Waiting to be Torched. . .

Have you ever tried to have a conversation about grading and homework in a middle school? If so, you’re probably all too familiar with the sparks that fly when well-intentioned teachers try to come to consensus over what to do about late or missing assignments!

Seriously, some of the most passionate arguments that I’ve ever gotten into were with colleagues who disagreed with my late-work policies.

And who knows, you might find my late-work policies disagreeable too! You see, for about the past six years, I’ve accepted every assignment from every student without academic penalty regardless of when they turn it in.

Gone are the heavy-handed attempts to squeeze work out of kids that I used with impunity early during my teaching career. The "If-you-don’t-turn-this-in-you’re-going-to-fail- and-spend-your-life-digging-ditches" speeches that once defined my thinking haven’t happened in a good long while.


It’s simple: They just didn’t work.

For me, the "coercive accountability" model of punishing students who didn’t turn in their assignments had no positive outcomes at all. While I initially figured I was "teaching kids responsibility," I realized the lesson wasn’t being learned. After all, the same kids continued to miss tasks regardless of the number of zeros that I slapped in my gradebook.

Heck, one of my students earned a 9 (out of 100) after a semester’s worth of lectures, consequences and punishment. He missed 20 out of 23 assignments. He willingly chose to take the zeros rather than complete the task and would simply shrug in the face of my spittle-laced, vein-throbbing harangues.

If my consequences were truly "teaching him responsibility," wouldn’t he have started to turn work in at some point or another?

I also wondered what allowing a kid to miss 20 out of 23 assignments said about my own professionalism and the overall value of my assignments. Clearly, I had a student on my hands who had not demonstrated mastery (or misunderstandings) of content, right? Regardless of who was "at fault" for the missing tasks, I couldn’t possibly have had a complete understanding of his strengths and weaknesses because I never had a chance to evaluate any of his work.

But you can bet that I gave him grades every quarter! Usually big fat Fs based on nothing more than a sea of zeros.

Can we really claim to be professionals when we completely and knowingly fail to measure what it is our students are learning—-and then report an under-informed and potentially inaccurate mark to parents?

So I started to take what I think are more responsible actions:

—-Every child in my class is required to turn in every assignment. If it is not turned in when it is due, they are required to come to my classroom to finish it instead of going outside for recess. I call this "working lunch." DuFour calls it teaching kids responsibility by forcing them to act responsibly (read: completing every assignment).

—-I regularly send students home with a "Work Behaviors Rubric" (see attached) I picked up at a Robert Canady conference that is designed to give parents feedback about the kinds of responsible (or irresponsible) actions that their child is demonstrating in class.

Download rubric_student_work_behaviors.doc

—-I ensure that the grades written on a child’s report card or grade sheet are accurate indicators of their actual academic performance. If a kid has shown mastery of content on every task that I assigned, they’ll get an A—even if the assignments were turned in late.

What am I most proud of?

That I’m giving parents clear feedback about their child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to work behaviors. Before, I’d complain about how unorganized, lazy, unprepared or irresponsible a kid was without making any effort to give parents direct feedback on areas where improvement was needed. Instead, they’d see a low grade on the report card and have to guess whether it represented academic ability, work behaviors or some (largely indistinguishable) mix of both.

I’m also pretty jazzed that I don’t have situations where a student makes an F in my room and then aces the end of grade exam! Had that happen to you before? Kind of awkward, huh?

Pretty non-traditional, right?

Yup—and it just plain irks parents and colleagues sometimes because it doesn’t match their perceptions of what grading is or should be. We’ve been permanently programmed to think that students should be "punished" when they struggle to turn work in, and my system just doesn’t seem to inflict enough pain.

So how can I mentally justify all of this crazy talk in my head?


—-Remembering that the number of students who repeatedly miss work in most schools is really quite small. When you recognize that you’re arguing passionately about an issue that only involves 10-20% of your student population, it puts your passionate argument into perspective—and makes conversations about appropriate professional actions more approachable.

—-Understanding that the majority of my kids who miss a task are thankful for the opportunity to make it up and are willing to give up a recess period to complete their work. That act in and of itself is a demonstration of responsibility, isn’t it? (If you’d argue no, then you haven’t been in a middle school in awhile. Willingly giving up the social time that comes with lunch and recess is like willingly giving up air. It ain’t easy!)

—-Realizing that losing recess has actually been a more effective consequence than zeros ever were! I have fewer kids miss tasks now than ever before, primarily because zeros were an intangible consequence that didn’t "hit my kids in the pocketbook" until report cards were sent home. Missing recess today is a far more serious "punishment" for a twelve-year old…and therefore, a terrific motivator for my kids.

—–Recognizing that the students who are "repeat offenders" are actually the ones who need my support the most because they haven’t been successful in school or because they haven’t got the kinds of support at home that other kids take for granted. Rather than getting mad at them for being "failures," I embrace the opportunity to prove to them that they aren’t.

It also helps that the principals of our school have eliminated all of the traditional "teacher duties" that used to consume my time. I no longer have to supervise the lunchroom, monitor the hallways, play potty-patrol, or stand on the fields at recess. Instead, those tasks are completed by other school professionals—freeing me up to instruct.

Now, I’ve got kids in my room almost every day at lunch and recess. There’s no such thing as "Duty Free Lunch" for me because I’m busy hovering over kids who are diligently working to complete tasks.  But the rest of my day is completely "Duty Free." That makes up for the time that I spend working with kids during what had been a "break."

So what do you think? Is my grading policy brilliant or bone-headed?

Whatever you answer, I hope you can back up your statements with fact! Don’t throw down the "I’m teaching responsibility" unless you can prove that your approach is resulting in lessons learned.

Waiting to be torched,

16 thoughts on “Waiting to be Torched. . .

  1. Mr. J

    I agree – the zero doesn’t help anyone. There should be consequences for slacking off, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal of the school

  2. Jill Proehl

    Hi Bill:
    You’ve articulated the policy of my classroom for the last four years.
    I came from a high school teaching background, so a part of me wanted to yes, punish these kids’ learning for their work habits.
    But taking some time off to raise my children at home and reentering the workforce in the gifted ed field, where I taught in a school that didn’t give grades, helped me to realize that yes, the old way IS NOT WORKING!
    You are so right.
    So I got a great chance to work in a district that has embraced McGuskey’s theories and uses a 4, 3, 2, 1 grading scale. They’ve even adjusted the percentages that appear on the grades so that kids are not severely penalized for taking a more rigorous class in which standards are higher than their current age development.
    Now, I’m moving to a district who continues to use the point valued 100% scale, but is looking at standards-based grading.
    It will still be my policy that I offer working lunches as well, but there is no recess to buffer that. That’s not what I’m concerned with, however.
    It’s been easy to help my students see I want them working during my class time when I taught in the block, but my new district is not blocked, so I now have 43 minutes within to teach and foster responsibility.
    And there is no automatic provision for the 4, 3, 2, 1 scale on our grading system.
    Just wanted to know – what scale do you use and how do you handle that?
    Thanks for your great comments and work on this blog!

  3. Mike Hasley

    Great stuff. I love the DuFour idea of “teaching kids responsibility by forcing them to act responsibly”. I wonder however, how this can be done in a high school. We don’t have recess, so I’m trying to think of something that teachers can “take away.” I like the incomplete idea though. That could work well in a HS.

  4. Ann

    It’s a great idea, especially in the urban areas. However, in Connecticut, the state Board of Education just mandated that no teacher can take away recess for make up work or discipline. What do you do in those circumstances?

  5. Andrea

    I am huge proponent of this! I work with so many students who are fine taking a zero on assignments. Any ideas on how to make this work in a setting without recess and a 25 minute lunch block?

  6. Roger Sweeny

    Brilliant. But not transferable to a school that doesn’t have recess, e.g., a high school. I don’t think I’m allowed to keep kids from lunch.
    How do you know that the Student Work Reports are actually getting to the parents? It seems to me that the parents who most need to see them have children who are most likely not to show it to them.

  7. groovymonkey

    Hey Bill,
    Interesting discussion! I recently joined a middle school that got rid of number and letter grades on report cards (gasp!)and it is amazing the freedom you feel as an educator to measure learning in this capacity.
    My policy for the last 17 years on late assignments has been – it’s gotta be done in some capacity whether it be with me or at home. If I didn’t think it was necessary to complete then why did I feel the rest of the class had to complete it? It really makes me evaluate the purpose of my assignments.
    I guess Alfie Kohn maybe does know what he’s talking about?? I get to see Alfie speak at a conference at the end of the month so I’ll wait and see.
    Thanks to all for the stimulating discussion. I am new to the whole “blogging” thing but I think it will be a great fit.
    Anyone else have any comments re: Alfie Kohn?

  8. Elaine C.

    Last year at my first school I was one of those ‘sea of zeros’ teachers.
    This year, at my new school, I decided to do something different, and came up with the same thing you’re using for my 7th graders. They get two ‘passes’ – third missing assignment, and they’ve got lunch detention every day, until I have *zero* missing assignments. The second I have all the missing assignments, they’re free – so if they do their missing work at home, and give it to me the next day during lunch, they’re clear.
    First few weeks of school, I had crowded classrooms… Now, I spend most of the week with ‘duty free’ lunches, ’cause the kids know I’m serious…
    And no more seas… I had a parent conference this morning over a student who is a MAJOR disruption in every class, and doing quite poorly across the board. He doesn’t have a single missing assignment in my class. They’re not well done assignments, mostly because he is busier disrupting the class than learning during it… but they’re all done.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Clix,
    Good question….There really is never any late work that is out for that long because my kids can’t go out for recess again until an assignment is completed.
    Some kids will try to be stubborn and refuse to do a task for a few days, but once they realize that they aren’t going to get their “freedom” back until the work is done, they turn something in.
    In those cases, it’s usually not very good work. They slap something out to be finished….so they often get a poor grade….But the work is finished and the kid has learned that all tasks are important.
    Hope this makes sense,

  10. Clix

    Does your school have quarterly grading periods? What do you do about late work that was due first quarter – can they still hand it in second or third quarter?

  11. The Colossus of Rhodey

    Carnival of Education — Valentine’s Edition

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  12. Mike

    I too give kids many opportunities to redo work, hand in late work, etc. But I’ve come to the conclusion, after long experience, that there ultimately have to be deadlines for work for primarily two reasons: I can’t continuously juggle assignments for months on end; it’s too difficult for me, our computer grading program doesn’t deal well with it, and kids tend to forget things quickly, thus diminishing learning where old assignments are concerned, particularly when newer assignments are already taking their place. And finally, we really don’t do kids any favors by failing to hold them to reasonable standards of performance, and mastering time management is one of life’s invaluable skills.

  13. Mosey

    I’m an educator, too, but this hits all my parent buttons. I’m a parent of a 12.5 year old ADHD/TAG student who despises turning in assignments for assignments’ sake – and he’s smart enough to know which those are. He also doesn’t enjoy turning in really good assignments, but I get different arguments on those. “You must turn in every assignment” is a house rule regardless of what his teachers accept/enforce and it’s really frustrating when I can do the assignment for him and he learns just as much…
    I’ve looked at the rubric and, if this were what his teachers were actually teaching, I’d be thrilled. He has little problem with content (not that most of them would know that because he doesn’t turn in his homework…) but everything else on the rubric is what we hope he learns in school. All I have is his self-report right now which is motivated by self-interest since he knows that no teacher is likely to tell me anything different.
    Thanks so much for providing alternative ways of thinking about education. I very much enjoy reading it!

  14. Joh

    It’s brilliant, because it’s the same as mine. I do keep my policy quiet though, cause other staff members find it undermining their discipline.

  15. jon

    bravo, bill. once again, you are a champion to our students……and to me as well. having worked with homeless children for years, i find it downright inexcusable for my colleagues to give zeroes to these students for failing to complete these at home assignments…duh, they have no home! when you write your book, let me know and i will suggest it for our next book study!
    jon…who admires those who think outside of the box!

  16. Michelle holding the fire extinguisher

    Thank you Bill! My grading policy is to accept any work with a grade less than 90 for a redo up to a 90. Why? Because I want students to learn – and if they don’t correct mistakes, what are they learning? Not a lot, I’m afraid. Too many teachers see grades as rewards or punishment – kids see them the same way. In elementary school, how can we expect students to understand averages and weighted grading they have only begun to learn about the math involved in these tasks (mean, outlying numbers, multiplication and division.)
    I just had a conference with my mentee teacher because her 5th grade students keep failing open book tests. As we talked, we both realized that the students understood the content but had didn’t know how to take the test. The new teacher has now revamped her lesson to include tips on taking an open book test and we’re going to teach the students how to track their own progess to encourage their buy in to the process. My mentee partner had not thought about alternative routes to assess student knowledge. She, too, was trapped in the world of pencil and paper tests, grades, and grades set in stone.

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