Student: "What Do I Need to Do to Get My Grade Up?" Me: "Learn."

There's not a lot that I remember about my first year of teaching. Asking me to talk about my first year teaching is a lot like asking a child what their favorite part of their birth was. I can't remember much of it, and for the most part, I'm probably really glad about that.

However, I remember a few things.

Some were good.

I remember watching my four seniors, all behind in English credits, get on stage and perform their poems in front of a mostly-full auditorium.

I remember working with my principal to kick off my dystopian literature unit by convincing my class that I had been removed from the classroom and detained for "anti-American sentiments."

But there is one negative memory that sticks out to me more than the rest. At the time, it didn't really seem that negative, but looking back on it, I can see the way it changed my classroom entirely.

It was syllabus day for second semester. I had pretty much the same students, so it seemed ridiculous to be going over the syllabus, but it was happening. When I got to the grading section, instead of reading my grading policies, I just tried to summarize and said, "Basically, do all your work and you'll be fine."

Do all your work and you'll be fine.

What was I communicating to my students in that moment? What was I communicating about what a successful student looked like in my class?

Was it the student who thought outside the box?


Was it the student who pursued what they were interested in?


Was it the student who made mistakes early on and then got better?


Was it the student who had to help support their family by working late shifts and ended up getting to school late sometimes because they were so tired or had to take care of their siblings, and as a result ended up with some missing assignments?


So, what was I communicating about what a successful student would look like in my class?


The most important factor in my classroom, in terms of being successful, was whether or not you would do what I told you to.

Is this really the type of student we want to be creating? We say we want to prepare students for college and careers, but if this is the emphasis in our classrooms and grading practices, we're preparing students for mediocrity. We are preparing students to always be employees, not employers. Even more, we're preparing them to not solve the problems of tomorrow, but simply to do what they're asked today.

What can we do about this?

1. Uncouple your grades from assignments. 
Wait, what? I mean it. If you want meaningful conversations about learning, you have to de-emphasize the assignment. Record data from your assessments somewhere, and every two weeks, publish a score for each learning target into your grade book. Don't mention assignments in your grade book. Use them to gather data, but the important part is the data, not the assignment.

2. Require reflection.
Handing out grades is not meaningful by itself. Handing out grades and requiring students to record their scores for standards and then identify strengths, weaknesses, and future goals? Now that is meaningful. When students start to see their academic strengths and weaknesses, only then will they care about them. If all we show them are their missing assignments, all they will care about are their missing assignments.

3. Talk with students about their scores.
I hate grading essays at home. It feels pointless, and honestly, half the time it is. In my third year of teaching, I felt like I had really hit my stride, so I decided to try something: I only graded student work with the student present. This made grading so much more meaningful (and enjoyable) for both me and the student. If that doesn't work for you, always make it a goal that grades involve a conversation. That could be with you or with peers, but making grading a conversational process will take the emphasis off the assignment.

4. Drop some scores.
If you aren't ready to totally detach grades from assignments and, like me this year (a new curriculum and school resulted in me take a step back this year) have standards attached to assignments in your grade book, drop some! Don't count everything. When a student approaches you about a grade and they have a missing assignment, the conversation goes one of two ways: (1) "Here's the work you need to do to get your grade up," or (2) "I dropped that assignment, so instead let's look at what skills you have lower scores in right now."

5. Move to standards-based grading.
This is underlying everything here. Until assignments are no longer what primarily goes into your grade book, students will always be focused on the product over the learning. For more about standards-based grading, two of my previous posts address why it's important and how to implement it.

As we all approach the end of the year and begin to be swarmed with the inevitable question of, "What can do to raise my grade?" Think about how you want to answer that question. Do you really want to tell students that it's about the assignments, or do you want to tell them it's about the learning? If the reality is different than you want, summer is a great time for change.