I’d been experimenting with standards-based grading, gradually building trust with a group of seniors I’ve had for two years by “respecting their learning process.” I’d ask them to read something, negotiate a time frame, and I’d plan based on the assumption that they’d come prepared. I quit using reading quizzes for “accountability” in favor of Harkness-style discussions, and I thought it was working.
Then came the really bad day.
Picture: The room is set for a Harkness discussion. I told my students, as always, that I’d be evaluating the quality of the group’s discussion. They’d all get the same pass/fail grade—and if they weren’t prepared, or had not completed the reading, they shouldn’t put their classmates’ grades at risk.
I knew a few would self-select out—but not all of them! Not one student finished the reading, apparently.
There went all the trust I thought we had. They’d never read anything I’d assigned, I thought. Not an essay, book, short story, not a poem. It had all been a sham and I’d been an utter fool!
Where would I go from here? Back to chapter quizzes, and kids memorizing plot points in the hallway before class, only to forget them seconds after the quiz?
Luckily, a few students came to me and said that they had read, but were afraid to join the discussion because the group was going to be too small. They might not be able to sustain a good conversation with so few others. Interestingly, most of the ones who had completed the assignment weren’t the ones with the highest grades in my class. These were the kids who usually read the books but maybe didn’t regularly complete assignments, so they didn’t always make straight A’s. They told me they liked the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and they wanted to talk about it.
It was time to differentiate my instruction.
I created two paths for students to demonstrate their skills. One was the Harkness option for students who’d read. Student’s who weren’t comfortable with that, for whatever reason, were assigned a series of dialectical journal entries which I’d read and grade.
The students who chose the Harkness method sat down and proceeded to discuss the book with great authority, great insight. They were passionate, original. Their conversation was so smart. I wanted to join in, but that’s one of the prime rules of a Harkness—I don’t participate. I did fill pages of my notebook with their ideas.
Watching these students set me thinking. They’d come prepared and they were demonstrating all the high-level skills we’d been working on. They used the text to lend authority to their arguments, extend them, and support claims. They might not be the ones who got A’s, but whose fault is that? Did the assignments and grades I’d been giving honestly reflect my students’ abilities?
The next class period was also interesting. I let the students who discussed the book continue their conversation by creating graphic representations of their ideas. I let them talk, tape ideas on the wall, and use yarn to connect them. I gave time to the rest of the class, so they could read or complete their assignment. But they could not join the discussion until those were completed.
No one lost points or got marked late. I let them learn from each other at their own pace. The students who hadn’t read, and who were working independently, worked very hard to get into the group, which was strange because so many of them complain about “group work.”
The whole experience left me thinking about my practice.
Trust but verify. I understand the philosophy behind standards-based grading, but the sad truth seems to be that some students aren’t ready for this level of responsibility. I still need a system that “holds them accountable” (ick).
Points aren’t accountability. Based on what I saw, students want to be part of high-quality activities that allow them to demonstrate how smart they are, points be damned. Getting back into the circle wasn’t about points. They had ideas and things to say.
The process is important. When we started our next book, there were students who had to prove that they’d read the book by submitting dialectical journals. Most of these students admitted that doing the writing, and being true to the process, had spurred their thinking and anchored their ideas in the text.
Pay attention to the outsiders. I’m ashamed to admit that I was taken aback by the abilities and intelligence of “mid-level students,” who showed me again that grades and points aren’t a good indicator of ability, understanding, creativity, or anything that matters. What I really need to do—and this brings me back to the beginning—is to stay out of the way, and give them ways to be brilliant.
So, my horrible, terrible, really bad day turned out to be . . . horrible, sure, but instructive.
Rick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.