Sisyphean High: TL;DR

Grade abatement, bishop composition, and the interstitial classroom
Or: How to use an Internet meme awkwardly and mostly incorrectly


All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing.

~Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”


I started using Sisyphus as a mascot and banner image in 2009, about four years into my career as a high school English teacher. That those first few years are incredibly stressful is assumed at this point; that’s why a troubling number of new teachers quit.

Sisyphean High started as a ward against that. I borrowed Camus’ final line and spoke openly about the absurdity in public education. Around this time, Ken Robinson gave one of his sobering speeches about educational paradigms, and I thought that if we can’t escape, we can at least carve out some happiness for ourselves.

2009 and 2010 saw me interviewed for a Harper’s essay about educational declension and then surprised into a slight heart attack by a Milken Educator Award. I began working with an alternative program in the high school at the same time that I took on the AP English Language program. I joined the Tri-State Consortium, visiting other schools in New Jersey and Connecticut.

That widening perspective revealed the same Sisyphean stress in every facet of learning. I saw students and parents stuck in the same absurd war of attrition. I spoke with teachers as exhausted as they are dedicated. I observed districts buckling under the absurdity of the state’s mandates (which is, really, more Kafka than Camus).

And I looked at my own teaching, where high standards and a sometimes draconian approach to assessment wasn’t working. I spent a lot of time lying to myself. I was clinging to the success stories, to the awards, to the restorative power of each summer. The system wasn’t changing, though, and I had just enough irrational confidence to tilt at that particular windmill.

I read Alfie Kohn’s essay, “The Case Against Grades,” in 2011. I tracked down as much of the research that he cited as I could. And I came away with a theory: As long as grades remain a part of the learning process, no other reform will work.

Grading is obviously just one of many hydra-like heads that we deal with in education. I have found it to be the Pareto minority, however; if we eliminate or even abate grades, 80% of the stress that we all face — teachers and students and parents and administrators — disappears.

The problem is obviously that cutting off this particular head causes two more to grow in its place, and the other heads tend to get angry. That may be why it took four years of hacking away to arrive at the solution: grade abatement.

The process to eliminate grades through grade abatement is outlined in a separate essay. The crux of it is developing in students and teachers a universal language for learning. We use a set of profiles to direct student learning over an entire quarter, with every lesson and assignment and artifact organized around ten academic skills and traits. The number that eventually appears on a report card is the logical consequent of the process; we use what Tony Wagner calls “collective human judgment informed by evidence,” turning a toxic and often inflated heuristic into an objective, evidentiary review.

More than anything, grade abatement permits true student-centric learning. It allows for curiosity and collaboration to creep back into the classroom. It makes gamesmanship impossible, and it ends a cycle of self-inflicted stress.

This is made possible, in part, by a shift in how the course approaches writing. The process, called bishop composition, uses a universal language of its own. Student internalize a rubric, DAMAGES, that applies to every kind of reading and writing. Through it, they become part-owners of the feedback process, using proxy and radial feedback to share the burden of reflection, metacognition, and growth with the teacher.

Without grades, students begin to read what they write and write what they read. An ETA or emulation-through-analysis process allows them to borrow from authors and take risks as writers. They collaborate without fear of plagiarism or group-work inequity. And they publish what they write — embracing what Paul Graham calls the golden age of essays.

Most interestingly, the focus on authentic writing frees students to read literature for a different purpose. The traditional poetry and prose of an English classroom become fuel for empathy and personal growth. Grade abatement works to give students context and a sense of self-efficacy when it comes to the canon.

All of this — an end to grades, more authentic writing, reinvigorated reading — sounds hopeful enough, but something was missing in the early stages. The students struggled with the new paradigm, and I used a desultory series of jerryrigged solutions to motivate them. Most of these were a kind of weaponized transparency — a study of the Dunning-Kruger effect, for instance, or the difference between gamification and gamesmanship.

Then I turned back to my website with its Sisyphean banner. Even before grade abatement, I had embraced a form of the flipped classroom, using websites to archive lessons and promote written conversations. In 2013, I worked with students to build a subreddit and to use online publishing platforms as part of their learning.

Last year, those interconnected and online elements coalesced into what I call the interstitial classroom. This, too, is explained in detail elsewhere; the gist of it is to use whatever tools are available to enable interstitial access to every aspect of the learning process.

Ken Robinson is right that schools are like factories, and we have no hope of changing the arbitrary bell schedules or painfully early start times that force students to learn English at eight o’clock in the morning. What the interstitial classroom does is slip into the cracks of our schedules, allowing us to learn whenever and wherever we have Internet access.

And that by itself enables students to freeze their collaboration and thinking and curiosity in writing. It allows us to build a wealth of evidence of the traits and skills required by grade abatement in a responsive, flexible way. They collaborate and get curious on reddit, draft through Drive, monitor assignments through Google Classroom, and access lectures and lessons on my website.

This use of the Internet also empowers student-to-student teaching, which allows me to use the brief time we have in class together to work individually and in small groups when that attention is needed. We can be honest about stress and our individual capacity.

When they work in concert, these are the three mechanisms that transform student learning and teacher instruction: grade abatement, bishop composition, and the interstitial classroom. Read some of the feedback from students and parents:

Look to the maturity and insight of the writing the students produce:

And visit the elements of the interstitial classroom to see a digital footprint that is organic and authentic.

We may always be Sisyphus pushing the rock up that hill. We can do more then carve out an absurd kind of happiness, however; it is possible to subvert and sublimate the failures of the system into something that saves us all.

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