Teaching Opinion

How to Survive the First Report Card

By Starr Sackstein — November 19, 2018 3 min read
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Guest post by Karen Terwilliger

As marking period one comes to a close and the due date for reporting grades creeps closer, my stomach starts to churn.

The classroom community that we have built is now on shaky ground as both students, and their parents, receive report cards.

As a 6th grade English and social studies teacher, I am required to post percentage grades with pregenerated comments to reflect student progress. Inevitably, students and parents are disgruntled, hurt, or both, and their attitude after the first report card changes. So it is imperative that some important conversations happen prior to the report cards coming out so that the community of learning doesn’t come crashing down.

It’s important to have a conversation with students before returning the first graded assignment. Remind students that this is the first time they are being assessed, and this is an opportunity to evaluate their learning and identify where improvement is needed.

I have found that students get their papers back only to go searching for the number grade and ignore the comments I have spent hours writing. Try these tips to get students focused on growth rather than grades.

  1. Explain to students that they may not like the grade or they may love the grade, but they must reflect on what they did well or what they need to improve on for next time. “All assignments are opportunities to practice, receive feedback, and refine,” writes Starr Sackstein, in her book,Hacking Assessment.

  1. Have students read the comments, there should be both positive feedback and tips for improvement on the students’ papers. Then have students fill out a reflection sheet. It can be as simple as the date, topic, compliment, tip for growth, and plan for growth.

  1. Explain “teacher talk” to students. If there are 10 questions and each question is worth 10 points, a +10 next to the question is mastery of the question/task. This is the teacher’s way of saying, “You mastered this question.” Whereas, +5 might indicate that a student needs to add text evidence to support his or her claim. This is a teacher’s way of saying, “Do this to improve.” Always go with + instead of -; it is a more positive connotation.

  1. Elicit ways to improve from the student pool. Focus on answers like:

    attend extra help,

    use flash cards,

    use the highlighter while reading,

    go back into the text,

    remember to use sentence frames,

    and/or study with a buddy.

5. Students who have exceeded the standards need to maintain their focus. Encourage those learners to write things down such as, “I used a variety of temporal phrases,” “I used three kinds of figurative language,” or “Highlighting helped me.”

6. Hide the grade so it’s not easy to find. This will drive students CRAZY, but the purpose is to have students read the feedback first. Show them where the grade is once the reflection is written. Of course, your savvy students will have found the grade already.

7. Collect the reflection as an exit ticket. If a section is blank, ask students as they leave the room for a quick reflection.

8. Give the opportunity for test corrections. Depending on the assignment, half credit works well, and it shows the students that the teacher does have their growth at heart.

Of course, I have just tipped my big toe into the waters of the challenge to go gradeless. However, my colleague, Erin Geiger @HistoryTeach78, has jumped in and is finding it challenging but “rewarding and fulfilling.” She has developed PBL (Project Based Learning) lessons and is learning from experts in the field. This includes staying up-to-date by using Twitter as a tool for learning, working with school leadership, and with working colleagues to do what is best for her students.

Students are more than just a number. Challenge yourself to follow innovative educators, join conversations or groups on Twitter to help change the way schools look at student growth. Following people who are invested and having success with going gradeless is extremely helpful, such as @mssackstein, @MrVelto, and @andburnett123. Reading blogs such as blogs.edweek.com or https://www.edutopia.org/. Some ways to stay connected are by following groups like hacklearning.org and #TG2 (teachers going gradeless).

No one wants to be a failure, it hurts on so many levels. Give the students a reason to want to improve, and the opportunity to do it, and watch the magic, that is learning, happening.

How do you de-emphasize grades in your classes and encourage a focus on learning? Please share

Karen Terwilliger is a 33-year teacher who has experience in a kindergarten center, an elementary school, and an intermediate school, as well as a middle school. She has written English curriculum and sits on the district's ITEC Committee. Karen has hosted student-teachers and been a mentor to new teachers. She is currently teaching 6th grade English /language arts and social studies in New York.

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