How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ungrading

Joelle Lamboley Ostrich
July 23, 2022
A veteran teacher reflects on moving towards a democratic classroom-- with surprising results

COVID made fools of us all. As teachers, we all spent school year 2020-2021 in various states of flux. Our classrooms became foreign to us, as we split screens, and incessantly questioned, “Can you hear me?” over Zoom or WebEx. As an AP Literature teacher, I had to make some quick adjustments, but the year also provided significant growth, negotiating with new formats and new students.

The summer before, I found Nick Covington’s Twitter, interested in his blunt assessment of the College Board. The association led to other thinkers. I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and it forced me to look at my AP Literature curriculum, sagging under its own weight of unnecessary assignments. I also took a hard look at David Buck’s work on ungrading. Between the three, and with the feedback of like-minded peers, I decided to completely change the way I approach my classroom.

Prior to COVID, I was a teacher who relished in being difficult. Inflexible due dates. Summative writing with little feedback. And, perhaps the most horrifying, were the pop reading quizzes that lent to my reputation as a challenging teacher. In some ways, this dictated by the culture in my suburban Pennsylvania high school. I got a perverse thrill from giving book tests that were so difficult that only a few students could get A’s. But with moving online, I realized I had no control over the security of such assessments. So instead of trying to put multiple choice tests online, I reverted to writing as the only assessments in the course.

In doing so, I realized how cruel my previous practice had been, and much it alienated students from reading. Some cursory research reveals students to not retain information from such book tests/ pop quizzes, and those assessment certainly do not lead to deeper learning or understanding. When students are faced with such a task, cortisol, the stress hormone, is released in the bloodstream and content retention is fleeting. I notified parents of this research and how it informed my decision to become a writing only English teacher.

And when I say writing, I don’t mean “one and done.” In my reading on ungrading, the underlying principle of the democratic classroom emerged. It spoke to the content in graduate school 27 years prior: Freire and Chomsky. So that’s what I did. Students had one summative assessment a quarter: a paper on two novels and a personal statement about the themes presented. Each part of the paper was conferenced (not graded) and feedback was given orally and individually. Students couldn’t hide, but they did not need to—they were in charge of their grade and their own learning. I had to sacrifice many things to make time for such conferencing, but I also realized how much I did was unnecessary. Students needed time. Students needed to feel competency. They did not need to be told they were unworthy because they couldn’t name the color of Hamlet’s cloak.

I adopted a motto for them: no surprises. Students never walked into the classroom unprepared because of my need to be authoritarian. More work went into the class day; less homework was assigned. I actually reduced the activities down to just reading as homework. I was no longer using fear as a way to manage students, and everyone (I hope) felt a sense of belonging and worthiness as we barreled towards the AP test.

What about the data? How did I know I was preparing them for the AP test, which does not accurately represent most college classrooms? This is what my school district would want to know. The test recalibration from the College Board significantly raised scores this year; but I went from a 8-11% students scoring a 5 to this year’s percentage – 38%. That’s a profound change, and I can’t help but think it’s not just the recalibration.

When students are asked to read, write and discuss texts that are rich in theme and artistry, without the fear of reprisal of “gotcha” pedagogy, they end up with higher grades and higher scores. When we give students time in the classroom to work, only on essential curriculum, there seems to be more room for reflection and connection. Most of all, this change has had a profound impact on their mental health. Without the stress of so many extraneous assignments, the classroom became a place of collaboration and, dare I say, pleasure.

This may not work for every class, and I had an exceptional group of young men and women this year, who were generous with their feedback about my class. I realized I don’t need to be the “hard” teacher to save my reputation. What COVID taught me is that I need to be the “kind” teacher, who values intellectual thought without the underlying mistrust that they would cheat. I’ve demonstrated my teaching chops in the past 27 years. But I no longer need to keep proving myself by making students dread walking through my door. I feel, at least, that my classroom has become a place of joy and discovery. And that’s what it should be.

Joelle Lamboley Ostrich
Joelle is a mother and teacher. INFP, chaotic good, Virgo, skeptic. AP Literature teacher. Views are my own.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now