What It Felt Like to Have a Blank Grade Book

It was ten days until the end of the quarter, and my grade book still did not have a single grade in it.  

The grades were coming, so I was starting to breathe a little easier, but still … eight weeks in and not a single published grade.  

At the start of the year, I had decided to adopt a Standards Based Learning (SBL) environment.  SBL is way of looking at learning and grading that focuses on accurately assessing what students know, understand, and are able to do.  In our science classroom, students demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.  This leads to deeper understanding of scientific concepts and a better grasp on science skills.  Students are essentially using the knowledge of content, skills, and understanding to become scientists themselves.  Grading only happens after students are done practicing the concept or skill.  Grades are focused on what the student can do, are evidence-based, and clearly communicated to all students.  Revising is part of the process, and no grades are final until student and teacher agree.  

As I started out on this awesome SBL adventure, I spent a great deal of time prepping the students, using sports analogies about practices and games.  I prepped the parents, talking about students becoming scientists and turning in work they were proud of.  

I did not prep myself.  

As the weeks flew past, our classroom was a flurry of activity as we moved towards our first huge concept.  It was a big one, explaining how abiotic and biotic factors help influence competitive, mutually beneficial, and predatory relationships.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which the State of Illinois has adopted, doesn’t slack on the content.  These are hard scientific principles, especially for sixth graders.  However, I know that with the right support, these are things that sixth graders can eagerly master.  

But back to that grade book.  While we were all hard at work, it still sat there … empty.  

In the meantime, my scientific brain had been going through a crazy process, analyzing every single detail, while I waited to see finished work.  This project is too big.  These concepts need to be broken down more.  The timing needs to be better.  They need more scaffolding.  We had too much in class work time.  We had too little in class work time.  Students won’t revise; they will just want to be done with the work.  On and on and on … lists of changes and details that needed to be reworked for students to be the most successful.    

Then the first few pieces of work came in and blew me away.  

They weren’t perfect.  Far from it.  However, they were good.  Really good.  The content was strong.  Their writing was clear.  Their examples were phenomenal.  That was the best part, the examples.  They found some amazing things, such the fact that there is evidence for a mutually beneficial relationship between coyotes and badgers.  I mean, come one … coyotes and badgers hunting together!  How cool is that! 

Even better, the SBL model was working.  Every single student revised their work, either after a peer edit or after teacher feedback.  Every single student worked towards mastery.  Every single student agreed to a final piece of work that they were proud of … and agreed to a grade they were equally proud of.  

Slowly that grade book started to fill in.  But by that time, I didn’t care anymore.  I was so excited to see their work that the grade book no longer mattered (but don’t worry, I filled it in anyway).  

Still, those moments while I was waiting were some of the more stressful I have encountered in my teaching career.  Luckily, I have some amazing coaches and mentors and Twitter friends that provide invaluable support.  Most importantly, I have tons of fabulous students who illustrate this concept for me daily … that learning is a growth process that, when done well, takes time.  Might as well enjoy it!   

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