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No-Grade Assignments Open Up Student-Teacher Communication

Voice of ExperienceEducator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on the enormous influence teachers have on the kids they teach. A recent student/counselor survey suggests that using that influence can save vulnerable kids from violence. Modenbach believes that providing opportunities for student expression -- with no strings (no grades!) attached -- is the key. Included: Simple ways to encourage student expression and increase communication.

A teacher friend of mine recently got a late-night phone call. A former student had committed suicide. It had been just a year since her own son's death, so she could relate to the grief. But she struggled to remember the student whom she had taught four years before. He was so quiet, and she remembered no special connection with him; yet, he had left instructions for authorities to call his parents and her.

Had she been that important to him?

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As my friend told me the story, we both reflected on the tremendous influence teachers can have on the kids they teach. Often, we don't realize how important our presence is in their lives. We give of ourselves without thinking about it. Still, we often get too busy to consider the effect we have on kids -- especially the quiet ones, the struggling ones.

I remember a similar experience.

Years ago, I taught a learning disabled class. Steven (not his real name) worked hard to graduate with his class; then he joined the military. A year or so later, his mom told me Steven had killed himself while stationed in Germany. She said he would want me to know.

Thinking back on that conversation, I have to wonder: How many do we save? Can we save more? I usually hear about the success stories or the tragedies, but what about those quiet or struggling or "average" students?


After Columbine, educators brainstormed ways to reduce school violence through smaller classes and more personal contact between teachers and students. Whether students kill themselves and others in a school setting or commit suicide privately, the result is the same. The crucial question remains: How can our influence be channeled to save more kids?

On Law Day in 2001, a survey of 300 junior and senior high school students from public, charter, and private schools in New Jersey delved into the causes of student violence. Among the reasons at the top of students' lists were the lack of personal involvement and interaction with teachers and other students and the need for a release for pent-up emotions. Whether those problems came from school or home, they were trapped, waiting to explode. Other causes included low self-esteem; not knowing where to go to talk about problems in their lives; problems away from school that end up in school; and bottled-up anger, frustration, and other bad feelings.

In that same study, teachers and counselors were asked what they could do to prevent violence. Among the ideas educators expressed were encouraging students to speak their minds; giving awards to increase recognition of students' special talents and kindnesses; assigning faculty mentors; and holding self-esteem and communication classes.


In addition, the survey revealed that students wanted more classes where they could express themselves in small groups. They were particularly excited about letting their feelings out by writing poetry with no strings attached -- that is, no grades!

I, for one, was not at all surprised by their "no grades" comments. My high school students love to share their original poems and take part in small-group presentations. But teachers have to loosen up on grading those activities. Make them count, but base the grades on completion of the tasks assigned; and give extra points for those who go above and beyond the average effort.

Most of my students get A's or B's on those assignments. No one gets below a C unless the assignment is not completed. I never grade poetry for grammar -- expression is the key!

The Huckleberry Finn Shadow Box assignment is another un-graded assignment I gave recently. After reading the novel, students worked in small groups to decorate a medium-size box to represent things, character elements, and themes of significance in the novel. As the students worked on the project, I dropped in on groups to talk with students about what they were doing and thinking, and what they learned. I made a special effort to draw out comments from students who were usually the quiet ones.

In those projects, and other similar ones, grading is the least important thing. Grades are high for everybody who participates. With the shadow box activity, credit was given to the student who constructed a small fishing pole or drew a picture of a significant event or wrote a poem about a character. The benefits and rewards of such projects are less on the finished product and more on the pride of participating, being included, and being heard.

In another project, my senior students dressed up like pilgrims from Chaucer's CanterburyTales and performed skits in small groups. Those who costumed according to Chaucer's descriptions and revealed the pilgrims' lifestyle in their skits got high grades. After a class vote, I awarded extra points for the best costume and best skit.


Recently, I ran into a former student who told me she'd changed her college major. "I want to be a teacher just like you," she told me. Now, that's the ultimate in influence! But it doesn't stop me from thinking about those who might fall through the cracks and what I might do to help them.

Kathleen Modenbach is an English teacher in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish Schools. She teaches at Northshore High School and writes for The Times Picayune in New Orleans.

Article by Kathleen Modenbach
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