels as reading.

For students who still don’t see themselves as writers, the most common reason they gave was that they don’t enjoy it. And this is understandable. Even though I find a deep satisfaction from writing, I don’t always enjoy it either. And this is true of many writers. It’s hard and takes a lot of work to try to write well. Most of my students have had little experience with writing before seventh grade, and as is clear from the low number who saw themselves as writers at the start of the year, many of their experiences weren’t positive ones. For them, writing every day, revising over multiple drafts, all of this can be a bit much. Thus, my writing question: How can I help students find more enjoyment in their writing?

For many students, the emphasis we place on choosing topics that matter and finding real purposes for their writing is enough. Their writing is meaningful to them, they see what writing can do, and they begin to see themselves as writers as a result. However, even many of the students who did not see themselves as writers were able to point to pieces they wrote this year that meant a lot to them. Finding meaning in what they wrote, then, wasn’t enough because they didn’t enjoy the process of writing those pieces.

Since taking pieces all the way through the process seems to be the biggest reason students don’t enjoy writing, one of my first thoughts is to incorporate more writing that won’t go through the whole process, more writing that students can just have fun with. This might mean more quickwrites, using ideas from sources like Colby Sharp’s The Creativity Project, or having students start blogging next year. I don’t want to lower the number of finished pieces students create, and students might still not always enjoy the process. This is okay. But I hope that incorporating more experiences that they do enjoy can help balance things out a bit. I want to continue brainstorming options and see how they might fit into our workshop.

Another benefit of these ideas is that they provide more variety so that while students are in the midst of longer writing projects, they aren’t just working on the same piece every day. This idea of variety has been on my mind a lot throughout the year and leads to my second line of thinking. Some of our early genre studies take too long, which reduces the variety of genres we study, especially early in the year. I want to find ways to shorten some of these, so that we’re not spending so long on any one genre. This will allow us to study more genres and also to get to some of the optional genres earlier in the year than we do now. I think that experiencing a more diverse selection of genres will also help students find ones that they like to write best.

So, this is what I’m going to be thinking about a lot this summer. I’ll be doing a lot of professional reading on other topics too, but these are the two questions I definitely hope to have found some answers to before next school year starts. If you have any ideas on either topic, I’d love to read them and take them into consideration as I plan.

Trying to Assess a Writer’s Process

One of the things I have wrestled with a lot over the years is the best way to assess writing. I believe the most important thing for writers, beyond finding topics and purposes for their writing that matter to them, is that they invest in the process. I want students to put in the work that will allow them to write to the best of their ability. I teach several mini-lessons throughout the year related to process, and a great feature of our writing workshop is that it provides students with the freedom from deadlines that allows them to develop their own process over the course of the year.

I don’t teach the simple five-step process that I learned in school. Instead, I show them how messy my process can be as a writer, the work that sometimes goes on before I start a first draft, the way my writing can undergo multiple drafts and revisions along the way, and how I trust the process to help me find direction for a piece when I’m not sure exactly where it’s headed. I also let my students know that every writer works a little bit differently. By the end of the year, my students, who had little experience with writing as a process before seventh grade, have all, or mostly all, figured out how they work best and are confident in their abilities to work through the problems that inevitably will arise with most pieces of writing. Some students organize their ideas using a mixture of text and pictures; some write down extensive notes before starting a first draft; others get an initial idea and then dive in and see where it goes. Many of them do a different things depending on the needs of each individual piece.

This process, then, is what I’ve always felt should be the main focus of writing assessment, rather than the quality of the final product. If I want students’ final products to improve, it’s investing in the process that will allow that to happen. If everyone’s process is different, though, then it’s a complex thing to try and grade.

During fourth quarter this year, I decided to go ahead and try to do it. I eliminated all but two categories of writing goals. Then, the other criteria was they they show “a clear commitment to the process” with each piece. On the first day of the quarter, I explained all of this to them, and then I asked them to create a list of ways they could show a commitment to the process. Here’s what they came up with:

  • a list with plenty of ideas for possible topics
  • writing off-the-page that gathers and organizes ideas before drafting or helps figure out a so what?
  • experimenting with different leads or conclusions
  • multiple double-spaced drafts with significant revisions, both large-scale and small-scale:
    • add words, ideas, information
    • cut unnecessary words, ideas, or information
    • replace words with other (better) ones
    • experiment with the order or form of lines/stanzas or sentences/paragraphs
  • peer conference form that shows you seeking out feedback from others
  • an edited double-spaced draft with plenty of corrections made, over time leaving fewer mistakes uncorrected
  • a list with multiple brainstormed titles

When it came time for our final assessment conferences of the year, I asked students to go through their writing, compile evidence of the different things they did throughout the quarter, and then to decide what grade they think they earned based on that evidence.

Overall, it actually wasn’t bad. There were a couple students who claimed they earned higher grades when the evidence clearly wasn’t there to support that. I had to remind students a couple times, for example, that if we had to hunt through all their drafts searching for examples of revisions, that wasn’t showing a clear commitment to revising. But overall, we mostly agreed on the final grade, like we had all year.

Next year, when I introduce this early in the year, the one thing that will change is that my students will not be able to create the list I included above in September. But I think that’s okay. We’ll put together a list at the beginning of the year, and then each quarter, we’ll add to it as students gain a greater understanding of the things they might do as writers to help them make their writing better. It will be a complex thing to grade, but one of the great things about these assessment conferences is that they provide a venue for us to sift through the evidence and talk to each other about what we see.

Reflections on a Year (Mostly) without Grades

With the school year over, I think it’s so important to take some time to reflect. So this will be the first of several posts designed to help me think back on the year: what I noticed, what I learned, and what I want to think about or change next year. This first post is going to focus specifically on the new assessment plan I implemented this year.

First a brief recap of the changes I made. First, I stopped grading individual assignments, focusing instead of providing feedback along the way. Then, at the end of each quarter, I met with students to determine their grades for reading and writing. First quarter, everyone had the same criteria. For the last three quarters, their grades were based on their progress towards the reading and writing goals we had set together at the start of the quarter. The exception was that during 4th quarter, I tried something a bit different in writing, which I write about here.

I kept parents informed by using the Notes section in our school’s online gradebook to post shortened versions of the feedback students were getting and to post weekly updates for writing, summarizing something we talked about that week in a writing conference or what the student was working on that week. At the end of each quarter, then, I typed up a Teacher Evaluation Form, where I wrote out notes on the students accomplishments, progress, and other notes from their work that quarter.

Overall, I was happy with how the system worked. Only talking about grades for one week a quarter instead of them constantly consuming so much time and attention was a vast improvement. I also think the system for communicating information to parents, if they took the time to read it, provided them with much more information about their child’s progress than they were getting before. Most students, at least by the end of the year, liked having the opportunity to be involved in the grading process, and some even mentioned that they liked how they were forced to justify their grade with evidence from their work that quarter, that it gave them a much better idea of how they were doing.

For the most part, the assessment conferences went well. Most students, as I expected them to be, were pretty accurate in terms of how they graded themselves. There were a few who tried all year to make the evidence say what they wanted it to say (i.e. to make it say they should get an A even when it didn’t show that), and another student or two who consistently graded themselves much lower than the evidence said they deserved. But overall, at least 90-95% of the time, my assessment was pretty close to that of the students.

The thing I didn’t like the most is, unfortunately, the only thing I can’t change about this system: the fact that we still had to attach a grade at the end. As we went through this process this year, I was repeatedly made aware of how much better this whole process would be if we didn’t have to decide on a letter grade. Because I don’t want this process to consume too much of our workshop time, I’m limited in terms of how much time I have to sit down with each student. That means that every minute we spend talking about a grade is one less minute we get to actually assess how they’re doing. I would love to be able to sit down with each student, talk about how they’re doing in the different areas we assess, examine the progress they’ve made towards their reading and writing goals, discuss what they most need to work on next quarter, and create new goals for them to works towards next. And then just stop there. Unfortunately, we don’t get to dig into all of those areas in as much detail as I’d like because we have to spend some of that time deciding on what the students’ grade will be. Now, as the year went on, I did start finding ways to work around this. I went through the students planning sheet and evidence ahead of time, and if it was obvious that the student had earned an A, we didn’t bother talking about the grade. I want to do that more from the start next year.

The other problem with this system is that no matter how much I try to deemphasize this grade, this is still the way that too many students decide if they’ve had a good quarter or not. No matter how much self-assessment they do, these grades becomes their validation. If a student gets an A, then he can feel good about the quarter he had. If a student gets a B, then she can feel okay about it. If someone, GASP, gets a C, then that student feels like he had a bad quarter. I hate this, that a stupid letter has the power to decide how students feel about their quarter. And it’s not just students who feel like they did poorly. I hate that students who did great don’t feel good about all the amazing things they accomplished, only that they got A’s.

This year at the end of the year, I asked students what they achieved as readers and writers that they were most proud of, and I created certificates that I handed out on the last day (an idea based on something Pernille Ripp does in her class). I was also so impressed with the thoughtfulness so many students put into the final reflections they wrote after we had finished all of our assessment conferences. I asked students to answer this question: Think about yourself when school started in August compared to yourself now. How have you grown or changed as a writer and reader since then? What helped you? What changed you? What made you the writer and reader you are today?

I have to find as many ways as possible to help students not just be aware of what they’ve achieved, but somehow to help this become what they focus on. I also have to be more intentional about regularly encouraging parents to not focus on the grade so much. I’ve already started thinking about ways to do that next year, and I’m sure that will become a blog post later this summer.

Eventually, we will be implementing a standards-based report card in the junior high and eliminating letter grades (this type of report card is making its way up our school’s elementary now and will get to us at some point). Until that happens, I want to continue finding more ways to help students and parents put their focus on the right things.

Thoughts on Using Grades to Keep Kids Motivated at the End of the Year

This week, I’ve been thinking back to previous years when a teacher from a nearby district would complain about how early their grades had to be in at the end of the year. Final grades were due before the year was over, and kids new this. I used to think this would be bad too. I thought I needed to keep grading right up to the end of the year to motivate students. Otherwise, what would make them stay focused and keep trying? I’ve changed my mind about this, though. Now, this is just another problem, one of many, with grades being our main source of motivation for students.

This year, as I’ve written about quite often, I’m no longer grading individual assignments. Students’ quarter grades, which are solely based on their progress towards their reading and writing goals, are decided during a conference between the student and me. As I thought about the end of the year, I didn’t want to end the year talking to students about grades. As a result, we’re having these conferences at the start of next week, meaning there will be over a week left after students’ final grades have been determined. Am I worried that the week will become chaotic because grades are decided? Not a bit.

This past week, we had our final roundtable discussion, with students discussing the things that make books memorable and talking about the books they had read this year that would stay with them the most. At the end of the discussions, I asked students to reflect on the differences they saw between our most recent discussions and the ones we had at the start of the year. A couple of them shared in each class. My favorite response came from a boy in my last block. He said that at the beginning of the year, they mostly talked because they were supposed to and wanted to get credit for contributing. Now, they talked because they wanted to and had ideas to share. They weren’t worrying about grades anymore.

My only regret about our assessment conferences is that we didn’t have them sooner, which would have given us more than a week free of grades. The only reason we’re choosing a grade is that we have to put one on the report card. However, there’s no rule about when grades can be finalized. Next year, I want to have our final assessment conferences earlier to give students a couple weeks to come to class, to read, write, and talk while being truly free of grades. I wish that this year we would have decided on grades already and then had this final roundtable discussion afterwards.

While the assessment conferences have been a major upgrade from how grades used to be determined in my class, I’m looking forward to finishing them and being able to enjoy being with my students for the last week or so that we’ll have left once these conferences are finished. And next year, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with a couple weeks completely free of grades. I think it’ll make for a great end to the year.