Dear Mom: 7th Graders Write Midterm Letters

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A few weeks ago, I wrote Imagining a No Grades Classroom where I discussed Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes as a first step in rethinking my own grading and assessment practices.  The narrative feedback approach resonated with me as an ethical means to let students know what they are doing well while encouraging next steps and follow-through — an ongoing conversation about learning. I decided to try using narrative feedback (written or verbal) as the only way I would communicate with students about their learning this year — instead of letter grades and numbers. I proposed this to my principal, and he allowed me to move forward with it in part because I’d be giving feedback on the standards, which supported his vision for our school to move toward more standards-based instruction.

To learn more about standards-based instruction and learning, I reviewed Rethinking Grading by Cathy Vatterott to consider the implications of standards at the center my conversations with students (how to balance skills and evidence with deep thinking and personal connections). I am interested in “standards-based instruction” rather than “standards-based grades” because my goal this year is to minimize (if not eliminate) any sort of ranking in my feedback to students about their learning. I really want to see what will happen when the feedback is individualized, less comparative, and more growth oriented than mastery oriented (but this is complicated and messy in my mind still).

Now that my school is at the midterm of the first quarter, the time when the teachers enter letters in the school grading system to communicate to parents and administrators how students are doing in their classes, I am thinking about what will those letters communicate to parents? To students? How will those letters help students in the next weeks of the quarter?

Midterm grade anxiety

So it has been five weeks without putting a letter or number on any paper, five weeks without uttering such measurement language when responding to students’ work. Things are going well. Students are reading my feedback and responding with changes, additions, adjustments, and questions about their learning and thinking. However, in other classes, students are talking about midterm grades, and this has stirred some grade-anxiety in my classes. Will there be a blank on the midterm report? What will I tell my parents?

While my principal was in support of a no-grades classroom, he did ask me to enter a pass/fail grade for the midterm report as a way of communicating to parents some basic information about their child’s learning — primarily, as a heads-up to parents and administrators about any concerns, i.e., which students are progressing a bit slower or reluctantly. (The students, of course, don’t need this letter because we’ve already conferred and are problem-solving this together.) At midterm, everyone get’s a “P” because we are all still in a beautiful spiral of learning, showing learning feedback, learning, showing learning, feedback, and so on. Still, the “P” is partial. What does that letter communicate to students, administrators, and students?

So knowing I would have to put some letter on the midterm report, I felt the need to send something home with the “P” that could communicate what students were, in fact, learning and how they felt about it all, but I did not want to invest too much of my own time writing narrative feedback to the parents — that will come at the end of the quarter. I decided on a midterm self-assessment/reflection.

I teach three seventh grade reading classes and three seventh grade writing classes (40 minutes each). Below, I’ll share a bit about the writing midterm reflections; in another post, I’ll share how the reading midterm reflections went.

A little background on our writing class

In the past five weeks, students typically start class with a Compose for 7 — seven minutes of sustained writing about anything they wish. I always give a narrative prompt in the form of a picture, an informative prompt, and an argument prompt (thought I don’t really like the word prompt and just call it inspiration). They also have writing territories in their notebooks and poem options; they can use this time to write about what they care about, but I gently push for them to take risks. The purpose is to “find the flow” so that they don’t feel the time but just feel the idea flowing through their pens. Then, after the time, they add to their a “flow chart,”  a log of their topics with some note about their flow experience.

The other part of class time  we work on longer pieces using the writing process. We’ve written friendly letters about our homes, and now we are working through the writing process of a comparison article. This week, we finished peer conferences.

Now for the midterm reflections

I made it clear before starting the midterm reflections that the document will go home with the midterm reports as a way of informing parents about what we have been doing together for the past five weeks. I told them that the letter on the report card cannot possibly capture the beautiful things they are doing in class, and that even though this reflection will fall short, too, it might just spark a conversation at home about what we are learning.

Here are the questions I offered to spark self-assessment and reflection:

Midterm Writing Reflection

Here are some responses. Note that one is in Spanish. I am sorry to say that I did not think of this initially, but one boy said, thank goodness: “What if our parents do not speak English? Can I write it in Spanish” Of course. Of course.

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And then, after two classes of doing this Q &A format, I realized that I should have framed the self-assessment/reflection as a “letter” to go with the “letter.” So my third writing class, wrote letters to their families instead of merely responding to my questions.

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Midterm Letter

I feel good about this sort of narrative feedback going home to parents — in the voice of the students. (I like the letters better than the Q & A format.) I think this narrative is consistent with what I am trying to do in my no-grades classroom, which is to put learning first, to support students in their thinking about learning, and to facilitate communication about what we are doing in a qualitative way, a way that resists easy measurement.  I think the students are capturing more than I could about their experiences; their experiences with what I offer are so varied and insightful. The content in these reflections offer me a great deal of evidence as to what they are and are not learning; I have ideas about how to adjust my instruction, and I know what I will talk about with each student next time we confer.

I am not sure how the “P’s” next to the other grades on the midterm report be received by parents. I am not sure what they will think of the student reflections going home (if they will read them, if a conversation might ensue). I will send out a survey at some point to get parent feedback about this process, but in the letter/signature card that accompanies these, I will have a brief explanation of my rationale and the principal’s support.

Letters — a grade or a reflection — will always be partial, incomplete methods for communicating learning. A portfolio will help fill in some of the gaps, and this will come at the end of the quarter. For now, for midterm, I think the two letters will send the message that we are all doing okay, that we are figuring things out, and that in a few weeks we’ll all have a better sense of what we know and do.

Bracing myself for whatever will come, and believing that a “P” and a “Dear Mom” letter are “good” for these human beings with whom I am entrusted.

One Reply to “Dear Mom: 7th Graders Write Midterm Letters”

  1. Thank you for sharing how you are managing what I am calling in my own classroom, Narrative Feedback Instead of Grades. I’m up to the point, as you describe, of needing to have something ready for students, parents and admin. I am disappointed in myself for not having as much written feedback in our online gradebook as I’d planned (I got permission to do this from principal at end of summer), but I plan to do some of it this afternoon. I explained to my high school students – mostly journalism and tech, but a reading for fun class for good measure – at the beginning that they would be assessing themselves. We’ve established standards, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. My lesson planning for this week involves teaching them to self-assess by viewing their work according to the standards. Your post was very timely. Now I am thinking I may have them put it in letter format. However, high school students aren’t likely to actually take these home to parents, signature card or no. I had one student tell me, regarding the syllabus that discussed feedback instead of grades (I wanted this signed) that he was 18 and didn’t need his parents to sign.
    My kids work in Google Docs, so I may send letters home just before parent-teacher conferences telling them about Google Drive so that they can ask their student to share.
    Really, there are so many “right” ways to do this. I believe as long as we are looking out for the students and covering ourselves regarding reporting, it comes down to what works best for each of us. Thanks for sharing and giving me the opportunity to think out loud, er, on the keyboard.

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