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On the Podcast: Moving to a Points-Free System with Sarah Zerwin

PointLess_HeaderImageOneIn this episode, we're joined by Sarah Zerwin, author of the upcoming book Point-less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading. She suggests moving away from something many of us can’t imagine teaching without: grades.

Her book takes on students’ obsession with grades by replacing traditional letter grades with descriptive feedback on their work.

Download a sample chapter of Point-Less

We started by asking Sarah about the journey she’s taken to move from traditional grading to letting go of points completely, and what can other teachers expect if they go on the same journey?

Below is a full transcript of this episode. This transcript is machine-generated. 

Sarah:

So it's been a journey of years. Honestly, it was a couple of my colleagues, Jay and Paul. Years ago, they started playing around with the idea and they started by just taking numbers off the rubric to see what would happen. And the same time that they were doing this, they were bothering, bugging me to stop grading traditionally in my classroom.

Sarah:

Lots of conversations about how if you are evaluating, your brain can't also respond and give feedback at the same time. So you can't do them all together. But I fought them vociferously. I had all these ideas about why I couldn't do anything different. I said, "I have way too many students and too many papers to grade and that how dreamy to just do feedback instead of evaluating and there's no way I could do that." And I thought I needed some kind of an objective measure to really have a sense of where my students were. And it's so silly, because how could I actually be objective? It's very difficult. And I thought there was too much data to manage, I needed the efficiency of the number to be able to manage all of my students and all their grades and everything.

Sarah:

And I also thought, "This is a huge system. How can I, one little teacher do anything against that? I have to just play along." So I thought there really was nothing I can do. But I was sitting at the NCTE session in 2013 watching Alfie Kohn speak. And I had read his argument, The Case Against Grades, and had talked it over with my colleagues, but still was not. But for some reasons, seeing him go through all of his research and thinking, I actually, my assistant principal was presenting with us that year and she was sitting next to me and I turned to her and I said, "I'm done. I can't put another grade on a piece of student work ever again." So that's how it started for me. And I went back to school. So that obviously was November, and went back to school. And in January, I had to finish out the semester in January, I talked about it with my students.

Sarah:

And I said, "What do you guys think?" And they voted 100% to play around with getting rid of grades. And we talked about their concerns and their worries and everything else and we just went for it. It wasn't totally pretty that first semester. I learned a lot. So I guess in terms of what other teachers can expect is it's scary. Actually, it's really scary because in removing the points from the system, you think they're not going to do the work anymore. How do I'm going to have anything to get the kids to do anything. But the funny thing is, they really want to learn and they really want to work and they don't like the grades either, a lot of them. The ones that are pretty tied to them are scared to give it up.

Sarah:

But I have found that with some love and kindness and care and listening and that sort of thing, that they'll go for it. I certainly have had colleagues who even still, five years later, are think that's crazy what I'm doing, but I just keep doing it. So, and getting better at it, I hope.

Sarah:

From year to year.

Michelle:

How would you say traditional forms of grading get in the way of student learning and growth?

Sarah:

So many ways. So many ways. And let me tell you a story about my student, Rudy. And Rudy, this was many, many years ago when I was still heavy in the grade world and we were reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. And it was actually the first time I'd ever taught it and I was getting terrified about the notions it was presenting about our country and thinking, "If this is all true, we are all in so much trouble."

Sarah:

And so the book was really affecting me very strongly. And it was a day where we were working in the computer lab. They're working on their papers and I walk up to Rudy to ask him how he's doing on his paper. And he's just typing away. He does not stop typing the entire time I'm talking to him. He's just typing away and I say, "How is your paper going?" He's like, "Terrible." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because I'm not enjoying what I'm writing about." And I said, "Well, what did you think about the book?" "Well, I hated it." I said, "Interesting. Why aren't you writing about that?" And he said, "Look at your rubric."

Michelle:

Revelation.

Sarah:

Yes. And I just had this moment like, "Oh crap." He was absolutely right, that when I did look at the rubric, I could see. I didn't intend for there to be walls and boxes and boundaries on his thinking, but they were there.

Sarah:

And if the grade was high stakes, he had to play along with what was on there. And so I start with that story because I think it really illustrates the way that, especially with teaching writing, grading limits kid's thinking. They don't take risks, they're afraid to, because if they take the risks then they might get hammered with a low grade and then that's a big problem, right? And so we really want kids to be able to take risks and feel safe to explore and all of that. Alfie Kohn in his article, The Case Against Grades or his essay, The Case Against Grades, he goes through decades of research and it's all out there. It's been out there for years. And that research suggests that grades make students less interested in what they're studying. That it encourages students to choose the easiest possible task. That grades make students think poorly. That it increases cheating, the grading approach.

Sarah:

And that it makes students fear failure. And failure is such an important part of learning that we've got to make it safe for kids to try things and have them not work out. So in all those ways, grading I think hurts kids. So I've just been trying to figure out how do I deflect their gaze from the points, and the grades and all that and get it over here on the learning.

Michelle:

Yeah. That was the thing that stuck out, that points systems give teachers the power and puts the focus on points not learning.

Michelle:

And it reminded me of this quote I heard one time, "Kids learn performance is scholarship."

Sarah:

Yes.

Michelle:

No. So they're not focused on the learning.

Sarah:

Right.

Michelle:

Further. How do you think traditional grading is an equity issue?

Sarah:

So there's, I came across a book recently that has really given me a lot to chew on with this. It's by a researcher named Asao Inoue. He teaches college composition courses and he goes through this argument that shows that the scales that we use to assess writing, especially, are pretty much all couched in a white racial framework of understanding the way the world works. And when we apply those scales to student writing, it does not enable us to see all of our students clearly.

Sarah:

In his book, he goes through, he gives an example of a piece that has been provided by a California assessment that's an example of a low performing piece on the scale. And he goes through the whole thing and he says, "I'm not sure where the student is from and what their culture is, but look at all the wonderful thinking that the student's doing that that rubric completely fails to see." So there's that. And then also in Maja Wilson's book, Re-imagining Writing Assessment: From Scales to Stories, she traces back the history of grading and shows us that our tendency to want to rank and sort and measure goes all the way back to the birth of the educational measurement movement, which was at the beginning, the turn of the 18 and 1900s.

Sarah:

Influx of immigrants to the United States. People trying to figure out how to train everybody to be Americans, whatever that meant. And some in power feeling threatened, using science to have data that shows that some people were lesser than. So the ranking, any ranking that we do is a good-bad binary, says Maja Wilson, that says that if you're at the top of the scale, you're better. If you're at the bottom of the scale, you're worse. So all of these things just serve to control and keep some people lower and other people higher. So it, absolutely grading is an equity issue.

Michelle:

I thought that was really an interesting section and it reminded me of this conversation I heard one time about schools functioning as designed.

Sarah:

Yes.

Michelle:

And that's what you touch upon.

Sarah:

Yeah, and I love that Inoue, in his approach, and his book, by the way, is Anti-Racist Writing Assessment, apologies, I don't think I mentioned that. But in his book he makes the argument that he grades the students on doing the work and teaching them how to do the work, which is another thing that I think is a problem that kids learn how to collect points. They don't learn how to do the work and my approach to the grading very much a lot of it is are you doing the work or not? And I have felt some, I don't know, some guilt about that like it's wrong or something. And so it was really great to come, because aren't I supposed to be assessing mastery on standards and that sort of thing. I was really happy to come across Inoue's arguments that he just focuses on teaching his students how to do the work, and grades them based on whether they do that work or not, which I think is really wonderful.

Michelle:

Yeah, I know you talk about that in the learning goals section too. I love that focus. So does your method use a grade book that is different or separate from the school's existing grade book?

Sarah:

That's a very good question and just the other day my assistant principal said to a group of faculty, it's up to you, not the computer to determine the student's grade. Our required grade book is only a tool. And I wanted her to say that again and again and again to more and more of my colleagues. Because it's true that grade book is only a tool and we get so tied to it to the numbers and the percentages that it makes it seem like that grade book is the end all, be all of what we're doing. I use it, I hack it for my purposes, is what I have started to do.

Sarah:

I had to figure out, I have to use it. There's no way that I can get around without using it, but I've figured out what is it that my school community needs for me to have in it minimally. And what they need is some number of data that they can pull athletic eligibility reports from once a week. I must put in progress grades every six weeks and I must put in a semester final grade. So knowing that those are my bare bones requirements, I've hacked the rest of it to make it more meaningful. So when my students open up their grades, they see a bunch of words. I've made a set of words like complete, partial, you're almost there, keep working kind of thing or review the instructions, go back and try again. I have that set of words so that the kids see that and they're, and it actually, I've set it up so that the words do put in a percentage, because there needs to be some number base in there.

Sarah:

It's called assignment marks in my grade book and I can create them myself. But when the students open it up, they see a bunch of words instead of numbers. And then there are comment boxes on every single assignment and it's got 250 characters or something. And I use those obsessively-

Michelle:

Is it infinite campus?

Sarah:

It is infinite campus.

Michelle:

That just seems to be a standard.

Sarah:

It is infinite campus. Yeah.

Michelle:

And I love how you share some of that thinking and some of the hacks that you did just to percolate ideas. People are going to endeavor to do this.

Sarah:

And I encourage people to try typing something besides a number in the box and see what happens.

Sarah:

Because then some boxes I put dates, because it's the date that I had a conference with the kid and then I put the note about the conference in the comment area but the score box has a date in it. And the grade book says that it's an invalid entry I think is the language that I get, but it remains. So I can see it, the kid can see it. Anyone else who's looking at that can see it.

Sarah:

The thing is that the grade book is actually a really powerful tool because any person in the building who is working with my students, any other support staff has access to that same tool. So if I fill it with really meaningful, helpful information and notes about what my students are doing, then they have that information and then the kids have that information as well. They can't remember the conference we had last week. What did we talk about? They can look at the note in infinite campus, et cetera.

Michelle:

Do parents have access to that information?

Sarah:

They do.

Michelle:

Yes. Because I know as a parent, I see that, that that's so powerful.

Sarah:

They do.

Sarah:

Yes.

Michelle:

So let's talk about learning goals. Okay. What are learning goals and how can teachers get started creating them?

Sarah:

Yeah, so I think that students and teachers together need something very clear to focus on. If you remove points from your classroom and if points have been at the center forever, when you take them out, you have to put something else there. And what I say to put there is learning. And make the learning very, very, very clear. So the standards that I am responsible towards, there's 60 some of them. And that is, that was one of the mistakes I made my very first semester going grade-less, was I had the kids track all of those standards. Somehow, I don't remember exactly how I did it, but it was way too much. It was too, it was all in teachery language. It was too much for them or for me to really pay attention to and focus on. So what I have done now is I've got a nice tight, clear, easy to understand set of of goals, I call them learning goals, for each of my courses.

Sarah:

And those sit at the center of everything that we are doing. And they sit at the center of my planning and they sit at the center of the student's own self-reflection on their learning. So, and the goals are, the common core is embedded in them. My district curriculum is embedded in them. I've done, in the book, in chapter two, it takes teachers through a process that they can take all of those curriculum expectations on them and come up with a nice tight set of goals using what they value as teachers themselves as a starting place. And the goals are things like revise a piece of writing extensively to improve it. They're that simple and straight forward.

Michelle:

And I love how you focused on determining what students need to practice to meet those goals. What are those things you have to do over and over again? And particularly with something like revision. So can you describe how students become an integral part of the accountability and feedback aspects of learning goals?

Sarah:

So this is the most, one of my most favorite parts of the whole approach. I actually don't share the learning goals with them until they've been in my class for about four or five weeks, because I don't think the goals will make sense until they understand what the work looks like. So the first several weeks of the semester we talk about learning behaviors actually. What kind of behaviors do you need to have to actually learn in a class? We talk about that, and then I say focus on learning behaviors that will improve your success as a student for the first several weeks. And we'll reflect on those for a while and just do all the work.

Sarah:

And we'll talk about grades a little bit later. And then after we've been doing that for a few weeks, we start talking about the learning goals. So I put the list in front of them and I asked them to choose three goals out of the 10 that are going to be theirs. That they are going to work on, that they are going to track their own learning toward. I ask them to take the goals and paraphrase them, rewrite them in their own words. And sometimes kids tweak the goals too. Because just because I gave them this set of goals connected to the curriculum doesn't mean that they shouldn't also step up and tweak them for whatever learning they feel like they need to do. What do they need to do as a reader and a writer to improve? They can change the goals to make that work for them and every so often I even had a kid saying, "Can I write my own? "

Sarah:

And my answer is usually, "Absolutely. Tell me what it is. Well, let's see how it fits. That's awesome." They basically write the goals, choose the three that they want to work on, write the goals and make them work for them. And then I have them plan out a map, basically, for their own success. By starting with, where are you starting with each goal, where do you want to end up with each goal and what are some things you're going to do along the way to get there? I model all of this for them. Every semester I pick my own reading and writing goals, depending on what I happen to be working on in my own life and model that for them to show them what that looks like, what the process looks like. And they help me. One of my goals was to do more writing on my book when I was working on this book.

Sarah:

And they suggested as one thing that I could do to get there was to give them less work, so I would have less of their work-

Michelle:

Of course.

Sarah:

To read and respond to. So, but once we got past that, they actually gave me some really good ideas and-

Michelle:

Nice.

Sarah:

So they sketch out their own goals and then every week they check in on their goals. I have them set up pages in their writers notebooks where they can check in on their progress every week. And then at a progress report time and at semester grade time, they basically tell me what grade they think should go in for them. And at the end of the semester they write a pretty extensive story about their learning as part of that.

Michelle:

Just that you're teaching them, there is so much executive function stuff that's happening here.

Sarah:

Oh yeah.

Michelle:

In terms of organization. And what they're being asked to do and the thinking and I don't know if that really is happening in a lot of places. But what I was going to ask you as you were talking about this accountability and feedback around the learning goals, is I just loved Miranda's. Could you just tell a little bit about Miranda and how she described her experience?

Sarah:

Yeah. When she, according to the letter that she wrote to me, when she came into the class, she thought, I think she even called me this hippie teacher and that she's talking about learning and goals and whatever. And she said, "But then, it worked." She said, "I'm actually learning. I'm actually enjoying coming to class every day. I'm actually reading books and having thoughts about the books." The stories I think are so, so powerful. And I only started having the students write stories. They've always written me letters at grade time to let me know. As the very first assignment I give them at the beginning of the year is a letter that I wrote to them that's all about my syllabus and everything. And then they write me back and so at the end of the semester then they write me a letter about what grade they think they should have and I write them back.

Sarah:

And a few years ago, one of my students very naturally wrote it as a story of her journey with her goals from here, to here, to here, to here. Emily, she's in the book too. And so I started really trying to anchor that, because story is the way we understand everything. We don't notice it because it's like the air we breathe or the water we swim in, if we were fish kind of thing. And so story I think helps us make sense of everything. And having the kids use that story framework to describe what they learned during the year helps them to know it really, really, really well.

Michelle:

Speaking of story, you tell a story of a parent who badgered you endlessly to round up the student's grade. Back when you were still giving the points system. Since you transitioned to a pointless system, what kinds of push backs have you received from parents and students and how do you respond?

Sarah:

There's been very little, which is amazing to me. Sometimes it's at the beginning, when students or parents first hear about that and they're most worried that at the end of the semester, the kid's going to think they're doing fine and I'm going to say, "Sorry, you have a D." Which has never happened. And I assure the parents or the kids, we can sit down at any time and take a look at all your data and see how you're doing. So just don't even worry about that. So I have had a couple of times that a parent has emailed on behalf of a kid saying the kid thought they were doing a little bit better. So can you tell me what happened? And usually I'll email back with this really full description of what the kid did and didn't do. And the immediate response is, "Oh, I've got to talk to my kid. I'm so sorry. Thank you so much."

Sarah:

And then in terms of the kids, it'll be a disagreement that they think it should be this grade and I think it maybe should be this other grade and we'll talk it out. And if I'm able to, I often like to say, "Maybe your story isn't detailed enough. It doesn't really tell the story. Why don't you write some more?" So I give it back to them as an invitation to do a little bit more work and learning. Or you didn't finish some of the work this semester, would you like to finish it? And then we'll reconvene and see where you're at. So there's always an ability for me to give the kid an opportunity to do more learning, to pull it back together.

Michelle:

Well, it feels like there's constant communication.

Sarah:

Yes.

Michelle:

Throughout. Such a critical component.

Sarah:

Yes.

Michelle:

So the surprise, maybe it's a little bit surprising for you sometimes if there's a rise in light of that.

Sarah:

The ones that are fun is the students that say they should have a lower grade then I think really reflects the work that they've done. And then it's really fun when I get to make an argument back to them saying, actually look at this and look at this. Look at the learning you did here. Look at how much growth you achieved here. I think that warrants something higher than what you said. What do you think?

Michelle:

Yeah. Final question I wanted to ask is what are your hopes for the difference this book might make in the world?

Sarah:

Yeah, so I really, really hope, I hope that this book is going to make life in classrooms better for students and for teachers from day to day, once freed up from the pressure of ranking and sorting and evaluating constantly and rubrics and numbers and grades and all of that.

Sarah:

Get rid of all of that. There's so much more room to read and write and to explore and think and talk and discuss and imagine. And so I really hope that it's going to make life better for students and teachers. I hope it frees up teachers to design a much more meaningful path to those required grades that we have to give. Who said you had to do it based on percentages and points just because you got that grade book that you're supposed to use.

Sarah:

We actually maybe can come up with a different way to do it and I hope that the book frees some teachers up to do that. And I hope it frees up students to take risks and to fail and have it be okay and to really grow as readers and writers.

Michelle:

I was just going to say, and I love that you put the focus back on the process and not the product.

Sarah:

Yeah.

Michelle:

Because that's lost so much of the time.

Sarah:

And the process is where we learn.

Sarah:

It doesn't matter. I mean the products really don't matter in end. It's the work that the kids have done along the way.

Learn more about Point-Less at Heinemann.com

Download a sample chapter of Point-Less


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sarahzerwinSarah M. Zerwin is a high school English teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. In over 20 years in the classroom, she has taught high school in a variety of settings as well as methods courses to college students. A national presenter, Sarah also works with teachers through the Colorado Writing Project. She seeks the best ways to invite her students to read and write for reasons that matter to who they are as human beings.

Posted by: Steph GeorgePublished:

Topics: Podcast, Writing, Heinemann Podcast, Point-Less, Sarah Zerwin

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