Building Community and Trust In A Gradeless Classroom

Theresa Walter
October 20, 2021
Investment in relationships supports student voice and agency while fostering trust.

When I asked my students to self-assess for the first time this October, I received some feedback that challenged me. A student wrote:

I still have my skepticism about the gradeless grading system. As much as it makes me feel encouraged to share my thoughts without the worry of being wrong, I’m also afraid that I’m doing worse than than I assume I am. I have yet to resubmit any of my assignments because I’m not sure if they’re sufficient or if the number grades they would bring at the end of the quarter will disappoint me. While it does feel nice in the moment to read all your thoughtful private comments, I do worry about what will happen in the future.

My first instinct when I read this feedback was to jump in and simply tell this student that she was doing great — that I would have told her that she didn’t have to worry and that I would have made it very clear if her work needed revision. I wanted to tell her that her work was exceeding my expectations, and that I have, thus far, been impressed with her insights and capabilities.

But, I didn’t. I held back and reflected a bit. My very capable student was expressing fear and distrust in a new system created as an alternative to traditional points and numerical averages. This student is in 10th grade right now, and she shines. Her writing is clever, she is a voracious reader, and she shares deep insight in class in response to our discussion. By all measures, any teacher would call her a star student. So, even as I’ve given her praise and positive feedback on her work thus far, why would she feel scared that she’d be disappointed in a quarter-end grade?

As my gradeless assessment practice develops, I find myself challenged by scenarios I have not anticipated. In this moment, I realized that as much as my student wanted to, she did not yet totally trust this new system. She, and I imagine many of her classmates, would be much more comfortable completing assignments and receiving scores such as 30/30, or A+ returned with work. The traditional numerical system of rating her value and her achievement has been internalized and is deeply ingrained inside her own self-assessment abilities. This new system challenges my student’s ability to manage her internal metrics of success.

Perhaps this problem is part of the growing pains of adopting any new system: We worry that we won’t be seen, and at the same time we worry that our true selves may be seen. This paradox speaks to our insecurities and our very human nature. If the traditional measures we have for telling ourselves where we stand are removed, are we going to have to learn to trust ourselves?

This can be scary stuff…even for me.

If the traditional measures we have for telling ourselves where we stand are removed, are we going to have to learn to trust ourselves?

Building Trust From Day One

In order to begin the practice of honest self-reflection, I know that I must build trust and community right away. The following routines help me build community and reinforce the idea that each member of the class, myself included, is a vital member of our class community — and that we have to trust ourselves. Many of these activities came to me when I taught in the Community School, a district high alternative school within the more traditional high school. I’ve been so blessed to be able to carry on some of these traditions in my traditional school environment.

Incorporate Collaborative Activities Early On: My building has an outdoor challenge course adjacent to the main school building. In the first weeks of school, we trek out to the woods and engage in cooperative, problem-solving challenges. Through these games, students get to see one another in another environment, laugh and be silly, and come to know one another in a new way. I am able to act silly myself and reveal my personality and humanity more to my students in these early weeks. When we return to the classroom, we have a shared experience and we have started to build community.

Sharing Weekend Stories: Each Monday, I ask students to tell one minute stories about what they did over the weekend. They can tell us anything: something delicious they ate, somewhere they went, who they hung out with. I try my best to keep the weekend stories to about five minutes, yet it becomes such a fun part of the week, we extend it a little each Monday. Weekend stories build community by building connections and opening ourselves up a little to one another. Most students report they like this routine so much because they discover things about classmates they may have sat next to in class for years that they never knew before. It also helps passions and interests emerge and gives us each connections we can draw on for the rest of the year.

I know that Gabby dances over the weekend, that Kayla and her dad brought home a kitten without her mother’s knowledge, that Albert went to get hot pot in Flushing with his friends after hanging out in town. I can connect students with one another when I know details about their lives that would never be revealed when discussing our texts or our analytical writing. Every so often I see eyes light up during weekend stories and I hear a muffled… “me too!”. We are connected through our stories.

Journal Writing: I assign monthly free writes we call ‘journals’. Journals can be any genre, any length, any style that the student wishes. We each take turns reading ours to one another, and even though this is quite intimidating at first, we learn to trust each other through the process. As each student begins to read aloud, I say, “We’re ready — we are here for you.”.

Journals inevitably will become a space for the students to explore how they are feeling about their worlds and without fail, I hear students give feedback on the journals that speaks to appreciating the vulnerability the author has taken in sharing a creative, open-ended piece. As the year goes on, we begin to realize that the journal is not about writing the most perfect piece; it is the place where we share ourselves with each other.

Trust-Building Takes Time

My initial reaction to my student’s confession of being skeptical and fearful about the gradeless process was to jump in and “fix” her fears. Yet, I reminded myself that I needed to trust myself, trust the process, and invite my student to trust herself. My response to her feedback was this:

I think your efforts to reflect and discuss are working really well for you. I understand not being entirely comfy with the gradeless system. Please know that you can check in with me anytime — that’s what I’m here for. And…this may help you feel better..if I wanted to see more thoughtful responses from you, I’d definitely let you know. Your work has been excellent, and I’d place you in the A range — no doubt. There’s always room to grow in thinking and writing..but here’s the secret..we have our WHOLE LIVES to keep working on it.

Trust takes time. Community supports trust and lets us learn to trust ourselves.

And we have our whole lives to work on it.  

Theresa Walter
Theresa is a progressive English teacher and department chairperson who looks to make human connections with all her students and teachers.
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