The Gradeless Garden

Why natural, neutral, and nothing is not enough

Arthur Chiaravalli
Oct 7, 2017 · 5 min read
Photo credit Aya Okawa

I think I recently realized that for me, since going gradeless doesn’t address inequity, it leaves much to be desired. Good teaching involves meaningful feedback and the trust that students need to be heard and understood. I know we all know this, but we’re not addressing it in this context. And that feels empty to me. Grading less seems to me to be empty not because of the “less” but because of the elephant that persists in remaining nameless.

—Marian Dingle, personal communication

Around this time last year, I was writing a series of articles about the “cans of worms” standards-based learning and grading opened up in my classroom.

Jose Vilson’s thread in the wake of #Charlottesvillle

…the point of education is never that children and young people learn…but rather that children and young people learn something, learn it for a reason, and learn it from someone. Here lies the fundamental difference between the language of learning, which is a process language that is in some sense ‘empty’ with regard to content and purpose, and the language of education where we always need to engage with questions of content, purpose and relationships.

Whether I acknowledge it or not, I am always answering these questions of content, purpose, and relationship, even if I hide my status in seemingly neutral titles: guide on side, peer at the rear, lead learner. As co-founder of Teachers Going Gradeless, I also have a responsibility for what voices and viewpoints are amplified and included in our group. Sherri Spelic’s reflections on inclusion in “organically forming communities” casts critical light on some of the same assumptions regarding the larger gardens of teacher groups:

Inclusion is a construction project. Inclusion must be engineered. It is unlikely to “happen” on its own. Rather, those who hold the power of invitation must also consciously create the conditions for sincere engagement, where underrepresented voices receive necessary air time, where those contributing the necessary “diversity” are part of the planning process. Otherwise we recreate the very systems of habit we are seeking to avoid: the unintentional silencing of our “included” colleagues.

I would like us to consciously create those conditions, but I often don’t know where to start. Sherri’s reflections push beyond grow and cultivate toward the more work-intensive create and engineer. A benignly passive approach belies power and privilege. As I’ve begun to actively follow more teachers of color, I have noticed how buffered and bubbled my grade-obsessed movement can be. I should have started by inviting people in, and hope that it’s not too late.


Identity, Education and Power

Pathways and Intersections of Understanding

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