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S1E8 - Teaching Humanity Through Ungrading - Claire Romzek

Moving Towards Ungrading and Educating the Whole Child
Laura Heyes
November 2, 2022

In Season 1 Episode 8 of Growth over Grades, educator Claire Romzek shares how her experience teaching during the global COVID-19 pandemic led her to reassess her previous emphasis on grades and implement ungrading in her classroom, focused on the needs and development of the whole child.

In this episode, Claire explains that her teaching methods were perpetuating an antiquated piece of our culture that prioritizes grades rather than actual learning, and so she chose to put humanity back into her teaching through ungrading. Claire identifies the roadblocks she encountered and shares her insights into some of the most common pushback educators experience when venturing into grade-free territory. Throughout the discussion, Claire touches on the critical role of formative feedback, 21st-century competencies, and developing a growth mindset in our students as we prepare them not only for school but for life.

Listen, watch, or read the show notes below.

Key Takeaways

  • Some students would rather fail because they did nothing than work hard on something and get a bad grade. Ungrading mitigates this problem
  • Education requires a culture shift to move away from the emphasis on grading
  • Roadblocks are a perception. When we cut grading out, we find more success than anticipated
  • Evidence of success occurs when teachers realize they are working harder during in-class time rather than outside of class
  • Regular communication between students, teachers, and families is important to ensure transparency about the child’s learning
  • An ungraded classroom can translate to state testing

Episode Highlights

  • 3:55: What does teaching the whole child mean?
  • 6:10: Why is the "Is this for a grade?" mindset problematic from the whole child viewpoint?
  • 9:03: What are the roadblocks on this journey of learning?
  • 12:37: How do you know when you have been successful?
  • 16:37: How do you provide the district-required grade when you move to ungrading?
  • 18:50: How does ungrading translate to state standardized testing?
  • 23:45: What does a school community look like when it's not focused on letter grades?
  • 25:45: How do you get started with ungrading?

Show Notes

Melody 0:37 Meet educator and leader Claire Romzek. She's here to talk about how we can move our students away from the mindset of "is this for a grade?" towards digging into the learning process of becoming a whole person. Claire, how are you doing today? can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Claire 1:51 Recently, I got to sit with a group of people at a conference hosted by our state superintendent and talk about where they want the state of Nevada to go. We want to move towards competency-based education. Teaching the whole child, not just those standards, not just that content, but what do we want our learners to be when they go out into the world? We want problem-solvers. We want critical thinkers, we want empathetic humans, who not only know the knowledge we've taught them but can also relate to people and pass any test, not just today's test.

Melody 2:42 That's awesome. What is your role in your district?

Claire 2:47 I'm the magnet coordinator at my school. I work to keep the theme of STEM in our school, as well as get guest speakers and field trip opportunities. I taught elementary for 12 years, most of that was fifth grade. Then I moved to the magnet school, where I taught design and modeling, which was our first step into STEM.

Melody 3:30 We talk about the whole child, but if somebody was listening in for the first time and this is not something they've ever thought about, what would you say it means?

Claire 3:53 It means putting a face to the standards so we're not just assessing if they can do a skill, but also how they do it, and what they're interested in.

Melody 4:18 It's more than just social-emotional learning. It's helping them to grow into their identity, pulling their culture into who they are becoming, and tying in the physical, mental, and emotional, along with the community that they're learning in. Developing a whole child is taking into consideration where our students are coming from and how they're being brought up. And knowing that this isn't throwing content at them and hoping that they soak it up, but that it becomes a part of who they are and that we're helping them grow.

Melody 5:09 Is this for grade? This is a question you've faced. Why is it problematic?

Claire 5:28 I was getting so annoyed with this question, especially over 2020, when we were online and I couldn't observe my students as much. Their cameras were off. They were working on things. I was giving the same test over and over. And it was for me, it wasn't for them. It wasn't for a grade. I just wanted to see where they were at and tracking that. They kept asking "can I retake this?" even before they took it the first time. I started to realize that it wasn't that they weren't going to do it if it wasn't for a grade. It was more or less playing the game and trying to calculate if it was going to get them in trouble if they didn't do well on it.

We've created this culture of 24/7 we can see grades. As soon as it gets put in there, we get a notification, and we're all over our students or our children. They're stressed out. We've taken it completely away from the learning and it's more about building a gradebook.

Melody 7:12 We have, as an education system, put this on to our students. I love that you talked about that.

Claire 8:01 Because of this, we hear those complaints of this child's not doing anything in class, they're doing nothing. And I think some students would rather fail because they did nothing than have worked hard on something and still get a bad grade. So the thing is saving face. We've created that with this system.

Melody 8:29 What are some roadblocks we're facing to get our students (and even our parents and teachers) away from this attitude of constant grading?

Claire 9:03 It needs to be a culture shift. We started this at my school last year. I did ungrading in my classroom. I was honest with the students that I was trying this out and I was taking them on this journey. I checked in constantly with them. This year, I'm bringing it to the CTE team at my school.

Some roadblocks are coming from parents who are saying that if it's not graded, they won't do it. We did have one example of this parent pushback. At the end of the quarter, one of our teachers had students reflect on their learning. He called me in and he said, "Look at this reflection. Look at all this kid learned when his mom said he wouldn't do anything if it wasn't for a grade." I think the roadblocks are a perception. I think, to overcome those roadblocks, we need to try it and we need to document what we're doing and get the word out it has better outcomes than anticipated.

Melody 10:28 You're talking about the ungrading journey. I've talked with people about standards-based or competency-based grading. If you go back to Twitter, you'll find people at war about those different movements. Does that surprise you that people are fighting about ungrading versus standards-based grading or competency-based? Do you have any light to shed on that?

Claire 10:51 It doesn't surprise me because I've been watching it. It does make my blood boil. It's just what's best for kids. I think we've taken the humanity out of the learning process. We're saying they need to be responsible, they need to have all these As or they won't get into high school or the college they want. But what are we doing? Are we fostering the whole person? Are we making sure that they're happy, as well as learning? That they're following their passions and they can think for themselves? Or that they can persevere? Instead, we're saying, "Okay, you failed that test. I guess, you're just not going to get a good grade in this class." Instead of, "What can you do to persevere to correct that, and take those risks and learn."

Melody 11:48 Wherever you find yourself, whether you are still giving grades, whether your standards-based grades, whether you're ungrading, if your focus isn't on the humanity of your students, and how they learn, then they're not learning to the best of their capabilities, and we're losing a lot of students in the process. How else do you know when you've been successful in the ungrading movement?

Claire 12:38 When I jumped on that journey, I took my kids with me. I was surveying them throughout the course. I still had to give grades but they were based on their reflections. And we agreed as teacher and child.

There was more work being done in the classroom than me taking work home and giving that feedback on an assignment when it was too late and they couldn't use my feedback to move on to the next step. We're very project-based so I was walking around giving feedback on the spot to students. I could see what they knew. We're shifting to working harder in class where our students are giving that feedback instead of going home, looking at what they turned in, and giving written feedback on something they're not going back to.

Melody 14:25 I love what you're saying. Number one, the students are doing the work, and they're learning because it's doing deep reflection. As teachers, we are not going home working, everything is happening when you're with your students. There's a deep level of learning going on. And it's individualized.

Claire 15:18 I gave a very generic rubric for them to reflect on for the whole quarter. Are you still just dipping your toe in the water and emerging into this content? Are you still developing your skills? Do you think you're proficient?  Are you exemplary - can you teach somebody else?  A lot of times I was telling them they were higher than what they were rating themselves. They're very honest with their reflections.

Melody 16:16 When a student is truthful about where they are in the journey, how does that translate to a grade? Since you're still responsible for putting a grade in the gradebook, what does that look like?

Claire 16:34 I told the parents, that if they still looked like they were going to be emergent by the quarter, I would make a phone call home. I was also sending weekly emails because I was encouraging families to talk. I think it's all about communication. I feel strongly that the family, the student, and the teacher are a team. Teachers also need to help those families know what to ask about and what they can be doing to keep up with things without just that notification in the gradebook.

I would put grades in early. If students got something they didn't want, they had a whole week to show me evidence that they were at a higher level of proficiency. Rather than saying "You need to turn this in to show me you get a better grade." I had to take those words out and say, "If you think you're a higher level of proficiency, show me this evidence."

Melody 18:18 How does ungrading translate to state standardized testing?

Claire 18:54 It does because state testing isn't graded. You have a level of proficiency. And so ungraded is a level of proficiency. We're saying you're emergent. Here's the evidence because you did X, Y, and Z. If that feedback is showing I'm not proficient, then I'm emergent, just like you would be if you couldn't answer these questions on a standardized test. It absolutely translates because when you get a four on the aspect, that's not an A, that's an exemplary status.

Melody 19:43 Do you feel like they're more prepared for the standardized testing because there's more learning happening?

Claire 19:47 I do. I think I've said for a long time that I want to prepare them for the test of life, not a standard of mastery. If they're learning, if they can problem solve, if they can persevere, if they can critically think about something, then they're going to be able to pass any test. It doesn't matter what state they're in or what tests are given. If you're still emergent because you're not doing anything, without somebody there helping you, then you're not going to pass the test either. It's straightforward. But me giving a test every Friday isn't helping them pass standardized tests, either. Because where's the feedback? Where am I seeing, "Oh, you have this hole, I need to fix this to help you understand the next level"? We're not doing that with our current system, either.

Melody 20:38 When you talk about the grand scheme of life, academics are just one part of that. It's just one piece of when we're teaching the whole child. Regardless of how they perform, you still want them to be able to walk on and be confident in who they are as a person.

Claire 20:38 Sometimes students' evidence might not have been what you asked on a quiz. If they can say, "Wait, I do know how to do this. You just didn't ask me right," then give them that opportunity.

Melody 22:48 When you were taking on this ungrading do you feel like your class was more rigorous than it had been?

Claire 22:56 I saw more people working. So in a way, yes. I would check in before they moved on to the next step. In that immediate feedback of "I'm not going to sign off on this, you can't go to the next step," I feel like yes, it was that deeper level of learning.

Melody 23:37 What does this school community look like when it's not focused on letter grades?

Claire 23:45 We're not there yet. I would love a whole school that's not focused on letter grades. I think it looks like kids who are less stressed out. Kids that are more likely to take a risk, more likely to problem solve, learn from mistakes, and be creative.

Melody 24:22 The kind of people who will be successful once they leave school. It's probably going to be a little bit noisier in the classroom. Kids are going to be out of their seats and doing things.

Claire 24:40 I had a coaching culture. A four is that you could teach somebody else. If somebody had a question, it freed me up because they're going to somebody else. I'd have one student who was coached and then I'd hear another student who had a problem with something. I was like, "So and so you were just coached, you're now the coach for this person because you just had that question answered." It was a constant team of we're all on the same track, we all want to learn this, and how do we get everybody there instead of a competition.

Melody 25:37 What is one thing an educator can do if they are wanting to go this route? Where's the place they can begin?

Claire 25:47 Try it out. Give one assignment that is not going to be graded. Tell them or don't tell them. Give the feedback without the grade and see what happens.

Melody 26:01 What is one piece of wisdom you'd like to share with other educators?

Claire 26:20 If I was still in the classroom, I'd say shut your door and teach. There's so much noise outside and what you're supposed to do, and you know what's best in your classroom. Yes, you have to follow things but sometimes you need to shut your door and teach.

In the role that I'm currently in and how I spent the last couple of days talking about what's happening in Nevada, and where we want to go, we need to put humanity back into education. And this whole learning loss, I don't jump on that train. They didn't lose their learning. They weren't in school for a year. We need to meet them where they are. They're humans. They didn't lose anything.

Melody 28:33
Thank you so much, Claire, for coming on to our show. I love everything you talked about and the importance of putting humanity back into education.

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