Equity in the Gradeless Classroom Roundtable
Does going gradeless automatically guarantee an equitable classroom? Could gradelessness produce inequitable outcomes? Can privilege, bias, and oppression still find its way into my teaching practice, regardless of my best intentions? I, for one, am thankful to have had gradeless educators pushing my thinking about these questions, helping me move from naive optimism to a greater sense of my responsibility as a gradeless educator committed to creating equitable spaces. For this roundtable post, I've invited four teachers who have helped me approach the issue of equity in the gradeless classroom with greater clarity and awareness.They are:
Marian currently teaches 4th and 5th grades in a Montessori environment. Her 18-year career has been devoted to the elementary grades, although she works with middle and high school students in mathematics. A frequent speaker at local and state conferences, she is a board member of her district’s mathematics advisory council, a member of her school council, and serves as a mentor to new teachers. She blogs at mariandingle.com and can also be found on Twitter @DingleTeach.
Peter (he/him) has been teaching middle school English Language Arts for nine years. He is also a graduate and occasional instructor with the Northern Virginia Writing Project. When not leaping around the classroom, you can find him buried under a pile of books trying to keep up with Marian, Ben, Arthur, and Christine. You can connect with him on Twitter @MrAndersonELA and on his blog, mrandersonwrites.wordpress.com.
Christie (she/her) is in her third year teaching incredible 6th graders at a public school in Vermont. Prior to joining the team at Tuttle Middle School, Christie worked as an educator and school program coordinator at Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit dedicated to education for sustainability, and taught in Nedryahiliv, Ukraine. She loves connecting on Twitter @ChristieNold.
Though he did his teacher training in the so-called ‘inner city’ option at OISE in Toronto, through several turns of fate, Benjamin ended up working at the International School of Brussels where his students have lots of class privilege. So, the core of his pedagogical work consists in pushing feminist, anti-racist, and inclusive lenses. As an English teacher, he believes in getting his middle school students to read and write more critically, helping them develop their identities as budding intellectuals. You can follow him on Twitter @doxtdatorb and read his essays at www.longviewoneducation.org
What does equity mean to you in your teaching practice? What does an equitable classroom look like?
Marian Dingle: Although I am glad we are tackling this subject, equity does seem like a buzz word right now. This question is important because I think it is necessary to define terms. For me, teaching with equity is the path toward seeing from multiple perspectives without centering any of them, especially your own. It is equally important for me to do this as it is for my students. We are all on a learning journey to ultimately become better people, knowing this can involve being uncomfortably honest.
I want to create an instructional space in which all of us, if given a choice, would choose to participate in.. No one is silenced. Fear does not hinder speaking out or taking action. Perhaps I’m describing my own perfect world that I want to live in – beyond the classroom.
Peter Anderson: In the English classroom, a curriculum focused on equity and social justice means privileging voices of color, discussing racism and other forms of oppression, and subjecting popular culture to critical analysis. It means following in the lead of educators like Christopher Emdin and Lisa Delpit who remind white educators that it’s our responsibility to help our students see and understand society’s codes of power so they can challenge them. It means using discussion protocols and instructional strategies that keep certain students from dominating conversations and managing group members.
I love the way Marian speaks about an inclusive participatory instructional space. For me, I’m interested in helping the other white folks in the room, teachers and students alike, to participate less. To create a classroom and school environment that combats racial oppression by working against the privileges of whiteness.
Christie Nold: For me, the journey toward an equitable classroom has recently included an honest examination of self. As a white educator, I’ve been working to develop deeper awareness of my racial identity and its connection to larger systems. Scholars Janet Helms, Ali Michael, and Robin DiAngelo have furthered my thinking and helped me identify the need to cultivate a positive racial identity for myself and my students.
I strive for an equitable classroom that is both liberating and healing. A place that inspires critical reflection and conversation, a place that is allows for vulnerability and centers each student’s humanity. I look to Nate Mullen, Paul Yoon, Rebecca Haslam, and Val Brown to see what’s possible.
Benjamin Doxtdator: So, I tell you a quick story to tie together some of my thoughts. Fresh out of studying philosophy, I taught a course in a high school in Toronto and realized that I basically replicated the syllabus I was taught: white males obsessed with a rather narrow range of questions. I don’t think the solution is to add some diversity or equity, but to do the hard work of rethinking what the conversation would look like if other voices were included from the very beginning. Reworking curriculum is one part of challenging power, but it also requires rethinking how we reach out to people—both other educators and students. In my own journey, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around my own identity. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I have white privilege though I’m First Nations. For a long time, I didn’t situate myself this way publicly because I always felt that I wasn’t ‘Indian enough,’ which I’ve come to realize is a common theme that I share with other mixed-race indigenous people. I now identify as First Nations in my Twitter bio as a step towards representing parts of myself that aren’t visible and that I’m still working on figuring out.
How have you gone gradeless in your teaching practice? How has this coincided with your goals as educators concerned with equity?
Marian Dingle: Since I am still required to assign grades, I cannot say that I have gone completely gradeless. However, I rarely grade individual assignments, opting to give feedback on students’ place in the continuum of learning. I teach all subjects, so although I have mandated standards to teach, I also have some freedom to combine subjects, and students often design projects that suit their passions. Each project adds to our collective education. I don’t feel that traditional grades here are appropriate.
Inequity is a fact of life. It touches each of us in different ways, depending on our privilege. I think it is educational malpractice to not address it with students, even young children. We can and should provide a safe space to address issues, and model the necessary discourse. Grading less has allowed me to focus on fewer overarching educational targets, while including social justice ones. For example, when teaching about the Civil War, we also tied in the current national discussion of Confederate symbols and monuments.
Peter Anderson: I ditched grades four years ago. I had just discovered Alfie Kohn, Paul Thomas, and Maja Wilson, and I was eager to push back against the forces of standardization and behaviorism (especially when it came to writing instruction). Rubrics were the first things to go. Over the course of nine weeks, I transitioned from my schools byzantine rubrics to simple process checklists to nothing at all. Quizzes and tests were next. By the end of that year, the only grade my students were receiving was the one they advocated for in their quarterly portfolios.
The desire to give up traditional measures of academic success came from an inchoate understanding of standardization and accountability. My privilege meant I didn’t have to think about the intersection of assessment and equity beyond agreeing with the basic premise that high-stakes tests and grades reward middle-class ways of teaching and learning. Now that I’ve made the decision to devote my education career to social justice and anti-racist pedagogy, I’m satisfied with my approach to assessment. Explicit learning targets, narrative feedback, and multiple avenues for revision provides my students with the freedom and structure they need to develop as readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers.
Christie Nold: Last year was my first without grades. The impetus for this transition was a desire to shift away from the pressure of performance and evaluation toward a focus on learning, risk taking, and mistake making. Recognizing that traditional grades encouraged the pervasive culture of compliance and valued competition over collaboration, I sought to create a space where students could connect with one another while developing deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.
School is both a microcosm of the world in which we live and a space in which we can dream into a new reality. Zaretta Hammond reminds us that schools are inequitable by design. If we are to reimagine a more equitable classroom (and world), it will require movement away from traditional systems and practices. For me, removing grades has been one of many steps along a path to a more equitable learning environment.
Benjamin Doxtdator: I have some reservations about using the label ‘gradeless.’ My system requires that I enter grades for report cards, and so I feel like I’m working within those confines to de-emphasize grades, but at the same time working to make the process where we do need to assign numbers as transparent as possible. We only grade about four things a year, and I’ve mostly shifted to grading with students in one-on-one conferences or at the least using their self-assessment as a starting point. In general, my students write several pieces and we conference together, they revise, and then select and submit their best work from their portfolio.
I’d love to be done with grades completely and instead simply write descriptive feedback together with students that would go on their reports. The most important shift that I have seen over the last six years is that my students no longer ask ‘is this for grades?’ and they have largely ceased to talk about numbers. Instead, they have taken up the kind of language that can help them form goals: I need a stronger thesis; I’ve learned how to organize my paragraphs; I want to get better at using imagery.
So far, I’ve worked on giving students a voice in how they are assessed and as much as possible removing the disincentive that grades can be for many students. It’s also a kind of identity work; instead of ‘C student,’ I want kids to see themselves as developing writers. Further down the road, I hope to chip away at the practices where kids are then later reduced to a number on a report card. In the meantime, I try to work to make those numbers as fair and representative as possible (e.g., I don’t average grades)
What are your concerns around going gradeless and promoting equity? How can privilege and bias insinuate their way into these practices?
Marian Dingle: Grading less seems like a great practice. Yet, there is so much internal work an educator has to do prior to beginning it. Most American educators are white, and some of them see how school and classroom structures are inequitable. They work to question systems, educate those around them, all while addressing their own bias. Given their position of privilege, they are often listened to more than educators of color. Often, we are questioned, ridiculed, or ignored. However, many educators are not yet at that point. And knowingly, or unknowingly, cause harm to the very students they profess to help.
Grading less won’t help an educator not assume a certain level of intelligence, effort, or performance from certain students. Tossing grades doesn’t help educators gain trust from students who see them commit countless microaggressions. Why would a student show all they are capable of to a teacher who doesn’t value their story?
Peter Anderson: Traditional schools can be incredibly toxic environments for students of color. Teachers and administrators racialized as white craft policies about curriculum, assessment, discipline, and family engagement that punish and devalue students and families of color. My fellow white teachers and I benefit from these policies. Most of us were hyper-students who learned at a young age how to play the game of school. Even with constant critical self-reflection, we white teachers perpetuate school-based systems of inequity by our very presence in the classroom.
This is because implicit bias, fundamental attribution error, and race-based oppression exist regardless of whether or not I give my students grades. The stories students hear and are allowed to tell, the images of success that cover the classroom walls, and the codes of power that determine who is valued and who is not have evolved through hundreds of years of white supremacy. Therefore, equity-minded teachers must be willing to extend their anti-racist pedagogy far beyond the removal of traditional grades.
Christie Nold: Family members, mentors, and older siblings are a child’s first and often most influential teachers. Developing partnerships with the families and caregivers of our students is both a challenging and deeply rewarding aspect of teaching. Many of the families with whom I work are fluent in the traditional, “language of school” including what it means to be an “A student” or “fail a class.” As I shift from letter grades to more narrative feedback, I wonder about supporting families for whom English is a barrier. I also wonder about supporting families who do not feel safe in our schools in decoding the changing system. I believe these obstacles can be overcome, but know I have work to do in my own practice.
It also feels important to note, as Marian and Peter have, that gradeless classrooms are not inherently more equitable classrooms. It is essential that educators push back against personal biases and systems of oppression present in our schools. To work alongside students in creating liberating spaces. This includes a critical examination of self, curriculum, materials, and beliefs.
Benjamin Doxtdator: I have two broad concerns. One is that a lot of the push against our current system obsessed with scores comes from the idea that we need to make kids into creative entrepreneurs. Thus, grades don’t fit because they are too ‘factory model.’ Yet, the entrepreneur model is just as prepared to accept that there are winners and losers. Often, the winners are white men. Just take a look at the Silicon Valley venture philanthropy that this new model is based on.
Second, I am concerned that we will start making achievement even more illegible than it already is. I imagine students who know they need a B+ to access a program they want to be in. If we move away from grades to another system, especially one based on Silicon Valley’s ideology about how we can better rate or sort people, then we may well replicate some of the systemic problems we already face with grading.
To pick up on what Marian said, getting rid of grades doesn’t mean any of the other systemic problems go away. I can imagine as school with no grades that is in no way affirming of students of colour, or one that grades everything in a fairly rigid way that affirms the lives of its students and community.
In the big picture, we are listening to a lot of white male futurists as we plan what to do next in education. Sure, Google may not care about grades when it hires, but it overwhelmingly privileges men and only 2% of its employes are Black. In an essay about an all-white male C-SPAN futurist panel, Where are the Black Futurists? (the author is listed as ‘Black Issues’) raises what I think is one of the fundamental points about equity and education: “there are too many people talking about the future without considering the future of African Americans and other people of color. By not considering us, is the majority implicitly suggesting that we don’t matter? Do they think that as America ages, we will continue to play the traditional service and support roles for their communities? When I hear estimates from the U.S. Department of Labor that we’ll need nearly a million home health aides in the next decade, and I know that most home health aides now are Black and Brown women, I conclude that unless the wage structure changes, the future implications for those women and their families are frightening. But the futurists mainly seem to be predicting what an aging society will need without predicting who will provide it.”
What can we do to better ensure that our gradeless classrooms are also equitable ones? What other advice would you give gradeless teachers who want to keep equity front and center?
Marian Dingle: We all need to befriend others who are different from ourselves. Twitter has been a huge catalyst for me in that regard. Echo chambers are comfortable, but do not force us to grow and change. I’m of the opinion that truly seeing things from the perspective of others must become normalized for us. It goes beyond empathy.
We also cannot afford to shrink from the conversation. Ignoring or silencing a colleague imparts real trauma, and perpetuates inequity. Twitter has also been a source, in addition to real life, of that silencing behavior for me. It can be tricky to navigate tone, but pretty obvious when questions and comments are ignored. When your values are questioned, just listen. Read. Ask if you are comfortable. But, please, don’t ignore and silence. How can you say you are all about giving students voice, when you don’t honor mine?
Know that you will make mistakes. We encourage our students to take risks all the time, but we must do the same.
Peter Anderson: My transition to a gradeless class was successful because of the generosity and wisdom of a robust professional learning network. When I switched my focus from grades to equity, however, I realized how homogenous my PLN was. So I want to cosign on Marian’s call for pluralism. Connecting with folks who are different from us is essential in this work. The most important move I’ve made has been to follow and boost teachers of color on social media. Listen to them; learn from them; and, when possible, pay them for their intellectual labor. When we surround ourselves with equity-minded folks, the rest will follow.
The majority of teachers in America are white, and whiteness is inequity in action. Therefore if you’re a white teacher like me, know that this work will push you outside of your comfort zone. My advice is to put yourself in situations that challenge your notions of what a classroom can and should look like. I also think it’s important to mention how necessary it is for white teachers to engage in critical self-reflection. White supremacy culture values urgency, quantity over quality, and perfectionism. It’s easy to skip the hard stuff because we’re in such a rush to get the answers. There is real value in the process, though. So slow down. Feel uncomfortable. Have your feelings hurt (they will if you’re doing this right), but always come back. This work is bigger than any of us.
Christie Nold: Like Marian, I have found Twitter to be a great source of professional learning and personal growth. I’m thankful for relationships that have transcended the social media space and for those willing to hold me in compassionate accountability.
The work is difficult and ongoing. Building a community of educators committed to justice, placing relationships at the center, and practicing kindness with myself and others has been essential as I grow my practice.
Benjamin Doxtdator: I definitely cosign Marian’s call for recognizing and listening to voices that have been silenced. And I also think white educators need to do the kind of work that Peter is deservedly becoming well-known for: educating ourselves about race and power rather than asking others to teach us, and using what privileges we have to speak out to other white educators. He’s someone who takes teaching as activism seriously, and I think that’s the right path towards equity. We can step back and pass the mic, but there also needs to be structural changes, such as actively reshaping leadership to include many more educators of color.
The work’s not done, and won’t be done for a long time. We also need to take care of ourselves as a community of educators since we are often under attack from interests that work to deprofessionalize teaching and push our society farther into precarity.
How do you promote equity in the gradeless classroom? Sound off in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook. Also, please join us for a #tg2chat on equity this Sunday, November 26 at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST.