The Surprise Growth in an Ungrading Practice: My Own

Theresa Walter
August 5, 2021
I found more growth in my own practice than I ever anticipated in my first full year of abandoning traditional grading systems.

I began this tumultuous pandemic year with an entirely new way of assessing student learning and growth: I went “Gradeless” and jumped entirely into a feedback-only means of assessment.

I have over twenty years of experience teaching English to grades 6–12 in myriad settings: middle school, an alternative high school, two top achieving high schools in the country, and these experiences taught me that while I inspired growth and risk taking in my students, my assessment system was, quite frankly, outdated.

I had always hated the end of quarter stress of averaging point totals, chasing students down for assignments or homeworks past due over five weeks, suddenly realizing that I hadn’t contacted a parent that their child dropped from an A- to a B+. I truly despised the practice.

I always found myself considering my students in this process. How would I honor Lea who was a brilliant thinker and writer, yet struggled with depression throughout the third quarter in 11th grade and missed some assignments or was late in handing them in? Should her numerical average define her growth I witnessed in her writing, or should I acknowledge her growth while considering her struggles? Should I add points in her average to even her scores out? It all felt so artificial.

Then I realized — it was artificial.

Numbers did not reflect growth. Numbers were simply an attempt for me to say “achieving beyond expectations”, “meeting expectations”, “approaching expectations” and “does not meet course requirements”. A deep look into any of these phrases does not produce much meaning. Like any cliché statement, these standards-type phrasings are so overused, they’ve become meaningless.

I needed a way to push all my students to grow, regardless of their abilities. Numbers and points weren’t cutting it.

I’ve written about my journey to this practice, yet I did not anticipate the growth I experienced as a result of this method of fostering agency and true learning in my students. Below are two of the most meaningful points of growth for my teaching practice. There are more, sure, yet these are the take-aways I’ll focus on as I reflect and plan for September.

Hyper-Focus on Specific Skill Acquisition and Development

I felt that I was truly able to pause and teach deeply into the needs my students demonstrated in writing and reading response. I’ve taught the idea of “Show, Don’t Tell” for the past twenty years, yet this year, when I read my student’s writing about Illegal, Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s graphic novel about a young boy trying to immigrate to Europe from Africa, I knew they needed help boosting the skill of truly using detail to support the claim.

I stopped correcting mistakes directly on the writing in drafts. I have not had much success in skill acquisition this way, so I abandoned the practice. After reading drafts, I gave prioritized feedback for each writer. When I read one of my 8th graders, Everett’s writing, I noticed that he had selected great moments to observe in the text, but needed to push his development in a few ways. This was my feedback to Everett:

Feedback on Graphic Novel Literary Analysis

Everett’s revision was incredible. Using classmate models, an entire class of revisiting the graphic novel pages and selecting moments to include, and seizing the opportunity for a rewrite allowed Everett to revise in the moment. In previous years, I would have hoped the students would apply this lesson in their next piece, but by having students repeat the process, they were able to apply the skill acquisition directly in the revisions. I could now use their own writing as a model when next asking students to write literary analysis.

Here’s my feedback on Everett’s second draft:

For the first time in my career, I truly felt like my willingness to pause in the moment, address skills deeply — skills that all students needed to improve — was so important in this practice. I had always returned to skill, yet somehow it felt superficial when a number was attached. A 40/50 would not have communicated with my student in the same way as my narrative feedback. Even if I used the narrative WITH the number, I know my students would only focus on the number, and getting that number “up”. I can’t help but see how silly this process is now that I’m on the other side of a year of ungrading feedback-driven assessment. What is a 40/50 anyway?

Coaching Through Risk-Taking By Providing Multiple Opportunities For Success:

In a poetry unit, I taught students to notice layers of author’s choices as they read the poem multiple times, then begin to ask themselves what the poet was conveying in the poem. Jimmy annotated well, yet missed a nuanced interpretation of the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou:

Jimmy’s annotations of Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”

I asked students to respond to the poem using the quick write format we use in class regularly. Jimmy’s feedback looked like this:

Feedback on Jimmy’s first quickwrite.

Because I encouraged Jimmy to take a risk and simply notice as he read, he was able to scratch the surface of Angelou’s powerful poem. Traditionally, I would ask students to annotate a poem and then pose multiple choice reading comprehension questions to demonstrate understanding. This unit, I decided to simply allow students to notice and wonder here without the fear of “losing points”. Jimmy returned to his work and revised. His next attempt was an improvement, yet I needed him to clarify his thinking between hoping and longing. In previous years, I may have stopped here, and not pushed, knowing that Jimmy had done what I asked, yet this year, I knew I could ask more of my students. Once I asked Jimmy to revise a second time, he completely rose to the occasion. My feedback and Jimmy’s response are noted here:

Jimmy’s revisions and my feedback on his poetry rewrite.

Because I coached Jimmy through the process of clarifying his thinking, and I did not place any ultimatums in his way, he was able to naturally progress his thinking. I loved that he used the phrase, “Now that I think about it…”. Isn’t that what we always want for our students? To revisit and rethink?

As I’ve said before, an ungrading practice does not appear overnight. I encourage the teachers in my department to find small places where this type of feedback may be possible. Ungrading allows me to see a more refined purpose in my practice as an ELA teacher. I think I was often too concerned with the next novels, or next work I wanted to cover in years past, and I know I will take the idea of coaching my students through their process and hyper-focusing on skills forward as I work with my high school students next year. I’ve found this practice to be so refreshing and liberating, and as I always search for the meaning in what and how I teach, I feel as if I’ve opened a completely new door that has been there all this time. I just never stopped to notice and open 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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