52 Weeks of Grade-less — Week 6: Lining up the arrows

Picture a teacher who is making a positive impact on the students in their classroom because of innovative practices or techniques. Now, this one teacher is doing some great things. This innovative and creative professional is moving the district in good directions. Imagine an arrow represents that teacher.

It might look like this:

Now imagine many teachers doing great things, innovative things, but those things are not compatible and may be moving the district in different directions. These teachers are also hoping that they will make a positive impact not just on their students, but also on their school and district. However, collectively the district looks as if it is being pulled in many directions and collectively, there is no progress. If arrows represent those teachers, the district might look like this:

Dr. Casey Koseriek, Superintendent of Schools at Hilton Central School District (my district), proposed this analogy on a superintendent conference day. I loved the unique method of delivering his message. He talked about the many great things that are going on in our district. Needless to say, I understood what he was getting at, but Casey wasn’t done.

He told us that his job was to keep the positive energy and enthusiasm that was behind each arrow, to cultivate the passion each teacher has, but “get the arrows lined up.” Imagine, he mused, what we could do if all of those arrows were lined up and pointed in the same direction.

Going Grade-less does not have to mean you are alone, going against the grain. At times in my career, I felt like I was a maverick, or a rogue, trying to do things differently, always attempting to be better. I have an even stronger passion now to improve my profession, but the need to do it alone has faded. There is power in collaboration and forming a unified front. I don’t want to feel like “that arrow” anymore:

Going grade-less should mean that you are still following your school and district’s mission statement. However, we may need to make that mission more overt and visible than ever before. Going Grade-less will come with questions and comments, doubts and suspicions, misunderstandings and misconceptions. What we need more than ever is support. Support from our like-minded grade-less teachers. Support from the teacher in the next room. Support from the kids given the power to learn unshackled from the judgment of grades. Support from the parents who understand what we are doing is empowering their child. And of course, support from administrators. The best way to do that is to demonstrate how going grade-less is just another arrow pointed in a unified direction with the district’s objectives and mission statement.

How am I doing with that objective? Let’s find out.

Mission Statement

How do my goals of going grade-less line up with the Mission Statement at the Hilton CSD? Below is our Mission Statement:

The Hilton Central School District is committed to educating each student for success academically, physically, emotionally, and socially. We develop self-directed, life-long learners who think critically and creatively and function as caring, responsible, productive citizens. We accomplish this by attracting and inspiring high-quality educators, administrators and staff, and involving parents, volunteers and community members.

A recent retiree in our district described Hilton Central School District as a “group of ideological pragmatists,” with our “pie in the sky” ideas followed by a list of “how-to’s” to get there.

Let’s break it down

  1. The Hilton Central School District is committed to educating each student for success academically, physically, emotionally, and socially.

Here is the ideology of the mission statement. By encouraging autonomy, expecting mastery and allowing purpose, as a grade-less teacher, I commit to each student’s success. I can focus on feedback and continuous improvement compared to a graded classroom. In a graded class, students turn in an assignment, receive a grade and then they are done. There is no opportunity for growth in the graded model. The grade-less model allows students to make responsible decisions and improve their social and emotional learning abilities.

“Research shows that Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) not only improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points, but it also increases prosocial behaviors (such as kindness, sharing, and empathy), improves student attitudes toward school, and reduces depression and stress among students (Durlak et al., 2011).” Edutopia — Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students

2. We develop self-directed, life-long learners who think critically and creatively and function as caring, responsible, productive citizens.

The grade-less classroom gives students the opportunity to be self-directed. They are given a meaningful choice about which assignments best serve their needs to acquire information. Ultimately, they must be able to demonstrate their mastery of the NGSS Standards and reflect on their learning based on their “Approaches to Learning.” These tasks will encourage their growth towards becoming more critical and creative thinkers because the focus is not on the test nor is it limited by a grade but instead is positively pushed by feedback. Well placed and correctly applied feedback from student to student or from teacher to student improves relationships in the classroom. In a feedback driven classroom, the students get a safe place to practice being a caring, responsible and productive citizen.

3. We accomplish this by attracting and inspiring high-quality educators, administrators and staff, and involving parents, volunteers and community members.

My hope is that by communicating with the administration, parents, and students before and regularly during the school year they will become more involved in our learning community. By sharing my journey, I hope to make connections with more educators and inspire other teachers to take a leap into some innovative practice that they are considering.

International Baccalaureate

Our district is one of only a handful of school districts in the country that have all three levels of IB. Quest Elementary School is a Primary Years Program (PYP) for grades K–5. Merton Williams Middle School and Hilton High School are part of the Middle Years Program (MYP) for grades 6–10. Hilton High School is also part of the Diploma Program (DP) for grades 11 and 12. IB has become a big part of the instructional framework in our district. Obviously, this is an important part of being a Hilton CSD educator. How does going grade-less line up with IB?

IB Unit Planners

During many of our conference days, our time is spent working on IB Unit planners. Like this one:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Oa9o74Ty77rLRJi8Y8NfX3T7wpfMxSiq6Aa-pcWeG3c/edit

The purpose is collaboration among teachers. We work together to determine what is most important for each unit. What lines up with the standards required? Key concepts and statements of inquiry keep the focus on what is most important. Focusing on the standards is essential in the grade-less classroom because so much of what is done will be redone, refined and redesigned. Fewer activities, fewer assignments is ideal because students will need more time to think critically, to be creative, as well as reflect on what they have learned.

IB Summative Assessments

As with any school or district, there are the negotiables and the non-negotiables. In the unit planners are also a list of activities and assessments. Most of the evaluations are listed as formative assessments which are up to the individual teacher as to whether or not they should be used. It is negotiable. What is not negotiable in our district are the summative assessments and the unit timeline. All of the Living Environment teachers in our district have to agree on what the summative assessment is and roughly when it is assessed. We are also required to meet and go over the scoring of those evaluations. We also score at least a few of them (usually a low scoring, medium scoring and high scoring paper) together to make sure our scoring is aligned.

In theory, this is great practice. There are some issues with its practicality, however. The problem lies in getting all teachers to agree on both the summative assessment and the timeline. Unfortunately, we tend to break those stalemates democratically. We vote — majority rules and the minority feels suppressed and oppressed. Since, I have always done things a little more non-traditionally, while the other teachers I teach with might be a little bit more traditional in their approach, I am usually the one who might not agree with the others on one of those non-negotiables. I get voted down and leave feeling suppressed and, honestly, a little resentful.

When I met with our Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Dr. Barbara Surash, we discussed my concerns about practicality of common assessments and timelines. She was understanding and she described how IB was increasing the rigor of the average class in our school, but the need for common summative assessments had in some cases held back the innovative teacher.

Found on the floor of Notre Dame

As an example, I have always believed in teaching Biology by starting with Evolution. Theodosius Dobzhansky said in 1972, “Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” By starting with the unifying principle of biology the rest of the year keeps coming back to that idea. Most biology teachers prefer to build to evolution. They justify putting evolution later by explaining that students need to understand genetics to understand evolution. However, Charles Darwin, the father of evolution by natural selection, did not understand genetics as we do today but he did understand the concept of variation. Most students know the differences between organisms as they walk into our HS Biology classroom and they have some prior knowledge of genetics from middle school. I have yet to win this battle. However, I don’t want to take my colleagues autonomy away either. My frustration is not with them; it is with a system that is lacking teacher autonomy when structuring a year-long plan the way each educator sees fit. This lack of flexibility is something I have learned to accept.

Side note: Unfortunately, my students have also had to deal with the same type of inflexibility. Except, I was the source of rigidity: “Do, this assignment (no substitutes or alternatives). Do it on this day (no you can’t turn it in late otherwise you will take a massive point deduction). Do it exactly this way (no, you can’t do a creative video or artwork — lab report only 12 point font double spaced and single sided).” What a shift it would be to allow students to have some creative choices when deciding what ways they will take in information and their method to demonstrate their understanding and application of their learning.

The unit planners (including the timeline and summative assessments) are always a work in progress as we reflect as a group before, during and after each unit. Real progress is made as we collaborate, reflect, and adjust our practice.

IB Summative tasks compared to the NGSS tasks

How do the IB summative assessments compare to the NGSS tasks?

  • Timing: All of the IB summative assessments will be done at the end traditional unit, while the NGSS tasks will be a continual process.
  • Combined tasks: Depending on the IB summative assignment and the NGSS Standard, the IB summative could be the NGSS task as well. Multiple NGSS standards could be assessed with one NGSS task. Besides, there are some IB summative assessments which are extensions to NY state standards and NY State lab requirements.
  • Assessment method: The IB summative assessments will be assessed using an 8 point holistic rubric (the 8 point has four levels, so it is similar to a 4 point rubric). The NGSS classroom tasks will be assessed using the either the SE2R method or the Single Point rubric (see Week 1 for details). Neither will be recorded as a grade.
  • Significant change? Doing the IB tasks requires little change for me. We have been doing the IB summative assessments for a few years now, so there are no significant changes there. The NGSS tasks will require some changes, but most of it is with the feedback

Approaches to Learning

The approaches to learning are “how to learn” skills that students develop. These can be taught and learned.

The ATLs are put into five skill clusters:

  • Research
  • Communication
  • Self-Management
  • Social
  • Thinking

These skill clusters can be even broken down into the individual skills (as seen in purple in the diagram above.

At Hilton, our goal is to connect each lesson to an ATL, which is challenging but possible. However, what I struggle with is that I am the one figuring which ATL was used, not the kids. I want the kids to do the thinking and reflecting. They say, the one doing the work is the one who is doing the learning. The more they recognize these skills, the more they can use them in their own daily life. How valuable is that!

At the end of an NGSS task the students will be required to reflect on their learning and during that reflection, they must discuss which ATLs they used, and how they used it. I would also ask them to address what ATLs do they still need to work on in the future and how they might use those skills in the future.

At each grade conference at the end of the marking period, students will address their use of the ATLs. Some things they can think about: What skills did they use and why? What skills seem to be their strongest? Which skills need work and how will they use them? How have they introduced these skills into their daily life? How can they introduce more of these skills into their lives? There is power in metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking). When we show kids how to use these skills and ask them actually to do it, we give them the key to their learning toolbox. Then we, teacher and student, can discuss where to go from here. Perhaps I could offer suggestions to address areas of the student’s ATLs that are not as strong as others. Now, the teacher becomes the coach or the guide.

The Pilot

The conversation I had with Dr. Barbara Surash, our Assistant Superintendent for Instruction was a long conference but a fruitful one. Philosophically, we were always on the same page. She was a former ELA teacher and understood the value of feedback over grades but worried about a few of the logistics. She did worry that it would put in a position of planning in isolation, something that she has worked hard to avoid. After almost an hour and a half, she agreed to allow me to pilot the Grade-less idea. She did make two suggestions for me to consider:

  1. As it currently stands, we will have grade conferences eight times a year — one for each quarter and interim report. Dr. Surash suggested maybe I consider doing a grade for each unit (we have nine units), which is a fascinating idea.
  2. Dr. Surash also suggested I work hard to reduce the number of tasks that I create. Partially, because it’s hard to make quality assessments (something I am quickly learning) and also fewer assessments leads to more feedback cycles and deeper learning. By bundling like standards together, I can have fewer tasks. (Hint: Bundling may be the topic of a future blog post).
Next week? Let’s talk about Bundling!

In Conclusion

As the journey continues, I look to get more and more people involved which will hopefully bring more questions and suggestions. Each suggestion and each critical eye is just another piece that can solidify this foundation. I recognize that I need help and support with this project

At this point, I have had two formal meetings with my Principal, one with the Assistant Principal who is my direct supervisor and one with the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction. Also, I sent an email to just about every administrator that would have a connection to this pilot. Two of those school leaders (including the Superintendent) sent me emails in support of the venture.

In the past, I would try to change the system in spite of the system. Now I hope to reform the system with the support of the very system I wish to change. In a large school district like my own, this can prove to be difficult, as evidenced by the number of meetings and emails I have had to attend to, but I believe this is the only true way for systematic change that I am hoping to create.