2019

Unconventional Teaching Practice: Grading Conferences

It’s no secret that I am a proponent of unconventional grading practices. In fact, I’ve written about the subject several times before. (Here, here, & here.)

While I’ve been making the transition to a classroom that focuses less on points and percentages and hope to one day have a gradeless class, there’s been a returning struggle. Each time the end of the quarter rolls around, an average is calculated to determine an overall “grade” for my students. That average takes into account the points earned on all assignments in a given amount of time. Years ago it was a weighted average that included formatives, too.

I tried a few different methods of rigging the gradebook, messing with the values, and inputting formulas to try to make this system work with my philosophy. But the truth is, it just doesn’t. In a classroom where we’re focusing on growth and learning and progress toward our goals, calculating an average for a grade detracts from that. It effectively negates the mindset we have all quarter long.

I’ve been bothered by this for awhile, but was really uncertain how to fix it or change it. Thankfully, I’m connected with an amazing group of educators who are shifting or have shifted their own practices and who offer their ideas willingly. (Check out Aaron Blackwelder and Jeffery Frieden and the #TG2Chat for the same inspiration!)

They, and a few other wonderful educators, inspired me to start something new with my middle schoolers: grading conferences.

Hearing about this at first, I was totally unsure if my 11 and 12 year old students could handle it. But I caught myself and realized, as I continue to do, that they are capable of far more than I think. My desire to implement this practice was made reality with the help of my fabulous new partner at school, and together we created a structure to start our version of grading conferences.

Enter Grading Week.

We envisioned our students creating a portfolio of work from the quarter that represented their mastery of our first quarter target standards. Because this would obviously take time and require some guidance, we decided that providing them the week before the quarter ended would make the most sense.

What do students do during grading week?

Truthfully, whatever they need to do. For most students, it started by compiling work from first quarter into their portfolio. We provided a template, which will likely be revised and tweaked based on what we learned this first time around.

As they were putting together their portfolios, students also used time to revise or re-assess on some of our standards. The major benefit to having the entire week was that students had time in class to re-assess, ask questions, review supplemental resources, and do more learning.

We also had students sign up for conference times with us during this week. Each time slot was 10 minutes, though some didn’t take the whole time. They chose the time that worked best, and we provided a Google sheet that was editable. This allowed students to swap with each other, which definitely happened a few times. It also allowed my partner and I to keep track of who we had met with and who still needed to chat. Simple, effective, and easy to set up.

A menu was provided to our kids as well. That way if they finished their portfolio and were waiting to conference, or if they already had their conference, there was no question about what they could and should be doing. They worked off the menu, stayed engaged in the content, and for some, had a little time to explore further.

How do students get help if you’re in a conference?

I have a very strict rule about conferencing of any kind—you absolutely cannot interrupt. Okay, you can, but only in a few scenarios. I have a goofy little poster in my room that outlines them:

  • You (not someone else, only you) are on fire
  • The classroom is flooding: knee level water constitutes a flood; anything below the knee does not warrant an interruption
  • A spider is ON my person (My crippling fear of spiders is well known around the school as I often have to ask for help removing them from my classroom)
  • There is a tornado that has somehow escaped my notice
  • Aliens are invading the classroom and we must welcome them to our planet
  • Harry Potter has entered the room, and I must immediately be warned so I can go fangirl over him
Student experts & their class periods.

Conferences between myself and my students are sacred time, whether they’re grading or writing or what have you, and they are honored as such. But if a student has a pressing question or needs help understanding something, they still need to be able to get it. So we have a couple options.

First are student experts. I have students sign up on my whiteboard for topics (based off the target standards) that they would be comfortable explaining to other students. I verify that they have already reached proficiency/mastery of the standard, and they are available if a peer needs help. Second, my partner and I have created a resource library. It’s full of videos, examples, extra practice, and further lessons on the standards we covered. Students all have access and can easily pop in for additional guidance. If neither work, they can wait until I’m between conferences to ask for help.

What do you do in a grading conference?

This is my favorite part. When students come to conference, they bring their portfolio as evidence of their learning. They are provided with this sheet early on in the year, and we go over it several times. They also bring it to their conference as a basis for our conversation.

We start by going through each of the standards, and the student tells me where they are at in their learning with that particular target. Have they met it? Do they understand it? What is still confusing them? How did they get to that level of understanding?

The discussion is powerful, and the kids do a great job of articulating their progress. My favorite part of this structure was the legitimate ownership of their learning process I saw them taking in this particular conversation. Not only did they recognize that it was truly theirs, but they were able to speak to it eloquently as well. We even had a couple students who went above and beyond, creating Google slides presentations outlining their growth and understanding.

After going through each standard, I ask the students where they believe their grade should be for the quarter. We look specifically at this chart:

Students then tell me where they fall and then… they justify it. They have to defend their grade to me, and we essentially negotiate it until we both agree. Some conversations were more difficult, but it was helpful to have this chart as a guide. The kids walk away from their conference knowing what the report card will say for language arts, and they (hopefully) feel comfortable with it, too.

What does your gradebook look like?

This was the most difficult part of the transition to this structure, but only because we had to make our student information system do what we wanted it to do! Our goal was not to eliminate all communication between ourselves and students/parents during the quarter, so we had to find a way to still report and give feedback without affecting the end grade.

In the end, we continued reporting proficiency scores (my district uses a 4 point scale) on summative work, except we weighted every single grade at nothing. It wouldn’t calculate an overall class grade or percent, but would still communicate progress on our learning targets throughout the unit.

We had our technology department—the kind, wonderful, helpful people they are—create a special code for our end of quarter grade. They are amazing and legitimately created this category for us, and I am now indebted to them. We called it EOQ… for end of quarter. That is the only grade that has “weight”, so to speak, in my gradebook, and it’s out of 10 points. Only after an EOQ score is entered will a class grade be calculated.

I wish I could remove the calculation of percentages and letter grades altogether, because even though it doesn’t report an overall course grade until after that final conference, each assignment will have a percentage. It takes a lot of communication about points vs. proficiency scores, which I’m happy to do, but it would make the shift in mindset and understanding much simpler if I could just get rid of them completely! All in due time.

Day 1 reminders (no conferences) & a peek at my silly conference interruptions sign!

Overall, this first grading week has been an overwhelming success. I am thrilled with how it went and am so impressed with the way my students were able to speak to their learning. The empowerment of my kids and the ownership they took was incredible. I will be getting their feedback (using my trusty Google forms method) this week, and am looking forward to their thoughts and suggestions. I know it’ll need some tweaking, but this first one was fantastic.

Changing your grading practices can be difficult. It takes a lot of front-loading and preparation, and it can be met with resistance from all sides. But this structure allows me to post grades the day the quarter ends, instead of furiously trying to finish marking essays in the time we have between quarter’s end and report cards. It also allows me to have authentic conversations with my students about their progress and behavior, as well as their understanding and misconceptions. Even more, it helps students see, and I mean really see, their growth in our class over time.

The journey I’ve taken these past few years in my classroom has been so beneficial— to my students and myself. It has resulted in restorative practices that empower my students to truly own their learning. It’s led me to this new, exciting practice that I cannot wait to do again. It’s made me a better educator who is focused on growing kids into incredible humans.

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