Two years after going “gradeless,” Woodland High School English teacher Aaron Blackwelder said his view of teaching has changed, and his students are learning more than ever.
“You will not see me lecture,” Blackwelder said.
Instead, he focuses on group work and teaching soft skills in his classes, he said, as well as continually challenging students to do better.
“What does a ‘B’ mean? What can they do besides get 89% of the points?” Blackwelder said. “I know more about where my kids are (academically) now than ever before.”
In addition, Blackwelder said this method has made him think more deeply about the “why” behind student misbehavior or failure to complete work.
“Do students have a safe, secure place to go do this assignment? Do they need the skills to do this assignment?” Blackwelder said. “Just (giving a zero) ignores why they didn’t do the work.”
Blackwelder said he now focuses more on building relationships with students. Instead of using grades in a “punitive” way, he said he wants students to recognize that he wants to help them succeed.
“Assessment is no longer punitive,” Blackwelder said. “I‘m not marking you wrong. I’m working to pull out what you need. Since I’ve gone gradeless, there’s been a real change in my classroom.”
In place of grading assignments throughout the year, Blackwelder instead has conversations about learning with his students and discussing their projects and assignments. He also uses Google Forms for project group members to evaluate each other, not with a grade, but how well they contribute to a project.
“The kids are engaged. They’re reliant on teamwork and collaboration,” Blackwelder said.
At the end of the year, his students must assemble a portfolio of their work, then Blackwelder and each student jointly decide on a final grade. Blackwelder said students tend to be honest about the work they’ve done and sometimes grade themselves less generously than he would.
It’s not known how common Blackwelder’s approach is across the state or nation, but there is a network and movement among teachers who have adopted gradeless practices, he said.
Freshman Angelina Smith said she loves the system and would like it used in other classes.
“I like how there’s a lot of variety in what we do,” Smith said.
Her group is currently reading and analyzing “Maze Runner,” a 2009 young adult dystopian science fiction novel by James Dashner. Students picked it themselves.
Smith’s group partner Brook Lynn, who is also a freshman, said she would like to see an art class be gradeless and group-centered.
“I like the idea of having groups,” Lynn said.
Blackwelder first piloted the gradeless system in 2017, but the idea started to grow for him 10 years ago, he said.
“I got to the point where I thought education just felt empty and that reading a book, writing a paper and taking a test only to forget everything felt asinine,” Blackwelder said. “I thought, ‘I need to find some purpose in this.’ ”
He and fellow Woodland teacher Jason Cowley got together and came up with a rubric-based system, with clear benchmarks and goals for students that would rank their work 1-4. (A rubric is a set of criteria for evaluating and grading student assignments.) They paired the rubric with an evaluation conversation, which Blackwelder said they based off teacher evaluations.
However, he said the system didn’t quite work the way they wanted.
“I remember the first conversation I had with a student, I said ‘Where do you think you are?’ And they said ‘A four,’ ” Blackwelder said. “I said, ‘You haven’t even read the rubric, why do you say you’re a four?’ and they said ‘Because I want to be on top’. So something was still wrong. It was still about grades.”
From there, the pair continued to make adjustments to the system, doing away with the 1-4 rubric and having a simple one-point rubric that listed what a good end result would consist of. That was four years ago, and today Blackwelder says he doesn’t even refer to that rubric anymore.
Instead, he asks students questions to help them parse out where they might improve. Instead marking them down for not having a thesis statement, for example, he says, “I’m confused, I don’t understand your thesis. Can you explain it to me?”
Of course, Blackwelder said, not all students love the system, but he still tries to make sure each student learns in the best way for him or her.
“I don’t let anyone off the hook. If I assign it, it’s because it’s worthwhile,” Blackwelder said.
Freshman Ivan Ishin said while the gradeless system works, he would prefer to do less group work and thinks the style is best suited to English class.
“Maybe it’s too much. We do it often,” Ishin said. “I wouldn’t want to do lot of group work in science and math. It would be hard.”
Nearly 73% of students at Woodland High School met the standard on last year’s state English test. While Blackwelder acknowledged that his students need to pass standardized tests to graduate, he said the point of education should not to be to raise test scores.
“My philosophy of learning now is that it needs to be worthwhile and transferable beyond the classroom,” Blackwelder said. “I want it to be usable 20 years from now.”
Lynn said that’s the big advantage of Blackwelder’s approach: “I feel like we’re actually learning something that will help us in the future, not just to take a test and not use again.”
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