A prospective parent recently asked, “how is success defined at Dana Hall?” Her question gave me an opportunity to explain one of the highlights of our grading practice in the Middle School.
Fifth and sixth grade students do not receive letter grades on their report cards for the first trimester; instead, teachers provide extensive comments that describe areas of success, offer suggestions for improvement, and provide challenges for continued progress. The teachers’ notes are summaries of ongoing observations, individual conversations, classroom guidance, and experiences through which girls are able to prove to themselves what they know and are able to do. This emphasis on ownership of knowledge is a hallmark of our approach to empowered learning.
Near the end of the second trimester, fifth and sixth graders work with their teachers and advisors to compile digital portfolios of their work across the major disciplines of study. They do not merely collect all of the papers and quizzes on which they earned high marks; their selections are based on criteria that emphasize much more than grades or scores. Girls choose examples to show improvement over time; they include drafts of projects to show the progression of a big idea; they prepare remarks to explain how they learned and the significance of the material that they have mastered. A particularly powerful demonstration of our collaborative approach is that girls also include samples of partner- and group-based work in their portfolios. As they evaluate these items, students are asked to reflect on their contributions to the shared outcome. This lengthy process of self-evaluation enables our students to gain a fuller understanding of how their achievements and progress are measured. It is only after the portfolios have been assembled that teachers give girls their grades for the term.
When the portfolios are complete, the students are ready to share them with an important audience: their advisor and their parents. Each girl leads a 20-30 minute meeting, presenting her portfolio and her commentary about her learning. She shares anecdotes about the term, provides detailed descriptions of projects or units that were especially meaningful, and answers questions from her adult team. Through this process, students come to understand how their work is assessed. They think about their grade as something they have earned, rather than an arbitrary letter that was “given” to them. They think deeply about why certain assignments were easy or difficult, what study habits are most helpful, and what information they have retained.
What does success look like at Dana Hall? It looks like a young woman who is developing confidence in herself as a learner, as a self-advocate, and as a teammate. Success looks like a student who is able to set goals for herself and achieve them with the support of teachers, advisors, and parents. Success looks like a student who understands herself and knows what she can accomplish.