Okay, so I had to ask permission because it is, after all, a public school--there are lots of rules. Luckily, the administration in my school is supportive of what we fondly refer to as “Kramer pitches,” crazy ideas that we might be able to refine into actionable innovations in our practice.
I had been having conversations roughly centered on the idea of eliminating grades. They mostly seem to either stress or bum kids out, and they suck up a lot of my time and energy; if we could eliminate grading, my job would be almost flawlessly fun.
These conversations kept taking me back to wondering how to move decision-making closer to the students themselves. For the last several years, I’ve taught the “catch-all” 10th grade English class--with students who mostly take honors classes, students with a variety of learning disabilities, students who are just learning to speak English, and everybody in between. And because everyone has to take English, this type of class is one that often truly does reflect the diversity of our school (whose demographics look a lot like the United States as a whole). If this could work in my classroom, then it could work in any classroom in my building. Maybe anywhere. Plus, the 10th grade English curriculum could hardly be more broad: the standards focus primarily on the craft of writing, and the literature spans the globe and history. It’s wide open.
So with all the literature in the world at my disposal and a group of students from nearly every walk of life, why should I have everyone reading the same book? Why should I have everyone writing the same paper? Why should I have everyone doing the same thing at the same time every day? The answer is pretty simple: All that stuff makes my life easier. One teacher. One lesson. One assignment. One assessment. One answer. One decision-maker. One point of control.
I asked for permission to restructure the class as an independent study. Students would still read and write. Students would still analyze and discuss. Students would still earn grades, and--crucially for this to be approved--students would still have to take the standardized test at the end of the year. But the class would be structured on three main principles:
Students choose from a menu of reading and writing options instead of required common study. (In other words: I don’t need everyone reading and writing the same thing at the same time.)
Students self-pace and have a lot of flexibility in how they get things done. (In other words, we don’t all have to get to use the same path to get to the right place.)
Students own the evaluation process through peer and self-assessment; I’m just a backstop. (In other words, I get to eliminate a bunch of grading--see how it all connects?)
There was a lot of hemming and hawing about this. Although my administration was immediately supportive of the idea from a pedagogical perspective, there were lots of questions and hoops to jump through, generally about some policy or standard operating procedure into the face of which this brazenly flew. My standard refrain involved some combination of acknowledging the policy/standard operating procedure, suggesting that the policy was obsolete/shortsighted/dumb, and repeating my mantra that this was a small bet--one section of one class for one year. If it went terribly awry, we could go back to the old way. I got approval the week before school let out for the summer.
So we’re calling it “colearning,” like a coworking space, but for kids at school. It’s just one section of one class for one year--47 minutes a day, 5 days a week--with the same required standardized testing at the end. It’s a small bet and a small step. But I can’t help but wonder if it might change the way these kids think about learning. What if it changes their whole approach to school? What if it works?
School starts tomorrow. We’re about to find out.