Early in my career, when this system of self-evaluation was first evolving, I had the closest thing to a student rebellion that I ever experienced as a teacher. It was a time when I was doing a lot of experimenting, so much so that after almost every weekend I would come into class and say “I had an idea over the weekend...”, and the class, more often than not, would groan. Too much change, I learned the hard way, makes for unhappy students. They need to know what is being asked of them.
On that particular Monday, I announced that I wanted to experiment with them grading themselves, I met with serious resistance. Anna became the spokesperson for some very intense objections. She had a steely look on her face, and her blonde curls shook with the intensity of her speech.
“You mean you’re not going to grade our work at all? What is the point of doing it if you don’t tell us how we’re doing?”
Her question cut to the heart of doing school, although at that point in my career, I didn’t understand that. I just know instinctively that something feels wrong with the way I’ve been handling grades in the past, how every teacher I know handles grades.
“I will still look at all your work, and I’ll make sure that I agree with the grades you give yourself. Isn’t that what matters?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think that my giving myself a grade is anything like you givingme a grade. I don’t know what you know as a teacher - how am I supposed to know whether this is good homework or not?”
Tom, who had been sitting with his arms crossed across his chest and what looked a lot like a glare on his face, joined the conversation. “I have no idea how to give grades. I’m a student. I do the work. The teacher gives the grade. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Look, I agree that most of you have no idea how to give a grade to yourself. But I think we can figure that one out. I came up with something called a rubric that will tell you everything you need to know to come up with a grade. And I am planning on having us talk about this until it makes sense to everyone. I know it’s going to be bumpy at first, but we can figure this out. And I think that once we do, you’ll appreciate the fact that you’re more of a boss of your own learning this way.”
Anna is completely unconvinced. I’d never seen her frown before, and the level of determination on her face was a little frightening. I began to wonder if I’d made a big mistake.
“I think you should keep grading us for a while and let us get used to the idea.” LaTasha’s face was filled with concern. She was looking off to the side, not making eye contact. She found the idea of telling a teacher what to do very difficult, but in fact she had a good idea.
Looking around the room, I see this is too much too soon.
“LaTasha, I think your idea is excellent.” She smiles with relief and some pride. “We’ll keep doing grades the way we have, and over the next week or so, let’s talk through how this might work. I want to hear what your concerns are and see if we can’t work through them. And I promise you this - if we try this and it doesn’t work, for any reason, we’ll stop doing it.”
There was an almost tangible release of tension in the room. Tom uncrossed his arms. Anna’s frown eased up a little. I didn’t know it yet, but the act of listening to the needs of students and changing what I do as a result has a powerful effect on our working relationship. Over the next few years, I will start incorporating student feedback in a systematic way. It will profoundly change my practice as a teacher.