Grades are letters that conflate the learning from the entire semester or quarter. I have to assign a grade for my seventh and eighth grade readers at the end of every quarter, and I struggle with this every time because their learning defies such neat, confining symbols, which is somewhat ironic because we talked a lot about symbolism in literature this term. Such is my perspective of grades.
Some students, however, see grades as part of their identity. For some it is just a sliver, but for others, they are very much wrapped up in being an “A” student or an “F” student – or in our case a “U,” for unsatisfactory. Imagine getting used to seeing “unsatisfactory” next to your name quarter after quarter. How do you recover from that? Imagine seeing “A’s” quarter after quarter. What sort of expectation of self in and beyond school might that create?
Students in junior have been carrying around these identity markers for many years and have, in some cases, committed to this the identity of a perfectionist or failure or resigned to the good enough “C’ or passing “D.” When it comes to final grades each quarter, I find myself battling these identity markers like they are ghosts hovering over and among us. The Ghosts of Grading’s Past.
In the portfolio process at the end of each quarter, I invite these ghosts into our individual grade conferences to see if we can illuminate the narratives they are whispering in our ears in the hopes that I can make space for some new, healthier perceptions of learning and self.
1.Prepare for the Conference by Collecting
In our second to last week of this quarter, students developed slideshows of their learning, a portfolio: a collection of artifacts (pictures of their work) and synthesis charts where they process their reading experiences. For example, in book groups, students read two immigration novels, so they created a comparison chart of the characters’ experiences; we also talked about assimilation, acculturative stress, and xenophobia, so students created a chart with examples from their two immigration books, in addition to our class novel: Sherman Alexie’s, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. These portfolios contain proof that nobody is a failure. Everyone has evidence of some experiences because we did some things as a class, some in groups, and some independently. The “Loving Test” was a success for everyone because of the process;and the four book group discussions gave everyone many opportunities to practice, improve, and experience the joys of shared reading.
2. Reflect on the Collection
In the final week of the quarter, I asked students to write a reflection of their learning by responding to just one question. I projected these reflection questions and offered some time to write. The wording of these questions attempts to quiet the negative ghosts so that students can acknowledge what they experienced.
What im noticing about myself as a reader that im starting to read a little bit more out of school. Because i use to not read at all out of school. And im starting to ask more questions when im reading a book. A struggle that I worked through was the test because some of the questins were hard but i kept trying until i got the question right. (J., as he wrote it.)
- I’ve experienced that the two books I read are very similar, the main characters were girls and were from Korea.
- I noticed that I can read well when it’s quiet and there’s not a single sound.
- The immigration books I read had different words for mom and dad, in A step from heaven Young Ju would say Umma or Appa instead of mom and dad.
- Instead of having to read the book I would of listened to the audio version since it makes it easier and you can listen to it without having the book.
- I think we test and write and ask questions in class so we can remember what we’ve read/ tell something we read about the book. It makes write down and explain what happened in the book. (R., in his words.)
3. Create a Self-Guided Project
In order to have the time and the quiet to meet with students individually, the rest of the class needed to be engaged in something, well, engaging and self-guided. I created a research project that asks: What will you do with your one precious life? This is essentially a career study project with opportunities to reflect on the present and imagine the future. It is high interest and will set us up for presentations in the next quarter while also taking to task the ghosts of the past.
4. Stay Mobile as Your Confer
To confer in previous quarters, I would set up in the corner of the room and call over students to confer; this gave us privacy, but I sort of felt like the queen summoning my people. Now, I just set up the desks in rows and drag an old metal stool up and down the rows for the whisper conferences.
I am part of a Chromebook pilot, so I asked students to present their portfolios to me as a slide presentation. I sat beside them. We pointed to learning evidence, and I asked questions about how things felt and even shared my own memories and observations from the quarter. We ended by reading the reflection together and then deciding on the final grade. In our brief conference — a few minutes each — I worked into the conversations concepts like identity and asked how they see themselves; how their little brother and sister sees them; how friends see them. I talked about who they wanted to be and how the way we define ourselves can help or hinder that journey. We imagined together what the next quarter could look like for them, and then I wished them a restful winter break.
5. The Essence of the Conference
I was able to meet with each student over the entire week — 6 classes of about 25-30 students, 30-40 minutes class periods (some days were shortened schedules). The few minutes I spent with students were, perhaps, the most important of the quarter because so many don’t see themselves as readers, don’t see themselves as smart. Some carry with them this identity of being a failure or stupid because somewhere they heard this or saw the big “F” mark on their papers. Others carry this identity of an “A” student, which is more of a perfectionist marker than one of deep, thoughtful learning.
The portfolio and conferences are about disrupting such markers and beliefs about the self and learning. The portfolios make visible and tangible to the students that they are, in fact, readers, thinkers, and students of reading but also of the world. The reflection is essential to this. We are honest about what could be better (if we could do it over). Some asked for one more day to redo an assignment or rework their slideshow portfolio, so we rescheduled our conference with hope. I allow it because readiness is also something that does not fit neatly into a letter grade. Some follow through and others don’t, but I try to close each conference with a sense of the possibilities ahead — to make space for future, friendlier ghosts.
Essentially, the letter is the grade, but the reflection process and conference is a continuation of learning, which is symbolic in the sense that we are reframing evaluation. Still, students are “programmed” to celebrate the letter, and I can see the relief and pride in their eyes when we agree on the final letter for the quarter. I accept this as much as I try to undermine it. For now, I am happy that the portfolio-reflection-conference method communicates to them that they did learn, and they are capable. No one “fails” with this approach, and I think we all do a lot of healing in this process – -me included.