Change is slow.
From the cocaine-addicted mouse day until now, I have taken many incremental steps in the journey of standards based grading. On that day, I had never even heard of standards based grading, and it would be a few years until I did. However, even with my limited knowledge, I took some steps toward SBG organically, and those steps were crucial in the progression when I finally did gain the knowledge to completely make the change.
One of the first steps that I took in my progression was to change my assignments. I used to be the teacher who defined rigor as workload, so I gave my students 3-4 assignments a day, which ended up being more than 100 assignments in a 45-day marking period. As I thought about my students’ grade obsession, and their permanent link to the online gradebook, I wondered what would happen if I substantially reduced the number of assignments and, instead, focused on creating meaningful, project-based experiences for them instead.
So, I started working on creating learning experiences in my class instead of assignments (It hurts my soul to think that I actually had to consciously do that–shouldn’t that be the goal of all teachers?). We started to look at multiday, multistep projects that covered many learning objectives, allowed students to use their creativity, and almost forced prolonged engagement into skills, themes, and ideas.
In the beginning, there was a lot of blow back. Students struggled with the new ideas, and my principal didn’t like that I wasn’t updating the gradebook daily because there wasn’t anything to update until we finished a project. It was interesting to see what the complaints were, from students feeling like I had increased the workload (even though I had significantly decreased the number of assignments), parents worrying how their student could possibly pass my class if I was basing the grade on a handful of large projects instead of 120 little assignments, and administration worrying about the perception of a teacher who only had 5-6 scores in the gradebook for a marking period.
The story takes a bit of a turn here.
In November of 2013, I left my job at a local charter school and accepted the only teaching job available in the middle of second quarter at a residential treatment center for students with severe emotional, behavioral, and cognitive issues. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life, but also the most rewarding experience that I have had in my teaching career.
The most real teaching that occurs in the world happens in residential treatment centers. My classes there were so diverse in academic ability, behavior, literacy, study skills, etc. I had to focus on each individual student each day. Everyday was different. I had to dramatically alter the way that I taught in order to be effective.
Because of the way that school was structured in the RTC and the rapid turnover of students, working on protracted projects for days or weeks at a time wasn’t really a possibility. I tried in the beginning to keep up that teaching strategy, but it didn’t work, and the students became frustrated quickly. Because of this, I adopted a “win every day” strategy, where I focused on one skill or concept that I tried to teach well and have the students understand each day. We used short works of literature, small writing assignments, and focused grammar assignments to work through the language arts curriculum a day at a time.
My time teaching in the residential treatment center taught me the value of little victories and the need to teach individual concepts and focus on mastery. It was a key component of my development as a teacher and as a practitioner of standards based grading. It was also probably the closest I came to actual SBG without even knowing what it was.
After a year and a half in the treatment center, we were told that the facility was closing, and we were all out of a job. This was in April, and I set about the job search vigorously. At least the timing was better this time, and I landed a job at a high school near my home town, and set about creating curriculum for a more traditional school environment by combining the project-based curriculum from the charter school with the “win every day” mentality from the treatment center. The result was one of the most effective teaching years that I’ve ever had and the final step along the way to standards based grading.
During that year, I noticed that some of my students were playing what I have come to call “the game of school.” They were manipulating the system, working hard on smaller assignments to accumulate points in order to do poorly on or completely skip larger assignments. Unfortunately, even though I had taken steps to make it more difficult, this type of point manipulation was still possible, and the students were well versed in how to game the system.
One day on my prep hour, I was doing some research and discovered a set of YouTube videos by Rick Wormeli (starting with this one). I watched the whole series over the next couple of days, ordered several books, including Fair Isn’t Always Equal and How to Grade for Learning by Ken O’Conner, and my move toward SBG was almost complete. I vowed to make whatever changes I needed to make in my classroom to create a culture of learning and a growth mindset.
That was two years ago. I have learned so much since then, and my classroom is much more about learning and much less about the game of school. There is still room to grow, but we are moving in the right direction.