Monday, June 18, 2012

Are Awards Rewarding?

With the wind down of the school year comes a tradition that just won't quit: the award ceremony. Whether you call it an "Awards Night" or a "Celebration of Learning", your school is probably having some kind of year end ceremony in which students receive some variety of award. Now, don't get me wrong, I think that showing students that we value their individual achievements is important. It builds self-esteem, communicates genuine interest and concern for their well-being, and a desire to see them succeed. Quite simply, a little praise can show a student that they matter.

I have been pondering the relevance of student awards after a recent discussion with staff at my school about our yearly "Celebration of Learning". The length of events is always an issue at our school and so one concern that we discussed this year was having too many awards. Another concern brought up was the type of awards we were handing out - would we limit awards to academic achievement in core courses or offer awards to students with other areas of expertise? As we debated, I wondered, What do awards really communicate to students? Are awards rewarding?

As I mentioned, the volume of awards was a concern for many staff members at my school. Too many awards and people in the audience get bored. Students tire of sitting still, people clap more for the first few students than they do for students receiving awards later in the ceremony, and then, of course, you have to actually come up with an award for every student. I should add that we have only 77 students at our school this year. Clearly giving awards to every child is complicated. Teachers want awards to be individualized, to make their students feel special and honored. We also want the ceremony to be one families remember fondly, not a lengthy trial they have to suffer through. Suggestions of "Why not give awards to all the students?" were met with "Why give awards at all?" (Indeed, why not?). 

 It seems to some that if awards are given to each student that they somehow become less coveted, less special. If that is true, then the students who receive awards at our ceremony will truly feel special because they are being recognized out of all of their peers. At our school, it was decided that only 4 awards will be given to each class, with up to 2 children receiving each award. For our small school that means up to 32 children may receive an award at our "Celebration of Learning". This number does not include our dozen Grade 7 students who will be roasted and honored at the end of our celebration as a way to say good-bye as they set off on their High School careers. Nearly half of our students will receive awards at our celebration next week. Half will not.What, then, of the students who aren't receiving awards? How will they feel? Will they be jealous of their peers? Will they feel like they were not good enough to get selected? Will they feel robbed of an opportunity to shine? Will they simply feel not special? How will their parents feel when they watch other children get recognized and their own child sit as one of the crowd? Will they wish their child was being honored, too? Will they feel disappointed? With who?

Another concern addressed at our meeting was the issue of what kinds of awards to distribute. The initial list of award suggestions read, I believe:

  • Overall Academic
  • Most Improved
  • Best Effort
  • Citizenship 

One look at this list betrays our school's intentions. What are we truly celebrating? Learning? It seems to me that there is far more to learning than academic achievement and improved scores. What message does this send to students? Succeed in academics, and you will be awarded. That is what matters. 

After some debate, it was agreed that Most Improved and Best Effort could be amalgamated into one award, leaving teachers with an option to include an award for one of either Artistic Talent or Sportsmanship. I felt a jolt of excitement when this was granted - Yes! I can recognize my fabulous Art students! Well ... one of them, at least. Where does this modest award ceremony leave students who don't fit the mold? They get to sit and clap for the others. So, as I decide who will receive an award, I am also thinking about who will not. When deciding between students who both showed enormous effort this year I can't help but think, Which of these students needs to feel what it's like to be up on stage? Which one won't be hurt if his name isn't called? Will her parents wonder why she wasn't chosen? What do awards really do for students, and what are they doing to students?

 When it comes down to it, an award is just a label: dressed up and written on fancy letterhead, but a label nonetheless. Best Math Achievement, Most Improved Student, Outstanding Citizenship.  How can I slap a Sportsmanship label on a child that learned to read this year? On a child that learned to create amazing and powerful art this year? On a child that learned what it meant to truly be a big brother this year? Will he receive his award and think, My teacher thinks I am a good sport, or will he be thinking, My teacher thinks the thing I am best at is being a good sport, or worse, My teacher does not think I am a hard worker, a good citizen, or her best student. But, she thinks I am a good sport. My students deserve more than to be labelled as they celebrate the end of an amazing year of learning. They are inquisitive and inspiring. They are creative risk-takers who aren't afraid to ask questions and do things differently. They learned so much about so many things this year. How many learners do you know that can be summed up in a single line? I don't want "Best Effort" or "Overall Academic Achievement" or "Sportsmanship" to be the single story of my students. They are so much more than that. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Life without grades

I am new to de-grading. If you are, too, or if you're wondering why anyone would want to get rid of grades, I suggest checking out Alfie Kohn

I started my adventure in eliminating grades from my classroom somewhat 'accidentally' in September 2011.

In 2011, for the first time, I was teaching Primary. I was quite surprised in September when my students asked me when they would be getting their first Math test of the year. These are Grade 2 and 3 students we are talking about here. I gave them their first test near the end of that month, and they seemed concerned that it was not "test-like" enough. It was full of questions that were open-ended and required them to draw. One question even had them cutting out and sorting objects in a Venn Diagram! Apparently, that's not testing norm for Grade 2's. (What is a normal test for Grade 2's? Is there even such a thing??).

At any rate,  after the test they all began pestering me for their marks. And would you believe it, when they found out they had all passed they were really confused about the whole thing. Did I make the test too easy? Why give a test if they were all just going to pass it? Those adorable eight year olds wanted me to sort them and arrange them and tell them who was smarter than who! Needless to say, that was the last test I gave them. And, because of the power that grades clearly had to affirm or destroy their self-esteem and make them seem more or less intelligent compared to their classmates, I simply stopped offering them any grades.

Instead of grades, I focused on goal-setting with my students. For each activity we undertake, we set a goal for our learning. My students also have many ongoing goals for reading and writing that they adjust for specific tasks and reflect on frequently. My students never ask me if they got "everything right" or what their mark is. Instead, they ask me, "How did I do?", to which my response is usually, "Do you think you met your goals? What evidence can you find to show me that you met them?" This invariably leads to my students re-reading their work, telling me something that they did that met their goal, and then noticing something they want to change. At first they asked me if they had permission to change it. Now, they yank their work out of my hands and say - "Wait! I see something I want to change!"

To date, I have no markbook. I have not used a rubric all year. Instead, I use observations and formative assessments to help shape my teaching and make decisions about what their report card grades will be. (And, because I still feel residual guilt about not having a mark book, I keep all my anecdotal notes and formative assessments in a giant binder with tabs for each of my students). In Math, for example, a major component in my assessment is interviews. I meet with students for approximately 10 minutes to ask them questions about recent topics we have covered. Not only am I assessing the depth and breadth of their understanding of the topic, but also their mathematical communication skills. This not only helps me share information with parents and students about their progress, but also helps me plan for instruction that will help all students in my class succeed.

Getting rid of grading in my Primary class was so rewarding for my students, and me, that it happened very quickly. Faster than I imagined it could! It feels like I have travelled a long way from the teacher that I was last year, seemingly overnight. But make no mistake, without grades I still have a very clear picture of what my students are learning and what they are struggling with. Without grades, my students still have a clear idea of where their skills lie and what their biggest challenges are as learners. In fact, because I have shifted focus to goal-setting, students often talk about how they can meet their goals and when they need to re-set or stretch their goal.

Now, I can see how eliminating grading at a Primary level is "easier" than de-grading in Middle school and High school. Older students are "used to" grades. Grades seem to evoke a feeling of rigor, and isn't that what Middle school and High school are all about? (They're not.) Not to mention the fact that "everyone else is doing it", so if I don't, somehow I will be failing my students by not participating in the (broken) system. I could go on - I'm sure you could, too.

BUT - 

My PLN on twitter and the interwebs tell me that not everyone is in fact "doing it". Some people are getting rid of grades. In Middle school? Yes. Even in High school? Even in High school. Subtracting them from their classroom dynamic. Refusing to boil a complex and never-ending process down to a number. De-grading. I'm in good company.

AND - 

I'm optimistic that I will be able to de-grade my future classrooms, regardless of grade level because of something I discovered this year that is simple, but true. Kids love to learn, and the freer you allow that process to be, the more they love it. Engaged learners of any age participate because they want to learn, not because they are getting a grade.