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An Epiphany: Gradeless, Student-Centered, Differentiated Instruction

By: Melissa Lewis

"Don't worry about failures; worry about the chances you miss when you don't even try."
-Jack Canfield
The intent and purpose of this blog is simple: to hopefully shed light on this new experience and to help others wanting to burst out from traditions without knowing how. My hope is that this blog will inspire other teachers to reflect on their own teaching practices and start questioning everything we do. I have no idea if this year will be successful. I do know that I will be painfully honest in our journey in room A310: the ups, downs, and everything in between.

The Epiphany: Last year I had a few honor students struggling, along with multiple average students. I teach 9th grade average/regular and 10th grade honors in a diverse school. New Albany High School's diversity is one of the many reasons I love working here. We house the wealthy and poor, all races, LGBTQ students, etc. It's a beautiful aspect that I don't even think the children fully appreciate yet. I am going into my third year of teaching and  have so much left to learn.

So here I was, in my second year of teaching at the moment of the epiphany reflecting over winter break about those struggling students. Why can't I reach all of my students? Why can't I make my class fun for all of them to want to learn? What am I doing wrong? This is a simple moment but such a clear moment. I stopped thinking about what they were doing wrong and why they didn't want to learn and put the blame on myself. I stopped stereotyping them as lazy or uninterested or as someone I couldn't save and instead, started looking at myself. This change of thinking probably derived from our Principal speaking at a meeting and saying something along the lines of teachers unknowingly thinking we know what's best for kids, stereotyping them, and answering questions about them without even simply asking them.

Was I doing this? Her point was to start asking for feedback from the kids. I always asked for feedback on the assignments and trivial things, but I never asked for feedback on my teaching. What would kids really know about teaching? How could that possibly be beneficial? Coming back from winter break, I had asked myself those questions, and switching the focus from them to me was a small step. We started on Julius Caesar when we returned from break, but I had yet to involve the kids. I kept telling myself things were going well, even though I was pulling teeth to get the discussion going over the play. I kept telling myself, "It's just because it's Shakespeare." Ugh! I was already going back to "I'm not the problem" style thinking. I gave the first quiz and was smacked with reality. . . not even half of my honors kids were understanding the basics of the play much less reaching high levels of thinking. The next day I took another step. I shared a Google Form with them asking for feedback on my teaching, on why Shakespeare wasn't going well for them. I asked the kids to be honest without fear of repercussions. The feedback was astounding. Some kids were bored going at the "slow" pace. Others could not keep up with the material. From their feedback, I dove into research knowing that I had to change the way I was teaching in order to teach in their best interest. Whole group instruction reading was not working for them at this point.

I found Mark Barnes "Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom" book and hungrily ate every word. I read Starr Sackstein's book on Assessment. I read book after book and article after article. The lightbulb went off in my head that a traditional classroom was not what I wanted anymore because it was not in the best interest of my kids. We teach the way we were taught. It's what is comfortable. I am a control freak; teaching in a traditional manner gives me that sense of control because I lead. I am the boss. Not anymore.

I took baby steps the last semester of last year trying to implement techniques that I knew my students would benefit from. This year I am full steam ahead. Essentially, the major changes after all of the research include: being student-centered, incorporating PBL, differentiating, de-emphasizing grading while emphasizing learning, and giving up control.

It's terrifying, yet exhilarating. I shared the research with a couple veteran colleagues who are on board to pilot this style of teaching. We put together a proposal for our administration and set up a date to meet with them, we discussed areas of concern, and we are ready to go! Because we are a traditional high school, the main concern is the de-emphasis of grades. We compromised with our administration. We will assign grades after conferring with our students every four weeks for progress reports. We will not assign letter grades to each assignment but instead will provide essential feedback for the students to master standards. Learning will be an on-going cycle. Feedback forms, using Google Sheets, will be placed in our online gradebook for counselors, parents, students, administrators, etc. to see in order to monitor where students ideally are.

Eventually, I would like to only assign grades after conferring with students each semester but baby steps! This is the very beginning of the process of trying to go gradeless, having a student-centered classroom, and giving up control. I am becoming a facilitator/coach in their learning. I will update this blog weekly with how the process is going. I expect the beginning to be quite challenging for those of us piloting this because kids are so used to, "How many points is this assignment worth? What do I need to do to get an A?" etc. Instead, they will be transitioning to think, "How can I prove I understand this standard?" "How can I improve this project?" Learning will be a discussion; not a final, handed down executed grade with no chance of improvement. Each student will be met at their starting point in their learning, not higher or lower. Each student will be given feedback on their individual growth, not based on where their classmates are.

I am not naïve enough to think this transition will go flawlessly and know that I will have some very frustrating times ahead. However, reading up on different sites, I see others wanting to try this but are scared and asking questions about the process. People try to answer each individual question, but the truth is there really is no "how to" book on changing from such traditions. I hope this blog will help with the weekly updates, starting from the beginning.


  1. I will be following your journey with great interest, thank you.


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