But I haven’t always been a runner. In fact, I only started running in October of 2013, and it wasn’t until just a few months ago that I was even comfortable calling myself an actual “runner.” Please don’t make any assumptions here. I am not fast, competitive or elite. I simply get out several times a week and work up a sweat pounding the pavement. Then once every couple months, I like to challenge myself to a half marathon. I run for a sense of accomplishment. I run because I have encouragement. I won’t lie -- I also run because I love collecting the medals.
No matter my reasons, the one consistent among runners is the need to train. The training gives me, and all runners, opportunities to attempt new routes, test new running shoes, try new gels and chews for fuel, plan for water breaks and enable me to finish every race.
This school year I’ve been thinking quite a bit about running as a great metaphor for grades. I am an English teacher, so let me use writing for this example.
I will argue that training to run a marathon is similar to training to write.
Day one, I didn’t start by running three miles. I started by running one quarter mile. Day one, my seventh grade students didn’t start by writing a complete literary analysis essay. They started by understanding the organization of a thesis statement and paragraph.
I wasn’t able to complete my first half marathon on my own. I had a plan from a professional and support from my running buddies. My students didn’t complete their first full essay on their own. They participated in the scaffolded lessons and learned from model texts and peer critique.
And you know what else didn’t happen during my training? I wasn’t judged or evaluated or graded. And I don’t judge or evaluate or grade my students during the training process either.
Just like in running, when learning to write, each training session is meant to build on the next. I want to see my students improve their stamina, endurance, energy, knowledge and skill with each opportunity to practice. I monitor and encourage them. I support their learning. I feed them new tips as they progress. This is what a good training program does.
I made a commitment to run, just like I commit to helping “train” my students to become better every day -- better at reading, better at writing, better at communicating.
Where does the assessment of my training happen? At the finish line. I’m not graded on my training days. These days are practice, and each training day is important. But not each training day needs assessed. So why do we assess our students on every one of their training days?
Students need the freedom to practice. Time and freedom and space to take a risk. As a teacher, I want my students to take these risks with writing. I want to see them rearranging sentences, adding dialogue, incorporating imagery, building a new scene in a narrative, adding paragraphs for intent, and challenging themselves to embed evidence in new ways.
It takes every day to get to an end. But it’s not until my students cross the finish line that they are graded or awarded a medal of achievement -- a grade that gives them feedback on their level of proficiency or mastery.
We live in a society where everything is measured, evaluated and ranked. We are leeching the fun out of learning by assessing everything that gets turned in. We are penalizing children on mile three of thirteen in the first weeks of a month-long training program.
What would happen if we did away with grades? I am not necessarily suggesting this is the answer, but I am suggesting that grading is a subject that teachers need to be discussing. Why do we take 50% off of an assignment simply because it’s one day late? Why do we grade every practice assignment? What do we want classroom grades to reflect? Can we move away from grades as punitive and move towards grades as an assessment system that is reflective of standards?
I don’t have the answer. All I have is a drive to make sure my students are rewarded for taking risks, feel safe to experiment with the content, and want to practice without fear of losing points.
Let’s give our kids their “medal” when they cross the finish line -- and not discourage them from finishing the race.