The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 13


Jennifer Gonzalez, host

Listen to the audio version of this podcast.


Jennifer Gonzalez:This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to episode 13 of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast. In this episode we’ll talk about how to teach without giving grades.


[music playing]


Gonzalez: Hi. I’m so glad to have you listening. This is still a new podcast with a small audience, and every time I see that another person has downloaded an episode it really just gives me a thrill. If you want to support this podcast and help it reach more people, go on over to iTunes and give it a rating and a review. This makes a big difference in terms of how many people see it in iTunes. And to see more of the work I do, come on over to my website,, where I share teaching strategies, great books on teaching, and resources on classroom management, ed tech, and how to make your teaching way more effective and satisfying. While you’re there, click on the “about” button and scroll down to where it says “subscribe.” From there you can get yourself on my mailing list, so we can stay in touch.

My guest in this episode is Starr Sackstein. Starr teaches high school English and Journalism in New York, and she blogs about her work at and on a new Education Week blog called Work in Progress. She’s also the author of two books: Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective, and a brand-new one called Blogging for Educators. I’ll put a link to her blogs and books in the show notes for this podcast – just go to and click “podcast” to find them. I have always enjoyed the honest, informal way Starr writes about her teaching, but lately she’s been doing something that really piqued my interest. This year she decided to eliminate traditional grading in all of her classes. Teachers Throwing Out Grades is a growing movement that was spearheaded by another education writer, Mark Barnes, and it’s gaining momentum as teachers start to discover that the quality of student learning really improves when we shift the way we assess their work in our classrooms, getting rid of the letters and numbers that typically define how well a student performs.

Starr has been blogging about her progress this year and has produced a series of short, informal YouTube videos – almost like a video diary – about where she is in the process. I’m finding the whole thing really fascinating and I thought other teachers would, too, so I asked her to come on the show.

Let’s listen now as Starr talks about her journey toward a no-grades classroom.

First, Some Background

Gonzalez: So I am welcoming Starr Sackstein to the podcast. Thank you so much for giving up your time. We’re lucky, kind of, that you guys had a blizzard and a snow day today.

Starr Sackstein: Yeah, lucky.

Gonzalez: Make something out of it anyway. So I wanted to talk to you today about this process that you have been going through for the past semester plus a little. You decided at the beginning of this past fall semester to move to a no grades classroom.

Sackstein: Yes.

Gonzalez: This is in all of your classes?

Sackstein: Mmhmm

Gonzalez: Okay, just as a background, before we even get started so people have a context, could you tell me where you teach, what your subject area is and the grade levels that you’re teaching?

Sackstein: Absolutely. So I teach in New York City, in Queens, at World Journalism Preparatory School. It is a public school even though it doesn’t sound like one.

Gonzalez: Right

Sackstein: I teach ninth grade journalism to a — It’s an ICT class, but I don’t get any help in it and there are about thirty kids in that class. I teach two newspaper classes, one that’s eleventh grade, one that’s twelfth grade. I teach an AP Lit class which is twelfth grade and I teach an elective called Publications Finance to twelfth graders. 

Gonzalez: Okay, that’s a big load!

Sackstein: Yeah.

Gonzalez: What is– Can you go back to ICT? What does that stand for?

Sackstein: That’s like my inclusion class. So the vast majority of the kids have IEPs or 504s.

Gonzalez: Okay, and you have no resource teacher in there with you. How many kids in that class?

Sackstein: Thirty.

Gonzalez: Holy cow! Okay and did you say that was grade nine or ten?

Sackstein: Nine

Gonzalez: Nine, okay so a really a huge range of ages and abilities all around. Sounds like is that three or four preps?

Sackstein: Five.

Gonzalez: Five preps?

Sackstein: Yeah.

Gonzalez: Okay, and you have a young son too?

Sackstein: I do.

Gonzalez: And now two blogs kind of, basically?

Sackstein: Yeah.

Gonzalez: Okay, so that, yeah that’s a lot. So okay, if you could — If we could start from the beginning in terms of what made you decide that you wanted to stop using traditional grading in your classroom? What sort of inspired you to do that? And just take us down that road.

Sackstein: I think awhile back I actually started getting really frustrated with having to put a grade on student work. This is going way back. Or spending, you know, thirty, forty minutes on an essay, having students skip all the feedback that I wrote on it and go straight to the grade in the back. I don’t know, it seemed counter productive to do both. And my principal always said that once you put a grade on something, the learning stops.

So last spring, basically, I was doing report cards and my son had just had his report card come in. In the elementary school, they do standards based report card. There are like fifty indicators on there and he’s assessed on each one of those indicators. And I am sitting there trying to figure out the best one grade for my AP students who have like forty different things they’re doing in my class too. I started getting really frustrated with the fact that the same grade could communicate just so many different things for one grade. I got three comments that I was allowed to put in and all of those comments were coded. And I don’t know if a report card is supposed to communicate learning to students and families, it seemed odd that I didn’t get more space to actually do that.

So I started reading a lot of books. Ken O’Connor’s book Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades was the first one that really forced me to consider what I was doing differently. There were a lot of things on there, in his list, that I was definitely doing. That wasn’t so good. And then I kept reading and kept reading and I started experimenting with one class, an elective — definitely not my AP class — last year, in the last semester, and my kids have always written reflections and they’ve always done that kind of stuff, but I guess I never really thought about connecting their reflections with an assessment of any kind until all of this started working together.

This year I started the year and I started the YouTube channel because I was kind of nervous that parents weren’t going to understand what I was doing. So I figured when parent — open house came and went and I had three parents who showed up because, I mean seniors, most parents don’t bother coming any more for seniors. I had sent a letter home before school even started. I was like, “Hey, just so you know the online grading system’s going to look different in my class. They’re not getting traditional grades. You could look at feedback.” When they didn’t show up, I thought it would be a good idea to start making those videos so that if parents had questions about why I was doing what I was doing or the progress of what was going on, that could at least fill some of the gaps. Then, if they had specific questions, they could either e-mail me or come in and talk to me about it.

So far– I mean the naysayers– You know I have thirty kids in my class, how do you give feedback to all those kids? I’m doing it. I’m not saying it’s easy by any means, but it’s meaningful. It’s worth the time. I just decided. I felt like I had to go all in or not at all. I function in a system that does have grades, so there is that added challenge as well.

Gonzalez: Right, right and I want to get into all the nuts and bolts of how you make that work. I want to rewind a little bit. You said you sort of piloted this with one class last year?

Sackstein: Yeah.

Gonzalez: To sort of try things out. And what did you learn just in that process that informed what you did this year?

Sackstein: The, honestly — Well last year I also did in class conferences with my AP kids and the feedback I got from the students was that no teacher had ever done that with them before and that it was the thing they enjoyed and appreciated the most about the class, that we were talking constantly about their learning. If I could get kids who are usually grade obsessed, to kind of think more in terms of their progress and strategies and improving, then that’s more important to me. The elective class was fine. I don’t think anybody cared that there were no grades in it. I think some of them were confused at times, but they were getting feedback all the time, so nobody really complained.

Gonzalez: Right, so when you– I want to do one more background thing. You said that when you read this book about the Fifteen Fixes, you said you noticed a couple of things specifically that you were doing. These were a few of the fixes or a few of the flaws that you were doing?

Sackstein: Flaws, the broken part, yep. Guilty.

Gonzalez: What were they?

Sackstein: Well first of all group work. I was definitely guilty of grading group work as one group grade and not really considering how much each individual member had actually learned in the process. And grading the product rather than assessing each individual child to see whether or not they had been learning. Plus, just this idea of mastery. I mean there was homework, there was extra credit at some point, there were all kinds of things that Ken talks about as just being really bad for communicating learning.

Gonzalez: I just read a post of yours this morning. It was about the kids who put things off until the very end and then want to do a bunch of extra credit to sort of make up. That always bothered me so much as a teacher too. I hated the idea of extra credit because it didn’t really represent anything except the scramble at the last minute. So that’s one of his broken items too is this whole idea of giving extra credit?

Sackstein: Right, compliance. Anything that’s compliance based he kind of talks about how teachers need to separate behaviors and achievement and consider grading to be a way of communicating achievement, not compliance.

Gonzalez: So this was a question I was going to ask a little bit later on, but this seems like a good time for it. I would think that for students, especially students who are used to being A students, and their parents. That they want to still be recognized for things like punctuality and completeness and diligence. I would imagine you would get pushback right away from the kids who are used to standing apart from their peers, being at the top because they have those other skills which also, I think, valuable to employers and universities that see that A and think “Okay this is a person who is going to show up to class. They’re going to do things on time. They’re going to do things completely.” How does that stuff work in a no grades classroom, or is it just “Sorry you’re all kind of going to be on a level playing field whether you are turning things in on time or not.” 

Sackstein: I think it treats every single child as a unique person. If you think about differentiated learning for every single child. If my goal is mastery of standards for my students in a particular area that I teach, it’s not going to take all of them the same amount of time to master those skills and forcing them to master it at the same time is unfair. I used to be a real — I mean I’m a journalism teacher. Deadlines are tremendously important in that capacity, but again if my goal is mastery, then it’s not fair. Like, the deadlines are arbitrary. Some will be able to meet them and when they can, that’s great, but I’m not going to penalize the ones that need more time.

How a No-Grades Classroom Works

Gonzalez: Okay, let’s talk a little bit about the actual logistics of it.

Sackstein: Okay. 

Gonzalez: How do you– Because what you’re doing right now is you’re running no-grades classrooms within a traditionally graded school. So you’re expected to turn in report cards with traditional grades on them.

Sackstein: Yes.

Gonzalez: Okay, so how do you run that whole system?

Sackstein: Okay so basically kids are doing long term projects in all of my classes, essentially. And throughout the process they are getting consistent, specific, formative feedback. On each thing that they’re doing, I am meeting with them. Whether in small groups in class or one on one, I’m moving around the room just trying to put out fires as needed. Once a month I try to have in-class conferences with kids where I send out a Google form. They fill out some information for me. We’re going and we’re looking at the specific goals they set for themselves. We’re checking their progress on those goals and we’re talking about their progress all the time. So while they’re doing these projects in class, I’m meeting with kids one on one on a regular basis.

We have an online grading system called Pupil Path. Datacation runs it and basically I changed the language that I communicate with the kids in there. Do there’s no A, B, C or numbers or anything like that. The NI means I don’t have enough information, so ‘No Information’. A means you’re approaching standards. M means you meet standards. E means you are excelling. Okay?

For every assignment I try to choose no more than, no more than three to four standards specifically. Now I mean every assignment has about fifteen that I could probably do, but that became overwhelming. At the beginning of the year, I was doing that. It became too overwhelming, so I started kind of spreading them out. Instead of doing all of them together, just doing a few at a time. And then I will give them against each of those standards, are you meeting, exceed — You know, A, E or M based on each one of those standards in the system. Plus, more importantly, the feedback that they’re getting on their assignments. Everybody — I don’t just put the letters in. There’s always feedback.

Gonzalez: Okay.

Sackstein: And then the kids have a chance to come to me and have a conversation about the feedback that they got. Then they can adjust as needed to try to move to the next thing. So we’re doing that all semester long. The projects are kind of being tracked. There is no formal homework because they’re doing the homework that goes with the project at a pace that works for them. My AP kids write on blogs as well for their reading. That I’m trying to foster digital citizenship kind of stuff with them. Commenting on each others work so that I can kind of come out of the loop on that one. So that’s going on on the side as well. Then, around report card time, like just what passed, I sent out a form that specifically asked kids to review the feedback that they got all term, to review the standards. And one thing I love about Pupil Path is I can set a decaying average. So that if a standard comes up more than once, the one that comes up most recently gets the greatest weight. So if we’ve been working on this same standard for a long time and they were approaching it at the beginning of the year but now they are meeting it, then they’re meeting it. It doesn’t matter what they did in the beginning. It only matters what they’re doing now.

Gonzalez: What is that called? Decaying…

Sackstein: Average. A decaying average.

Gonzalez: That’s an awesome term! So it loses importance as time goes by if they’re improving on it?

Sackstein: Yes.

Gonzalez: The weight is toward the end.

Sackstein: Yes.

Gonzalez: Got it. Okay. So the ongoing projects, especially I’m thinking even in AP because you have that test at the end of the year to be accountable for. Does this — Do you do anything like mini lessons or any type of direct instruction at all or is it pretty much constant ongoing conferencing and independent work?

Sackstein: No, I would say there are mini lessons at the beginning of units and based on the feedback I get from the kids and what I notice in their work, I adjust as needed. So if I notice, for example, everyone in the class is still having an issue with conclusions. Which they are. I’ll teach a lesson on conclusions when I’m writing my next paper. I’ll have them bring in a draft and everybody will workshop. I’ll shift my pedagogy, you know shift the lessons so that I make sure they’re getting what they need.

Gonzalez: Right.

Sackstein: So I can’t plan too far in advance because I can’t tell what the largest group of kids is going to need or if I’m going to be working with a small group. If there’s only a handful of kids who need help with one thing, then I might set up stations in the room where I have some kids with strength working with the kids who have challenges. Or if it’s a big enough crowd, I’ll be the one who’s leading it or teach a lesson. But the vast majority of the time, even the classwork is project based. Like —

Gonzalez: So I’m thinking then, that actually frees up a lot more of your time. That when I first initially said that you’ve got five preps, and you’re trying to give all this feedback to kids. It sounds like a tremendous amount of work but I also think that’s someone thinking that you’re planning traditional lessons to be teaching every day. And also bringing home lots and lots of stuff to grade. In a traditional classroom, there would be all that paperwork going back and forth and back and forth. So you don’t really have a lot of that to deal with. It’s more authentic feedback in stuff they’re engaged in right now.

Sackstein: And it’s ongoing.

Gonzalez: Right.

Sackstein: So by the time I get to that final draft, I’ve seen their work, a lot.

Gonzalez: Yeah, you know how far it’s come and what things you’re targeting for that particular thing.

Teaching Students to Self-Assess

Gonzalez: Okay what about the piece of, because this is something you’ve been talking about a lot in the videos, is teaching the kids how to actually — Because they help you come up with your final grade, with their final grade?

Sackstein: Yes.

Gonzalez: And it sounds like that’s been a process for you, actually teaching them how to do that. So could you talk a little bit about that process?

Sackstein: Sure, at the beginning of the year we talk a lot about standards. I make sure everybody understands the particular standards. When we’re talking about learning targets, I always try to align the learning targets as well as their assignment sheets with the standards they’re specifically addressing. Plus, I also put them into Pupil Path ahead of time. That’s the grading system. So that when they are doing their reflections, they know specifically what standards I’m looking at that they have to show evidence for.

On my wall in my classroom, I made a poster on why we reflect and how we reflect and what reflections look like. And a lot of these students have had me before so this is nothing new. For my ninth graders though, I spend quite a lot of time actually in class giving them time to write, giving them feedback. So if we finish something and I’m like “Okay I want you guys to reflect on how you did on that last news article that you wrote based on the rubrics that you got.” Because I do like a rubric checklist with the standards. So like for headline it would have something to do with finding the main idea. And I try to align the different parts of a news article with the standards that they’re actually meeting. Then the same way that my son would get a one to four, or you know in my case an A to an E. On each one of those standards, I’ll give them that information.

Gonzalez: Okay.

Sackstein: Then with that rubric, they’ll sit down and go through their own piece and tell me what they learned, specifically using evidence from their text. Their text being their assignment. I learned that to make an engaging headline, you have to have an active verb. If you look at my headline, you’ll see it started like this. Now it’s like this. This verb, whatever it is, in the middle, shows that I understand that it has to have a verb in it in order to be a headline. They’ll go through it and then they’ll discuss the challenges they had at the end and how they addressed those challenges. And then set a goal for the next assignment as well.

Gonzalez: So then how does all this convert to the grade that you have to put on their report card at the end of the term.

Sackstein: Okay, so that’s a good question. Basically, I sent out these forms. I asked them to look at their feedback. Now, an A, in my estimation means you’re mastering all of the standards we went over this marking period. So in terms of mastery — And I look the students dead in the face, you know “Do you feel that you’re mastering all of the standards that we went over?” 98% of students, you’d be surprised, actually say no. When confronted, very honestly, “Hey, how’re you doing? Do you think you’re meeting all the –? Are you exceeding all the standards? Have you mastered them? Can you teach them to somebody else?” Most of them say no. Most of them feel like they’re either meeting or approaching, even in my AP class. I mean — I think for me the hardest part was–I think for me, there’s still a part of me hard wired with the compliance stuff. When I look at certain things in my gradebook, I’d be lying to tell you — If I said “It doesn’t bother me that there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t turned in.” So I kind of have to flip that switch off sometimes. When we have the conversation about their grade, I’m like “I notice you’re missing a lot of work. Can you tell me what you feel you’ve improved upon? And can you show me in the last work that you did do, that you actually do meet those standards? Like I need evidence of the fact that you’re either meeting, exceeding or approaching. Because in order to — Like, an A is out because as far as I’m concerned to master there has to be consistency and if there isn’t enough work to show consistency, then there’s no way they can be mastering it.” Or at least I’m unaware of their mastery. If that’s the case.

Gonzalez: Okay. So there’s no scenario where a really clever student who happens to already kind of know all this stuff can just coast through and get an A? Because in their head — Or they could prove it if you asked them to prove it, to demonstrate it right here in front of you. They have to have a portfolio of some sort that shows this mastery.

Sackstein: If they can demonstrate it right here in front of me, on the spot, I think I would take that. But I would make them either write it or get it on video, or do something where after this moment passed, I’d have evidence of the fact that it happened. It wasn’t just this moment. I think there’s something tremendously authentic about a kid who could drop on the spot and say “Yeah, I could do this, watch I’ll show you.”

Gonzalez: Right.

Sackstein: Or say, “Give me a passage to read and I’ll analyze it for you right now if you need me to do that.”

Gonzalez: Have you had any scenarios that are similar to that? Because we know those types of students who are just ridiculously smart and they could test their way out of any class if you wanted them to but they’re not much in terms of the day to day work. 

Sackstein: I think that goes back to the compliance. So I probably would have caught that kid a lot earlier and would have given — and would have agreed with them on a fair alternative. So maybe they don’t like what I provided for the class, but they came up with something on their own that meets all the same standards and they wanted to do it. And I would give them the freedom to do it.

Gonzalez: Okay, this has to do with knowing your students and helping them find their passions and helping them find work that’s meaningful to them.

Sackstein: Yes.

Gonzalez: Okay, great. Great, because I’m thinking that anyone listening to this who is sort of resisting the idea, of dropping grades, dropping traditional grading. Their thinking is going to be, I don’t like the idea of — Especially if they’re teaching in a high school where kids have grades that are going to college applications, that they don’t like the idea of these two students – one who’s just really smart and doesn’t really do anything and the other who works their but off and manages to also master the standards. They don’t like the idea of those two kids being — looking the same on paper I guess. Basically to a college that is considering which one to accept for their program.

Sackstein: And what you just described, is what is inherently wrong with grades.

Gonzalez: Talk a little more about that.

Sackstein: Well, you just said it. You have two kids getting the same grade on paper, but they are two very different people.

Gonzalez: Right.

Sackstein: And yet the A represents something different for both of them, but that doesn’t ever get explained, it’s just an A.

Gonzalez: Okay. Except that the first kid, the really smart one who could do well on tests. If they are in a class that — Where the grade has more to do with regular participation, but still compliance, they may end up with a B-. Whereas the student who works really hard could end up with an A.

Sackstein: But my question with that is, with a kid that works really hard, are they always really A students?

Gonzalez: No, and I’ve experienced this with — I was middle school language arts and we would have to recommend kids for the gifted program in high school. I would have students who had As, but they had As more for compliance than necessarily being– There were certain students that I didn’t necessarily want to recommend because I thought…

Sackstein: They’re not gifted.

Gonzalez: I don’t know if they could handle the work. They could handle the day-to-day grind, but I don’t know if they could handle the conceptual work of a gifted class. So, yeah, I see what you’re saying.

Refining the Process

Gonzalez: Okay, hang on, I had some other– I had some other questions that — How have you refined the process as you have been working on it? What small changes have you made to it?

Sackstein: Well like I started saying before, for one I stopped trying to do so much at once. Because I feel like most of my projects, because of the way that I try to make them, really do a lot of things at the same time, because they are synthesis projects. Basically, I’m changing the project with whatever text we’re working on. The text itself, for at least AP, dictates, sort of, what path we go down. Whereas in my journalism class, the kids are doing a lot of writing, but I try to kind of vary it between writing articles and doing ethics skits and learning about journalism ethics and the first amendment. So again I’m trying to vary the speaking and listening skills with the writing and reading skills. I’m trying to get them all in.

I thought in the beginning that I was going to have to give them like a ridiculous amount of feedback to legitimize the shift. What I’ve learned is that I’m not going to get to every kid in every class. It’s just not going to happen. I am one person. There are thirty of them, I have forty minutes. And if kid needs me in a period and I end up spending five, six, seven minutes with any one kid, I can’t punish myself for not being able to get to two other kids. On this particular day, this kid needed me more. So I started employing other technology to sort of expand my availability, so to speak.

I started using Voxer with my seniors. So we communicate back and forth about their work. Instead of me just leaving comments on Google Docs while I’m reading, I’ll Vox them if I have questions about things or if I’m leaving them feedback. Because sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of stuff I’m going to write on Google Docs. It can be very disconcerting for them to see so many constructive pieces of feedback. But I feel like if they can hear my voice, and it’s an encouraging voice, and it’s not a “This paper sucks.” voice…

Gonzalez: Right, which is how they’re going to read it if it’s constructive.

Sackstein: Right, even if I put a little smiley emoticon at the end of whatever, it’s still hard to see that many comments on a piece of paper. Even when good ones are interspersed throughout. So that has really improved it. I did some — Like when I couldn’t really get to all the conferences in class last – in the middle of the term for progress reports. Some of my students agreed to do Google Hangouts with me on the weekend. You know I had ten minute phone call conversations if they didn’t want to do the Google Hangout. I don’t know, it’s been really cool. I started using Twitter as a back channel in class. So they’re asking questions outside of class and I’m not the only person who has to answer the questions. The other kids in the class are. So there’s…

Gonzalez: I was going to ask about that. If you, just because there is only one of you and even if you are spreading the work into the weekend and at night. You still have to have a life outside of class and I wondered if you’re starting to have them do more to help each other.

Sackstein: Well that’s the biggest shift, I think. Getting them to see each other as helpers. Not me empowering them but them respecting what they know. I started actually kind of training them to give each other the feedback that I would give them. It started by breaking my AP class in particular, into five different groups. Each one of those groups were responsible for one kind of feedback. I rotated them through the pieces and while we were workshopping in class, the five of them worked together just to look at organization. What kind of things would I say about organization and cohesion? One group was specifically about textual evidence and analysis. One group was specific introductions and conclusions. One group was specific to transitions and diction. So they would become experts in that particular area and now you have six people in class you can go to if you have a question about organization or a specific question about developing context in your introductory paragraph. You know, writing a better thesis statement.

In my newspaper classes, this has been going on forever. I’m actually. I’m a fireman in my newspaper class. The kids do the work, I put out the fires. That’s it. So you know, my editors are trained to give feedback to their reporters. I see all the work and usually my editors are tuned in enough that if they’re having an issue with something, they know to bring it to me. And the reporters, if they’re not getting the feedback they need from the editors, they know to come to me as well. So I’m a secondary resource rather than a primary one.

Gonzalez: Very nice.

Sackstein: You know in the newspaper classes.

Gonzalez: Right, right. I know in elementary they have this rule “Ask three before me.” The kids are supposed to —

Sackstein: I love that.

Gonzalez: Yeah, and I know that as a middle and secondary person, we were never taught to do that. I thought boy that would have helped a lot if we had a rule like that. So how — how is — How many years have you been teaching?

Sackstein: Thirteen.

Gonzalez: So this is a kind of a new thing. How have — You said that you always sort of leaned this way, but how — I kind of have two separate questions. I want to know how things are basically different now for you than they used to be. But one prong of it is with the students in terms of their attitude and the quality of their work, and the other prong is how is it different for you in terms of your satisfaction in teaching?

Sackstein: Well the first one, I would be — If you look at me thirteen years ago, I knew nothing about teaching. I didn’t do student teaching. I didn’t– I was right into the classroom. So I had no idea what I was doing. The one thing that I did really have that worked for me is that I cared. The kids could feel it. They knew I wanted to help them be better than they were, but I still did a lot of things that were “wrong”. When I think about my early teaching self, I’m mortified by some of the things that I did. You know because you do what you experienced. I wasn’t a confident enough teacher back then to kind of stray from the script of what I thought I was expected to be. As more time went on —

My first teaching job, I worked in the inner city in New York. These were really low functioning kids with lots of bigger problems than their learning. I was just happy when they showed up. So I had a much bigger issue there. I worked in the suburbs for a few years on Long Island as well and that was horrible. I didn’t really enjoy — It doesn’t matter how much they pay you. The kids are great. The politics are gross. I couldn’t conform to what they wanted me to be either. When I got to the school where I’m at now and where I have been for the last eight years, I had a lot of freedom and support to kind of take these risks as my pedagogy was improving and I was becoming a more reflective person and I started blogging and I got involved in twitter. I started reading all of these great things that people were suggesting. I started becoming confident enough in the content I knew and also confident enough in myself as a pedagog to kind of take a risk and not know and not care if it doesn’t work out the way that I want it to, but learn from that and keep improving.

So me in the classroom now even over the past three years, there has been this exponential shift. In even my own theory and philosophy on educating and what it means to be an educator. It’s not about me, it’s about them. It doesn’t matter what I know and can do because I’ve done this already. I know that I’m proficient and exceeding even in some of my content area. But I have a lot to learn. My students have a lot to teach me and I feel like even just taking myself out of that expert role in the space and putting myself among the students, I think that that shifts the entire empowerment in the space and it forces kids to kind of take control of their learning. So I think that it’s only — It’s a good thing to even assume at that point that if they’re empowered enough to take control of their own learning, the output is going to be much better. I’m going to get — You get more output from more kids, even the kids who don’t usually have an output.

I try to say yes a lot more than I say no now. So if a kid says to me “I see on this assignment sheet that you want us to do A, B and C.” Rather than just say “You have to do A, B and C because I said so.” I humor their ideas. I talk it out with them. I’m like sure, that sounds good. I don’t let them go rogue, we have a conversation about it, but 95% of the time whatever they suggest I’m going to say yes to and it’s going to be better than anything that I could have come up with myself.

Gonzalez: It sounds almost like you’re thinking — Do you have an example of that? Of when a student suggested something that you may not have approved of in earlier years?

Sackstein: Yes

Gonzalez: And it surprised you.

Sackstein: So for my satire unit the kids make movies after we finish reading Great Expectations. They’ve always had to make the satire movie about Great Expectations. They had to take some element of it and — What happened was after three or four years of doing this assignment, you run out of really new things. I mean the book is finite. There’s only so many things you can make a satire out of without going completely like off. So one of the students suggested this year, what if — Could we use characters from different novels that we’ve learned about this year and do a mash-up in the satire movie. So like if there’s a character that really fits but wasn’t in one of the novels, could we use that character? I thought it was a great idea. What they came up with was amazing. And they didn’t just show me what they knew about one novel, they were showing me what they knew about all of them.

Gonzalez: Right, right. that is fantastic.

Sackstein: It was so much better and even just with the Pride and Prejudice that we’re coming up on now. One of the creative assignments is for them to become one of the characters and either write letters, have a journal, and really try to embody the character throughout the novel, but in modern times. So one of the students asked, “Would I be able to be a different character in different letters based on different areas of the book? Instead of just showing one character, can I show lots of characters?” And I was trying to think about what I was trying to force them to get out of the assignment. And if I wanted them to try to understand Austin, her craft and characterization, why wouldn’t that work? I mean if anything, maybe it might show as much depth into one character, but it would show me an understanding of many characters instead.

Gonzalez: Yeah.

Sackstein: So, it was definitely a green light because it made sense.

Gonzalez: Yeah, that’s a fantastic example. Did you — How long ago was this? Did you continue to offer this as an option in later years or was that just this year?

Sackstein: Just this year. This is the first time someone asked. Well this year is probably the first year that I’ve been so welcoming. I mean it’s not that I wasn’t welcoming in the past, I just think because the mindset was so different in the other classes, my students didn’t even think to ask me, in the past. But now —

Gonzalez: So would you say you enjoy teaching more now with this new approach?

Sackstein: I love teaching. I’ve always loved teaching. I think I’m learning more. It’s more fulfilling now. It’s a real journey. I feel like I’m getting something out of it every day. It’s not just going to school, doing the same lesson plans that I’ve done for the last ten years, just modifying one or two things because something in history changed that I could add in. But yeah, I think it’s a lot more interesting because different things can happen that I wouldn’t be able to predict. Whereas in the past things were so regimented that it was very predictable and that’s boring. It’s really boring.

Gonzalez: Yeah, has the quality of the students’ work been better this year than in years past?

Sackstein: Quicker, faster. Like better, faster. I’ve always been very fortunate because because I’ve put so much into it, I’ve always had students who have worked very hard for me, even when I was very compliance based. Like they wanted to impress me. So I think what is most impressive to me about what goes on now is that they don’t ask me, most of the time “What’d I get on this?” They can talk to me about what they learned. It’s a conversation, I can be like “How are you going to apply this to something else in a different class?” and I feel like there’s more transference now than there was before because it’s not these isolated kind of content skills that don’t apply anywhere else throughout their day. It’s actually real, legit stuff that’s going to matter. They can see how it applies because they’re using the same skills in lots of different places already.

Gonzalez: It sounds like it’s making them more independent as learners because they’re building that metacognition that they can take to other classes.

Sackstein: Yes.

Gonzalez: And later on too. How about your — What about your administration? Because I’m also thinking someone listening to this who loves the idea may be thinking “My admin would never let me do this.” So what advice would you give to somebody on that. 

Sackstein: You might be surprised at how willing they’d be to support you. My principal wants everyone to do what I’m doing.

Gonzalez: Really?

Sackstein: My colleagues are resistant.

Gonzalez: Okay.

Sackstein: The fear with the parents, I’ve had very supportive parents as well. The parents love getting so much feedback and having it available to them and knowing that I’m accessible. They just have to ask a question and I’m happy to provide them with an answer. They — You know I’ve had people from other schools come visit my classroom to talk to my students who see the work that I’m doing in New York. A middle school principal brought a few of his teachers to see my class, from the Bronx. The relationships I’m developing with different people throughout the city because of — I feel like a lot of people are ready to make the change. I think a lot of people have no interest in making a change. I’m kind of sad when I hear students say “I wish more of my teachers were doing this.” I kind of smile and I’m like “I’m trying.” But you can’t force another teacher to do something they’re not ready to do.

Gonzalez: The resistance, I mean I can understand where the resistance probably comes from but I think a lot of times it has a lot to do with work load. Because the idea of change — You know you have all these lesson plans that you’ve been relying on for all these years and everything’s set. Then to have to switch means all this extra work, but — Would you say your overall workload, compared it to say six years ago, is it more, is it about the same, is it less?

Sackstein: It’s about the same, but on different stuff.

Gonzalez: Right. That’s what I was thinking that it sounds like you spend a lot more time giving authentic feedback to kids than on photocopying and you know creating —

Sackstein: Yeah, we’re paperless and I’ve been using — I’ve been letting kids use devices even when the ban was in place in New York. I think it’s really important, especially with upper high school to teach students how to use their devices as educational tools. We’d be remiss if we didn’t, so.

How Teachers Can Get Started

Gonzalez: So two things that I want to just make sure that we cover before we finish. First off if a teacher wants to try this, what would be your advice for the first steps?

Sackstein: Conversations. You’re first going to ask kids what a grade is. What is it supposed to do? What is the purpose of it? You really need to start with changing the mindset, opening them up to another possibility. The same with the parents and your administrators and your colleagues. Because if they can’t see the possibilities, don’t even try to implement something different. You need to first open them up to understand why you’re doing it before– Because nobody who’s intelligent is going to hear the rationale for why you want to give it up and say “No, you’re wrong.” I have had– I had one teacher this year say to me “Kids need grades.” and I like I could have– A more violent tendencies kind of came out to me. I was kind of thinking to myself “No, the kids don’t need the grades. You need the grades because it’s easier and when you can say to a kid “I’m going to take points off if you don’t do this.” The threat in itself, it gives the teacher a lot of power. I get not wanting to give up that power.

Gonzalez: That’s true. That’s really true. How do you motivate them if you don’t have that? Is it because you’re just interested in their growth?

Sackstein: Are you saying what do you say to them?

Gonzalez: Well, yeah.

Sackstein: Well, you motivate them because it’s not about achieving that A, it’s about maintaining mastery and being able to be a successful person. Because if you ask any student who comes in to your class cheering about a 100 or a 90 that they got on a test, if you ask them a week later what was on the test, they remember the 90. They don’t remember anything else.

Gonzalez: Yeah, that’s true. 

Sackstein: But if you ask my students what they took away from their last project, or even the work that we do in class. How the classwork kind of — It’s very satisfying in a reflection when a student says to me “Ms. Sackstein, that script project that we just did in class with the presentations totally helped me with my analysis paper.” I’m like, you think? Well good, I’m glad you made that connection because there was a reason we were doing one in class while you were doing the other one outside of school.

Gonzalez: I bet teachers, a lot of teachers have never experienced that kind of conversation before, where a student transfers something from their class to something else.

Sackstein: Right and they were totally different assignments. Like they were re-writing Gatsby in class so they could perform it as a group. They had to make editorial choices like a director would to try to convey meaning. And they were working as a group because they were also tied to the text. I mean it’s the first time I forced them to use the narrative as the dialogue that they used. So they were tethered to the space that they were in. Then, they led the class discussion about the chapters they did their presentation on. And the goal was that they would feel very confident about the text because they analyzed it so deeply while they were putting together these scripts that they would be able to write about it in their papers. It worked. You know what I mean? It worked and they saw it and acknowledged it. And you know it’s like at those moments you have to stop and say to them “This is why we don’t use grades.”

Gonzalez: Yeah, huh. So the other thing that I wanted to make sure that we get in here, and this is really the last piece of it. I know that that you and I can only cover so much in just this one conversation, but I think if someone is really interested in trying this, that there are resources online. Number one would be going to your blog and especially your YouTube channel because I think watching all of those little, short conversations with you. That really, I think helps people follow the process. They’re just nice, short, easy, informal videos. I love how informal they are because it really looks like you’re just at your desk in the morning saying “ Here, this is what’s going on.” So I think that you should just keep doing those because somebody who is just starting this, to follow you from the beginning. I think that would be really helpful.

But, I feel like I would be remiss if we did not mention Mark Barnes in this and the #TTOG hashtag, so tell me about the community that’s building around this movement.

Sackstein: Amazing. So Mark just finished writing a book, Assessment 3.0, which is going to be coming out in the first or second week of February. It’s specifically about throwing out grades and he also wrote Role Reversal, which is another really great book. And The 5-Minute Teacher and Teaching the iStudent. Those are all books that I’ve read that have been a part of this shift for me. Because Mark and I are both a part of the Corwin Connected Educator Series, we started communicating. After reading his book, I noticed there was a lot of overlap in our work. He had already started the Teachers Throwing Out Grades on Facebook. He was like, I would really like to make you an administrator with me on the page. The two of us just started collaborating on a lot of things from that point moving forward. We have about 2,500 people on the facebook page now we probably have anywhere between one hundred and two hundred people who show up for the chats every other week.

Gonzalez: Okay and when are those as of right now?

Sackstein: Mondays. 7pm Eastern Time and they only run for about half hour, forty minutes instead of the traditional one hour kind of length, which felt a little long for us. 

Gonzalez: This is #TTOG? That’s the chat?

Sackstein: Yep, it’s the same thing for everything. We also have a Pinterest page now that we put together with all the resources that we’ve been collecting from everybody. So that Pinterest page has all of my articles, all of my videos, all of Mark’s articles,all the stuff that we found from alternative sources that kind of range from teaching kids to self assess, why grades are bad, a lot of individual people’s stories on how they did what they’re doing, the challenges that they face, how to deal with push back, how to teach kids to reflect, different ways to differentiate that process, as well as Mark’s– His process of giving feedback, the SE2R method that he talks about quite a lot. We’ve definitely worked together to really build out that group and it’s definitely adding some traction. Other people are writing about it. It’s kind of picking up now. We’re hoping that this could be the first step to like really changing education, the way it is right now. So that’s a goal.

Gonzalez: The Facebook group, is it an open group? Can people just look it up and I can provide a link to it on my site. Can they just join?

Sackstein: Yup.

Gonzalez: Okay, they don’t need to be invited?

Sackstein: Well, no, no, they request to join and then within minutes, me or Mark usually get back to them.

Gonzalez: Okay, fantastic. Thank you so much for all this time. I was not expecting for us to talk this long, but I probably have fifteen other questions I could ask you about this but I think this will give people a really good start and at least pique some interest in finding out more about how to do this.

Sackstein: Well thanks so much for having me, I’m so eager to keep getting people at least open enough to maybe start questioning what they’re doing. I think that’s a really good place to sort of start.

[music playing]

Gonzalez: Thanks again to Starr for sharing her story. For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, go to, click “podcasts,” and look for episode 13. Thanks for listening and have a great day.


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