No Letter Grades in Life

  • Middle School
Kristin Leong

For one week out of the school year the high-performing school where I teach takes a break from conversations about achievement and college readiness for a little unstructured adventure in hands-on learning. We call this Focus Week*.

There are no grades. 6th—12th grade students are in mixed classes based on the weeklong workshop they select. Teachers are free to design their own courses. Because students earn their required Vocational Ed credit for this week, all workshops must be tied to “real world” work experience. Lucky for teachers and students, the real world workplace is a dynamic place.

In 2014 I organized a Focus Week program with HBO Def Poetry Jam star Buddy Wakefield. The year before that I worked with local Seattle designers to bring fashion week to our school.

This year my Focus Week workshop is called Media Madness. Our class includes a diverse group of twenty-four 6th—9th graders. Here’s our agenda.

MONDAY: The Seattle Times will join us to share a behind-the-scenes look into the (still alive!) world of print journalism.

TUESDAY: The video production company Pixel Bokeh will collaborate with us to produce a short film.

WEDNESDAY: KUOW’s youth media program RadioActive will give us an inside look on what it takes to bring student voices to NPR with a workshop on storytelling for public radio.

THURSDAY: We will head to downtown Seattle to the Experience Music Project for a museum tour and workshop on voiceover work with cartoons.

FRIDAY: A team of Associate Creative Directors from Seattle’s digital media agency Digital Kitchen will share about their adventures in advertising and lead students in creating their own campaigns.

Focus Week is such a great reminder to students that the point is the learning, not the letter grades. I try to regularly point out that in adult life there are no grades, no multiple choice tests, no extra credit. My students nod along dutifully, but still I can see a clear shift in engagement and willingness to take risks when they know an activity won’t be added to the gradebook.

I often share Jessica Lahey’s essay When Success Leads to Failure with parents who email me (sometimes within minutes) of posting grades with hopes of reminding them that imperfect scores mean that their student is being stretched. It’s an ongoing conversation, and during Focus Week I’m grateful to get a break from it.

Focus Week is one of my favorite parts of our community. I feel trusted as a creative in designing my week.  The students are engaged because they elect to be there. Our classroom establishes real connections with professionals who are making a life out of work they love. And perhaps the best part of Focus Week for teachers, students, and even parents, is that we all get break from grades so that we can focus on what’s really important–having fun with our learning.

Follow me on twitter for updates from the trenches of Media Madness at the end of this month.


SUCH A BIG SHOUT OUT to The Seattle Times Education LabPixel BokehRadioActive, the Experience Music Project, and Digital Kitchen for joining forces with Media Madness. It’s going to be an awesome week.

UPDATE: Media Madness follow-up with video and photos can be found here.

*Focus Week is made possible by fees paid by student families based on costs for each workshop, scholarships from the District, and generous donations of time from many special guests and hosting organizations when possible. 

Check out Kristin’s debut post on Beyoncé in the classroom for her new column Mostly Appropriate Resources. Slay the Curriculum

  • Media
  • Project Based Learning
  • Student Engagement
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