Students Should Be Choosing Their Grades
I believe one of the trigger phrases students, of any grade, say to their teacher is, “What can I do to raise my grade?” The further along in the semester it is, the more triggering that phrase becomes. Now, I completely understand the willingness and bravery it takes most students to ask their teacher this question. I know that I, too, asked my former teachers this question. I know, more often than not, the question is planted in the student’s mind by their parent/guardian/adult/sibling because the student’s grade isn’t up to their family’s definition of par. Where I think the triggering effect comes from is that we teachers, by design, since the beginning of public education, are taught and expected to assign work which is then graded. Yes, formal and informal assessments should populate one’s curriculum, and I believe most educators reading this essay have done so.
Checking for understanding, high-stakes final exams, extra credit, make-up assignments, and alternate assessments: these are geared towards giving students a chance to get the grade they want. But why? So a student gets an “A” or a “B” and then moves on. What skills have they actually learned? Could they have learned something far more valuable than the anatomy of a whale, or how to identify a scalene triangle, or recite a Shakespearean sonnet? Yes, I say. In my three-plus years of teaching, I have come to the realization that in order to avoid this trigger--a trigger that I inform my class the first week of each semester is, in fact, a trigger--I have implemented some safety nets along the way that you can adapt and finesse into your classroom practices. I share this only because just this year I have heard/read far fewer “What can I do to raise my grade?” triggers and far more, “I’ve chosen the grade I have, so what can I do next time?” That’s like the sound of a well-sung Taylor Swift ballad to my ears.
1) I DO embed extra credit into every Unit; I DON’T offer extra credit for the Final unit. I do this for my Theatre 1s because I know not everyone chose Theatre as their top elective for the arts credit. However, by including extra credit as an option for every Unit’s assessment it gives my students with lower grades the chance to raise their grade within one Unit’s time. For my high-achieving students, it allows them the option to challenge themselves by choosing a more difficult path to completing the assessment and showing their creativity.
a. Example: For my Acting Techniques Unit, the assessment is an exam where I perform three monologues, each styled in the Technique we have studied. It is open notes, and the exam is a mix of pairing and short-answer. This accommodates my IEP/504 students from being forced to perform for a grade, as well my forever-shy students, but also takes the focus off the performance and puts it on their written demonstration of their knowledge of the acting styles. For extra credit, a student, after taking the exam, can perform a monologue of their choosing by implementing one of the three techniques of their choosing. Challenge accepted more often than not.
2) I DO assign points that encourage completing extra credit; I DON’T assign points outrageously. My standard is that the extra credit is worth half of the assessment’s total.
a. Example: If an assessment is worth 40 points, the maximum points to be awarded for extra is credit is 20. I go over the scale so they understand that an attempt at extra credit doesn’t guarantee the full amount, but rather they are eligible for up to that amount. This allows my students to see immediate value in every point they receive while not doing just one extra credit assessment and having enough points to blow off the rest of the semester’s work.
3) I DO preach that grades and points are a reward; I DON’T dare use assessments as threats. Countless times I heard teachers of my own assign mountains of writing, reading, and arithmetic because the class wouldn’t shut up, or because a student missed an assignment so now they had to do double the work. I understand the frustration for teachers when we are literally assigning work that we find value in and a student doesn’t do it, but that is their choice. I have daily writing and participation in my class, so it’s not like my students only have one assessment per Unit to change their grade. But when it is assessment time, my students may groan at my rubric, at first, but then I remind them that if they’re doing more work shouldn’t they deserve more points? The nodding heads start. I remind them that if they did all this work for me and I gave them nothing, wouldn’t that totally suck? More heads nod. I finish with a simple, “You deserve every point you get for doing every bit of work you do. Always get what you’re due.” They all nod, and then they get to work.
4) Lastly, I DO encourage choice of grades; I DON’T ever apologize for giving a grade they have chosen. I keep strict records of all student’s work through the finalization of grades, and even beyond that deadline. I have every one of their rubrics stapled to their Syllabus, which has been signed by them and their adult, indicating what Units we’re studying and what my grading policies are. That way, should a discrepancy ever come up, which does happen to all teachers at some point, I can bring out their packet and show my evidence. If it’s my error, then I apologize for the error, and immediately adjust. I apologize because that’s my human error. I’m human. You’re human. Mistakes happen. I do preach this to my students every single Unit. I tell them that they must take ownership of their grades. After all, it’s their grades, so they should always be checking. When students approach me for one-on-one conferences I have towards the end of each grading period, I am no longer met with excuses, but inquiries for solutions. I remind them that every Unit to follow, before the Final, has extra credit attached to it and I encourage them do challenge themselves by doing that. I am consistent with my policies, I am open with my students about my policies, and I’m always scrutinizing my policies to ensure that when a students get a grade, whether it be an “A+” or an “F,” they know they chose that grade.
a. Example: Last semester, I had a student, on the cusp between an “F” and a “D,” approach me. They had honestly been trying the last few Units to raise it, including doing the extra credit. I anticipated they were going to ask the trigger. Bad Mr. G.! Bad for not assuming the best out of my student! They asked, “What grade can I get on the Final for it to possibly bump up to a “D”? I have no problem with this question because, again, it’s their grade, not mine. I punched in the minimum. They saw it. They shrugged and said, “I got this.” When the Finals were graded and entered, the student absolutely “got this” and received a “D” for the semester. On the last day before Winter Break, they came up to me, asked to see their grade, and I showed them. They smiled. I was shocked. Bad Mr. G.! Bad for assuming they’d be upset! The student said, “Thank you for helping me choose my grade. I’ll do better next semester.” We fist bumped, the bell rang, and that student is still in my class. They’re choosing their grade. I’m not at liberty to publish it because, well, it’s their grade, and they’re choosing it. But they are doing better than before. Fist bumps all around.