Martha Burtis

While I have worked in and around higher education for all of my professional career, if I’m being honest, for the first ten years of that journey I didn’t really think much about grades or assessment or the intersection of those issues with care, power, and, frankly, learning. Grades seemed to me like a necessary part of education, and grading seemed like the penance teachers must pay in order to participate in the community of education. My own relationship with grades as a learner had been fraught, but no more or less so than I suspect most people’s, especially those people who tend to be drawn to a career in education: I sought good grades as a child because it was expected and they seemed like a mark of achievement. I experienced feelings of doubt and low self-worth when I struggled in classes and ended up with lower grades than I wanted. My parents at times encouraged me to get good grades; at other times, cajoled; a few times, punished. In retrospect, I could say that grades and my anxiety around them took a toll on my mental health in my adolescence and as I entered young adulthood. But, if I examine the situation more closely, it’s pretty clear that the mechanism of that toll wasn’t the grades; the grades were a symbol of something much more deeply insidious and complicated.

Two events converged in my life around the same time that made me begin to think about grading and assessment differently: first, after many years of working in the area of faculty and curricular support, I was asked to teach for the first time. I was no longer someone who dropped into the classroom to assist with an assignment or the person consulted about the design of a unit. In those roles, the question of grades never really entered the conversation. Occasionally, faculty would ask me the best way to assess a digital activity or for advice about using online assessment tools. I answered those as someone who had done research in these areas but had never had to make those critical decisions for my own teaching. 

As a new teacher, almost every aspect was exciting and terrifying. But the prospect of figuring out the best way to grade my students was paralyzing. The class I was teaching, digital storytelling, fulfilled a creative thought general education requirement for my university. I knew that I wanted students to develop a better relationship with their own creativity. I wanted them to develop a creative habit. I wanted them to experiment, explore, share, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. I wanted them to choose work that was personally meaningful so that they would be inspired to take risks. But, I had no idea how to grade creativity, experimentation, exploration, sharing, mistake-making, or risk-taking. Grading those things felt like grading the abstract, like grading love or personhood. I did the best I could, and I muddled through, but even as the other aspects of teaching the course got easier each time, the question of assessing my students loomed over me, worried me, and, sometimes, sucked the joy out of teaching. 

The second thing that happened around this time is that I became the parent of a school-aged child. My oldest entered kindergarten the same year that I started teaching. The one thing I wanted for them at that age was to love school. I wanted school and learning to be something they looked forward to. I wanted their teachers to be adults they trusted with their fragile, newly-developed sense of themselves as learners. 

My child had entered kindergarten already an excellent reader and was immediately put into a “gifted” program called Junior Great Books. In theory, I liked the idea of the program. Kids were given stories and poems that were considered “literature” instead of reading stories developed for textbooks. They met once a week to read together and discuss the stories. I thought it would be like kindergarten book club. Then they started bringing packets home. It turned out every reading was accompanied with worksheets. I think the point of the worksheets was to give students a chance to respond creatively to the readings and gauge how well they were understanding what they read. I was less thrilled with this, but we plowed ahead. I encouraged my child to get them done, but I didn’t look them over, review them, or concern myself too much with the “quality” of their worksheets. To be frank, they hated the worksheets. They barely spent any time on them. If they were asked to draw something, they didn’t break out the 64 color box of crayons and create a masterpiece; they scribbled something with a pencil and got it done as quickly as possible. I didn’t blame them. 

I thought things were going fine with all of this. My child seemed to be thriving in kindergarten, making friends, learning new things, and, most importantly, looking forward to school each day. Then, one morning, as we waited for the school bus, out of nowhere they started to have a panic attack. There were tears, and when I dug further I discovered they had been told to redo a reading packet because their original work wasn’t adequate. If they didn’t redo it and turn it in today, the gifted teacher told them they were going to fail Junior Great Books. Let me repeat that: The gifted teacher told my kindergartener they would get an F in reading if they didn’t redo a worksheet. Up until that moment, I didn’t even think my child knew what an “F” was.

The confluence of these two events, my teaching and my child entering kindergarten, brought into stark focus that there was something wrong with what we were doing in our schools. It all seemed to keep coming back to grades. A few years later, when I was introduced to the concept of ungrading by Jesse Stommel, I embraced the idea. I rejiggered my classes around the practice of regular self-evaluation and open conversation about the purpose and meaning of our work. Since then, I’ve never taught a traditionally graded class again, and I never will.

This is the point when I should tell you that in this book you should be prepared to encounter pages of wisdom about how to ungrade: the practices, tools, techniques and approaches you will need. That you will come away feeling more confident about your ability to do this. That if anyone can teach you how to ungrade, it is Jesse Stommel. But I’m not going to tell you that, because after years of grappling with these issues and figuring out how to make ungrading work for me and my classes, I’ve learned one thing: it isn’t actually about grades. It is about the things that grades stand in for. It is about the class you teach that sits beneath the grades. 

Ten years ago when my child cried on the driveway waiting for the bus, the tears weren’t about getting an F. The tears were about the frustration of being asked to do mindless busy work that interrupted her relationship with the stories she was trying to understand and enjoy. And six years ago, when I discovered ungrading and changed assessment in my classes, it worked because I was already teaching in ways that adapted to these practices. You can’t ungrade away a broken assignment. You can’t ungrade away a lack of care for your students. You can’t ungrade away pedagogy that is rooted in wielding power over students. More than anyone else, Jesse Stommel’s words have taught me this: “We can’t simply take away grades without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches, and this work looks different for each teacher, in each context, and with each group of students.”


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Undoing the Grade Copyright © 2023 by Martha Burtis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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