Hacking Your Online Grade Book: A Review of Pointless by Sarah M. Zerwin

Things students do that result in grades but not learning:

  • Copy work from another student
  • Game rubrics to figure out what you can do to get the most points with the least work
  • Use Sparknotes instead of reading
  • Watch movie instead of reading
  • Get too much help from their friends
  • Plagiarize

I am sure you can list more but this is the start of the list that teacher and author, Sarah M. Zerwin shared in her book Pointless: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading (Heinemann, 2020). This book was a refreshing read for me and it helps me to rethink how I will use my online grade book and the role of feedback in my classroom. I have had numerous conversations with my principal about getting rid of grades in my middle school classroom and Zerwin’s books shows how.

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Zerwin is a 20 year veteran high school English teacher in Colorado and she begins articulating the problems with points and grades. She argues “points based grading gets in the way of student learning and a grading system rewards compliance over learning.” She pulls in support from Rick Wormeli,  Alfie Kohn, and Maja Wilson. If we remove grades, points, and letters from our classroom we can see more meaningful learning and growth happening among students.

You are probably wondering how does Zerwin hack her grade book and traditional grading practices.

First, it is about establishing clear and meaningful learning goals to creates a focus for students and the teacher. These learning goals articulate the work that students will do and how teachers can help them get there. The goals are simple, clear, and specific. Each is grounded in multiple standards. In her classroom, “learning lives in the process, in the work that writers and readers do along the way” NOT the final product.

As for the grading hacks and how she sets up her online grade book:

* Zerwin’s grade book still boils things down to a percentage through the semester. But this percentage reflects nothing more than how much of the work students have completed. She states, “We all need to think of that percentage not as a grade in the traditional sense but rather simply a percentage representing how much of the course’s tasks a student has completed. If it’s not 100%, there is work the student needs to do. And at semester’s end, that percentage is just one data point of many included in the determination of the semester grade.”

* She makes heavy use of the comment boxes in the grade book to build a qualitative data record of students’ journeys as learners. For example, students complete weekly reading comprehension checks on Google Forms and Zerwin cut and pastes student responses in the comment box to use as data. Additionally, after students meet for a reading or writing conference, the student completes a Google Form stating the outcome of the conference and what they are going to work on that week. 

* Students continuously reflect on their work alongside a set of learning goals for reading and writing and collect evidence of their learning toward those goals. These include progress reports and weekly goal planning. 

* At the end of each semester, students write letters in the form of stories about their journeys as learners. Examples of these letters are placed as interludes in between each chapter. The letter is a narrative that asks students to make sense of what they’ve learned, how they see it and know it clearly.  The semester letter/story is also where students select their final grade.

My copy of this book is filled with post-it notes on numerous charts, marginals notes, and dog-eared pages. Her focus is on the process and not a final essay to show whether students are meeting learning targets. It is all about a culture of feedback and the multiple ways that students are gaining feedback from the teachers, their peers, and even mentor texts to grow as readers and writers. Chapter Five and Six alone articulate how our grade book can become a “data warehouse” rather than a mathematical jungle gym of vague numbers and points. Starting this fall, I will be adapting Zerwin’s grading system in my own classroom because students deserve better and we need to shift our focus on vague numbers and subjective rubrics to actually helping students grow as deep readers and creative communicators.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Hacking Your Online Grade Book: A Review of Pointless by Sarah M. Zerwin

  1. Joy Kirr says:

    I, too, use those comment boxes heavily, but I don’t put any numbers in to be averaged. You’ve made me intrigued about this one (that I’ve put on my list but never got to as I’d already gone w/o grades until the quarter ends), and I thank you for all the notes! I’ll be adding this one to the Feedback in Lieu of Grades LiveBinder. I really need to help my students set goals and reflect on them more than I have. Here’s how I go w/o grades in 7th grade ELA now: http://scholarsrm239.weebly.com/grading-philosophy.html Thanks again for sharing this one, Michele!

  2. […] week I wrote about Sarah M. Zerwin’s book Pointless: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading (Heinemann, 2020) and how she maps out her assessment practices omitting grades and numbers from her classes. Her […]

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