(Editor's note: This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
By Jerry Heverly
There are no right answers in my classroom.
There are no wrong answers, either, as my new student, Jose, cleverly reminded me today.
And I don’t grade anything. No 75’s or 36’s or C+’s. You can blame a man named Alfie Kohn for this latter practice. I stumbled across one of Kohn’s books a few years ago. Punished By Rewards is Kohn’s denunciation of just about everything connected to grading, testing, and sorting (tracking) students.
“Reduce the number of possible grades to two: A and Incomplete,” was Kohn’s suggestion. It seemed reasonable to me, so I adopted it.
When I explain my system, students are generally excited. For a few, I’m sure that part of the appeal is the fairness of such an arrangement. Everything is based on effort rather than ability. The playing field is leveled.
Most, of course, see this way as being easier to exploit. They envision themselves with an easy A.
The first year I did this I worried that every student would get an A and that I’d surely be the laughingstock of the school. Unfortunately (fortunately?) no such “problem” transpired. I ended up with roughly the same distribution of grades as the other teachers.
One thing beneficial about this method is that I can demand that every assignment be done 100 percent correctly. Any errors, large or small, must be repaired before the student gets any points for the work. For an English teacher, this has special appeal because I can demand multiple revisions on any essay. The student can’t settle for a C on a piece of writing, it’s either all or nothing.
To make my system work I had to come up with some unique rules. I wanted to occasionally be able to quiz kids, generally when I want to goad them into doing the at home reading that I ask of them. But I didn’t want to grade such tests. What to do?
The solution I came up with was the make-up quiz. A quiz with even one error was, naturally, Incomplete, i.e. zero points. To rectify an incomplete I offered an after-school retake. Come to my room after 3 o’clock and I will offer you a new quiz with new questions. If you get 100 percent on that quiz you get the points.
The logic of my methodology required that I allow them to retake quizzes as often as necessary—i.e. until they crossed the 100 percent barrier.
I like this because it allows anyone to master the material and receive credit for that mastery—and because it sanctions anyone not willing to make the effort to revisit the subject to the point of understanding.
One part of my system I don’t like, but I haven’t come up with an alternative. I realized I was being forced to mandate the quantity of any assignment. If I asked for an essay on Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter how could I tell the student what represented a complete result? The only answer I could come up with was to specify a minimum number of words for any writing assignment.
Computers turned out to be a godsend for this. Fifteen hundred word essays needn’t be rewritten because of homophone errors (there, their, they’re). All the writer needs to do is change the errors and reprint. Without this saving grace I couldn’t require the lengthy writing that I crave.
This counting of words is contrary to my desire to teach my students economy of language, but I’ve found there is no way around some sort of quantity-over-quality compromise if I am to avoid grading individual assignments.
With the start of a new year I always wonder if this group will realize how easy it is to get an A in my classes. What would I do if half my students got A’s? A nice problem to contemplate.
Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.
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