Lately, I’ve seen gradeless teachers sharing frustrations about student procrastination as they have eliminated grades and lightened up on due dates. They are bothered because some students wait until the end of the semester to turn in artifacts and prioritize other classes who have more strict due dates. This makes it difficult for the classroom teacher to provide meaningful feedback that produces growth.
This is not a problem attributed to gradelessness. When I had a class filled with points, averages, and strict due dates I had students want to earn those last few points that would bump up their grade at the end of the semester. I also remember students working on science, math, and history assignments in my class. I really don’t think these issues started after I went gradeless. However, when I went gradeless I relinquished some control over my students and this left a sense of vulnerability that is uncomfortable, which may have accentuated this issue.
As a teacher of reading and writing I encounter many students reluctant to put pen to paper. Writing is often a scary process. Some don’t know how to start. Others don’t know how to organize their thoughts. And there are those so embarrassed by their limited command of spelling, grammar, and mechanics that writing is seen as a traumatic experience. Finally, there are those who are more caught up in having conversations with their friends or playing Fortnite on their phones and completely forget about doing the work.
Alfie Kohn has suggested learning should be something teachers do WITH students rather than TO them. Strict deadlines and an expectation to complete our assignments is a doing TO education. Granted, I believe that students need to learn essential skills like reading, writing, critical thinking, and communicating ideas and there is content that is essential to be successful in life. However, teachers should be doing these essentials WITH learners rather than TO them.
Timeliness is a soft skill that we want to teach students. One thing I have done to help teach timeliness is I have created Due Windows. These are windows of about 3-5 days that students select and hold themselves accountable.
Lets say we are writing a research argument essay. Students had one week to research and another week to draft their essays. As students are coming close to finishing their essays I post a sign-up sheet for students to conference drafts of their essays with me. These are 6-8 minute time slots, depending upon the assignment. Students get to choose the time and the date their work is due. I always encourage students to sign up for earlier times because if they are not finished (or haven’t started for that matter) I can help them. Or, if they are finished, I can give them feedback and they can use class time to make revisions while I am conferencing with other students.
After students sign up for their time I post the list on the classroom door so they can see it as they finish drafting their works. During conference days I put the sign up sheet under my document camera and project it for the class. This creates a visual reminder for students and promotes positive peer pressure.
I also use checklists. Students need to have two students review their work and they need to review two other students’ work prior to their conference with me.
When students come to me we look over their work together. We read it aloud. We discuss the strengths of the piece and together we share how to make revisions. Most students come to the conference with completed work. However, I will get some students who come with nothing. When this happens I do not roll my eyes or chastise them for wasting time. Rather, I use the time to help the student start writing. We will come up with ideas and draft an outline together. We will discuss the introduction and the conclusion. I encourage these students and challenge them to make an effort. I end the discussion by asking these students to share their plan to complete the work.
When the due window closes I continue to accept the work–as a matter of fact, I expect the work. However, I will not conference the work during class time. That window closed. Rather, I will continue to conference the work before school, during Advisory, and after school (I reserve lunch time for me.) I keep a list of students who have not completed their assignments by my desk so I can see it and cross them off when they do. Periodically, I write notes on Post-Its reminding students to finish their work and conference with me. This has a huge impact.
I usually give students a week beyond the Due Window before I start to contact parents. A highly effective method is to simply share the student’s work with the parent. Most of our work is done in Google Suite. This is a powerful tool. I can open a student’s essay in Google Docs, click the “Share” button and send it off to mom and dad with a note that says something like:
“We have been working on an argument essay over the past three weeks and was due (insert due date). Attached is the work (student’s name) has completed so far. This essay is expected to be completed. I am available for tutoring Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after school. I encourage (student’s name) to come in during this time for help.”
This year, when I shared work with parents, I had a one hundred percent turn in rate. I had several students come in after school regularly for help. Most of these students just wanted a dedicated quite time away from their friends to work.
Procrastination and prioritization of other classes is not something new or unique to this generation of students. I am guilty of reading student essays during staff meetings. I often put off publishing grades till the last minute. We should not get frustrated when our students do exactly what we tend to do.
Young minds need help prioritizing. Part of our job is to help teach students these skills. In teaching these skills we have to remind ourselves that students need our help. We have to stay calm and simply add new tools to our belt that help us teach students the skills we want them to learn without getting upset at them.
Aaron Blackwelder is the co-founder of Teachers Going Gradeless, English teacher, high school golf coach, and a contributor to Spectrums Life Magazine. You can read his personal blog at mrblackwelder.wordpress.com
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