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Giving Up Grades: A Perfectionist’s Journey [Interview]

Starr Sackstein is a national board-certified teacher who teaches English and coaches teachers in New York City. We spoke to Starr about her work in assessment and encouraging self-reflection in the classroom.

FreshGrade: We wanted to chat with you today to learn how you’re moving away from assessment in the classroom. Perhaps we could start with what a typical day looks like for you.

Starr: For the last five years I’ve been working to get students to be more metacognitive about their learning. And reflection is a huge part of what we do. Essentially, it’s my belief that kids are more capable of telling me what they know and showing me what they know in their work than having me decide what I think they know based on what I see or hear. There’s a lot of agency put into the kids’ hands in my classroom.

I don’t give grades. I don’t give tests. I don’t do anything like that. My class is mostly project-based and in class we spend a lot of time doing collaborative work which gives students opportunities to work with each other and develop specific skills that they demonstrate in their independent projects. They have a lot of choice in what those projects look like and the products that they turn in, and they’re always expected to reflect on their process, their progress based on earlier feedback, and the standards that are being addressed in the assignment.

After I receive their work I read their reflection first. They tell me what they were working on and the areas they feel they’ve done that well. The feedback I provide them on their documents is very specific to the things they were working on.

FreshGrade: What do you think is a good age to start this practice?

Starr: I’ve worked with kids as young as ninth grade. Actually, in eighth grade, I taught a health class a few years ago and we did project work and I was teaching them reflection. In my school we tried to implement reflections six to 12 and it was a scaffolded type of process where the sixth graders may have written a paragraph and my twelfth graders were writing full one to two-page reflections based on the work that they were doing.

The amount that my Advanced Placement (AP) students write is commensurate with the kind of work they’re doing. My newspaper students could submit video reflections or audio reflections or written reflections, or they could confer with me instead. There was more flexibility in my publications practices versus my AP literature class.

FreshGrade: What change have you noticed in your students as this practice has continued?

Starr: I think the most amazing change is just how articulate my students have become about their learning. They could talk about specific standards; they could talk about specific progress, things that they couldn’t do before that they can do now, and articulate the exact moment for assignments where they saw the shift happen and why. They’re also very adept at giving feedback to each other and asking for help in very specific ways.

One of the things that I specifically teach my students to do is to be very focused when they’re asking for help.

One of the things that I specifically teach them to do is to be very focused when they’re asking for help. When you’re working with thirty-four students in an AP class you don’t have time for a kid to say to you in the middle of a class, “read this and tell me if it’s good” if it’s a ten-page paper. It’s not going to be an effective use of my time in the class.

So, I try to teach them how to ask good questions – to assert their asking for help in very specific ways that align with the specifics of whatever we’re doing in the assignment – so they know how to ask for help from each other and they know how to elicit the kind of help they need from me, and then how to take the feedback they get and parlay it into a future growth and learning.

FreshGrade: When you’re in the workplace, especially when you’re in management learning, to give constructive feedback is essential. But I don’t know that we’re necessarily taught how to receive feedback.

Starr: Well, I think it’s also in the language that we use when we’re using it – just calling it constructive feedback rather than critical or negative or that whole warm and cool idea. I think that even positive feedback could be useless when people think students want to hear that something’s good, but if it’s not tied to something specific it’s useless.

Knowing the balance between constructive and celebration of work is important, as is learning to balance the two and making sure you don’t give too much constructive.

I’m not the type that just fawns over work and my students know that. When they’re getting praise from me, they know that it’s coming from an authentic and real place. Knowing the balance between constructive and celebration of work is important, as is learning to balance the two and making sure you don’t give too much constructive. No one’s going to be able to take in and correct too much at once. So if I’m reading a document and I notice there are some glaring, big mistakes, rather than nitpick on the small stuff which I might do with a more advanced student, that stuff is going to drift through until much later.

I teach kids when to nitpick and when not to nitpick, and the student editors on the newspaper become quite adept at providing feedback to the reporters. It’s an important skill in the scope of learning and kids are very good at helping each other. I just don’t think enough people empower them to be in that position.

FreshGrade: How do you coach students to give each other feedback.

Starr: A lot of it starts with modeling, really transparently modeling. When I am giving feedback I make it clear that’s what I’m doing. If I’m sitting with an editor going through a student’s assignment with them, even the way we construct the feedback on the page with the comment is important. Some of my editors are really good about putting emojis next to things so they know it’s coming in the spirit of I’m trying to help, not trying to rip you apart.

I also encourage the students to talk to each other rather than put it on paper. I think it’s important to know what type of feedback needs to be given in person and what types can be written, or at least recorded. For example, if I’m using Voxxer with my students, they could hear the intonation in my voice; they can hear that I’m not scolding them but rather recognizing that there is some positive movement, but more movement needs to be made.

I think it’s important to consider the words we choose and the strategy to improve. Sometimes I think that’s the element that gets left out of feedback. You can’t tell a student something’s not done correctly without providing them either an example or a strategy to improve it.

It’s giving kids that language in class while we’re doing workshops, building a language together. For the first few assignments in September, I’m generally the only one giving feedback so that they see what my expectations are first. I start turning it over to them at that point.

FreshGrade: How did you getto this point in your career. What inspired you towards this path?

Starr: I’ve been teaching for fourteen years, and I would say that my practice took a very, very big turn when my son started grade school. The elementary school teachers do a great job with feedback and really communicating. I think better in a lot of ways than secondary teachers do because they have fewer students to work with and it’s just the nature of learning at that age. And when I got my son’s second-grade report card, it was standards-based, and everything was spelled out with portions left blank in areas that they hadn’t learned yet. It gave me a good idea of the scope and sequence of the year, it let me know where he was on the mastery scale for each of these different areas.

I hated grading; that was always my least favorite part of teaching.

I was teaching AP Lit at the time and there are so many skills associated with teaching higher levels of English. All I got on a report card was one grade with three comment boxes, and I didn’t even get to think over what those comments were. They were all pre-slugged comments. I had to choose numbers to fit into the boxes and it started to get very frustrating.

I already hated grading; that was always my least favorite part of teaching. It always felt like the moment that ruined the experience we had just shared. We spent all this time and effort learning a new skill or creating something, why should what I think about that creation be what matters most? And I became frustrated with students flipping to the back page of their papers looking for the grade and skipping all the feedback that I put on the documents. Especially because it’s time-consuming to give kids really good feedback. When they weren’t looking at the feedback, I was more inclined to not try as hard.

There was a lot of trial and error. The amount of progress I’ve seen in my kids is so much greater than it used to be that I can’t even imagine going back to the old way.

It made me realize that there was a better way to do it. We might not have been doing it in my school, and I certainly wasn’t doing it in my classrooms. I started experimenting at that point. I began not putting grades on performative areas, holding the grade ransom for as long as I could. I wanted a vision process where kids were more inclined to continue to work instead of ending it because the grade is really the end point of learning.

I started changing my practices about six years ago, starting in my elective classes where it seemed a little bit easier. I knew I wouldn’t get much parent pushback on a twelfth-grade elective versus my AP class, in which I eventually ended up doing the same thing. I saw more confidence in those elective classes as I tried things out. There was a lot of trial and error. The amount of progress I’ve seen in my kids is so much greater than it used to be that I can’t even imagine going back to the old way.

FreshGrade: How do you reassure parents that their kids are progressing with this approach?

Starr: I am generally an over-communicator. Since my grade book doesn’t look like everybody else’s online, I created a screencast of how to read the grade book, what they’re looking at and how they can find the information. It’s a two and a half minute video that walks them through the process. I think that helps a lot. I try to be very transparent. If they write me an email, I get back to them very quickly. I don’t like to let anything fester, so they end up getting more information about how their kids are doing than before. Although they may be uncomfortable at first about what they can see on the screen, the fact that their children can articulate the learning to them speaks volumes.

FreshGrade: Are other teachers implementing your approach?

Starr: It’s very, very mixed. Some people don’t want to change anything and what I’m doing is so radically different than traditional methods, some people just think I’m crazy. They’ll pull the “well you teach the AP kids so it’s obviously easier for you to do it, but I teach the Individual Education Program (IEP) kids.” And I tell them, I’ve done it with my IEP kids as well. It has nothing to do with their level of learning, it has to do with how much scaffolding you’re willing to do with each individual child.

In my previous school, I had some colleagues who were doing a hybrid version where they used the grade book, put in grades and did the standard as well. Then I had one or two teachers in the sixth-grade who were only using the standards and making the standards a part of what was happening in their classroom At the end of the year they told me that they had minimal issues with the parents and the kids were really starting to internalize the skills.

There are people on one end of the spectrum who avoided my classroom at all costs because they were never going to do it, and then I had others who were curious but didn’t commit. And then there were others who were trying it out and making it their own, which is probably the best-case scenario. I don’t think that people need to do it my way, I think they need to find a way that works for them and their students. I don’t agree with standardization across the board.

If you’re a child that’s in multiple classes, standardization isn’t necessarily going to challenge your thinking. I think it’s good to have different teaching skills because everyone has different learning styles.

FreshGrade: Creating change in education is going to take time and effort to accomplish. How does it feel to be part of that shift?

Starr: I think that most people are looking for things that aren’t like magic answers. And there are so many things wrong with education right now because it takes so long for stuff to change, especially in a system like New York City that’s just enormous. It’s very hard to make these kinds of wholesale shifts in a meaningful way without disrupting the entire process, and I don’t think a system like New York is ready to disrupt completely.

Watch Starr’s talk at TEDxYouth@BHS on how and why she decided to take a risk and throw out traditional grading:



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