Saturday, November 6, 2010

Thoughts on Grades, Grading & Homework

Lately I have been reading Alfie Kohn's pieces on grading & homework in an attempt to create a classroom where students are more concerned, less concerned with what letter will appear next to their name.

My current practice is to use "Work Packets".  During each unit I list everything we do on a portion of the board, with each assignment (notes, readings, writing, homework, essays) and each assignment is numbered.  The students are responsible for numbering their work, keeping track of what they have, what is missing and what needs to be completed.  I don't check their packets during the unit and if homework is assigned it isn't checked either.  The expectation I have tried to created in the classroom is that I assign homework when needed to help a student explore, understand or expand upon what we did in class.

With freshman there is of course a learning curve and adjustment period.  They often try to turn in assignments to me each day in the first few weeks of the year until they realize that I don't take their work each day.  I chose this method five years ago for two reasons:

1. If a student did not complete an assignment on night A, there is incentive to complete it on night B (C or D...) if they know ahead of time they won't be punished for not doing the work.  I wanted to create incentive for my students to learn.
2. Not checking homework every night allows me time to be more creative, to search for new materials, to never rely on the textbook and make sure the time they spend in class is meaningful and engaging.

At the end of the unit (usually about two-three weeks) students should have a completed "work packet".  Now that the content has been gathered, discussed, shared and analyzed, students are expected to create something to demonstrate their understanding, growth and learning.

I set a goal this year to not give any style of standardized test.  Instead, I wanted students to create something each unit to demonstrate their understanding, abilities, creativity, unique thoughts and growth.  We just finished the first term, and so far I am pleased with the results.  Every one of my freshman has been involved in creating a movie or podcast (which have been published on Youtube or Itunes).  They have also engaged in lively debates and reenactments.  They appear to be engaged.  They tell me they enjoy my class and I have seen them collaborate together, challenge one another and truly demonstrate a desire to learn.

Ultimately, at the end of a unit, a student in my class receives two grades.

1. Work Packet
2. Unit Creation (movie, podcast, essay, script, comic book, play...)

I give a point value to the unit creation that is double the work packet.  My thought being that the more important aspect of the course is the demonstration of learning, growth, creativity and understanding.  For each unit creation, I don't hand out a rubric.  My instructions are the same:

1. Be creative
2. Demonstrate your understanding
3. Be persuasive
4. Work collaboratively

I don't know if this system is right.  But over the past five years, I have found that it works.  It works for my students (they are engaged, creative and thoughtful in class) and it works for me (I have time to be creative, reflect and improve).

I have been considering writing this post for sometime.  I finally chose to because I would like feedback, thoughts and comments on the structure of my class.  Does anyone do something similar?


  1. Hi Greg,
    I use a similar process for "homework" with layered curriculum. At the beginning of a particular unit, students are given a list of activities that they may choose from to complete. Each assignment is given a point value by me, depending on the amount of time I think the activity should take. Then, daily, the students make an oral defense of the work they have done. In order to move on from the very basic level of information, the students need to earn so many points by such-and-such date. If they can do that, then they move to more tasks that allow them to be more creative with the curriculum. The final assignment is some kind of research based look at comparing the work we are doing in class to something that is happening in the U.S. today (this is for U.S. I). It has worked to varying degrees of success (just as, I am sure, yours has), but the highlights for me have been watching students who have completed assignments aid their classmates with their understanding of the work and inspiring them to finish assignments.
    If people are looking for more information about layered curriculum, I would encourage them to visit Kathie Nunley's website

  2. Greg,

    As a parent I would be thrilled with this type of teaching. I like the structure, in that students know which documents they are accountable for compiling and offering as evidence of information gathering and learning. I also know that my 8th grader craves opportunities to be creative in class. To me your structure is a win for all parties involved.

    The one question I now have is what type of feedback do you offer for the project demonstration. Is there a rubric that allows students to know why they earned the grade they did? How do you go about offering suggestions for growth on the next project? What happens to a student who has clearly come up short in their offerings of what they learned?

    I ask these types of questions because I think it is a very satisfactory model of documenting learning in your class. I would like to know more about how you help them to become better at sharing this information.

  3. When I taught suburban students, this is exactly how I structured my class and loved it.

    Teaching students in the Bronx requires different concerns, especially when it comes to building certain skills through the project work, so I've since abandoned it.

    In terms of how you're handling homework, I think it's an ideal. I do think, however, that there is some value in all students doing the same type of project work because that allows you to give instruction in using whatever medium students are working with. The way you have it set up, you seem to assume students have certain skills (movie making, podcasting, etc) which they can then use to demonstrate their understanding of your material. I think there is value in teaching students how to do things they don't already know how to do.

  4. Stephen,

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree that what I wrote conveys the idea that I assume the students have certain skills. I have quickly realized that although we tend to think our students are web / technologically savvy, in reality they need to be taught these skills. I have devoted class time (which has been worth every second) to teaching these skills.

    Thanks again

  5. This seems like a great idea, something I would like to try out in my own classroom!

    I was wondering, do you provide any sort of formative feedback or assessment throughout the unit or work packet? My concern would be that you may find out too late that some students are not understanding the material. But perhaps this is evident in other ways?


  6. I realize this is an old post.....however I'm considering using your Work Packet idea. I was wondering how you evaluated the packets? Completion? Points? Any ideas would be appreciated.

  7. Mr. Fralick,

    Most of the evaluation came down to the students recognizing that they completed and what they didn't. I would include a self check on the cover sheet where students indicate what & when an assignment is complete. I haven't used this method this year because I am no longer teaching any freshman courses. However, I would have like to transitioned to something where they also self-evaluated their understanding and skill development along with simple task completion.

    I hope this helps & thank you for reading / commenting.