Even if you love learning, waiting to find out which grade you got on an assignment can be far from an A+ experience.
Today’s teens and young adults are the most anxious ever. A Pew survey found that 70 percent of teens say anxiety and depression is a “major problem” among their peers. Grades and getting into a good college play a big role in those numbers. That’s why a local teacher at Roosevelt High School is trying to change that.
In Gina Benz’s classes, you’ll find her and her students engaged in thought-provoking conversation. You’d think that’s all that’s happening here, but it’s actually Benz’s clever way of putting her students to the test.
“I think that classrooms have become too transactional and they need to be transformational,” Benz said.
That’s why there’s really only one assignment in Benz’s AP English class: learn.
“I try not to grade as much, at all, because then they’re more willing to learn and grow and even fail sometimes. Because they learn a lot from the failure, pick themselves up and do even better the next time,” Benz said.
You read that correctly. With the exception of three key assignments and three tests, Benz doesn’t give her students grades.
“Everyone asks me are parents okay with this? Does this make students nervous? I’ve had no criticisms from parents,” Benz said.
Gradeless classrooms are very trendy in America, and more teachers are putting an emphasis on learning rather than grading.
“When students are working for a grade, they don’t take risks. They don’t challenge themselves. They play it safe,” Benz said.
Teen Vogue recently featured Benz in an issue about gradeless classrooms. It seems to be working. Test scores haven’t dropped, and student performance is high.
“In the real world, you will be able to revise things. It’s not just a one and done. You want it to be the best it can be,” LaRae Lorenzen, RHS junior, said.
Benz has been teaching for 20 years, and is a past teacher of the year, so she knows her stuff. A few years ago, she got tired of grading mountains of homework and decided to switch gears. What started as a way to get a better work-life balance helped her see a lot of her students were walking a never-ending tight rope.
“I’m definitely very busy during the school year and it definitely contributes to my anxiety,” Sawyer Walker, RHS junior, said.
“We have to just keep pushing along, no matter if you get it,” Avery Dooley, RHS junior, said.
“Just getting a grade, I feel like in regular other classes, you’re just there to memorize all the information and after the text you don’t remember any of it,” Lorenzen said.
These three students say getting good grades has taken priority over just simply learning. Benz has seen how the pressure to pass is failing her students.
“I have seen breakdowns. I’ve seen students cry in class because of the stress from the previous class period. From the stress of life overall,” Benz said.
Benz evaluates her students based on their progress throughout the semester. She says going gradeless not only promotes learning, it allows students to just breathe.
“Let’s not forget, school isn’t the only source of stress for our students. I have students who work a lot of hours outside of school. I have students who are responsible for contributing to the bills of their family,” Benz said.
These students say Benz’s class is reigniting a passion for learning.
“Her class has allowed me to take risks in my writing and explore new ideas,” Walker said.
“I think the self-worth that comes with this, it’s a very uplifting class in the fact that we have good conversations. Our grades are based on how much we work, not off how well you memorize things,” Dooley said.
If Benz teaches us one thing, it’s this: Whether we get an A, B, C, D, or F may not be as important as we thought. Perhaps what we do after we pass or fail is the real test.
“I think it’s really important that students know to keep trying again. Try again, try again, try again,” Benz said.