Wait a minute; grades being used for good!

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I have been inspired by the work of Nancie Atwell, Stephen Krashen and Donalyn Miller — all educators and researchers who believe that the best way to improve literacy is through voluminous reading, both in and out of classroom.

A couple of years ago, after reading Miller’s The Book Whisperer then Atwell’s The Reading Zone, I created the Reading All Year (RAY) project, around which my entire school year is built. My 8th grade students are challenged to read 25 books by the end of the year (most will read 30-60), and mini lessons on book structure, figurative language and writing are built into the reading.

Overcoming the naysayers
While most of my 112 students have completely bought into this program, a few students still fight it because, in  most cases, they have been conditioned by bad reading systems in earlier grades to hate reading. They don’t see value in it.

To fight this negativity, I meet with these kids individually throughout the school year. We discuss their interests, and I guide them to books I think they’ll like and that are on their reading levels.

One more approach I use is to share data that demonstrates a connection between reading and success in school.

This is a double-edged sword, because I use report card grades as part of the data, and my students know how against grades I am. However, since they are still conditioned to think of grades as the true measure of their success in other classes, some brief research becomes very useful. I consider this a way to put the devil to good use.

The data
After our first marking period, I counted students who have read two or fewer books over the course of a 9-week quarter. I then reviewed their report card grades, and I totaled the D’s and F’s for all of these reluctant readers.

Then, I repeated this process for the most avid readers. For this research, I located students who had read nine or more books in the first quarter (I chose 9 books, because the total number of students who read 9 was 14, which was very similar to the number of students who read 2 or less). Then, I totaled the number of A’s these students received.

When I shared the results on my Smart Board, the room fell silent.

Thirteen students who read 2 or fewer books combined to receive 39 grades of D or F — an average of three low marks per student.

Conversely, the 14 voluminous readers combined to receive 59 A’s — an average of 4.2 per student.

Once the impact of the numbers settled on all of my students, I carefully make the connection between reading and success in school. “As long as schools use grades to measure achievement,” I told them, “it’s clear that A’s demonstrate more success than D’s and F’s. I will never measure your learning with a letter, but if you want to be successful in the system our school has, it seems clear that reading is the way to do it.”

Readers develop good habits. Readers learn more words. Readers write well. Readers perform well on most forms of assessment. Readers enjoy life.

This data exemplifies the only time there is any good use for grades; in this case, they may convince my reluctant readers to embrace our program. If this is what transforms them into voluminous readers, then this is one time I’m willing to say anything positive about grades.

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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