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Going Gradeless like a Guitar Class

2019 February 3
by Mike Vial

Picture this: You are enrolled in a beginning-level guitar class that meets once a week for five weeks.

You’ve always want to learn to play guitar, but never had the time, until now. Your goal is to learn some chords and learn that Beatles song you’ve loved forever.

You go to your first guitar class.

You’ve never held a guitar in your hand before that day. It’s really hard. You enjoyed the class, but barely could get a nice tone on the guitar.

At the end of the class, your teacher gives you a report with a grade: You received a 6/10!

Your teacher says, “You scored a D because you aren’t moving your fingers in the correct placement, but really moved your hands well. Don’t worry! You just need to move your index finger right behind the fret with an arch, and have your thumb directly behind the neck of the guitar, like this.”

You teacher records a video and posts it to Youtube for you to watch and practice at home.

What was more helpful: the feedback or the grade?

(Also, you wonder to yourself, “Why am I even getting a grade? I’ve never done before! Plus, what’s the difference between a D and a C? The thumb in the right spot but the index finger still in the wrong spot, still achieving a harsh tone? Big deal! I just want to learn some chords.” You throw the report in the trash. You watch the video and keep practicing.)

Now, you go to your last class in the fifth week.

You are way better at guitar! You can now fret all of your open chords and can play them proficiently, quick enough to strum.  You mess up occasionally, but can recover to keep up with the Beatles song. Your teacher says, “You’ve learned quicker than anyone I’ve ever taught!”

What’s your grade? It’s a B!

Each week, you got better at guitar: 6 + 7 + 8 + 9+ 10. If you you average all the scores out of 50, you have an 80%, a B in the class. Great!

But wait, you know those chords perfectly. If this was week one, you’d score a 10.

You can actually play a full song from start to finish, which was the goal you made for yourself when you bought that $100 guitar last spring.

Don’t you feel like you deserve an A?

Why should those beginning grades be in the gradebook at the end of the term if you learned all my chords, and can play a song from start to finish? Did you even need the grades to improve, or did you simply need the feedback and time to practice?


Those questions are where I find myself questioning my role in my writing classes.

Grades don’t communicate any usable evidence or feedback to help a student improve, and they can easily become arbitrary.

For example, what’s the difference in a poem that scores a 92% or one that’s a 96%? Oh, he misspelled a word, so we subtracted two points for lack of editing. Huh?

Ridiculous. What if that student never wrote a sonnet before that experience, and now has perfect iambic pentameter after the fifth draft? Sounds like proficiency to me!

This is why I embraced my district’s move to Standards Based Grading last year. I moved my grades to be similar to avoid arbitrary metrics: 1 (beginning), 2 (developing), 3 (proficiency) and 4 (mastery).

How would you grade my student’s painting and essay she submitted to the Anne Frank contest last year? She got an honorable mention in the contest and we were so proud of her. Do we need to actually grade her artistic process?

However, I’m discovering that any type of score (even simple numbers that are supposed communicate feedback) usually get in the way of the learning.

I’ll spend hours writing feedback on drafts, and I’ll be really proud of my students first attempts, but if I put any grade on the draft as feedback, it’s all my students will see.


The more I teach Language Arts at a public school (10th year!), the more I want that experience to match how I learned how to play guitar, write songs, and perform music.

The fact remains that I put in 10,000 hours to learn guitar, but I’ve never received a grade during the process.

I took private lessons, and played guitar daily. I played in band as a guitar player after school, and joined my own band with my friends at age 15.

And if my guitar teacher had assigned grades, that might have ruined the experience.


This term I’m teaching creative writing, and it’s my first attempt to go gradeless. Throughout the term, I’ll be offering more feedback and conferences with my students, and they and I will be deciding their writing growth continually.

I’ll still need to offer grades for midterms and finals, so like English teacher Monte Syrie (his blog) has described in his classes, I’ll be using student conferences during those weeks.

Students and I will evaluate their portoflios periodically during the term, and discuss what that grade should be at the end of writing units, midterms, and the final week.

The honest truth is one can’t grade a poem or song. Poet Adrienne Rich and Yale professor Harold Bloom couldn’t agree what a great poem was, so how can an English teacher?

A better use of my time to explore the poetic journey together, like my guitar teacher Trish Mroz did for me: offer constant feedback, advice of mastery study, examples of proficiency, and interventions if learning is going astray…

I not only have 11 students in Creative Writing, and I only have 78 students this term with two preps. It’s a dream schedule for me, as we face the sadness of Harrison High School closing this spring. I’m letting this opportunity of small class sizes to encourage me to do more writing, more feedback, but less criticism, less evaluation, less grading.

* * * * MUSIC IN 2019 * * *

I give Ginny an A for effort.

This is also why my gigging schedule is lessened. I’m allowing extra time to offer feedback on my students’ writing. I’ll be returning to my residency at mash in Ann Arbor this month, and I have a few other gigs in Michigan (Brighton Bar & Grill in April, 20 Front Street in May.)

I’m not sure how busy my summer will be yet. Without knowing the fate of my teaching position with the school closing, I’m waiting to decide what to do. I have an itch to get back into the studio and plan another tour, but I’m holding off until summer 2020! Instead, I’m doing jam sessions with the kiddos at home.


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