I have spent most of my career at Middle School. Last year was my first “real” year at the elementary level. I say “real” year because I did teach at an elementary school my first year of teaching, but I think we can all agree that nobody had an idea what we were doing in our first year. My main goal was surviving the day.
Moving to the Elementary level has been interesting for many reasons, but assessment is what I want to talk about today. In BC, students don’t receive letter grades until Grade 4, in Grades K-3 students are graded based on a sliding scale (from not meeting to exceeding expectations), and the first time they get letter grades can be stressful. Trying to encapsulate their learning with one character (A,B, C+, C etc.) is arguably impossible and definitely shortsighted. That’s another conversation all together.
In my new setting I realized immediately that students needed to be graded! It was a way they could validate their work. Those (arbitrary?) letters were so important to them – even on daily practice. Kids were continually asking to be graded. I would have a line up of kids asking, “Mr. Mullin is this an A? Is this a B? What’s this?” I was overwhelmed…particularly because what they wanted to be graded on was practice, which I intended to be formative. They were supposed to be giving feedback to each other. The need to be graded was far stronger than the willingness to learn. I began to think there must be a better way.
We needed to clarify things, so I went with what I knew – sports analogies. We talked about the difference between hockey practice and games (it’s Canada eh!). I asked why kids went to hockey practice. They answered things like, “That’s where we get better,” or “where we work on things we need to improve”. Then we talked about the game. Kids were able to explain that’s where they got to see how good they were and could see if their worked paid off. We talked about after losing a game, the season wasn’t over and that the team would go back practice what they struggled with. The team’s goal was to get better and better as the season went on.
I then brought it back to the classroom. When introducing a lesson I made it clear that it was practice or a performance (game). Practice meant the goal was to work on the things they struggled with. It was ok for kids to talk and share their learning – it wasn’t cheating…it’s learning and using your teammates is a good thing. Collectively we know much more than we do individually. Once the kids had done some practice, we made it imperative that they get some feedback to see if they were on the right track. I began to use three phrases: hmm… (you are on the right track, but you need practice), yes (you get it at a surface level), WOW! (you get it at a deeper level). Those three phrases changed the paradigm in the classroom.
Kids were forced to give each other feedback (hmm…, yes, WOW!) and provide a suggestion to get to the next level. Before students came to me, they would have to talk to two classmates and get feedback. Once kids came to me their work had already shown improvement and the conversations were more meaningful. Kids began asking me, “Is this a WOW!” I would say, “Yes, you got it, but if you want to get it to WOW! you need to add ___________(insert feedback). I’m not going to lie, change did not happen overnight, but over time the focus in class changed from”Grade Me, Grade Me” to a focus on learning. Students were all about getting better – kids saying, “What can I do to improve?”
Even on summative assessments (test, projects, or combination of the two), which we call the playoffs, I use the one word phrases (hmm…, yes, WOW!) and give kids suggestions for further learning if they choose. I never use fractions (18/20), percentages (90%) or letter grades (A). Kids know if they get a WOW! they really understand the concept(s) and don’t need an arbitrary letter to reinforce that. They also know that they can do some more learning and re-test or re-do the parts they struggled with. I don’t re-test the kids on stuff they already know, just the stuff they haven’t learned yet. Kids are really buying in, because it is fair, and they know that as long as they are willing to keep learning, they can continue to improve.
I am still working on it and playing with the structures in class. It is far from perfect, but I am a learner too! I know what I am doing now is far better than what I was doing last year and next year will be even better than now.
Thanks for reading.