It’s the middle of second period, 11 a.m. My students have settled into their writing workshop. I walk around and when I get to Kevin, his screen is white, empty.
“What’s up?’ I ask. He takes a breath and turns his gaze back to his blank screen. “I don’t know, Miss. I got nothing. Everytime I try to write my mind goes blank.”
“It’s because he’s depressed,” a kid jokes. “We’re all depressed,” another student adds. “Facts,” a student from another group chimes in.
“Why not just start typing something, anything, and see where it goes?” I ask. Kevin stares at me. “Nah, Miss. It’s not just this, and it’s not you. It’s everything. Don’t worry. I’ll get it done.”
But I worry. There is something different happening in the classroom today. Teachers who have been in the field long enough can feel it, even if we’re unable to name it. Students seem different: more tired, more apathetic, less engaged.
Many of my students are experiencing some type of post-pandemic trauma, on a varying scale. In fact, this past year, the 2021-2022 Healthy Colorado Kids survey concluded that while suicidal ideation in teens has slightly decreased since 2019, rates of depression and anxiety have increased.
The pandemic is not solely to blame for collective despair. Major social issues and institutional structures plague places of learning and inhibit large swaths of our children from receiving an adequate and equitable education. And while schools cannot solve all social problems, there is a lot that I can do as an educator.
First, I can examine my school’s current systems and practices, looking closely at structural or environmental barriers that cause unnecessary anxiety for students like Kevin and block his access to learning. One such structural barrier is grades.
A few years ago, I made a deliberate decision to de-emphasize grades as much as possible within my classroom. I was not the first educator to do this: two colleagues in my district had begun a similar project, and nationwide there are plenty of teachers hacking their gradebooks to remove numbers and letters and, instead, utilize feedback as evidence for learning.
Year after year, I found that this “ungrading” practice benefitted my students and their learning, decreasing the amount of stress in our learning environment. Moreover, by de-emphasizing grades, I was able to teach a more challenging curriculum to my students. Focusing less on grades gave me more time to support them through the learning process, and my students often felt more motivated to strive toward the learning outcome.
By the time they reach high school, many of my students have developed strong beliefs about the “type” of student they are. They have decided whether they are a “math” student or an “English” student, whether they are an “A,” “B,” “C,” or an “I just don’t care student.” Students like Kevin typically fit into the latter box.
The reality, however, is that they often do care. Many have simply become so disheartened by their “failed” attempts at doing well that it is safer to show up nonchalant and detached.
This is not a mere reflection of my students. A 2018 Pew research study suggests that most US teens experience more stress and anxiety over grades than “fitting in” socially or excelling athletically. Students have learned to see grades as an indicator of their intellectual identity and of their potential success beyond school. Grades, however, are not the sole indicator of success and are oftentimes a better indicator of compliance than achievement or learning.
The spring before I began ungrading practices, Taylor, a smart and successful 10th grader, had an anxiety attack in my classroom. Taylor had signed up to take an AP course the following school year and wanted me to assure her that she would “get an ‘A’” in the course. As I was explaining my inability to make such a promise, Taylor, who was already under a lot of stress, crouched down and began hyper-ventalating. By the time the nurse was in my classroom she was sobbing.
A few days later, she dropped the AP course. This was not the first time I had seen a heart-wrenching emotional response over grades, but this moment tipped the scales.
With Kevin, the ongoing support he received in my classroom through one-on-one conferences, peer reviewing, flexible due dates, robust and consistent feedback, and an uncapped ability for him to revise his work, allowed him the space to focus on growth and development over letters and numbers. By the end of the semester, he had written every major essay. In his final conference, with a wide grin, he shared that he was both “surprised” and “proud” of his work.
There is plenty of evidence that our current grading policies are inextricably linked to stress, anxiety, and other emotional problems in students. If we truly want to support students like Kevin, rethinking the way we assess and evaluate learning is a good starting place.
Lisa Wennerth, of Fort Collins, is an English teacher at Windsor High School and a 2022-2023 Teach Plus Colorado Policy Fellow.
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