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On today's podcast, we're looking at the gradeless movement. There's a lot to be debated in the education system, but I'm hard-pressed to find a topic so steeped in research as this one. Whether it be motivation, willingness to learn, and even traditional test scores, not giving a grade shows improvement across the board.
There's countless research articles, books, podcasts, psychologists, education experts, and more writing and studying the effects of grades. And every single time, whether it be 1850 or 2019, it seems to support the same outcome:
Jeffery Frieden, an English educator at Hillcrest High School in Corona, California, and founder of Make Them Master It, an organization aimed at connecting teachers to mastery-based practice and identifying teacher struggle through a podcast, book, and blogs.
Aaron Blackwelder, an English educator in Woodland Public Schools in Woodland, Washington, and founder of Teachers Going Gradeless, an organization aimed at providing resources and connecting educators who diminish or eliminate the use of extrinsic motivators.
Nick Covington, a Social Studies educator at Ankeny High School in Ankeny, Iowa, who promotes progressive education in his own practice including developing portfolio-based gradeless assessments.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 5 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, I'm a teacher in Springfield, Ohio. On today's podcast, we're looking at the grade list movement. There's a lot to be debated in the education system, but I'm hard-pressed to find a topic so steep in research as this one. Whether it be motivation, willingness to learn, or even traditional test scores, not giving a grade shows improvement across the board. We summarize this research on our website, as well as on a previous podcast, which you can find in our show notes. Therefore, instead of diving too far into why the grade list movement is needed, much of this podcast is about implementing it. But before that, let me give a quick shout-out to Bill Ryder, Jenny Lucas, and Aaron Flanagan for being some of our Patreon supporters. We deeply appreciate you and your willingness to keep our resources, podcasts, writings, and more afloat. And if you haven't checked out our extensive progressive guides ranging from grade list assessment to mindfulness, take a look on our website. That's all free. If you like what you see, consider donating on Patreon. Thank you. There's countless research articles, books, podcasts, psychologists, education experts, and more writing and studying the effects of grades. And every single time, whether it be 1850 or 2019, it seems to support the same two outcomes. One, grades diminish motivation and do little to actually provide feedback for students to improve. And two, if there is research that supports grades, it's saying that they improve standardized test scores, not necessarily motivating or improving student outcomes in the long run. I challenge you to find data that supports otherwise. I say that not out of spite for people that disagree with this, but because I'm genuinely curious if there is any. It seems to be one of those things that is really common sense when you start thinking about it. People have thought about this for a while. Even back in Dewey and Thorndyke's time, grades were intentionally brought into schools as a way to show student growth, a way to open up dialogue between teacher and student. But in practice, they do the exact opposite. Essentially, grades are a shortcut that communicate paths or failure, with many students seeing anything under an A as a failure. And for those at the bottom who receive an F, they're pushed out of our schools. They're rank and filed to be the quote unquote losers in the education system. But there's a lot of barriers to best practice, and going gradeless isn't just, yeah, I'm just going to stop giving grades. Many districts have gradebook requirements, whether that be simply giving someone a grade or even just requiring a grade per week. And therefore, many don't even attempt this, it seems impossible. I'm here with our guests to show that it actually is possible. There are educators throughout the world going gradeless even in the most traditional systems. Of course, there are varying degrees of making this happen, but going as far as possible within one's own district for the benefit of their students is worthwhile.
Jeffrey Frieden: Make Them Master is kind of like the larger project that I'm doing and the book is part of it because it bears the similar title, Make Them Process It. And it's a little self-published book that I have. The main drive behind that book was I was having this really great experience with my students using writer's notebooks for writing instruction. It's really a place for a lot of informal writing, a lot of a place for students to make lots of mistakes with writing as they learn and grow without a lot of pressure for them to produce a grade because when I first started teaching writing instruction, basically all of my writing instruction would take place during the high stakes, big assessment type writing. So, they're doing big essays and I'm putting all of my writing instruction in those times. So, it's like here's how you pre-write, here's how you draft, here's how you revise. And then on top of that, there's just also we got to go over formatting and then we've got to go over like sentence level writing. I'm packing those assignments with just an intense amount of instruction, which is really unfair to my students and I learned that over time. And so, I spread it out and space it out into a writer's notebook now and I'm talking to a colleague of mine, I'm saying like, look at all this stuff my students are doing. He's kind of wowed by it too. And he kept telling me like, are you writing this down? Are you writing this down? And eventually I said, I should probably write this down.
CM: This is Jeffrey Frieden, who teaches English at Hillcrest High School in Corona, California and founded Make Them Master It, an organization aimed at connecting teachers to innovate their practice through a podcast, book and blogs.
JF: Make Them Master It, long before I had that URL, I was dealing with, I think it was kind of born initially out of a lot of frustration, maybe even a little bit of anger. What I was noticing as I came into education in like the year 2005 was when No Child Left Behind was in full swing and there was, in some places, a bit of a panic with how we're supposed to respond to that as schools. Looking back on it, I'm not sure the administrations I was serving under at the time fully understood what was going on, but there's basically this just real push to have test scores going up. And then when it came time to look at why the test scores weren't going up, it pretty much all fell back on the teachers like, hey, teachers, come on, what's going on here? And I was watching the, we were bearing the brunt of the responsibility and the students were starting to bear less and less of that responsibility. And that was kind of getting me a little frustrated. I'm now frustrated about other things when it comes to assessment and accountability. But for a time there, I said, this feels really unfair for the teachers. So I'm like, we got to get the students to do more of this, take more ownership. I mean, that's a big term that's been going around in the last few years is having students own their learning. So I wasn't using that term back then, but it's like, man, I got to get these guys to take more ownership for what's really theirs and it's their learning. And so that's kind of where that make them master it. I'm the one who's doing all the learning here. I'm the one that's constantly reflecting. When are we going to get the students to do that? So I was trying to work that in as much as I could more and more over time, getting students to assess themselves, giving feedback to one another, not just relying on me and any kind of grade that comes down from me or from their other teachers, but to get them to take more and more ownership for what it is that they're there to do instead of it all falling back on the teachers needs to fall on them. And that sounds really nice. But again, it was a frustration place where I was trying to, I was actually trying to push the work back on them initially, but I've really grown since then. And now it's more of a challenge that I'm bringing to my students is like, alright guys, how can you take more ownership for the learning?
CM: This has come up with many of our guests, but it seems like something most progressive educators share is the realization that what they're doing isn't worth it. And coming to terms with the fact that traditional education isn't just unsustainable due to how poorly it functions, but because it's ultimately soulless for the teacher and no longer feels like you're doing what you signed up to do, which is obviously helping and mentoring kids. Instead, you're almost roboticized. You're discouraged to show any kind of true emotion, whether that be not showing any emotion or putting on this like entertainer style moniker, or maybe you're just held to ridiculous accountability measures and standardized testing. Could you go into further, Jeff, on what this shift looked like for you?
JF: I was really, really close to quitting. I was really, really close to throwing in the towel because of how much, and really a lot of it came down to grading at the time, I was just expecting, largely it was me being idealistic as a teacher. I was like thinking I could do it all. My teacher hero in my mind that I was aspiring to be, and I didn't even really know this at the time, it was like on later reflection, but he was a bachelor and he had nothing but time to give to giving feedback to his students and getting all this work back. I had two kids at the time and was just trying to juggle that. I say at the time because now I have four kids at home. I also needed a solution. I needed just practically like if I'm going to do this next year and not feel immense guilt for not getting the work done or missing time with family, I need to figure out a way to get the students to take more ownership of their learning because I won't survive.
CM: I know going grade list for me was empowering because you end up doing a lot less at home. I mean, obviously it's not a replacement for giving feedback and we're still expected to work with kids, but I found myself spending way more energy at work guiding and mentoring and way less energy at home since if it's a project framework, I'm not really doing a lot of the planning. It's mostly the kids. How did you go about changing up your grading practice?
JF: By doing summative conferences at the end of a grading term and taking points off of assignments. So, it's been kind of a fun little joke to say in class where this class is totally pointless, but what I mean is I'm not – what I'm doing instead of just throwing points or a grade on there is I'm giving students meaningful feedback and it's taking me probably just as much time as in the days when there were points to put some information on there for the students to get back. But what's different this time for me as the teacher, my experience is I'm telling them where they are like here, here's where you are, here's what you're doing well, here's your next step as a learner in this particular skill that we're working on and then for them they get that back and they can – they're freed up to look at it. Now, the points aren't making so much noise for them that they can focus on that feedback and then they'll put together kind of like a portfolio. They're bringing their work to me and then they're talking me through their learning and then at the end of that conversation, we negotiate what their grade is in the course. So, that's a – they are taking ownership but it is just as much work for me and – but now also more for them, they really have to think through how they're going to make their case for their grade.
CM: And the influx of social media and in general, the ability to find sources that supports grade-less learning make this a lot easier. I know early on in teaching, I was always very anxious about things I was doing. I tended to over plan, I always felt like students need to be accounted for, I had a ton of grades, it was really rote and a lot of this was part of a savior complex, if you will, that a lot of teachers tend to feel, I want to be a teacher because I want to help others. So, that teaching mythos, you know, it makes us feel like we're trying to save the world, that students need saved and we're superheroes almost. And I know that's not the mentality now that we should be framing education with. I'm curious about what connections you've made on your podcast writings and on social media that have affected your desire and willingness to shift towards grade-less learning.
JF: Oh yeah, there's been a major shift in that where I've also hit a point too in my own self-efficacy as a teacher where I don't need as many external voices or measures on me where I'm like relying on what other people think of my practice because I'm confident in what I'm doing. So, that actually takes the stress out right there. But when you're a young teacher, that's not there yet because you're still figuring out who you are and you're having new experiences with students on a regular basis. And so, you're not sure how to interpret all that and how you handled it. So, I've really just been reflecting on my own practice over the years and that's really helped too. And I never really struggled with a savior complex where I felt like I had to save the students. It's a really weird one, I don't know if I've ever stated this on online, I've talked to a few people about this before, but there was very very early on, I think before I even taught my first class, so in my early 20s, I'm putting together my syllabus and I'm talking about that in some venue where there's like new teachers there and I say, you know, like oh man, I'm struggling with what's going on my syllabus and I don't even remember what the guy looks like but there's somebody there that kind of dropped this thing, well make sure whatever you write in your syllabus can stand up in court, that's it. And for whatever reason, that really terrible advice like stuck with me and the way I kind of describe it is every time, so I wrote in the syllabus and I tried to actually make it you know, legally ironclad and then every time I'm doing an assessment of my students' work, putting points or a grade, there's kind of this thought in the back of my mind that I might have to give an account to it so that it becomes this sort of Dickensian specter that's behind me, like this hooded figure with a gavel like just waiting to drop the hammer on me if I don't do something right or if I don't provide the right kind of feedback. And the way that takes shape or the way that it took shape for many many years for me, if you're dealing with a like an analytical rubric that has say 24 to 36 boxes of like how a student could score on a piece of writing is all of my advice, all of my feedback was how students weren't getting the top mark. So, it's like here's how you missed and like you missed here, you missed there, you really missed on that one or and people rarely got the top scores on the categories and so for me, it's like I'm living in fear of this specter behind me but I'm also just giving this advice to students about how they're not doing perfect and it's just kind of creating this bad feeling all around for everybody and this year I decided that I'd had enough of that and I could actually name what was going on. So, to find out how I could approach young teachers about that having to move away from sort of that anxiety that's wrapped up in how we assess is kind of becoming my new mission I guess is to connect people with hey, it doesn't have to be the way that you think, it doesn't have to be this oppressive in a way.
CM: You know, I know a lot of this is very easy either. I know it's really hard to convince everyone that gradeless is the way to go. I mean, if you're brought up in the traditional system, saying that everything you're used to is really the wrong way to do things is a very much an uphill battle. What has been your experience in this regard?
JF: The scary part for me this year and I still kind of wrestle with it a little bit but now that we're most of the way through the year, I'm seeing that it works but the scary part for me was how do I justify this to somebody who has questions, you know, if a parent or if an administrator has questions, which I've only dealt with a couple and they've been pretty softball questions so I've been fortunate in that regard. I know some people have tried to go the route that I'm going and have been met with a lot of opposition because the way that the word I'm going to use here is schema. I mean, everyone's schema about what schooling is and what you do at school, it doesn't quite fit what I'm doing in my classroom. I mean, it largely does. There's, you know, kids show up every day, they sit down and relatively assigned seats and I take role and I instruct and they do work. I mean, it looks very similar but it's just kind of like how we get that sort of end result that we're all that, you know, I mean more or less the students are there for that grade teaching high school.
CM: And this led us to a discussion of Jeff's platform, Make Them Master It, which is developed to connect teachers in a safe place to consider these progressive ideas. For him, it encourages practice in his own classroom because he knows that others are considering and doing the same things. For me, it's the same way. Human Restoration Project has allowed me to feel a lot more confident in the progressive ideals I try to hold up in my own classroom. Further, we as teachers can use our online platforms to bolster the why of using progressive ad showcasing our student work.
JF: Basically, there's a level of sort of submitting to this external measure, a standardized test. And I would say if a school wanted to kind of go all in with this more student-centered approach, now with technology being relatively inexpensive and really fast internet, things like that, I feel like a school could just say, we're going to go all in on this. And instead of just like waiting for somebody else to tell us our results, how about we just show them? How about we put on our website here that we have, you know, video or we run a project that's all year long and we're just constantly updating and telling the community what we're doing here and showing what our really bright students are doing. And then when the test results come out, they can kind of decide for themselves when they look at, well, here, I got all this great stuff coming out from our school and we can see what our students are doing and then we see these results that might actually cause some questioning. I'm just, you know, speculating what if a school did that?
CM: I'm a huge proponent of this as well. I manage the website of our school and I make a point to upload the projects that we're doing, including our resources and promoting social media accounts of teachers who show off student work. And we emphasize student work, not teacher work. I really find it annoying when teachers take videos of, you know, quote unquote engaging lessons. I'm not interested in someone's amazing techniques of control. I just want to see cool examples of what students are doing and then I can use those ideas to propose new ideas to my kids. Next year, we're planning on having students actually all upload their work on our website and make their portfolios even public. What goals do you have for them? Make Them Master It when it comes to promoting your ideas.
JF: Well, my goals for the platform going forward, I do want to grow, get as many stories as I can of teachers at points where they really struggled in their career, but they found a way through and put that out there for other teachers. I want to connect more at make them master it around the idea of these alternative ways to assess students and more ownership for the students and their learning and as much as I can kind of put that on my website. I'm toying with the idea of, you know, having other people come on the website too to just kind of share their story about how they have students take on the learning or even like the teacher side too of, you know, it's really hard but I push through and here's some encouragement for you too. So, kind of opening it up a little bit for other teachers to share their story but really to just kind of keep growing then that concept of getting students to own the learning and for teachers to sort of unburden teachers from the stresses of teaching as much as possible in an encouraging way. I've seen some stuff out there that's the same kind of goal but it's more of a de-stress or event and I don't want that to take place on my website necessarily. I mean, we do need to vent, we do need to have time where we process stuff with people that we trust but I also just really want to be an encouragement to really to learners and the teachers right there and just kind of build on that as much as I can. So, I don't know if there's, I do know there's other books in me. I got some books kind of in there that are going to come out eventually and I'll continue to self-publish, so.
CM: In the same vein, what advice do you have for teachers who may want to share their voice? I encourage everyone to make their voice heard because I mean it's changed my teaching life.
JF: It seems like there's, like when I entered the profession long before there was the proliferation of social media, there was a way like a process you went through, an established process that you went through to be considered like a leader or somebody who could raise a platform and have a voice. But now, with social media, it's more of like who's listening and so, it's a very different route where anyone, anyone can build a platform and if the ideas are resonating, then some people kind of flock there and they'll go there and it gets shared around and it's not this established way, like I don't necessarily need to get a PhD or an EDD to be heard. I can invite, almost invite people into my classroom with my platform and say like, hey, this is what's going on in here and if ideas resonate, people kind of hover around that and then over time, they, I'm, it's, there's no actual process of this. No one's handing me a diploma and saying you're an expert but at a certain point, it's that I'm being treated like I'm one and my, me and my colleagues have been teaching for about the same amount of time, about 13 to 15 years, who are in the process of building a platform are noticing these things too, that, huh, people are, they're taking me just as seriously as they would, you know, this traditionally published author over here. It's been a fascinating kind of concept to think through that there's different routes now too, there's alternative routes to this expertise in this platform building.
CM: Exactly, and as a soft promo, I'm always willing to share the Human Restoration Project with you. If anyone listening has a story to tell, advice to give, or anything surrounding progressive education, I'll help promote you. We'll coach you through setting up some basic account stuff if you're not familiar and really offer just to promote your message for free. Just send us a DM on Twitter or you can reach me by email at chris, C-H-R-I-S, at humanrestorationproject.org.
Aaron Blackwelder: In my opinion, it's valuing the student where he or she is. It's recognizing the individual strengths and weaknesses and challenging them beyond where he or she is currently at. Grading in and of itself is comparative.
CM: Here's Aaron Blackwelder, an English educator in Woodland Public Schools in Woodland, Washington and founder of the organization Teachers Going Gradeless, which connects educators and provides a crazy amount of resources concerning grade-less education. Aaron references The End of Average by Todd Rose.
AB: Throughout history, we have made these attempts to average or quantify things and place the ideal around something. One of the biggest comparisons he uses is jet fighters in that pilots, we weren't very successful when we had these average-built cockpits, but as soon as they started developing the cockpit to be adjustable to the pilot, then we've been able to get pilots of all sizes, shapes, genders into the cockpit, and we've had the greatest Air Force ever since. Now, I'm not promoting the Air Force or war or anything like that, but what I'm saying is the idea that has been transitioned to our automobiles and made us better drivers and more comfortable in our cars. He goes on to talk about education and that when we start looking at different aspects of learning and learning styles and learning abilities gearing towards that mindset, then we open up possibilities that can basically challenge each person and develop ideas that would never be developed if we didn't open up those opportunities. To me, grade-less learning is about acknowledging the learner where that learner is and exploring his or her potential rather than the potential somebody else thinks that they should be at.
CM: For sure, and it benefits the teacher just as much as the student. I find myself much more relaxed and less stressed when I'm not expected to put a number in for every student every single day or every single week. Sometimes I'm expected to summarize a grade for eligibility or state requirements, but I spend most of my time giving feedback in class or through something more student-centric. I think that some might look, though, at grade-less learning and say – Specifically, I'm referencing your progress report, which I'll link in the show notes. If you're not familiar, it's a sheet of paper that lists a bunch of learning objectives with some banked-in remarks, and then there's a summative section at the bottom for growth and what someone's doing well. For some, they might look at that and go, man, that's a lot of work. How has grade-less learning affected your workload?
AB: In some aspects, I'm doing a lot less work than I've ever done before. I have to really think about what it is that I want to read and assess. Homework. I don't give homework. I hadn't given homework in years. However, we do a lot of project-based and problem-based learning, and I'm looking at the work in progress constantly. From that perspective, I'm doing a lot more in-class working with individual students, reading their work well over their shoulder, essentially, and giving ongoing feedback. By the time that it's done and turned in, I don't need to sit down with it and assess it. I've sat down with the students through the process and helped ensure by the time it's turned in, they're not having to get a grade from me or get the evaluation. They pretty much are confident where that work is by the time they've turned it in. Through the process, it's a lot more work, but in the summative, it's fairly easy at that point. As far as building that progress report, yes, it does look pretty daunting, doesn't it? In all honesty, it takes me about four to five minutes to fill one out for each student. That's being pretty generous with time. I can tell you what the matter will cost faster than that. I actually use Google Forms. I have two rubrics that I use. One is based on the Common Core and what our learning targets are for that standard. For the one that you saw, it's based on freshman to first semester. It's all about learning to use text evidence to support a claim. That's everything we do the whole semester long. The other rubric that we use is a soft skills rubric. Both of those are embedded into the teaching and the learning in the class. I find that the soft skills are far more important to talk about with students than the hard skills of the writing. I like it because a lot of those conversations I have with students, we do a lot of group collaborative work in my class. I have this one young lady who I've had multiple conversations with. She started off the semester by complaining that she was the only one doing the work. I pointed it to our soft skills rubric, I said, well, let's look at this. Are you with the collaboration? Are you acting as a leader or are you taking this on yourself? Are you being respectful by taking on the work or is it more respectful to challenge people? If they don't do the work, let them fail. It challenges students who are that type of personality to look, to step back and go, what I'm doing is unhealthy, it's unhealthy for me and it's unhealthy for my group. I really like those soft skills and recordings. The one thing that I truly believe in is when I talk about these, I don't report the full rubric to the parents. I don't want parents to look at when I report say one item, let's say it's a level three. I don't want them to see, oh boy, they could be a level four. I just want them to acknowledge where the child is and just accept that because as soon as we start having conversations around, well, why is he a level four, we start having conversation around a grade. Why is my child a level three and a level four? I don't want to have those conversations. I want to have a conversation about where your child is right now. If you're interested in moving your child forward, we can talk about how to make things better without looking at level four.
CM: Even though you find yourself doing all this, you still have to report grades within your district, right?
AB: Yes, I do. I do report a grade. What I found is over the last, I started doing that long report this year. I found that parents have loved it. They've absolutely loved it. All they get on my report card is a letter grade. There's no comments, nothing on the report card anymore. It's just a letter grade and then the child gets the long form sent home with them. I find that I'm having more conversations with parents through email, phone calls about that report than I am about the letter grade anymore. I've not had a parent call and complain to me, why is my Billy getting a B plus and not an A or whatever it is. They're calling me and saying, hey, I noticed that in one of the challenges for my son, he said that he could develop his leadership skills. He's involved in this, this and this. What are you seeing in class because I would like to help him out with that. I enjoy those conversations and those I think are much more meaningful than what can I do to get my child from A minus to an A. Those just don't make sense in those conversations that the conversations about how to make my child a better human being are so rich and so rewarding.
CM: Of course, we have to still deal with the ramifications that grades have on our schools as well. Let's take a second and talk about the article you wrote recently called Redefining Quality, Working Toward New Measures of School Achievement, where you talk about the effect that school grading has on the surrounding community.
AB: Well, the school report card emphasizes test scores, which is, and if you look at my article, I put a screenshot of Washington State's overall report card, and you go to any school district report card. When a state emphasizes test scores, such as Washington does, you'll notice on that screenshot that 50% of the page is directed towards the result of the test scores. And the bottom right hand corner, it kind of hidden away under other measures is four year graduation, five year graduation rate, and attendance. I don't know why graduation rate is clumped with attendance, who gives a crap about attendance. But graduation rates should have much more preferential treatment to it than the test scores isn't part of what our goals in high school is to get kids to graduate. But more than graduate, there are so many cool things going on in schools that just are not reported in state test scores. And when we only publish state test scores, we are being reductive in what is possible in a school. We know that through years and years and years of research that the number one indicator of the success of the school on state test scores is the socioeconomic status of the community that surrounds the school. So when we report test scores as the number one indicator of equality of a school, then we're automatically disadvantaging students of poverty, students of color. We are perpetrating institutionalized racism as we continue to report state test scores. And we're going to continue to give preferential treatment to the white affluent neighborhoods. So of course, parents who are white affluent are going to back up the state test scores because it is going to give their children higher preferential treatment of the schools. But the sad thing is, is what are their schools really doing to prepare their kids or beyond? Are they just doing a really good job preparing them for the test so that they could take this test? Or are we really preparing kids for life? I listed off in my article some of the wonderful things that my school does. We have two Washington state regional teachers of the year. And this is in the past six years that these teachers have been recognized. And then we have a culinary program that has won several state and has gone to nationals. We have a FFA program that has won several states and gone to nationals multiple times. And we have an art program that he uses pottery class and the kids make bowls and he sells the bowls for charity. I mean, these are wonderful things and these are not put into a school's report card. And if I saw those things listed on the school's report card, I'd go, man, I want my kid to go there. But when I look at my school's report card, we are rated as a four out of 10. And it makes me sad that our quality is not even on the top half because our test scores and we have a large community of, we're a very rural school and we have a large community of poverty students and we're automatically saying our school is not high quality because our test scores are not there. And to me, I just find that very sad. And I think that when we show that to parents and we show that to community members, if we put it into their face that look, you're automatically disadvantaging schools. And when we flip that over, if we stop de-emphasizing test scores and we start expecting schools to begin to report how is the school connecting with the community and what impact are you making in the community in your school, then we're going to have to start redefining and challenging ourselves as administrators and teachers to what we're doing in the classrooms. I'm no longer going to be doing some direct instruction that's telling my kids how to answer the correct bubbling answer on a question on the state test. Instead, I'm challenging my kids to publish their writing to a blog spot so that they can impact our community or we're doing some community activists to reduce drug dealing in our community or we're dealing with how do we increase the salmon population in our rivers because salmon population are at a decline. So we're beginning to look at those and reach out to the community and work with the community to solve problems. And when we get to report those things, our school is going to be much better than they were than just, hey, we did a great job on this test.
CM: So I'm curious then, is there a question that you believe that state standardized report cards should be addressing?
AB: I think that when we begin to quantify learning, we begin to reduce it to, I mean, it dehumanizes period. And I think what we need to do is start asking, not instead of asking the question, what do we begin to quantify, but rather what do we get, how we're going to begin to qualify this? How do kids get to report what they've learned in the process for four years of high school or their 13 years of education? How do kids get to reflect upon that and say, here's what I've learned in my 13 years of school and I'm so glad that I went through my schools and here's where I'm going to go with this information. And then what we can do is, and this is hard to do, is we check in with them four, five, 10 years after graduation and see where they are. And are kids, because of what they've learned in school, are they now people who are shaping their community? Are they shaping their jobs? Are they people who are influencers and creative? And yeah, I think those are the questions we have to ask, but that's the hard work. It's much easier to throw a piece of paper in front of 1600 kids and then pull the results in and have a machine run it and report the results by the end of the year, but those reports of a state test don't tell us where the kids are going to be 10, 15, 20 years from now. And I think those are the questions that we need to ask. We need to be asking a lot of time, hey, how did your high school program help prepare you for college? Or how did your high school program help prepare you for the career that you were in involved? Or how did your high school program just help you to be a better person? And I really think that's the question that we need to ask is, how did school make you a better person? And that's not quantifiable.
CM: And what final thoughts do you have surrounding your practice and Gradeless Ed?
AB: Couple years after I first started teaching, RateMyTeacher.com came out. And I remember thinking, this is cool. I can get feedback from my kids and from their parents, and people can see this around the world, what I'm doing. And I can learn from what I'm doing bad and what I'm doing good. And I remember teachers being up in arms, hey, we can't have this, what if I get a kid that hates me? And I think what it comes down to really why teachers fear the students' reporting of the teachers is because I really think that if we really think about it, we know we're failing our kids. We know that we are not serving social emotional needs. We know that we're really not preparing them for life. There's nowhere in the real world do we sit in a desk in isolation, not work with somebody next to us, take a test every week. We don't have six different bosses telling us what to do, six different rules. We're working collaboratively. We're working, you know, most jobs, we're solving real world problems and working with people to do that. And I really do think that if you ask a teacher, hey, how does what you're doing prepare kids for real life? If they're being honest, they're going to say it's not. And I think that's part of the fear of having people report on us. But I think that if we move away from a test data-driven school to a more holistic and problem-based or project-based outreach where we're working with our communities, then kids are going to be more satisfied with their learning. Kids are going to be more satisfied with who they are and their teachers because they'll look at their teachers as somebody who worked with them rather than work at or did to them. And nobody wants somebody to do to them. They want somebody to do with them in life. I know like with my principal, my principal is phenomenal and he comes into my classroom quite often and he'll just ask me questions, he'll give me some suggestions, he'll tell me what he likes that I'm doing, he'll point out things that he doesn't like. But it's not, it's a relationship that we have and it's built on trust and it's built on how do we get kids to learn better rather than, hey, you're not filling in these checkboxes and at the end of the year, we're going to do our evaluation and I'm going to grade you down for everything that you got wrong. It's more of, hey, how can I make Aaron Blackwater a better teacher? And I trust my principal and I look at him, I don't fear him walking in my door. I'm excited when he walks in my door because I think, hey, I have another opportunity to have a conversation about what's going on in my classroom. And I think that's the same thing that kids need. They need to look at us when we're walking by their desk. Hey, this is an opportunity for me to share what I'm doing with my teacher and get some feedback so I could become a better writer, a better scientist, a better thinker, rather than, oh, I hope my teacher doesn't see me off the desk playing on my phone or, boy, I hope my teacher doesn't see that I've made this mistake. So yeah, I think that those are the relationships we need to build.
CM: I hope you're enjoying the podcast thus far. I sincerely appreciate you listening in. And if you enjoy this work, head on over to humanreservationproject.org to find a ton of free resources and a wealth of writings. And then if you think we should keep going, take a gander at our Patreon page. For a dollar a month, you'll receive a professional, print-ready electronic magazine of our works every two months. But as always, all of our work is available free online. The best practices shouldn't be gatekept. So we're here as a resource to support progressive ed for everyone. Thank you. And finally, Nick Covington, who is both one of our earliest supporters and a social studies instructor at Ankeny High School in Ankeny, Iowa, who promotes the use of portfolio-based learning as well as other progressive practices on a social media as well as his blog.
Nick Covington: I kind of had a strange journey into education, you know, graduated into the Great Recession, had tons of odd jobs, worked at a cemetery, worked for the census, worked as a substitute teacher for two years, and then landed in Ankeny, which is the school that I graduated high school from, and kind of fell into a social studies position from there. So yeah, here I am seven years later, I think, and teaching social studies.
CM: What was your journey like into progressive ed?
NC: Getting into progressive education and was seeing how the system cultivates accumulation, whether it's like through points or through, you know, exit tickets and those kinds of things over like the bestiness of actual thinking, you know, and then we don't really help students develop tools to even think about their thinking or evaluate their learning. And for me, the big wake-up call was, I think maybe five years ago now, we had a pretty – you know, PLC culture is a pretty strong thing in our district, so I was kind of tired of giving these cumulative finals, and so I said, I was like, I'm going to give a portfolio for a final and just kind of see – did some research on that and kind of see what happened. But it was kind of an interesting failure for the first semester because I didn't change anything about the ways that I was teaching. It was just, okay, well then let's compile this all at the end and kind of see how this connects back to standards. And so kids were putting in their like summative assessments, they were putting quiz scores in there. And so we'd get to the end and have these conversations and say, okay, how can you show that you learned the role of individuals and groups as promoters of change in the status quo? And they'd pull out a quiz score and I'd say, well, how does this show that you learned anything? And they'd say, well, I got a 90%. And I would say, okay, so what did you learn about individuals and groups to show that you got a 90%? And they would say, I don't know, but I got a 90%, so I must have learned it. And so it was like this circular thing, you know, and kids were just trapped in this language of like points and grades. And so I really did realize that we need to switch. If we're going to give them a language to be able to communicate learning separate from points and grades, we need to start using different, you know, ways of communicating those things too. So we kind of act in school like if we just cover the accountability parts and keep students accountable that, you know, then maybe they'll just figure it out at the end. But like really I think what it does is just create kids who haven't had a chance to think about their learning in a meaningful way. And then they just get to the end and there's no time to reflect. They just have a GPA to show for it. But the consequences are vast, you know. The kids are more risk averse. They're extrinsically motivated almost exclusively. They don't really feel like a shared sense of collaboration or obligation to anybody else because, you know, at the end of the day what goes in the grade book isn't what reflects your effort or your values or, you know, and I'm pointing around the room here that the collective or group work, it's just what did I do? How can I accumulate more of those things? And so they leave school just with a lack of curiosity of, you know, of purpose or direction and they can't ask and answer meaningful questions about their place in the world. And literally all that stuff that I described started with just a switch to portfolio conversations that failed terribly, you know, my second year of teaching and then realizing I was going to have to backfill all of these other, I think my lights turned off, backfill all of these other skills and abilities to be able to have these conversations. Like you can't just go into this in the final and expect that they're going to do well. You have to model it, you have to practice it, you have to build it into the structures of your day. And that has just taken me down a rabbit hole of, you know, every other sort of thing related to those kinds of ideas. It started with portfolios.
CM: And what are the goals when it comes to using these practices? What's the point of using a portfolio and diving into gradeless learning?
NC: In thinking about like those goals of using progressive practice, I mean, I can get to more specific things, but here's the thing that keeps me up all night and I tell my kids this almost every single day too, is at commencement on May 25th, when I'm sitting there in the audience and they're walking across the stage and like I'm sitting there applauding them and then they hit the other side of the stage with them, you know, there's not going to be someone there to, you know, hold you accountable with bells and all the, you know, the intense learning structures that we built up around this. You're not going to necessarily have the instant feedback of something like a grade book or all those other accountability layers that we have. So like I just asked them, okay, so what are you going to do then? So why should I do those things in my practice now if that's not really supporting you for a world without those kinds of things? So what replaces it if you're going to have to be intrinsically motivated? What replaces, you know, me asking questions or teacher-led questions when there's no teacher to lead those questions? And sure, some kids are going to have, they're going to go on to have other educational experiences, but they're going to look very different from the ones, you know, that are in school. I think about my own college experience or even, you know, beyond that in adult learning environments and they don't necessarily look like traditional classroom practices. They look more like reflective conversations and they look like ungraded, you know, ungraded writings that just kind of ask you to grow and think and reflect as a professional practitioner or you know, I haven't taken a multiple choice test in 10 years because, you know, there's a part of the world that doesn't necessarily value those things. So you know, if the entire experience of school is focused on molding a particular type of student but the world values things that are different than being successful in school but we send kids on a very specific path of success there, what are they going to do with the rest of their life outside of school? So yeah, I think we just have to strive to make learning environments more authentic in that world and to understand through experiences rather than through rote learning and some of the ways that maybe we learned when we were in high school. I thought a little bit about something that I'm trying to do in my own experience here and trying to apply in my own context, which is, you know, which is the concept of assessment as learning and I've learned about it through, you know, Twitter and talking to people through Twitter but like that seems to be like the key here in terms of understanding like learning as a process, you know, instead of learning as assessment, assessment as learning, literally it turns the whole thing on its head and here's a quick anecdote just from an econ class. So even in cases where students don't have a whole lot of choice over content. So say we're learning about economic systems and to scaffold that, you know, loosely it's we're building a quick little organizer but I'll leave a blank space in there and just say, okay, draw, draw a symbol, draw a cartoon, draw a diagram, draw something that to you, you know, represents in their brain economic systems. This experience that I had with a student the other day was, you know, I haven't graded anything in the entire semester in the sense of like putting points in a grade book but this student said, like, if I just draw a coconut for the traditional economy, would you accept that? And I was like, well, what do you even mean will I accept that? So like my mind went in a million different directions and I was just like, well, what does the coconut mean to you, you know? And he says, the coconut shows how in a traditional economy they would just barter for good like coconuts instead of using money and in my head I was just, yep, you get it, you know. So there wasn't a need for like additional testing or assessment or anything else. It's like that fluid ongoing process. It's like the Frank Smith idea from his forgetting and learning, that classical view, you know. Learning is effortless when it happens as a result of being in a community of learners who are doing the same thing together. So I want to make my classroom environment more like that even if we have, you know, some traditional structures because I still have to, you know, talk about economic systems and PPCs and some of those things in economics class but how can we build that assessment as a learning part to just make it a fluid part of what we do, you know, and not a series of tests that you study for and forget.
CM: One thing I really want to point out is your economics evidence journal. Could you go into more details about what this is?
NC: I mean, the evidence journal as it's designed to do, the evidence journal is, you know, it provides just clear language and clear paths to get to, you know, whatever we define as proficiency. You know, if we want kids to understand and to provide examples of wants and needs and goods and services, I don't care if they want to talk to me about that, I don't care if they want to plug, you know, if they want to write it down on a sheet of paper or type it up on a Google Doc and have that as evidence or have some activity that we did plugged in there, you know, for the factors of production. We did an activity where we did a virtual tour of the Chamber of Commerce through Ankeny and I had them, you know, I was like, hey, visit three businesses virtually and then just break out their factors of production, land, labor and capital. So if you're a kid who wants to rely on that as an artifact of evidence, then, you know, pull that up as we go through this but the checkpoints basically are, okay, we might do some learning around here or you might just need to be in charge of finding out some of those objectives and meeting those and whenever you get to that point, I have some quizzes in there just so that way they can self-reflect and say, okay, if you really get it, maybe you should get this score on the quiz and if not, maybe go back and I put that on like the quizzes. Have you ever used quizzes before? Yeah. Yeah. So that's great because they just have the number on there and they can go through and do that and then they just do some conference prep work for me to say like, okay, what are one or two of the biggest takeaways of that learning for you? What are connections that you made to the materials? So for example, I had a student today talking about how when she goes to the store and has to make decisions about name brand versus store brand stuff, that's a tradeoff that she's going to have to make them all perfect. You get it, right? So it's all about getting it and I'm not going to put anything in the grade book that reflects less than you getting it. The only thing I'm going to put in there is an incomplete to show that you don't get it yet and the other question there is show the depth of your understanding by answering the essential question and that kind of just differs based on the, I'll use units loosely because we don't really have units because we're assessing as the kids are ready to assess. I'll be doing some instruction. The econ content is more like on my pace of delivery compared to the other content of the classes but if you can provide some evidence or talk me through this, you have this all through at your disposal here. You can load it with artifacts, you can put papers in here, you can type up responses but the big checkpoint is just a conference with me. So it's just a narrative conference. It takes two, three, four minutes and it's just, okay, so I just start with how would you rate your learning and that's that smiley face thing. So if they're super stoked about it, then it's okay, why were you so excited about scarcity or if they hated it, I want to know that too. Why did you hate this unit? You completed the wording for it, what did you hate about it? And then just start talking them through, okay, what are takeaways? How did you answer that question? How can we use economic thinking to help revenue decision making? So it's everything that we just talked about 20 minutes ago which was about how do we give kids language to communicate learning is by communicating using the language of learning. Giving them the objectives, I don't ever talk about points or grades, it's all in reference to those objectives and just semester long things that we'll do like we did the PBL project like the economic engagement project and there's checkpoints in their journal for that too. Where are they at in there? Have they completed the research agreement in conference with me about that? Okay, cool. Then you're good to go so that way we have and I show them a video from one of the talk shows back in the 60s of some guy doing some plate spinning and we talk about how we're always spinning these plates and so what plate are we spinning today? We might be tending to some econ content today so that's what we're going to be going or you get to make some choices about are you going to do the EverFi financial literacy online learning piece which is due by the end of the semester? Are you going to tend to your economic engagement project which is due by the end of the semester? That just frees up me from basically minimum instruction so that way I can just be with kids all class. That was today and I love those days because I'm just talking with kids about, hey, what do you got? What do you need help with? I'm initialing in here so it shows their progress and their growth as they're going through it. The goal is just to have a completed booklet, a packet of showing all their learning and all the objectives so that way it makes that – when I go to parent-teacher conferences on Thursday and we're not talking about how can my kid go from a 90 to a 92 or how can my kid keep the D- it's, oh, here's all the stuff your kid has done. Here's how they've shown that learning and I'm not putting a grade in the gradebook until they can show their learning. That was part of the process today too was just, okay, we've done some learning so what does that look like now here at six weeks? We have these big 18-week goals but are you meeting now? Are you in progress? Do you not have any evidence? How can we move you from having evidence to all that stuff? I love it because I call it the no surprises econ agenda. You know all the stuff that you have to do in advance. How are you going to get there? How are you going to show it? Are you going to talk to me about it? Some kids build a Google slide. Every single slide has the objective on it and they have the evidence and they're perfect. Some kid just wrote on here, show the depth of your understanding by answering the essential question. He wrote words. I was like, what does words mean? He was like, I'm going to talk to you about it. I was like, okay, we'll go. Talk to me about how you can do those things. It's just, again, going back to that classical model just of building a classroom culture that's focused on the learning and not the artificial things that preclude real learning. That might be a controversial thing to say just generally, but all the crap that we put in place of just talking to kids about what they're learning gets in the way of getting learning done. Then just having this awesome artifact at the end to say, okay, this represents the six weeks of work that you've done in econ class is just such a cool thing. The final then at the end, let's come full circle and talk about portfolios. We complete one of these things for the first six weeks. We've got a year long one for some of the year long goals. We've got a second and third six weeks because those are our big chunks. By the end, we just mash those suckers together and then just have some reflection questions to ask them, how do you think the semester went? What do you think you understand the most? What could you teach to somebody else? If you went to the middle school right now and had to teach a lesson in economics, what would you teach to them? What can you walk away from here changing the way that you look at the world? How does what you've learned in this class connect to other learning inside or outside of class? How has your learning this semester changed your view of economics? Then some personal questions that I'll ask them at the end like, okay, so what's next? This is the last time I'm going to get to talk to you in the final narrative conference. I'm just out in the hallway talking to kids for four or five days and it's awesome. With a fist bump or a high five or something and say, hey, you did it, great job. So glad for the thing that's coming up next and none of the baggage of redos and retakes and grade grubbing and all of that stuff. Focus conversation on how are you, how are you doing, how are you doing on the learning, how are you doing on your goals, how are you doing on my goals sometimes. That was a long way to get to that question, but it seemed like it came full circle for me with just putting this journal together.
CM: In the grand scheme of things too, is it awkward to have all of these progressive techniques, let alone a traditional school, but at the school that you yourself went to? Just the relationship factor there of coming into a school that you are a student at. I feel awkward with the things that I might say or the things that I might share and how my co-workers might see that. What has that experience been like with your peers when you're pushing all these boundaries?
NC: I had the exact same thing. I didn't invite my – so honestly, I was a little bit anxious about that part of it. The idea of the narrative conference is way different than what a lot of – I've been doing portfolios for five years and nobody else around me has even dipped a toe in that. So I'm always the weirdo out in the hallway talking to kids and people are closing their doors because they're taking a test or something. I guess whatever, do your thing. It was so interesting because it's not just about the learning, but the relationships that I have with kids from first semester are so much stronger than any relationships that I've ever had because you don't end with that single stressful moment of, I'm stressed and anxious. The last time you see this kid is when they're at their most stressed and anxious and when their grade is on the line to pass this final, it's just like, hey, let's just celebrate and talk about what's next for you here because this is the last time we're going to get to do these things. I was out in the hallway, we're by a stairwell that goes to our second floor and our main – our head principal was walking by and walking up the stairs and I was just talking to a student. We were just going through that list, right? So talking about what it is that they learned, we're talking about the next steps for them and I was just asking him questions and he stops and he walks a few steps back and he just has a big smile on his face and he's like, oh, I had heard that this is what you were doing, but it's just so great to actually hear you doing this and I love what you're doing. He gave me a fist bump and he gave the student a fist bump on here too and then just stuck around for a few more seconds and then walked back upstairs. I think people are afraid like, oh, if I don't have a score to show whether kids know something, but the thing is then you don't even – you're too scared to try something new and you don't even know what the rewards could be reaped for those kinds of things and thinking that administrators wouldn't support that. But here I am in the hallway under the stairs talking to kids about their internships or their college choices or something else and admins smiling and walking around giving fist bumps. So I think it works out.
CM: You're super active on Twitter too. You're incredibly involved in posting your thoughts and sharing ideas. What are you finding on social media that you might not find in the quote-unquote physical world, if you will?
NC: Back when I was making this transition, I was on more of like an instructional leadership team. I've been on a PBIS team. I've been on the standards-based grading team and all those things and I thought maybe those would be the vehicles to be able to do that kind of work, but I found that those are just vehicles to like systematize more of the doing school part of those kinds of things. So like over the last two years, I've really just dropped out of the instructional leadership stratum I guess of colleagues and then in continuing the Twitter work, that actually has led into a lot of great conversations like maybe you've seen…