Bricks and Mortar: Building the “Radically Soft” LMS

clouds-top-view-white-viewIn the harried weeks after school closed, schools worked to find ways to move instruction online quickly using the best information and resources they had available.  These shifts weren’t easy, and they aren’t without significant costs.  Hastily built online environments tend to be hard and utilitarian rather than soft and kind, and despite our words and best intentions about putting Maslow before Bloom and centering relationships, there are large parts of current online learning spaces that are dehumanizing.  We might very well blame the LMS we use, which are problematic in so many different ways, but we also need to look at our own pedagogies and practices as exacerbating rather than mitigating the problems inherent in our LMS.  Our actions within the LMS have quite a bit to say about whether the student experience is rooted in utilitarian hardness or radical softness, and it’s worth exploring the ways in which we can move our imperfect LMS experience toward radical softness.

When I talk with students about what they miss about school, their classes aren’t the first thing they mention.  They tend to think about all of the smaller, more fleeting parts of their school experiences that we don’t frequently attend to online. They’re talking about the mortar—the stuff in the middle—that holds the bricks together.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes about how our singular focus on the bricks allows us to pay less attention to the mortar:

Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all.

As teachers, we tend to think of classrooms as a center of the universe rather than considering fully how we’re part of much larger constellation of centers across a student’s school day, centers which include the hallway, the library, the lunchroom, the sports practice, and so many others.  As we get better at building online environments, my hope is that we might pay closer attention to thinking about how we can build virtual spaces that move beyond the shell of LMS course, even if that means rethinking the LMS entirely.  Stommel, for his part, thinks about text messages, email, and social media.  One of the things I miss most is the vibrancy of our Writing Center, where students could come together, talk, write, and create together.  This is one of the reasons we’ve continued to meet weekly, and I’d also like to think it’s one of the reasons we’ve continued to have a pretty solid turnout.  Not working to create these in between, liminal spaces would have our students missing large chunks of the school experience.

In anything that we do, however, we need to consider how and why we’re asking students to interact and what potential costs there might be for them to do so.  In other words, the liminal spaces we do create should be sites of resistance; they should come from and be for the margins.  One of the current limitations of the big-name LMS is that it’s built with a certain idealized student in mind: quiet, compliant, algorithmic, but our students are anything but.  How might we sacrifice a little of the order of the LMS to encourage greater choice, authenticity, and even safe dissent?  As teachers, we know we can’t liberate our students—they need to liberate themselves—but part of creating liberatory conditions is helping to build what we Be Oakley calls “sanctuary spaces:”

“These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.  Sanctuary spaces populate outside of public space where ‘the political’ and ‘acts of resistance’ tend to cater to those who have the least to lose.”

Now, in a time where many districts have eliminated grades and standardized tests, we have additional freedom to build “radically soft” online spaces—spaces that imagine a different future together with our students—that will, hopefully, substantially transform the physical spaces we return into more democratic and liberatory.  Our soft online spaces can be sites where students have their identities affirmed, seek justice, and drive equity with their thinking, their words, and their collaboration.  This requires us to attend to the mortar as much as we’ve attended to the bricks, a shift that requires compassion, kindness, and trust.

Toward Fairness and Equity: Labor-Based Grading During and After COVID-19

eoq_jwiwaaar5uxIn “Our Pandemic Summer,” a recent article in The Atlantic, Ed Yong argues that framing the future in terms of “going back to normal” is a wasted opportunity to think about what a fairer and more equitable world might look like going forward.  There have been so many changes in a relatively short amount of time in education that imagining simply returning to the status quo—which was deeply inequitable and unfair—seems as untenable as ever.  One of the most substantive changes in many districts is changing the way grades are given—some districts have even removed grades entirely in favor of a credit-no-credit model—and it feels disingenuous at best and immensely damaging at worst to return to systems of ranking and sorting that have created incredible tension, anxiety, and disparity.  Grading is a space where we, collectively, need to reimagine a different future, and returning to “normal” undermines the commitments to equity that should be at the center of our work.

My district has essentially moved to a labor-based grading model for students, where learning and judgments about quality, which are always-already biased because of their roots in single standards, have been separated.  This separation, which radical for some, is a welcome relief to others, including many students.   Students earn credit when they complete 10 of 18 assignments, permitting students to make some choices and allowing for grace in the midst of a pandemic where tens of thousands of people in Michigan are sick.  If a labor-based grading system is what’s best in terms of equity and fairness for students now, it’s also best for students when they return to brick-and-mortar classrooms in the future.

In our English department this year, we reflected frequently this year about the inclusivity of our spaces, and one of the most crucial realizations that emerged was that most of the writing that was presented to students as “good” was rooted in dominant culture notions of what that means.  This couldn’t help but have an effect on who sees themselves as a writer and what counts as “good” writing during grading and evaluation.  I’ve previously talked about the ways grading is rooted in whiteness here.  One of my colleagues, who I discussed in a previous post, used this year to experiment with a new grading system as a result of some of our reflections and our one-on-one coaching sessions, and a few others are starting to make some important shifts, too.  That said, my own shift away from traditional grading took years of fits and starts, so patience with ourselves is in order.  Working against “common sense” and engrained notions of things like “rigor” take time; there’s tons to unlearn.  Even with all of those caveats, fragility remains, but attacks on grading aren’t necessarily personal, but questions about grading do force us to consider systems in which we’re complicit in upholding somehow.  Asao Inoue reminds us, “in all schools, grades are the means of discrimination, the methods of exclusion, not inclusion, no matter what we think they might do for our students.”  One of the biggest pieces of pushback that I get when I talk about grading is how it doesn’t “prepare students for the next level,” and it’s important to remember that just because other environments are oppressive doesn’t mean we have to replicate them.  Remember: we’re imagining a different future together, not attempting to reinscript what existed already and served only a privileged few.

Rightly, much of the current emphasis has been on building relationships—Maslow before Bloom—and student wellness and safety, both mentally and physically.  While our mouths may say these things, sometimes our actions indicate that these might not be the foundations of our classroom, even if we might like them to be or think that they are.  There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter that school is a student’s “job” and that grades are their “compensation,” and that, to me, seems like that end result overemphasizing outcomes and underemphasizing. relationships: we start to see students based on the products they produce rather than as human beings with a complex set of circumstances.  In these environments, students start to only judge themselves by the products they produce, and often devalue their really thoughtful, important work when it doesn’t reach certain graded outcomes, which, again, are rooted in center with no accounting for the margins.  Put differently, a system that rewards labor only when it meets a pre-defined outcome is going to be exclusive rather than inclusive.  It’s really important to teach students to identify, talk about, and, most of all, value their labor outside of any external validation.   The idealist in me hopes that this awakens students to start valuing their work more and that teachers help them do so.  Inoue takes an important point from Friere, which we sometimes forget: we can’t liberate our students—we’re not saviors—but we can set up structural conditions where they can liberate themselves by moving away from compliance and toward agency.

In addition to rethinking some of the ways students work and evaluate work, labor-based grading has also had other important byproducts, especially forcing teachers to think more carefully about what they assign and how they design assessments, especially when grades can’t be used as currency or, worse yet, a weapon to compel compliance.  This moment of reconsideration is important: what now?  Indeed, assignments and assessments need to be meaningful, authentic, and compassionate if we want students to complete them in the midst of a pandemic.  This means that students need to be able to make choices about what they learn, how they learn it, and the modalities in which they demonstrate their learning, and, without the daunting pressure of grades, they have expressed a certain freedom to take intellectual risks, share their own thinking rather a reheated version of a teacher’s lecture, and marry their funds of knowledge to their academic work in ways that didn’t seem possible—or weren’t deemed valuable—before.  In other words, teachers are getting a crash course in the amazing things that come from trusting their students.  Grading often interferes with the relationships we want to have with our students, and removing the barrier can help us start to rehumanize our classrooms.

We know that returning to “normal” is going to be impossible, but we might also think about what “normal” has cost us. We frequently hear talk about a “new normal” as negative, but we have the potential to reimagine parts of it as positive.

Coaching Notes: Building Anti-Racist Book Clubs

ECXjN5IWwAAS_RCThis summer, I worked with my administration to make a substantial investment in non-canonical texts for students in one of our AP courses.  Students were being assigned to read mostly white male authors like Fitzgerald and Hawthorne, even as the class was becoming increasingly less white and male due to building and districtwide initiatives to ensure that AP and honors classes were accessible and inclusive to all members of our community.  Students of color, in particular, saw mirrors for their white peers, but mainly windows for themselves (to paraphrase Dr. Sims Bishop), and there needed to be a different balance if we hope to create a sense of belonging for students.  To foster a sense of belonging, we needed to interrogate how whiteness influenced and was being enacted in curriculum.  Students now have access to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America among others.

Access to texts is important, but so are the practices we use to teach them.  Too often, we read authors from LGBTQ+ backgrounds, authors of color, and authors from non-European countries to be compliant, to check a box, or to perform equity and inclusion rather than taking seriously the anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-Eurocentric our work—and these works–demand.  In other words, there is a way to read any of the texts we purchased without actually reading them; we could attend to the words on the page without ever feeling discomforted or challenged.  Students can get bogged down in rhetorical analysis and lose sight of the larger historical precedents and systems we, teachers and students alike, must urgently confront.  Many of the text choices we made and much of the thinking we’re doing around how to best teach them are the result of the amazing ideas shared by the #DisruptTexts team.

While I was able to advocate for new books as a department chair, implementing responsive teaching around these texts is a significant part of my role as an instructional coach because, ultimately, we’re not teaching books, we’re teaching students.  Shifting practice, a second-order change, is especially difficult because our pedagogies—the way we’ve always done things—are so interwoven, often uncritically, with our professional identities.  To use DiAngelo’s work, pedagogical pushes toward equity are subject to white fragility, which can even stall changes that educators support at the conceptual level.

Our comfort as educators can’t come at the expense of our students and their lives, and when we work to drill a book like Just Mercyas AP test preparation through ahistorical teaching or without giving students space to freely talk about important issues, we’ve moved toward compliance.  Equity, inclusion, and anti-racism are not box-checking exercises.  This part of the introduction from Teaching Black Lives resonates:

“Provide a social justice, anti-racist curriculum that gives students the historical grounding, literacy skills, and space to explore the emotional intensity of feelings around the murder of Black youth by police.  At the same time, deep discussion of these heavy issues needs to be built on strong classroom community.  Students can’t launch into discussions of racism without a basis of trust and sharing among students and between students and teacher.  This is the slow, steady work of meaningful classroom conversation, purposeful group work, and reading and writing about critical social justice and personal issues.”

This provides the framework, and we have to think about the practices within that framework that will help us meet our equity goals as a school and a community.  Anti-racist outcomes are made possible through anti-racist practices, which require all of us—especially white educators—to consider whether we’re moving toward anti-racism or existing in symbolic compliance when the door closes in our classroom.  Important, urgent texts in the hands of people checking boxes can ultimately do more harm than good.  As Benjamin Doxtdator writes:

“Expanding the canon isn’t only about creating a culture in schools where students of color see people who look like them represented in what they read, but also de-centering whiteness so that all students have expanded perceptions of the intellectual legacies of people of color.”

I’m currently working with a teacher to ensure that we’re teaching our students and these texts responsively and responsibly by creating anti-racist book clubs that empower all of our students to have important conversations and take vital action on equity and social justice issues in a supportive, trusting environment.  Students will get to select their books during the book club.  While we know the benefits of this work for our students of color, our white students, who make up the majority of our school’s population, need to also engage in substantive interrogation of their identities and what and how they mean if we hope to create a more just future. Here’s how we’re approaching these anti-racist book groups, which are a work in progress.

Community Building + Goal Setting

Without a meaningful, substantive classroom community, meaningful discussions about social justice and equity are virtually impossible.  In order to build the student-to-student connections required to have substantive dialogue around important topics of social justice, students will work together to look through the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance and decide two major goals they want to focus on during the course of unit.  Students will work individually and collectively to meet these goals during the course of the unit (and beyond), and they will complete several small reflections and one larger summative reflection to chart their progress.  These standards don’t replace the academic goals that we have, but we feel they make them more possible by making the classroom increasingly safe and equitable. Centering this work for students—and trusting and supporting them to own it—is an important step in reducing prejudice and engendering collective action, which the standards are meant to support.

Building Historical Context

In a different class that I was in this week, the teacher continually asked their students after reading a section of the textbook, “Who haven’t we talked about?”  These discussions are important, as our curriculums and the companies that control them, elevate and amplify the powerful while minimizing what artist Glenn Ligon calls the  “small-h histories” of the women, children, indigenous and black people of color who have been vital in the “big-H” History of our country and our world.  Each book group will spend time closely reading through curated primary and secondary documents designed to challenge, extend, or confirm their thinking.  Students will apply their thinking to their book, which we hope will provide them with important context for understanding from perspectives outside the privileged who have been consistently represented.  In a recent interview, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, said:

 “I think this mythology—that of course we’re all beyond race, of course our police officers aren’t racist, of course our politicians don’t mean any harm to people of color—this idea that we’re beyond all that (so it must be something else) makes it difficult for young people as well as the grown-ups to be able to see clearly and honestly the truth of what’s going on.”

An ahistorical teaching of these texts can allow mythologies to linger and the biases inherent in these mythologies to continue unchallenged, just as the myth of colorblindness has been allowed to continue. We need to correct the old histories we’ve heard repeated time and time again, and we need to find new histories, too.  In correcting old histories and learning new ones, it’s also important we resist the urge for a single story.  No group of people is monolithic, so thinking about the vast array of experiences is incredibly important.

Understanding Systems

In addition to book groups that will provide necessary historical context, I suggested using twice-weekly “panel discussions,” which allows students from each reading group to talk amongst each other about an important-yet-probing questions while others listen and generate additional important questions that they want to talk about or that they want to pose to the group.  Understanding the connections between the books and the systems represented within them is significant, as it permits challenges to and action against the supposedly normal, “common sense” structures that are in place to maintain the status quo.  Our students, as Ibram X. Kendi suggests in How to be an Anti-Racist, need to take an active role in thinking beyond now and engaging in thinking and action to build an anti-racist future.

 

These are the urgent-yet-imperfect first steps we’re taking to #DisruptTexts in a course that needs it.  As Tricia Ebarvia writes, we know that there will be “discomfort and defensiveness” from teachers and students as we engage in this process, as we have to confront racism directly and whose knowledge gets valued and whose stories get heard shifts away from those in dominant positions, but we need to remain committed to this work and critical of our own practice to avoid slipping back into what’s comfortable at the expense of what our schools, students, and communities need: an anti-racist education for an anti-racist future.  An unwillingness to do the urgent work required of us means that kids will be (re)traumatized and (re)harmed, and we have a moral obligation to work actively against trauma and harm.

The Case Against Cell Phone Bans: Trust, Equity + Student Voice

 

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Groundhog Day: Phones + Their Discontents

As a department chair, the first few weeks before school often feature meetings and conversations about implementing new and revising existing school policies and procedures with other school leaders.  Revision of procedures to meet the needs of dynamic people in a changing environment is a healthy organizational practice, and, often, the conversations uncover ideological biases, ideologies, and assumptions that, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly, get written into our school handbook, course syllabus, or classroom norms.  Interrogating the origins of our beliefs and values given our identities and experiences and understanding how they manifest themselves in educational spaces is critical if equity is at the forefront of our thinking and practice.  Implementing policies without meaningful reflection about who they will impact and how is negligent, especially to populations who already face systematized discrimination.  Often, the policies least interrogated are those that folks feel most strongly about; we become entombed by our certainty, so minds rarely ever change.  Among the least interrogated, yet most wanted policies are schools are bans on mobile phones.  If you’re want to win Twitter today, all you need to do is post something about a phone ban and watch the flood of parents, teachers, and other administrators like, retweet, and reply with furious and effusive praise.

Phones are sites where we work out our frustrations about the other things that we can’t—or won’t—name.  As teachers, we know, logically, that outright banning tools with educational and connective purposes is both ineffective and unethical, but we, naturally, struggle with not being the center of the room or students’ access to massive amounts of information or our high need for control.  Taking students’ phones is an easy way to get those likes and retweets, to show that we’re serious about learning, but, in the end, it does little good and harms both our relationships with students and the sense of independence we’re trying to foster.  I’m aware of the research that talks about how students sometimes use technology in the classroom, and I’m not naive that this does, has, and will happen in my own classroom, too,  However, these studies didn’t mention anything about any conversations people had with students about responsible and contextual technology use, though we might reasonably assume there were strongly-worded warnings in the syllabus and, that, on the first day students were sufficiently talked at about the perils of phone use, much like the scene from health class in Mean Girls.  There’s also a load of problematic junk science on phones that folks rely on to craft harsh and oppressive policies, including the infamous study by Tom Bennett that is continuously brought up in these debates.

While this post may not change anyone’s mind about phones in their classrooms, I want to try to make a case against the full-scale banning of phones in classrooms and schools.  It is important to acknowledge that research exists that suggests creating distance between teenagers and their phones can help them focus and increase their achievement.

Start With Trust

We know that total prohibitions are rarely ever effective in both preventing a behavior or educating people about why a behavior should be avoided.  Our own experiments with abstinence-only sex education should be a clear warning about what happens when we aren’t presenting information that helps students make informed, educated choices.  Phones, like pencils, paper, and erasers, are part of our lived environment, and asking people to refrain from them, especially when they can have legitimate educational and connective purposes, is flawed; we need to be talking withstudents about how to use the technology responsibly and thoughtfully.  As Jesse Stommel writes, “We can talk to students about attention and have them talk to us about how attention works for them. This is the kind of metacognitive work that is the stuff of learning.” Together with our students, we can build collective norms that we individually agree to abide by as part of a community of learners. There is a fundamental difference between listening toand talking withour students about important decisions that impact their educational environments and surveilling them to ensure their compliance with ourrules, which often are meant to situate us at the seat of power.  Like any inclusive, consensus-building activity, working with students build collectively agreed upon norms can be messy, but I’d argue here that the process is more important than the outcome: not only do these activities signal trust, they encourage students to be  personally reflective about their own behaviors and make informed choices about their behavior.  These arguments, by the way, are not even taking into account how outright bans on phones may negatively impact—and further stigmatize—students who need devices to learn, including those students who may not have a diagnosis.

Statements like I’m making here have gotten me eye rolls—and much worse—from colleagues and administrators; I’m frequently accused of being “pie in the sky” about my belief that students can and should have a say in the conduct of their classroom, and I’ve been accused of being a lax disciplinarian.  School isn’t a panopticon, and I’m not a warden. I’m a teacher, and my most positive outcomes have been working with students as equitable partners rather than against them as a high-seated authority.  It’s difficult for me to take seriously the forever-and-always calls for “building relationships” from folks who are also encouraging the enforcement of rules that lack student voice or perspective.

Outright bans on phones further entrench schools in asymmetrical power dynamics where students have little voice or say in the rules and norms they are being asked to follow and are often given very little rationale for why the rules and norms exist.  Look around your next faculty meeting and see who is in violation of your school’s cell phone ban.  In a recent meeting I was in, more than half the participants had their phones out and used them at one point during the meeting.  If we aren’t willing follow the rules we set down for our students, then those rules are likely flawed, unless we only care about solidifying our place at the top of the hierarchy.

Implicit Bias + Discipline

A new study, led by Kate Wegmann at the University of Illinois, shows that Black students receive fewer warnings than their white peers for misbehavior.  White students were generally given more warnings, which are opportunities to correct behaviors, than Black students who faced harsher punishments earlier and more often.  Our implicit biases manifest themselves all over our classrooms—from our beliefs about student achievement to grading—so it isn’t surprising that is has an impact on who we discipline and how we discipline them.  What feels like an equitable policy—an outright ban—probably isn’t in practice, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is equitable might be very well hurting students who have already been traumatized by our systems and policies.  In other words, it’s easy to look at inequity as something that just happens rather than something that’s explicitly caused by our values, beliefs, and actions.

The disproportional outcomes students face when overzealous rules are put into place are harmful socially and academically, but the processes used to get to those outcomes are also in need of examination and change.  My concern with these kinds of blanket rules is that teachers, some wittingly and some unwittingly, will replicate the traumas of “zero tolerance,”subjecting Black and Brown students to harsh punishment for minor violations.  Indeed, it is easy to see how these policies can lead to “broken windows policing” in classrooms where teachers are looking for violations and acting swiftly and harshly to “make an example” of the student so others won’t mimic or replicate the behavior.  All the while, the teacher can claim they were following the rules of the school, which are clearly and carefully laid out.  A violation is a violation, after all, and exception shows softness.  Before we argue about lost academics from cell phone use, let’s also acknowledge that an estimated 20 percent of the Black-White achievement gap is attributable to inequities in school discipline, which are often related to the zero tolerance, broken windows policies described here.  Moreover, harsh punishments for banal violations can actually cause more disruptions and higher rates of misbehavior among the punished.

All policies that we enact and enforce reveal our assumptions about our students—they make our implicit biases explicit and codified—and blanket phone bans are no exception.  If phones are the sites where we play out our unspoken fears, where our generational and positional proxy battles are played out, it is worth examining what we’re saying and who were saying it about when we ban them.

What’s Next: Try Using a “Liquid Syllabus” for Classroom Policies

I was introduced to the term “liquid syllabus” by Michelle Pacansky-Brock in 2014, and, in addition to make course syllabi more beautiful and appealing to engage with, she encourages us to think about making them interactive and crowd-sourced.  Indeed, the whole idea of the “liquid syllabus” is that it’s malleable and shifts based on the dynamism of our environments and the people within them. As we head back to school, it’s useful to keep your syllabus open for a period of time—maybe we a week or two—and have students engage with it, provide you feedback, and reach consensus on key issues.  Not only will this invest them in the content of the syllabus, you’re showing, early, that their voices will be taken seriously and the environment is one where their ownership is encouraged and valued beyond just show.  The process matters, as we want to teach our students to make decisions, to reach consensus, and to be part of a democratic system.  If this is too much, too soon, there are baby steps: you might keep a few non-negotiables while letting your students determine the rest, but, remember, you can’t just throw them the scraps.  They need to have a legitimate voice in the pressing matters of the classroom. Student have to know that your serious about providing them a voice; they won’t participate meaningfully in an exercise that doesn’t lead to substantive engagement or change (nor should they).

The “liquid syllabus” is uncomfortable for some, as it may reveal—and students may comment on—implicit biases and unfair assumptions embedded in rules and policies that we thought were equitable and reasonable.  Over the years, students have asked me about and pushed me on practices that were lodged deep into my pedagogy.  Their questions weren’t mean or rude—they were genuine attempts to both understand and push—and this is where I’ve gotten the best instructional coaching of my career.  It’s easy to get defensive, but it’s important to remember that our temporary discomfort in confronting our biases matters far less than the weight of oppressive systems that traumatize our students.  There’s a lot to be said for modeling how to be vulnerable, take feedback, and grow for the students in your classroom.

Next week, I’ll be using a “liquid syllabus” protocol with my Writing Center students to build working agreements for our time together throughout the year, and I’m excited to see what our new tutors bring to the discussion while also understanding what our returning tutors learned from their previous experience.

Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves: Uncomfortable Truths About Grades + Grading for White Educators

Stories We Tell Ourselves: Grades, Grading + Whiteness

Discussions about disproportionality often focus on outcomes, but rarely, if ever, do we discuss the practices that lead to inequities.  As a white educator who works with many other white educators, I would argue that our unwillingness to question practices lies in a fear of finding out the answers, answers which might require us to change deeply held personal beliefs and pedagogies that we have practiced and have likely benefitted us as we moved through our formal schooling.  Indeed, many of the systems that have privileged us have necessarily subjugated those unlike us because we like and support, even implicitly, practices that support the cultural mythology that we’re “best.”  These practices and pedagogies have become so central to our identities that changing them comes with great personal risk: interrupting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and, importantly, the stories we tell about those unlike us that allow us to retain our perceived identities.  Going from not having to think about these uncomfortable truths to having to think about them raises the potential for white fragility: we need to sit with our defensiveness, and we need to consider what about grades and grading is making us feel that way and whether those feelings are worth the costs of disproportional practice.

As a department chair, one of the challenging conversations I have with colleagues is about grading, not because grades mean anything or accurately communicate anything about student mastery of skills, line items for behavior compliance and extra credit have rendered the numbers and letters useless, but because of the stories that grades tell.  Indeed, attaining good grades have become attendant with some sort of moral virtue, largely because grades are about aligning oneself, and in writing, their ideas and their voice, with the dominant culture.  Many schools have difficulty honoring non-dominant literacies and valuing non-dominant funds of knowledge because they are a threat to our supremacy and the beginning of slippery slope.  Powerful people fear losing the tools of their oppression.  Indeed, grades help us create a system of reward and punishment designed to modify behavior toward our white, heteronormative, neurotypical beliefs and values.  They help us stand guard at the gates of our space: ask yourself, for instance, who owns literacy and language in schools because of how we’ve graded and labeled reading and readers and writing and writers.

Many of our gaps in achievement and opportunity are created by our unwillingness to confront our own practices.  When related to grading, this means that we need to engage some uncomfortable truths about the way most of us our currently grading.

1.  Grading is for teachers, not for students.

In general, students aren’t involved in the grading process, which makes it mystifying; it’s something done to them rather than for them.  Students don’t consent to what grades mean or how they’re tabulated.  As teachers, then, we have all of the power, power which is easily weaponized to compel compliance with our norms: Asao B. Inoue asks us to consider the process by which we obtained our grades.  If we think not just about what grades we received, but the things we had to do to receive them—perhaps bringing in Kleenex boxes (buying our way to a grade) or subjugating our own ideas and identities for agreement with an authority figure—we might not be that proud. Sebastaio Salgado argues, “we photograph with all of our ideology,” and that’s true of grading, too.  For educators, grades are numerical manifestations of our beliefs and values that we project on to others, and if we’re not careful about interrogating our beliefs and values and the positionality we have to project them, we create problematic practices where we label, exclude, and limit based on congruence with our ethos.  One of the stories we often tell ourselves as teachers is that we’re “fair” graders, but I would argue that, accepting the premise that fairness is the goal, it is impossible to be completely “fair” in our grading because of our implicit biases and personal assumptions, especially if we’re are in privileged subjectivities. 

A good first step toward moving to “ungrading” is letting your students self-report their grades.  Before you engage in this process with your students, be sure that you’ve built substantive, trusting relationships with them because while you’re giving away some of your power, your presence as an authority in the conversation looms large.  There’s a tendency for students to want to please the authority figure, and there’s a tendency to steer students to the outcomes that we want: both of these need to be avoided.  This is only scratching the surface, but there’s some unlearning that needs to happen on both the teacher and student sides of this equation for self-reported grades to be substantive and not merely performative.  Students have to trust that self-reported grades aren’t another manipulation tactic that will end up being used against them in the long run, and we have to trust that students are not trying to put one over on us.

2.  Using a single standard to grade students is deeply inequitable.

While a single standard may seem “fair,” they are actually anathema to notions of fairness.  A single standard is unfair to many students, as single standards, by their very nature, are exclusive rather than inclusive, and to be “fair” means to reject systems and grading practices based on single standards.  In many cases, our single standard is the product that gets produced, but there’s so much that often gets overlooked when we only focus on the end result.  As Inoue writes, we can’t use a single-standard to simply define the quality of a student’s work, especially their writing, when could also look at the time and effort a student put in or the way in their process evolved.  Inoue encourages us, rightly, at least in my view, to think about assessment ecologies rather than standards, and, importantly, he encourages our students to do the same, a task that’s made easier when we trust them and engage them in playing in active role in building the frameworks to which they’re beholden.

Using a single standard—only looking at the quality of the finished product—also promotes competition for students to be the “best,” as we’ve defined it, which is often through white, heteronormative, neurotypical lenses.  High levels of academic competition are toxic, and there’s no reason to reproduce what standardized testing and college admissions processes have wrought in our classrooms, especially when fulfilling requirements for grades requires that students leave much of themselves behind.  As my Writing Center tutor Carsten Finholt argued at the IWCA collaborative this month, every student deserves a safe entry point to literacy that values who they are and what they know, and grades based on a single standard aren’t it.  A classroom graded on a single standard that pits students against one another for scores isn’t culturally responsive. 

IWCA CCCC 2019

An important note: not having a single standard doesn’t mean that there are no standards.   It means that instead of competing to be just like us, our students are working for themselves and their own improvement.  Here, they create their own standards based on their own goals.  If we don’t think students are capable of creating their own standards and their own goals based on what they need, we need to engage in some hard thinking about those believes based on our own racial and cultural perceptions of who can do what work and who can be responsible for shaping the learning environment and ecology for their own purposes.

Conclusion

A commitment to equity means working toward abolishing grades, even if that means that many of us may lose a source of our power and part of our privileged identities.  The risks of changing our interpretive stories are far less than the risks of continuing grading for another generation of students who will be labeled and defined forever by the letters and numbers we enter in a learning management system.