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Reflections on my first year in a "gradeless" or feedback-focussed classroom

We have now had two weeks of school and the rhythm is returning. Clubs and teams are up and running and classes are even going on their first field trips. It’s amazing how quickly everyone gets into the swing of things. However, I have been taking it pretty slowly in my classes. This is partially because all the “official documents” that I need to give the students are still not complete and partially because I don’t want to overwhelm students with the whole gradeless, feedback-focused, place-based and inquiry-based program all at once.

I ran my grade 9, Issues in Canadian Geography, classes as gradeless last year. Essentially, the whole course was inquiry-based and we used five overarching learning goals that followed the inquiry cycle and that were organized into a learning map. Students completed guided and then open inquiries based on the curriculum. I consulted with students as they moved through the inquiry cycle and gave verbal and some written feedback (usually through Google Forms and docappender). Each overarching learning goal was described by success criteria. Near mid-term reports, students created a digital portfolio with artifacts showing growth and highest achievement of the success criteria and then used the learning map rubric to determine a grade. We had an individual portfolio conference where we discussed their achievement and negotiated their grade. The same thing occurred near the end of the course, which determined their 70% term work grade. An individual inquiry project, also evaluated using the success criteria of the overarching learning goals, was completed for the 30% final evaluation.

Some positive outcomes of my first year of gradeless classroom:

  • Students learned about Canadian issues through inquiry. 
  • Many authentic action projects to make Canada a more sustainable place to live were designed and some were enacted in the local community, with social media campaigns or with submissions to local and federal governments. 
  • After the first few weeks, once they started to experience feedback-focussed assessment, students did not ask what activities were “worth” or if it was being marked. 
  • This led to risk-taking and “thinking big” because students were not afraid to fail. 
  • Students were self-motivated and nearly all students completed all their work. 
  • We honoured the process of learning, not just the end result. All parts of the inquiry cycle were assessed, not just the final product. 
  • I became more and more convinced that feedback-focussed assessment was good for my classroom. I was quite shy to tell anyone what I was doing at the beginning (although I had very supportive admin and none of the parents complained). By the end of the year, I started sharing more.
Some not-so-great outcomes of my first year of gradeless classroom:
  • I tried many different documentation tools during the last two semesters. Nothing really worked to my satisfaction. I had many assessments for the students but since they were not entered in a “markbook,” were not quantified, but in text or were verbal, and were all over the place (Google Docs, Google Classroom, emails, etc.), it was difficult to get an overall snapshot of how a student was doing except after the first portfolio interview. This is too late. 
  • Although, during the second semester, students reflected more about how they demonstrated the success criteria, I still need to help the students to learn more about self-assessment and goal setting and what the success criteria mean--what do they look like. 
  • There wasn’t enough individual accountability during group inquiries.
  • The creation of a digital portfolio (the way we did it, anyway) was too onerous on the students. All inquiries had to stop for at least a week to accomplish this. A few students did not complete their portfolio in time for us to have a conference before the mid-term report. Frankly, assessing all the portfolios at once, especially at the end of the year, was quite onerous on me, as well. 
  • Not all students did inquiries that lead to learning of all the overall expectations of the course. The open nature of how I allowed students to pick issues and to explore them in depth was not conducive with breadth. 
There were many more successes and setbacks, but these are the main ones. So how to move forward? There are two main changes I am making for this semester. The first is to add an overarching learning goal that is about “content” of the curriculum. Last year I had the content of the curriculum mixed in with the inquiry cycle learning goals. I still think this is valid because we do not learn “knowledge” in isolation when doing inquiry-based learning. However, it was difficult to assess or track. The “content overarching learning goal” will hopefully increase my ability to balance depth and breadth of curriculum learning.

The second change is that I am using Sesame as a documentation and feedback tool instead of digital portfolios. I am hoping that this will allow me to get a snapshot, at any time, of what each student has completed (where they are in the inquiry cycle, how well they have met the success criteria, and which overall expectations they have learned). Also, all the feedback and assessment will be in one place and students will be in charge of documenting their learning and reflecting on this learning. Parents will also be able to access the program.

Some of the other issues I encountered in a gradeless classroom are part of our TLLP project learning goals--such as how to teach students to reflect on the success criteria, how to give effective feedback that moves learning forward, and how to make the whole process more time and energy efficient for the teacher and students. What a great opportunity we have to be supported through this learning journey with release time to collaboratively build knowledge and skills. I would like to leave off my first TLLP blog post with this tweet that really sums up why I am a Teacher Throwing Out Grades (TTOG). Hence our hashtag: #TTOGTLLP


Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your learning through this blog! I am experimenting with feedback centered assessment as well and I think we have been experiencing many of the same successes and stumbling blocks - we should get together and talk about this more

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    1. Hey Tracy - we are making a school visit as part of our work in October and I am sure the team would welcome other opportunities like this to see you in action and share ideas. We cannot offer you release time but maybe if you can get time from your principal or we can pair a period that we can visit (kind of like a CI) with your prep period to discuss let us know. Our next available date will be Nov 22nd I think it is.

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    2. Yes! It would be great to get together. I was also contacted by a couple of other teachers who want to get together on some release time. When I know the date, I'll let everyone know.

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  2. Great to read about your experiences. I'm working with Sesame this year at Lincoln and so far it is great! So many of the limitations of other "assessment or documentation" tools do not exist in Sesame. Would love to hear how your semester rolls out!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Michelle. I just started with Sesame and so far it looks great. Looking forward to seeing how the students take to it!

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  3. Thanks for sharing. I'm doing feedback focussed/ partial gradeless as well. I'm really excited about it. I'm not doing as much as you as I'm starting small. I've already seen everyone's computer screen and gave verbal feedback. I've also started using D2L with Turnitin Feedback Studio and love it. I find dragging and dropping my customized comments easier than Google Keep

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    Replies
    1. Awesome! It's good to hear how teachers are using different tools for feedback. I know turnitin has those features--seems like it would work very well for writing assignments. I'll be following your journey too.

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  4. Thanks for sharing. I'm doing feedback focussed/ partial gradeless as well. I'm really excited about it. I'm not doing as much as you as I'm starting small. I've already seen everyone's computer screen and gave verbal feedback. I've also started using D2L with Turnitin Feedback Studio and love it. I find dragging and dropping my customized comments easier than Google Keep

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Susan. Deprivatizing your practice in such an open way models your thoughtful assessment leadership. I'm excited to follow along so that I can learn from you and your amazing colleagues!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Kristen. I really appreciate everyone's support. It's great to work with so many amazing teachers.

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