Why I’m UNgrading my students

I couldn’t call it DE-grading, now could I…

I never felt right about grades before...

I never felt right about grades before...

It couldn’t really be this easy, could it?

  • Increased motivation to learn for the sake of learning
  • More time on task
  • A rise in creativity and critical thinking
  • Improved work completion
  • A much more positive classroom culture
  • No angry calls from parents

I’ve seen all of these things in my classes in the first month of school.

What did I do?  More importantly, what DIDN’T I do?  You’re thinking, “here comes the sales pitch…”

I haven’t given my students a single grade.

I’m calling in UNgrading.  I want to thank Joe Bower and Alfie Kohn for the inspiration and courage to dive in and do it!

First, some context, so you can see how your system and mine are similar and different:

  • I teach high school science at a public school (not a charter)
  • 90+% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch
  • 90+% of my students are ethnic minorities
  • We have a traditional school structure (standard course offerings, 6 period days, 55 minutes per class, etc.)
  • I am required to report athletic eligibility grades every Friday
  • I am required to give students progress reports every 2 weeks
  • I must report grades at the end of each quarter
  • My electronic gradebook is viewable by any parent at any time

Pretty standard stuff, really.

For years, I’ve wanted to do away with grades but never was sure how.  Somewhere in my mind, I was still caught up in the fallacy of needing grades to motivate students.  I also felt a strong need to have a defensible position for my grades.  I wandered through the woods of various point systems my first 3 years.  I gave standards-based grading (SBG) the old college try the last 2 years.  Retakes and no late penalties; all that stuff was part of my system.  No matter what I did, it never felt right.

I always said, “I love teaching but I hate grading!”

Now I know why: I was evaluating student work and passing judgement on it.  No matter how clear and detailed my rubrics were, it was still my subjective evaluation of their work.  In fact, the more clear and detailed my rubrics, the more boring their work became – both for them to do and for me to assess.

Next post: How I’m doing UNgrading!

Image used under cc license from the flickr stream of amboo who?

Project Based Learning & science – a match made in heaven?

This is the 7th post in my project based learning (PBL) series.  See the rest here: Project Based Learning.

Many teachers have asked me, “how do you do PBL in science class?  I mean I can see how to do it in English or social studies; but, science?  It just seems like a tough fit!”

I couldn’t disagree more!

Science is not a bunch of facts to memorize.  It is not a glorified vocabulary class.  Science is not all labs and data and analysis.

Science is a way of looking at the world.

Science is life.

A student testing water quality as part of a project

A student testing water quality as part of a project

PBL and  science are a perfect fit!  There is so much room for genuine inquiry in well-designed PBL tasks.  Students get to wrestle with complex, messy, real-world problems.  We  read together, we write together, we discuss and debate.  Students design and carry out long-term experiments to answer their questions.  They present the results to audiences that have included parents, peers, teachers, administrators, scientists, professors, graduate students, and younger students.

PBL helps students to learn to make conclusions or form opinions based on evidence.  They learn to criticize each other respectfully and to challenge the quality of the evidence their peers use to support arguments.  They learn to evaluate the validity of sources and data.  They learn to use data to inform decisions.

PBL allows students to learn to collaborate and communicate.  They learn to evaluate themselves and their peers.  Students learn to reflect, both in the classroom and while out in nature.

PBL gives students the opportunity to attack the big problems affecting our world today: climate change, overpopulation, disease & pandemics.  Students can learn to take an informed stance on controversial topics like stem cell research, genetically modified organisms, genetic discrimination, and dam removal.  They can also learn to use their ingenuity to create innovative solutions to a problem.

PBL leaves lots of room for students to ask really deep questions and find their own answers to those questions.  It allows students to be creative.  PBL can be a vehicle to facilitate integration with other content areas.

My 9th grade students experience all of their projects as integrated between biology, English and social studies.  They see the content from a variety of angles and perspectives and get to interact with it through a range of modalities.  My students get to synthesize this learning into rigorous products that they are proud to share with an audience.

Could I facilitate all of this without project-based learning.  Sure; but it would be much more difficult.  Project-based learning has made me a better teacher.

Why not give it a try?  What have you got to lose?

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Part 6How to do inquiry PBL

Teach to the test?

This is a second follow-up to my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Thanks again to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to guest!

Twitter commentary on my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant and a couple of the comments there, made me want to follow up.

I teach at one of the poorest schools in the State of Washington.  We are a small, rural public school on an Indian reservation.  Increased state pressure and intervention has actually widened the achievement gap in our school and others like it.

Teaching to the test may work (on the short term) with predominantly White, middle-class students who are motivated by grades and the promise of college.  These type of children tend to accept education as it was delivered to their parents and grandparents.  Never mind the negative effect teaching to the test has on higher-order thinking skills and creativity.

No matter your criteria, teaching to the test does not work with poor, minority students.  Show me successes at schools like KIPP and I’ll show you serious flaws in their data.  If school does not engage them, they drop out.  Is that what we want?

If good instruction doesn’t raise test scores, then the test is flawed, not the instruction.  For those who are facing pressure to raise test scores, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Do your homework and be prepared to effectively defend your practice.  Do lots of research on effective instructional practices.  Read “How People Learn“, “Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards“, “Results Now“, everything by Alfie Kohn, and more.
  2. Become National Board Certified – this gains you a lot of credibility with administrators and your board of directors.  Nobody wants to fire a National Board Certified Teacher.  I do very open-ended inquiry-based instruction in my classroom.  I achieved National Board Certification in 1 year and found the standards of that process to be 100% aligned with my instructional methods.
  3. Base your instruction around state standards.  You are in a very defensible position if you can clearly demonstrate that you are aligning your instruction to the standards that are purportedly on the state assessment.  You are required to teach to the standards; you are not required to teach to the test.

If none of this works, maybe you should find a different school to teach at.  If my working conditions were unbearable and I was being asked to do things that I had strong moral objections to, I would go work somewhere else.

Am I pro-union?

This is a follow-up to my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Thanks again to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to guest!

The twitter commentary on my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant, and a couple of the comments found there, I felt the need to follow up.

Am I pro-union?  Not necessarily.  Nor am I anti-union.

I am 100%, unequivocally pro-student.

Does that mean I don’t appreciate the purpose of value of a teacher’s union?  No.

What it means is that a teacher’s union is an organization, not unlike “the State” or “the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.”  An organization, while composed of people, is not human.  I do not believe that I am accountable to any organization.  I am accountable to each and every human being with a genuine stake in what happens in my classroom.  That means my students and their families.  No one else.

Was my post meant to be pro-union?  Absolutely not.

I believe it is inaccurate to say that the purpose of the teacher’s union is to protect teachers who have their students’ best interests at heart.  The sole purpose of the teacher’s union is to negotiate the best possible collective bargaining agreement for its membership and to steadfastly protect that agreement.  As a democratic organization, no one of its members is more or less important or valuable than any other.  Therefore, the “worst” teacher and the “best” teacher will be protected with equal vigor.

Maybe it’s time for the union members to start self evaluating members and supporting those who are struggling.  Unions could begin culling out those who refuse that support (or make no progress).  Rather than leaving that job to administrators and legislators, we could take control of the process, the procedure and the persons involved.  The union could become a self-governing body, not unlike the American Medical Association.

To whom are we accountable?

This is my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant on 9/25


As a husband, I am accountable to my wife, not to the county in which our marriage license was issued.

As a father, I am accountable to my children, not to the State.

As a teacher, to whom am I accountable?  Am I accountable to the State?  Or am I accountable to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction?  Maybe I’m accountable to the board of directors for my school district – aka, my employer?  Perhaps I’m accountable my superintendent or my principal?  Could it be that I’m accountable to my colleagues?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “NO!”

I am accountable to the past, present, and future of each and every child who enters my classroom.

I am accountable to my students as learners and as human beings.  I am accountable to my students’ families.  Children are not vessels to fill with standards and 21st Century skills, but rather living, breathing people with immense potential.  My job is to nuture and enhance that potential.  Every interaction with a student is a opportunity to do this.

Every decision I make in the classroom must be guided by one ideal; the ideal that my students deserve the very best education that I can possibly facilitate for them, each and every day.

This means I must be willing to allow my students to hold me accountable.  I must take a step back, absorb their input, honor it, chew on it, and use it to inform my instruction.  Too often, we teachers hide behind The “State”, “The District”, “The Standards”, or “The Test.”  We blame poor instruction on these amorphous entitities.  We do this to deflect student and parent criticism.  We are human and it is hard to absorb criticism.  It is even harder to admit that the critics are right, especially when those critics are a room full of intermittently mature adolescents.


My students were venting to me about their classes  – and school in general – yesterday.  I regularly ask my students for feedback on what we are doing in class, so that we can adjust our course.  This is an important part of our classroom community.  Opening up the feedback can, though, sometimes leads to a discussion of larger issues.  Kids don’t often receive honest invitations from adults for feedback.  When they do get them, they tend to do one of two things, either (1) they don’t believe you truly value their feedback and clam up/ give superficial feedback, or (2) they  spew a litany of pent up complaints about anything and everything even tangentially related.

So I told them this: “education should be something done WITH you, not something done TOyou.”  They stared at me with blank faces for a silent eternity (okay, it was more like 5 seconds) before lightbulbs started to flicker on around the room.  Of course, several of them thought I was lecturing them to work harder and push themselves.  A few of them got it, though.

Hopefully, my democratic ideals haven’t ingited their anarchist tendencies…


I have all of the accountability I need; thank you very much.

Doing the absolute best I can for my students and their families every single day is all of the motivation I need.

My classes are held accountable by producing work for an authentic audience.  The transparency of our classroom, via student and class blogs, and via sharing our work publicly, keeps us plenty accountable.

Accountability comes from generating rigorous projects for a real-world audience. I am accountable to my students and their families. They are accountable to their audience, not to me.

Students are not motivated by “it’s on the test” or “the state says you have to learn this.” Students are motivated by engaging, rigorous content, real choice in how they interact with that content and what they create from it, and the opportunity to collaborate with peers. (Credit to Alfie Kohn, “Punished by Rewards).

By the way, this kind of accountability motivates students much, much more that either the carrot or the stick ever could.  Students who are driven by grades, will work extremely hard when they know they have an audience.  Other students, who have no interest in striving for ‘A’s and no fear of ‘F’s,  work much harder for an audience than they ever would for a grade.  That is accountability.

I am accountable to my students and their families.  I am accountable to myself.  I need no other accountability.

photo cc licensed from the flickr stream of R Kurtz

How to do inquiry Project-Based Learning (PBL Series Part 6)

This is probably the hardest aspect of PBL to describe.  How to explain how to do something that is inquiry?  How to describe something that, by nature, requires student involvement.  The key is the structures.

Honestly, this is very much a work in progress for me.  I’m learning how to do this as I go.  Call me a mad scientist; call it action research; call it whatever you want.  I learn by [informed] trial, error and reflection.  I want my students to learn that way too.

What structures, then, can one establish to support inquiry within project-based learning?

The hook

hookThis is where you get them.  Without a good hook, students will not want to inquire within the realm of the project that you have planned for them.  Great hooks can come from a multitude of places.  Pictures, video clips, artifacts, primary source documents, discrepant event demonstrations, play with a purpose activities, and the like can all make great hooks.  Use the hook to get them asking questions early and often.  Honor their questions and compile them into a class anchor chart.  Keep it present constantly.  Most importantly – resist the urge to answer their questions.  Get off the stage!

The driving question

You have 2 basic options here – teacher created or student created.  Of course, there are infinite variations from this theme.  Your firstquestionmark project should probably have a teacher created driving question.  This question recieves its moniker from the concept that it drives the entire project.  Thus, the driving question must follow a few key rules:

  1. Must not be a yes/ no question
  2. Must be worth answering and engaging to students
  3. Should have broad relevance across field of study, content areas, and walks of life
  4. Should address a big idea in your content area

Building Background Knowledge

Give students enough knowledge to inquire productively.  Give them general topical information, main ideas, representative case studies, segments of text, and more in order to build up some basic understanding of the topic.  Many basic knowledge-type questions will be answered here.  Let them use their favorite search engine or Wikipedia to knock off a few more of the basic fact questions.  There should be enough common experiences here to create a solid foundational understanding of the general topic.

Nurture student questions

Give students ample opportunity to brainstorm questions, to share them, to hone them and to investigate them.  Help them to delineate rich, complex questions from simple “Google” questions.  Nurture curiosity by allowing bunny trails do blossom into full blown discussions.  Keep a running anchor chart of student questions and encourage them to select one (or more) that they will investigate as a guiding question under the driving question.

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Question mark photo cc licensed courtesy of Alexander Drachmann‘s Flickr photostream
Fish hook photo cc licensed courtesy of Lenore Edman‘s Flickr photostream