Grades: the freeze effect

The discussion of grades, whether we should give grades or not, has been on my radar for years. I have always struggled with giving grades as I know it can inhibit the motivation of some of my students. In the past four years I have embraced formative assessment Unknown-2therefore everything in my class focusses on individual learning. My students know that learning has no end, it is about  looking to improve, reflecting on learning and making plans for improvement. This shift in my understanding what helps students learn best really emphasizes the need to move away from grades whenever possible. This past year the Surrey School District opened the doors for schools to create their own reporting process. I was truly excited to dive in but when it came to developing a format my colleagues and I felt communicated student learning clearly, we struggled. So the year passed, we debated and nothing changed, at least for our grade 6/7s at Hillcrest. (Other grades/teachers in our school did jump in.) Something happened to me recently where the impact on grades and student learning hit home on a very personal level.

In the novel, Touching Spirit Bear, there is a part in the story where a Tlingit elder demonstrates how change can occur. One way is by a constant tension pushing us and eventually moving us off our path. The other way is for a sudden and unexpected push, this might include a life changing event.  For me it was not a tragedy but the beginning of my Masters program that has caused a sudden shift. I was thrilled to be going back to school as my experience in the graduate diploma program had relit a fire within me that I did not realize was burning low. One of the reasons I enjoyed the program so much, and soared as a learner, was that I was free to learn what was important to me;  it was a pass/fail course. The pressure of grades was absent therefore I learned for me, not for my instructor and the grade he would assign.

So when I was accepted into the Masters program I was excited and of course a bit nervous. But the nerves were centred on handling the extra workload, not on how I would do academically. Our first day approached and the syllabus arrived. All was good until I Unknownread the break down of the grades, this is where my shove came – I was to be graded on my learning. I froze. Really and truly my gut clutched tight and my anxiety escalated. For some of you, grades may motivate you, but for me they were a reminder that I was not smart. In high school I was a B student and never felt comfortable about sharing this with colleagues. For some reason I felt that it just wasn’t good enough. Initially my university grades were Cs until I started to get my feet firmly planted in the system. I slowly worked my way back up to Bs and even a sprinkling of A-s thrown in but my GPA suffered from those first two semesters. It took me 21 years after graduating with a BA to build up enough courage to apply because  I truly did not feel smart enough.

Here it was again, I was feeling like I was an impostor, that people would discover maybe I should not have been accepted into the program because I was not an A student. I images-1worried about what this would do to my learning as I had discovered through the PB+15 program that I love to learn. One of the teachers in the program compared me to the Pacman of learning – I gobble it all up. But would my learning be stunted because I was more focused on what I thought the instructor might want from me rather than the freedom that is allowed in a pass/fail situation.

How could I not connect what I was feeling to what students experience every time they know an assignment is a summative one. What does this do to my learners who often get Cs if I know what it does to me as a B student? How am I crippling the learning of my students when I assign a grade? Are these students showing only part of what they can do because they focus on the grade and are worried about my judgement rather than theirUnknown-1 own growth? For me it is about not feeling good enough inside, but for my students they have the extra pressure of not being good enough in the eyes of their parents. The shove, as I mentioned earlier, has made a monumental impact on my understanding of how grades can affect student learning. I know some of my students relish grades. How do I know, because I asked them.  But for the most part it is the A students who want to keep grades, the rest would like them gone.Students have been very articulate with me regarding this issue and how they feel. I even had 4 students this spring choose ‘no grades’ as their persuasive topics of choice.  I am feeling even more strongly that we need to remove grades, at least in elementary school. This does not mean we stop assessing our students, but is giving a grade the best way to communicate their learning. What this looks like for my students next year I am not quite sure; this is a tension in my teaching that needs to be addressed.

I must end with a relieved sigh. This weekend, during one of my sessions in my Masters course, I found out that everyone gets a B  unless of course you do not complete the images-2assigned work. My shoulders came away from my ears and I was able to sit back into my chair knowing that I could focus on my learning. I am sure those closest to me could hear my exhale of stress as it was released. If the thought of being graded can still do this to me even as an adult learner and one who has many life experiences under my belt, what does this do to most of our students? How have we stifled their thinking, their love of learning every time we say, “oh and by the way, this is a summative piece so I will be marking it”?

Who Grew More, the Student or Teacher?

Two years ago the grade 6 and 7 teachers at my school, along with our principal, made an important decision. Little did I know that this agreement would change my beliefs about what is best for student learning  nor did I realize this was the nudge I needed to take  risks and make changes in my teaching.

Men in black

Then there were 4.

Men in black with star

Now we are 5!

In June of 2011, after much consideration, the upper intermediate teachers decided to move from 3 straight grade 7 classes and one split to 4 combined 6/7s. Notice I used the term combined, not split. There is a very significant difference in how you teach a combined class versus a split class.

This was not an easy decision for me as I had been teaching grade 7 for many years. I was in a comfortable spot where I knew the curriculum  well enough  to be able to develop new approaches to what I did each year without having to learn a new curriculum. I had so many questions of what this combined class would look like and how the parents and kids would react after the years of tradition that had taken place at our school.

DSCF2049As a collaborative group we decided to take the leap,  to start a new journey. As we took this turn, we also were starting an inquiry on the use of technology and student engagement in the classroom. We also made a decision to run a two year program – the grade 6s would stay with their same teacher for two years. Thirdly, we made a conscientious decision to change the language in our classes to ‘learning’ language.

Our first two year cycle has come to an end; the grade 6s we started with are now off to 100_4596high school and ready to fly. As I reflect on this journey I am amazed, thrilled and a little dumbfounded at all that has transpired. What is even more powerful is that the students have recognized how far they have come in the two years and articulate it clearly to anyone who might ask.

What made the most impact on the change in student learning? I don’t know if I can prioritize this. I doIMG_0951 know that having the students for two years allowed growth for all. If you were to tell me that Mary (made up name) would grow from a timid, sometimes socially inappropriate, and disinterested child to a leader in the class as well as the school and a deep, reflective thinker I would have scoffed. If you would have told me that Johnny (again made up) would go from the highly disorganized, lose everything, one line writer to the focused (not all the time but most of the time), love to help others learn, and writer of thoughtful, detailed pieces I would laugh. But these as well as 11 other powerful stories did take place. The 13 grade 7 students who walked out my door on June 28th, 2013 are not the same students who walked in September 5, 2011. Some may say, “Maybe this growth would have happened anyway even without the same teacher for two years.” Who knows. What I do know, from my perspective, is that I am incredibly thankful to be the teacher who did have them for two years to witness their growth and did have the chance to push them to find their own potential. I am lucky to have been part of their world for the past two years.

Creating a combined class rather than a split class was also instrumental for the students.IMG_1031 We did all of our learning together (except Math); there was no split curriculum or sitting in separate parts of the class. Each student had an opportunity to work with everyone in the class, sit beside everyone, build relationships with everyone. The students did not see themselves as separate but as a family. As we reflected on this at the end of the year the students very clearly stated that it was the creation of the family unit that was incredibly important to them. They felt that we all built trust together and that we learned together.

Finally, the change of language. This is harder to describe. I made it intentional to promote the concept “we are all learners.” I was not the keeper of the knowledge. In December of 2012 one of my grade 6 students wrote on my blog,

IMG_0997Mrs. Middleton

It’s Slapshot one of your students and I’d just like to say that I think your an amazing learner and critical thinker. By the way you take time to write out these posts and are not afraid to share your learning with the world is just amazing! You are one of the only teachers I’ve ever had that has made learning fun, and it’s an honor to have you as my teacher but most of all a fellow learner. It’s not just us that learns but you can learn from us. Like just today you said to Skywalker in class that you could never come up with “International classmates” by yourself. That just shows how much you have pushed our thinking in the past 3 months.

Thank you for making this the best year of school yet and more to come.

Slapshot

This was so powerful, a wow moment – my students saw themselves, as well as the teacher, as a learner.

I also tried to instil in each of my students that it was the journey that was important, the journey is the learning, not some end grade. Students came to embrace this and stopped asking, “Is this for marks?” or “What is my mark?” They came to own their learning. Two years ago I was wondering how I could move my students from being observes of their learning to owners of their learning. Well they have done it and I cannot believe how  powerful this piece is and how proud they each are of their growth.

Haley and IIt was a very difficult good bye this past June for me. It is hard to say farewell to those who have been such a part of my life for so long. I can feel a sense of satisfaction and a lot of pride that these  students will succeed in their lives because they have taken on the ownership of their learning, they are wanting to succeed for themselves. I also am thrilled to know that 15 of my students will be walking back through my door in September ready to take the lead in our class, to build new relationships and to continue their growth where they left off. How exciting for us all.

I cannot imagine going back to the way it was in June 2011; too much of who I have become happened because of the changes my colleagues and I made over the past 2 years. I am extremely excited to continue this journey and see what else transpires for me in this wonderful profession I am a part of.

To end this year each student created a reflective animoto of their growth – where they have come from and where they are now. I have shared three with you here but all of the reflections can be found on my website at Student Reflections. These are  powerful examples of how far each has come in their own growth as well as the growth of the learner.

Student Reflection

Student Reflection 2

Student Reflection 3

I would like to hear of changes others have made this past year or two that have made a difference in your teaching and student learning. Please share a story or two of what has made an impact in  your teaching.

Juggling Our Learning

It seems that my blog entries are not what I originally imagined I would be writing when I Unknown-1first started to think about sharing my learning back in June. I had visions of sharing my success stories of using technology with my students, of helping others start to think about what they are doing with assessment in their classrooms and hopefully inspiring others to make some changes. But as life is never something we can predict, nor can I know what is going to really cause me to want to write and share. I have leaned more towards sharing who I am as an educator and the struggles and successes I have faced with implementing my ideal model of learning.

imagesEarly in December I was hit with a nasty bug. I was off work for just over a week but even once I was up and around the bug did not disappear for over a month. Since that time I have thought a tremendous amount about why I was so run down and what it was about my world that needed to change. My doctor asked me that week if my high level of stress was something that I could control. Yes, was my answer. He shook his head and said quietly, “You need to make some changes.” I can honestly admit that I was burned out.

For many teachers burn out is no surprise. After 22 years of teaching I seem to be working more, and spending less time away from work. I have been reflecting on why this is and what changes I need to make so that I can continue to do what I am passionate about – moving our children forward, helping them achieve their potential.  I have been wondering  if other educators are feeling the same way. I have wondered if there are others, such as myself, who want to do the very best for their students but are struggling with juggling the learning.

This is what I have come to realize – even though technology has changed the face of my Unknown-2classroom, has changed how I look at learning and has definitely impacted the learning of my students in a very positive way, it has also been a major factor in this burn out I now feel.

I am not a digital native, I am an immigrant in every sense. I still prefer to take notes with pen and paper, I still love the feel of a good book in my hands when I read at night, I still like to edit on a hard copy. Yet, I have embraced much of what technology has to offer. I love the freedom of learning, I love the connections I have made with fellow educators around the world, I love giving my students choice in how they learn, what they learn, and how they wish to share their learning. But what has happened to me, personally, is that technology has occupied much of my learning to the extent that I am always feeling I do not have enough time to plan, or to properly assess the learning of the students.

imagesOver the past year I have spent hours with my laptop, my ipad and my iphone around me and really do not accomplish much. I find myself jumping between work emails, student emails, twitter and reading and responding to approximately 10 of my students on-line journals. In the past, prior to this inundation of technology I would have been able to focus on a task and accomplish a goal such as get a plan in place, at least a rough outline of a unit I need to be teaching. This is what I battle on a daily basis. I have never spent as much time as I do now on my job. I regularly work 10 to 11 hours a day (this is at school) and still work most weekends as well. I get up each morning 1and a half hours before heading to work so that I can check in on student emails, parent communication, maybe check in on their websites, on their learning, their homework, read twitter and even look in occasionally at Facebook. All of this has contributed to the feeling of burn out. I have to wonder how many other teachers are doing exactly what I am doing and if they too feel that technology has added, rather than eased the work load.

In the Fall the internet at my school was shut down – actually almost all of Vancouver was shut down. It was a surreal feeling walking through the halls, walking into the office, and being in my classroom. The feel was one of calm. People were having conversations that were not rushed, people made eye contact instead of sideways looks as they typed out emails or sent texts, our principal had time to visit with students and staff alike without having to work at her computer, answer emails, fill in grants and applications or check on communication. The atmosphere in the school was one of calm, staff and students seemed more relaxed even for that one day.

So what does this tell us? How do we embrace 21st Century Learning yet keep the balance that is so very necessary if we wish to continue to be of value to our students and to this profession?

I started the New Year with the word “Balance” at the top of my priority list. I tried to keepimages this in mind as I headed back to work after the Christmas break but it did not take long before I was once again running on full speed. I have made a conscious effort to check twitter less often (but I honestly feel like I am left out of some great opportunities for my learning) and I am making a conscious effort not to surround myself at home during the evenings with work unless I absolutely have to. I am still loaded on weekends though, so I need to work on this! I love the growth I have experienced as I integrate technology into my teaching but I need to learn to set limits and stick with them.

Unknown-1I would love to hear from others. How have you balanced your learning, your work load in the age of technology? Is this an issue that is bigger and more concerning than just my world? If so, what are some possible answers? How do we keep up with the ever changing environment of learning without burning out? I am tired just thinking about it!