“It’s about learning…”

We had a meeting after school to talk to parents about the use of portfolios as a means of assessment, instead of grades, in 7th grade. We wanted to share with them how the process empowered the students, building a new sense of energy and connection for them to their learning.  It was the beginning of a process of shifting the center of control from the teacher and training each student to take it on herself. In many ways it was very hard for the parents to imagine an effective learning system, the work of a School, where there were no grades.

“How will i know if my child is learning anything?”

“How will my child know if she is learning?”

“What will motivate them if there are no grades? We have raised them to perform in response to a graded system, almost like trained seals, so how will you get them to work without them?”

It was at that moment, in the midst of the parents’ questions, all of which were legitimate and important, that one student spoke up to share the  effect that not being graded and using a portfolio had had on her.

“At the end of the trimester, I am more interested in learning. Before all I wanted was to do better, just get a better grade.”

I wanted to jump up and down! She got it and on top of that, had the confidence in the midst of what was an Adult Conversation, to share it. She had found that she cared about learning. I don’t know if the parents, who had all grown up like I did in a very different system, were able to understand the power of what the student shared, but I did. I knew that we were headed in the right direction at that moment.

The process that we had put in place to make class be about her and her growth as a student and a learner was bearing fruit. When the student’s work was towards learning, it was, plain and simple, different from learning that is done so that someone in authority will tell them that they did a good job. It has only been a few months, but it didn’t take long. The students wanted to learn about how their brains worked and how to make them work better. They wanted to assess themselves in ways that took away the fear. When saying, “I don’t do this well,” does not lead to be bad grade, there is no need to avoid it. When the student can name the challenge, then she can grow from right where they are. Without the discouragement of a bad grade or the tension of only working for a good grade, learning can be set free. It took them no time to want to take ownership of their learning.

I had two significant conversations with parents after the program was over: one parent of a student with learning challenges and one with a student who easily gets “A’s” and rarely has to work hard. For both of them, the work of the portfolio had energized their daughters. For the student who normally did not have easy success, she lost her her regular sense of being slower than other girls and was beginning to focus on the process of learning, naming a skill and working towards mastery. She was starting to take pride in the areas where she had success and identify what she found challenging outside of an arena of that was tinted with previous failure.

For the student who always succeeded, when asked to challenge herself, to identify her areas of difficulty and seek to master them, she suddenly engaged with the learning process. There was no longer an easy Finish Line to cross that let her stop working and growing. When she had to set the goal, it became about her own effort and work: good, healthy, hard work that led to new levels of thinking. There was no easy A to slow her down or allow her to disengage.

It is a lot of work for the students and for the teacher to use portfolios, but if just one student begins to care about learning, rather than simply the grade, it is worth it!

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