Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher: Put Away the Red Pens!

Put Away the Red Pens!

Chapter four of Learn Like a Pirate tackles one of my favorite subjects to preach about. Seriously, I was just telling my husband (who really doesn't care but pretends to when necessary) a week ago, that teachers spend WAY too much time grading! I don't take grading home. EVER. There are far better ways to assess your students' skills and comprehension that grading  stacks of worksheets. And frankly, I have far better things to do with my time than grade those stacks of papers. (Like eat tacos in front of the TV.)

I always aim to create a classroom culture where every student is growing and feels successful. They won't all start at the same place and they won't all end at the same place. But as long as they are improving, I am one happy teacher! I think that when teachers focus on grades, there are a couple of negative consequences. First, students (and parents) need the grade to validate the work. Students don't just feel proud because they know they did their best. They need to see the A on top. Heck, some kids are upset if they don't see the + after the A. Those struggling students will always feel inadequate. Even when they did their best and made significant growth, they feel disappointed by the grade at the top of the paper. The grade quickly starts to determine the value of the student rather than the effort and growth that went into the work. Another consequence of a grade focused classroom is that it puts a ceiling on the learning of our highest achievers. They just always get 100%. Since they got everything correct, they are not pushed to improve or work harder next time. Can't everyone improve in some way? Couldn't they learn, if pushed, to go deeper? 

Solarz writes about many different assessment strategies that I already use in my classroom. He also gave me some great ideas to continue growing as an instructor.

Solar writes, "Skills and comprehension can be best assessed through observations while students are working." YES!!! Observation is the number one way that I assess my students' understanding. While students are working collaboratively or independently, I walk the room. I listen to students talk. I look over their shoulders at what they have written. I ask questions to get them to explain their thinking or challenge them to dig deeper. I make check marks on my mastery checklist when I see proof that students have mastered various skills and make notes about students who are struggling and may need some intervention. This type of assessment happens EVERY day in my classroom. Multiple times per day! And it never involves the assigning of a grade.

I recently blogged about my use of interactive notebooks. You can read the post HERE. I wrote that one of the questions I receive most often about my interactive notebooks is, "How do you assess them? Isn't it a pain to bring all of the notebooks home with you?" I never bring notebooks home with me! Who has time for that? I use my notebooks during guided math and reading groups. Students are completing the activities at the back table while I observe. I make checks in my mastery checklist, question students to encourage them to teach me and go deeper in their understanding and I offer invention for students who need it. When the students leave the back table, I am done with that assessment. They don't need to turn in their notebooks and I don't need to lug them home with me. I have learned tons about my kiddos but never assigned a grade. Instead I used the observation assessment as a tool to provide the necessary instruction for individual students and pushed, even my high achiever, to improve. In my opinion, this is a much more valuable way to use assessment!

Solarz writes about a revelation that he had. Students were receiving compliments on their work from their teacher and their peers, but criticism was only coming from the teacher. Students are not naturally good at giving or taking constructive criticism from peers. In his book, Solarz goes into great detail about how he taught his students to give feedback on projects and writing. He calls this feedback a quality booster. Students are helping one another to improve the quality of their work. When you have a classroom of  learners who are focused on improvement, they are happy to be given ideas that help them to improve on their work.

Students are taught three different steps:
  1. Start by telling them that you have a quality booster for them. This helps students to be prepared for what is coming and be able to handle the criticism better.
  2. Start or end with a specific compliment. If a student feels that their work is appreciated, they are so much more willing to accept the criticism!
  3. Write your suggestion as a question rather than a statement. When you write the suggestion as a statement, you sound like a know it all or better than them. When you phase it as a question, it sounds like there is more than one way to do it, but you are just giving an idea. So instead of telling them what to change, students can ask questions like, "Would it be clearer if.... I wonder if it would sound better is.....
My student solicit feedback from their peers often, but I feel that teaching it the way that Solarz has outlined would make the practice even more meaningful to my students.

I made some posters to help remind my students about the steps to take to write a quality booster. You can download them for free by clicking on the picture.

Again, students are not given a grade. They are just focused on improving what they have done no matter what level they started on.

We can learn so much about our students' understanding by asking them to reflect on the things they understand and questions that they still have. Solarz uses a student blog for his student reflections.

I use Friday journals of the same purpose. We don't have much technology in the classroom, so paper and pencil just works best for us. I have blogged about Friday journals before. You can read the post HERE and grab a freebie.

Every Friday, students are given time to write a letter to their parents. They write about something they learned during the week. When students are asked to reflect on their own learning, it makes the learning more concrete. Students are more likely to remember it when they have been asked to reflect, think and write about it. Throughout the year, I can challenge them to dig deeper with their journal entries. Parents write back and often their questions will also help the students to make deeper connections. Solarz writes, "I'm not just asking my students to learn concepts temporarily or remember things for a test. I'm asking them to internalize information and skills so they can use them for the rest of their lives." 

I know what you are thinking."Jamie, all of this is fine and dandy, but I am required to give grades." I know. I am required to give grades as well. Parents and administrators need to see grades. I can't get around it. I put the fewest number of grades into the gradebook that I can get away with. These grades include mid and end of unit math tests, spelling tests and some centers activities. I also love to give participation points. This works great for those activities that I truly assessed through observations and don't have a letter grade for. 

The important thing is that I never make a big stink about grades and students are not given awards for their grades. Instead, I award students for growing, working hard, participating and being willing to make mistakes.

How do you help to keep the focus on improvement rather than grades?


  1. I love your skills assessment checklist and your reflection journals. I am working on slowing down next year so students can have the time to reflect on what they're learning. I don't give grades in kinder, but I do give continuous feedback and push the ones who already "know it all" to dig deeper. We tried math notebooks in small groups this year too and I loved it! I'll definitely be doing that again next year.

  2. Great ideas!!!! I was in a PD today that talked about grading -especially writing assignments, and how we can make it easier on us. I plan to blog about it later. I also loved the Friday journals. May have to try that this year! Thank you!


  3. I LOVE this! It makes so much sense with my beliefs about student learning and assessment. However, I struggle with the fact that to my students, their parents, and administration grades are a very big deal. One grade per subject per week is expected. Our students' parents challenge and refute grades all the time. We used to use letter grades in grades 3 and up, but are starting to bring letter grades down to second and even first grade. Any advice on how I can convince our administrators that this is the way to go? Anything else you have read that promotes this way of thinking about assessment?

    1. Anything by Mark Barnes will support this. His new book is called "Assessment 3.0" and uses a similar philosophy. Alfie Kohn has suggested similar ideas for 20 years! Here is a quick article you can read: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/

    2. I like to use participation points to help add those required grades to the gradebook.

  4. Oh one more thought. Often if a child is really struggling and I have serious concerns, maybe I think they need to be tested, a parent will not listen to me at all unless their child is receiving failing grades. Have you had this experience?

    1. Very true! Sometimes, you need a cache of "scores" to refer a student to special education or to get them other services. I've found though, that the most valuable scores are specific and focused on the area of need, not general and just in the same subject. To me, that means (1) Identifying a student who needs extra support, (2) providing them with specific tests & activities that will hone in on their area of need, and (3) using those scores to refer them (but not giving those scores back to the student). Using day-to-day activities and other forms of summative assessments just so I can get enough "F's" to refer them isn't necessary in my opinion. It would just cause the student to feel inadequate, lower their self-esteem, and diminish their effort. In our class, we embrace failure, but that means making mistakes and then fixing them because we believe in growth. Writing an "F" on a child's paper means the learning has ended and you have failed. Sometimes, that might have to happen, but I believe in limiting how often that happens. (I also have to give grades, but just at report card time, and also with math unit tests. Everything else has been left up to me. My report card grades are determined based on the entire body of their work over the trimester.)

    2. I love the idea of giving the struggling student a separate set of assessments! I have had trouble with this is the past as well. Thanks for the suggestion.