Gradeless: An English Teacher’s Journey Towards Agency Through Feedback

Theresa Walter
March 19, 2021
I knew I wanted to do my best to represent student growth in the most accurate way I possibly could. While I know my methods are far from perfect, I have seen remarkable growth and a complete shift in focus in my students.

My journey to a gradeless classroom started over six years ago — specifically, when I moved from teaching in my district’s middle school to the high school right up the road. I had finished a run of teaching 8th grade for 14 years, and I was ready for a change. My students and I graduated middle school together, and we moved right on up to the 9th grade.

I was shocked by how different the same students I had just two months earlier were when they stepped into my high school class. The students were always asking about points, about due dates, about how assignments counted if they were handed in at 11:59 when the due time on was 11:58. I also found myself surprised by how different I was. I was instructed to use plagiarism software and an online gradebook that students had access to at all times. I was spending time chasing down assignments and arguing with students who would submit blank word docs, telling me they were sure they handed in the right work- the file must have “glitched”. I was asked by parents and students alike, “What can I do to increase my average?”. I remember clearly speaking to a colleague and declaring that high school felt more like the pursuit of points than a real learning and growth experience.

After an uncomfortable year of trying to find myself again and redefining myself as a high school teacher, I found my way back to my student-centered instruction and assessment: I stopped using plagiarism software, and I built in opportunities for my students to revise, rewrite, and earn credit for discussion- even having my students teach the class themselves. Yet, something wasn’t quite right. I was still having points and average conversations at the end of the quarter, and I didn’t feel as if my work was truly reflecting the growth I knew I saw in my students.

After reading Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” and Sarah Zerwin’s Point-less, I realized that even though I considered myself a progressive instructor, I was still reducing student growth into numbers: 18/20’s, 45/50. What did a 17 out of 20 demonstrate about a student’s agency? Their willingness to revise after receiving feedback on writing? How did a 88 demonstrate the micro progressions I saw in annotations and reading responses? The honest answer was: it didn’t.

This fall, I committed to going completely Gradeless in my 8th English grade classroom. I knew I wanted to do my best to represent student growth in the most accurate way I possibly could. While I know my methods are far from perfect, I have seen remarkable growth and a complete shift in focus in my students.

Since we could not have an in-person open house this year, I created a video in which I spoke to parents and explained my grading philosophy. I could speak with the experience of teaching in the high school and how my greatest hope was that their children would learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I started my year with my students by reading Jessica Lahey’s When Success Lead’s To Failure, and debate one of Lahey’s most salient points: “The truth …is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault”. I wanted my students to understand the roots of this new philosophy in assessing learning. I built my year around the idea that our primary objective this year was to learn and grow together.

My class is a remote/hybrid blend this year, so we utilize Google Classroom for distributing and collecting materials. I teach my readers to write “Annotations” as they read in which they begin to track ideas through a text. My readers take pictures of their work on the iPad, and turn the pictures in to the Classroom. Using the “Ungraded” function of Google Classroom, I use the private comments section to provide specific feedback. I am able to track the progressions in analytical thought in the comments, and my students and I develop a conversation around skill, never grades. It has been liberating for myself and for my students. And, my students know that they are never held “accountable” for mistakes. I provide feedback and they apply the very skill I hope to see grow.

This work is, as they say, “a work in progress”. I can make connections with my students as people. I reflect on my own willingness to grow and try new things in my thinking and in my work with my students and we engage in growth conversations. I will say this: I do not have questions about point values, how much things count, and if work will be graded. My students respond to my feedback with comments like, “Thank you so much — should I resubmit?” or “Ok, I’ll add that now”. Students ask for appointments to review work, not ask why points were taken off. My students self-reflect twice a quarter, and I am seeing growth in my student’s abilities to articulate their goals and their own growth. Perhaps that is the greatest gift of my gradeless English classroom this year. My students are empowered, and they are growing. So here I am, twenty four years into teaching English…I am growing too. The power of agency and transparency is alive and well in my classroom. I could not be more grateful to continue this journey of learning together with my students.

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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