The first time I went whitewater rafting, I remember listening to the guide, a college kid who clearly knew what he was doing but still seemed too young to actually keep my entire family safe on rough waters. He said that all we had to do was follow his instructions, learn from him what to watch for, pay attention to the water ahead of us and have a great time. It all sounded exciting but more than a little scary. I am a bit too much of a “want to be in control of my surroundings” to feel comfortable turning it all over to this person I didn’t know all that well.
At the beginning of this school year, I saw a look in my students’ eyes that reminded me of that trip. I was explaining to them that they would not be assessed by grades.
“No grades! But how will we know if we are doing it right?”
I was clearly taking them away from a shore where they felt very comfortable. I was asking them to leave a place where, whether they had success or not, they at least knew “how to do school.” If there were no grades, then how would they know who they were in my class? What would make them do the work? Why would they care? For so many of them, school had become, over the years, a place where the adults in their lives were in control: their parents, who wanted them to succeed; and their teachers, who evaluated and assessed them at every turn. It was their job to perform: follow the rules, do what they were told and hope that the evaluations proved them worthy.
“How will I know whether I am doing it right?”
“How will my parents know if I am a good student?”
“What about colleges?” An interesting question coming from a 7th grader, but one that shows how much they are programmed to work for the outside evaluation, people “in the know” who tell them if they have learned or not. It is the adults who tell them if they are good students or not, if they are working hard enough or not. The motivation is not intrinsic learning, but for adult affirmation.
As I spoke to them, it was clear that they thought that if there were no grades, then I was somehow deserting them, leaving them on a deserted island, a Lord of the Flies kind of experience where they have to find their own way. “I don’t know how to learn history!”
When grades are taken away, school becomes a entirely new place. It almost felt to them like there would be no teacher, and they would have to learn by themselves. I reassured them that I wasn’t going anywhere. My job of teaching them to be the strongest possible learners that they could be was still the same. I was going to teach them to be better readers and writers. I was going to provide lots of times for them to practice new skills and develop their thinking. I had to convince them that the primary change was simply that they were going to become part of the process of reflecting and evaluating the work that they each did.
They simply shook their heads with worry, so I set them to a task to show them that they could do what was being asked of them. Using Peter Pappas’ “Bank Robbery” activity, I had them solve the mystery. It is a great critical thinking activity, and a perfect set-up for a history class, because it gets them to use two important history skills: asking questions and making categories. They worked in groups of three, and I wandered around, asking questions and offering encouragement and some guidance. After each group finished, I had them write a reflection: What did they do well in solving the mystery? What was challenging about the activity? What would they do differently if they had to do it again?
A simple exercise, but by the end of it, they began to understand. They knew who they are and how they worked; they just needed to be asked to talk about it. They knew when they have listened to their partners or when they have interrupted. They knew if they figured out how to organize the material or if they simply got frustrated.
It has been two weeks of school so far, and they have written 4 reflections on different kinds of work. When the trimester ends, they will have a collection of reflections to help them write their Comment for their report card. They will put together a portfolio that shows how they have grown as a student over the course of the trimester. They will talk about their work: where they have grown and where they still need to grow. With each new reflection, they are taking charge of their learning, identifying strengths and setting new goals for themselves.
This is even more exciting than the whitewater rafting trip! No doubt about it!