Gradeless: A Culture of Possibility

Five years ago, I was presented with an opportunity to teach an evening education course at Eastern Washington University. Already wearing too many hats as a high school English teacher, department chair, district literacy leader, multiple-committee member, husband, father, and the list goes on, I didn’t immediately jump at the chance. But after a weekend-long discussion with my wife, I decided to try it out for a quarter. I never looked back. I begin my sixth year next fall, my sixth year of perpetrating a fraud.

Officially, I have been teaching the classroom management course to those who are just entering the education program. At least that’s what they signed up for. At least that is what the university believes I am doing. I am not. And it is here and now where I have decided to come out. I can’t live with the guilt any longer.

Unofficially, sneakily, I have been teaching classroom culture.

Although I don’t have the power to change the course’s name officially, I change it on the first night of class, crossing off the official title “EDUC 309 Secondary Classroom Management” on the whiteboard, writing “Classroom Culture” in its place, along with the message:

Great teachers are not managers of classrooms. Great teachers are creators of culture. I want you to be great teachers, so we are going to learn to be creators, not managers.

From there, our work begins. I ask my college students to ponder the question, “How do you want kids to feel when they cross the threshold of your classroom?” I go on to tell them that they alone are responsible for that, for when they assume the mantle of teacher, they accept that responsibility. They are to become, then, creators of worlds.

Heavy stuff for wide-eyed kids taking their first few steps into the realm of education. We spend the rest of the quarter exploring their ideal classroom cultures and considering the practices that turn those ideals into realities. In short, we make sure that our walk will match our talk. If a teacher wants her kids to have a growth mindset, then she has to implement practices that foster that mindset.

But this is not a post about or for pre-service teachers. It is really for those of us who are already in the classroom, those of us who are already creators, those of us who already possess the power of that autonomy and carry the weight of that responsibility. It is for those of us who are already walking and talking. It is a reminder that, years down the road, we need to examine the cultures we create, analyze our walk and talk, and ask ourselves how we want our kids to feel when they enter our rooms and live in our worlds. 

And if in our examination we discover that things are out of sync with that vision, then we have to adjust. And in that, we have to remember that we not only have power, we have choice. Of course, there are—and always will be—outside forces in the form of national, state, and local mandates that interfere and create seeming impossibilities. But it is my experience and my belief that, more often than not, the only difference between impossible and possible is the choice of the teacher. Therefore, I choose possibility. And possibility has never been more possible than in my journey away from grades. 

Here is but a small glimpse of the culture I seek to create in my high school English class, and how the gradeless approach has helped me better walk my talk and make what was once “impossible” possible:

  • I want my students to feel like they matter as individuals. Frequently, we begin our time together with what I call “Smiles and Frowns.” Each kid has a chance to share a smile and/or frown from his or her life. It’s a great way to start our time together. It’s a great way to build community. It takes five minutes. Before, in my more-traditional mindset, I wouldn’t take the time, and, if I did, I felt guilty about “stealing” instructional time. Now, if I don’t do it, I feel guilty about stealing community time. I plan to do it everyday next year. It’s important to me, so I have to support it. I choose to support it. It’s possible.
  • I want my students to have growth mindsets. Behold the power of “yet.” As creators of culture we are also “creators of language.” In my classroom, to begin the year, we spend a lot of time with Carol Dweck. Among our takeaways, perhaps none is greater than the word “yet.” It becomes a part of our experiences, a part of our language. We engage in activities where kids have to think about the power of yet. One of my favorites is answering the question, “How is “yet” like a bridge?” I can’t<>yet<>I can. The challenge—maybe impossibility—of fostering an authentic growth mindset in a traditional context is the linear approach to learning. Hard to reinforce yet when we don’t circle back to the opportunity. Too often in the cover-the-content model, we leave kids at can’t. In the gradeless classroom, learning is a circle, not a line. Learning should never be a one-and-done experience. If yet is going to get kids across the gap from can’t to can, we have to give them the necessary opportunities, or we are choosing to leave kids behind. I choose to provide opportunity. I choose to make yet a possibility.
  • I want my students to feel like they own their learning. In my biggest professional risk, fueled by my biggest professional frustration, I gave all my kids an “A” last year to force them to own their learning. This “A” idea was not my original intent, but it became the least harmful way to get rid of grades. Once grades were off the table, all that remained was an opportunity to learn and grow. Or not. But either way it was a choice. And when kids have choice, they have ownership. With the traditional approach, I owned the learning, branding each student with the grade as I passed them along. My kids felt that learning was something that was done to them, not for them, or—even better—with them. They didn’t own it. I did. So, I chose to change it. I chose to make ownership possible by creating a grade-free environment.
  • I want my students to seek feedback. With grades off the table, there was nothing left but feedback. So that became the only item on the menu. And while a lot of work remains in regards to refining the recipe, I gave more feedback this year than in all of my previous twenty years in the classroom combined. Had to. There was nothing else to give. And I discovered that kids have greater appetites when they are learning for the sake of actually growing, not learning for the sake of getting a grade. I chose to restrict my kids’ diets. No more appetite-spoiling morsels. I chose to make them hungry for the fuel necessary for growth: feedback.
  • I want my students to experience less stress. Life is stressful. School is stressful. Stress negatively impacts learning, so if kids are going to learn best, we need to minimize unnecessary stress. In the traditional classroom, rigid homework policies and inflexible testing policies create unnecessary stress for our kids. In the gradeless classroom, flexibility promotes possibility, and when things are possible, they are less stressful. As for homework—or “practice” as I call it—I specify a preferred due date, but I also let the kids know if they are unable to meet that deadline, I will take it when they can get it to me. It’s important practice that supports performance, so there is value in doing it—now or later. As for tests—or “performances” as I call them—I let my kids know early on that redos and retakes are not only possible, they are encouraged. With grades off the table, redos and retakes are not about getting more points or better grades; they are opportunities to demonstrate further learning. In my traditional experiences, kids hated homework and tests because of the stress. In my gradeless classroom, I have been able to curb their anxiety and aversion to both. I chose to address their stress. The gradeless context made this possible.
  • I want my students to see me as a source of inspiration rather than merely a font of knowledge. One of the unanticipated but welcome developments of going gradeless was learning to play a new role, the role of inspirer. It’s not that I didn’t strive to inspire my kids in the traditional setting, nor that I no longer supply knowledge in the gradeless setting, but something happened when I made the shift. I traded power for influence. In the traditional setting, I possessed—and sadly at times abused—the power of grades. In the gradeless setting, especially inside the give- ’em-an-A approach, I no longer had power. So, instead, I began to wield influence, and while that took many forms, one form consistently took center stage. The mantra. To get my kids excited about and ready for the challenges we faced, I found myself constructing and sharing mantras. One such challenge was practicing public speaking. Already having taken stock of my kids’ fear of public speaking, I presented them with the following mantra, and we repeated it in chorus as we prepared for that day’s activity. Today, I will face fear. Today, I will be brave. Today, I will struggle. Today, I will grow. And they did. Without my wielding the power of a grade, they faced their fear, struggled, and grew. I only had influence and inspiration in my hand. My choice to go gradeless changed my role. My new role made it possible for kids to face their fears, not out of compliance but commitment. I like my new role. I love my new role.

And so, at last, I have found my fit, my true culture. It has taken me years to get here, but I have finally found a place and a pace where my walk and my talk meet. Every quarter, I share a mantra with my college kids.

And if I still—now that my secret is out—have a job next fall, I will share it with my next batch of students as they prepare to become creators. Do. Reflect. Do better. As creators, we must reflect to keep in check the power we wield. We must reflect, for in reflection there is revelation.

In the spring of 2016, I reflected deeply on my talk and my walk, and I was dissatisfied with my discovery. So I made a choice. I decided to go gradeless. But going gradeless is more than a choice; it is a commitment. It must be, for I have never felt so committed to a particular culture. I think the last time I felt such commitment was when I first entered the profession twenty-one years ago. Like my college kids, I was that wide-eyed, idealistic spirit who was going to change the world. Reality eventually, inevitably chipped away at those ideals, and before I knew it, my ideals had given way to realities, adding an im- to many of my possibles.

And, sadly, for a time, the starry-eyed boy lost his way, the mismatch of his walk and talk turned him inward. There he came to doubt his efficacy in an “impossible” system, letting apathy divert his long-held possibles. But all was not lost. He again found his way through reflection, discovering that apathy is simply a choice. And so, he chose to do different; he chose to do better, and he found himself.

I found myself. I am again become the wide-eyed boy with stars in his eyes. I have at last become balanced, my walk following my talk. I have again become liberated, ideals dancing freely in the expanse of my mind. I am at last become me. A creator of possibility.

Monte Syrie teaches English at Cheney High School in Cheney, Washington. He also teaches education classes at Eastern Washington University. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter

8 thoughts on “Gradeless: A Culture of Possibility

  1. God, I love everything about this! My mind is coming up with, “yeah, buts”, but my heart is all lit up with excitement at the possibility. I’m changing schools this year, so I could completely reinvent myself as the kind of teacher I’ve always longed to be… it would be a fight since I’m heading to a very traditional program, and in math this kind of teaching is considered the realm of the humanities so it’s dismissed, but I might just be up for it. Thank you for the inspiration this morning. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You will always have “yeah, buts,” so just jump. I did, and it was the best decision I ever made. I arm myself with my “Do. Reflect. Do better” mantra and march forward. Good luck with your reinvention!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Monte, this is amazing! I am really wanting to focus on my class culture next year and this is really helpful. I feel like I need to provide the structure and create a safe place where students can stretch.

    Like

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