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Two Woodland High School teachers eliminate letter grades in an innovative approach to improve student learning

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Two Woodland High School English Language Arts teachers have transformed the way students learn in their classrooms by eliminating letter grades and helping students take accountability for their own education by using collaborative individual meetings focused on skill development instead of points and letter grades.

AJ Vossen (freshman, left) works with his teacher, Aaron Blackwelder (right), to revise his assignment to meet the criteria for the project.
AJ Vossen (freshman, left) works with his teacher, Aaron Blackwelder (right), to revise his assignment to meet the criteria for the project. 

At the beginning of the school year, Aaron Blackwelder and Jason Cowley, English teachers at Woodland High School, set out to increase student learning by making students accountable for how they learn. "We've shifted from grading projects with points to providing constructive and collaborative feedback with students," explained Blackwelder. "In the past, we would collect student work and score it in isolation, an approach which tends to reward students who know how to work the system and punish those who don't, whereas, now, students sit down with their teacher and explain how their work meets the criteria required to demonstrate their proficiency."

This dramatic shift in grading resulted from Blackwelder and Cowley taking a serious look at the existing system. "Grades and points rarely provide students with enough information to improve or grow their skills," explained Cowley. "Does receiving a 'B' on an essay mean you can write without excellent analysis but use correct spelling, or does it mean the opposite?" The teachers developed the new approach to focus on students developing the skills and proficiencies throughout the course of the class instead of on a project-by-project basis. "Learning shouldn't be about getting it right or not the first time and then moving on," said Cowley. "It should be about getting it right eventually, even if that takes additional time to do so."

The two teachers meet with each of their students one-on-one regularly throughout the semester, working directly with each student, and having the student explain how each section of a project satisfies the requirements for the assignment. "Rather than receiving a failing grade and moving on, students must revise their work until it meets the criteria set forth for the assignment," said Blackwelder. "Since students are involved in the assessment process, we ask reflective questions about their work and work ethic which challenges them to establish future goals in their learning."

At the end of each semester, students present a portfolio of work to their teacher in collaborative conferences where they must answer three questions:

1. What evidence do you have that you have met proficiency in the class?
2. What evidence do you have of growth throughout the semester?
3. What evidence do you have that you can be creative to meet proficiency?

Students present their answers and evaluate their own work, recommending their own grade for the class based on their portfolio. Instead of receiving a failing grade, students who do not meet the criteria receive an "incomplete" with the opportunity to continue to submit work after the semester ends to demonstrate proficiency. "The purpose of school is learning, not grades," explained Cowley. "Ultimately, when you de-emphasize grades, students can focus more on learning rather than on how many points an assignment is worth; to put it another way: education should be about the journey, not about the destination." Blackwelder agrees, "When you have grades and points, school becomes about achievement, but if you take out grades and points, school becomes being about learning."

Aaron Blackwelder (right) and his colleague, Jason Cowley (not pictured), work with each of their students one-on-one throughout the semester to ensure the students' work reflects the skills they need to develop.
Aaron Blackwelder (right) and his colleague, Jason Cowley (not pictured), work with each of their students one-on-one throughout the semester to ensure the students' work reflects the skills they need to develop. 

Blackwelder and Cowley decided to introduce the new system after becoming dissatisfied with the limitations of traditional grading which didn't seem to provide real motivation for students to learn. "In past years, I had students give up as early October because they felt that no matter what they did, they couldn't earn enough points to pass, while, at the same time, I was having arguments with Honor Roll students who felt the 94% they received on an assignment wasn't as high as they felt they deserved," said Blackwelder. "The true focus of school being about learning new skills and honing abilities was lost in my grading practices, resulting in students focusing on earning all of the available points instead of actually learning."

In addition to collaborative grading with students, the teachers allow the students to select topics and themes for their projects that interest them as long as those topics can meet the criteria for the assignment. "Students are encouraged to take risks and make mistakes as there is no penalty – losing points – for not getting something right the first time," explained Cowley. "By focusing on developing skills rather than content, students can demonstrate mastery of a skill with projects about topics that interest them."

Blackwelder and Cowley received inspiration and support for this innovative approach to student learning by working together while also reading books and participating in learning communities on social networks like a teacher forum called "Teachers Throwing Out Grades" on Facebook. "These teacher forums helped us create a vision focusing on learning and connected us with innovative educators from around the world who offer support," said Blackwelder. "In addition, Jason Cowley is incredible – he and I have regular conversations about how to make our classes better, and I don't think I would have made the shift if it weren't for collaborating with him."

Eliminating traditional grading has yielded huge results in the classroom. "Learning is now both personal and intentional with my students meeting the Common Core Standards," said Blackwelder. "My students know I am going to challenge and support them helping them know they have the ability to meet proficiency with my encouragement along the way." The teachers also offer each student suggestions for growth regardless of their current level of understanding. “It is my goal to create a culture of growth, and I believe I am seeing it in my classroom."

Aidan Thrall, freshman, believes this new approach to grading could create a new education system.
Aidan Thrall, freshman, believes this new approach to grading could create a new education system. 

Even in its first year, students of all levels of proficiency offer positive reactions to this new approach to grading and student learning. "Kids in other classes often cheat to get the good grade, but in this class, we get control over how we learn which makes us want to learn more – the teachers set a direction and let us explore it," said Aidan Thrall, Freshman. "This is basically starting an entirely new education system."

Aaron Martinez, freshman, credits the new approach to grading with helping him enjoy school.
Aaron Martinez, freshman, credits the new approach to grading with helping him enjoy school. 

Collaborating with their teachers on topics they choose helps students produce better results by working on the topics they love. "By giving us assignments, telling us their expectations, and letting us write about stuff we like, it has helped me to enjoy school," said Aaron Martinez, Freshman. "Mr. Blackwelder has made me excited about class and about school because he persuades and motivates me to excel – he's really great about motivating students to succeed." London Lubecky, a classmate, agreed with Martinez, "This approach has made me more self-aware of my learning," she explained. "By choosing what we want to do, the skills we're learning become open instead of overwhelming."

London Lubecky, freshman, feels collaborative conferences has made learning new skills an open experience.
London Lubecky, freshman, feels collaborative conferences has made learning new skills an open experience. 

To help other teachers, Blackwelder started blogging in order to share his ideas about education. "I know I don't have all the answers, but I share what is working for me," he said. "My blogging has helped me hone what is going on in my class with many teachers from around the world responding – the support I've received has been resoundingly positive." To read Blackwelder's blog, visit his website at www.mrblackwelder.wordpress.com.

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