Using Visual Rubrics in the World Language Classroom

Late in the Spring I stumbled upon templates and ideas about Visual Rubrics from Greg Kulowiec. If you want to stop reading now and go directly to read more about his work, click here. The idea of visual rubrics immediately inspired me and I began to use them in my final 8 weeks of class just to see if I could use them systematically as the backbone of my growth focused, proficiency based approach in Spanish 3 and Spanish 4 classrooms. Immediate love. And this will certainly be something I build my 2022-2023 school year on.

Last year I made an approach switch to ungrading in Spanish 4—which doesn’t actually mean removing grades but rather unpacking the meaning of grades and focusing more on individual student growth and achievement. If you want to stop and read more about this topic, please read the amazing book Ungrading by Susan Blum or any insights from Alfie Kohn. Within this approach, I wanted the students to focus on their individual growth and development and to focus on the angles or different points of their proficiency. The conversations moved well throughout the year but I wished I had more structure or support in those reflective conversations—or a better direction in helping each individual student set goals.

Enter Visual Rubrics. It was a small change I made as a teacher that yielded dramatic results. I used the same grading information as I had in the past with the same rubric/level markings. But instead of getting back a paper copy or a Google Classroom rubric, students got a Google Sheet.

Here’s a quick summarization of why these were amazing and will become a foundational piece of my school year next year:

  1. Instead of just seeing a whole score of “16”–students were FORCED to notice the components of the rubric instead of the whole. Try as I did to discuss the individual components of their skill, Gen Z students want info fast and efficient. “A 16? Got it. Moving on.” “A hexagon image? Oooh, what is this?” The extra 15 seconds that my students had to spend studying their score feedback was an impactful win.
  2. When the geometrical shape of their score was a little wonky (with sunken corners), a weakness and area to improve upon was instantly recognizable. Somehow the feedback students received from the shape was more effective than me writing “you can work on your pronunciation”. And even when things were great, I tried to always make sure there was a higher, outer layer that could be reached so everyone had a stretch goal.
  3. The visual rubric is most effective when there are multiple attempts layered overtop of each other so that you can see growth and improvement. This means that I had to structure opportunities to layer and improve throughout the Unit. Sometimes this looked like pre-assessment, mid-Unit performance, end of the unit assessment. The important piece for me was to get a baseline and have the students focus on improving their corners (aka proficiency).
  4. Because the students became focused on improving their wonky corners and leveling up, the rubric stopped becoming a judicial tool but a scaffolded guide on HOW TO level up. Students had to use the rubric and examine their skills to see how they could attain a higher number to stretch out that corner.
  5. I had to do some revision to rubrics to make them more instructional than punitive because they all of a sudden had more meaning. And I had to provide specific tools and practice that addressed the criteria in my rubric. Suddenly I had a framework and a guide to help me deliver targeted feedback! “You want to get a 4 in clarity—here’s what that looks like and how you can do it:”

I very much enjoyed my quick 8 week trial with thinking about how these could be used. I promise you that I witnessed quick success. Interesting note: I loved Greg’s “Glow and Grow” type rubric and used that for some writing assessments in Spanish 4. I felt that it gave me the opportunity to provide very specific feedback about the different skills. It took a long time to fill that in for each student—-but I felt that it was super valuable feedback. I was pressed for time with Spanish 3 and instead of doing the individual feedback rubric for each student I just input their rubric scores (5-4-3-2-1). And you know what? Spanish 3 absorbed just as much feedback if not more than the students that got the (possibly) overwhelming specific feedback rubric. One Spanish 4 student loving told me TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) because “it’s just a lot of words. I don’t have time to read that”. Another Spanish 4 student that DID read it got SO caught up on the minutiae of my feedback and only focused on a few explicit things I mentioned. In contrast, the majority of the Spanish 3 students looked at their numbers, the rubric, made connections and asked questions and honestly learned so much more from the feedback than Spanish 4. So I recommend the time-saving visual rubrics!


Improving Feedback

In my exercise to rid my classroom of grades, a necessary component of my practice that needs refinement is feedback. I used to think that “feedback” referred to writing paragraphs upon paragraphs of feedback in the margins and—-especially in 2021—I don’t have the time and energy for that. So, how can I improve my feedback to students if I can’t devote more time to providing that feedback.

I discovered a secret. The quantity of feedback is not as important as the utility of the feedback. And I can be so much more effective at giving useful feedback if I employ a few practice in my assessments and practices that facilitate effective communication.

Student Choice

I adore Meredith White and that is well documented. Stolen from her is the idea of letting student choose their method of feedback on those time consuming writing assessments. Years ago I moved to just highlighting and marking each error so that students could identify their errors without me having to spoon-feed and hand correct everything. I thought—this gives them the opportunity to SEE what is wrong and to figure it out. That is where the learning happens, right? And that was fine and in some cases really useful to some students. And super overwhelming and anxiety producing for others. And a complete waste of time for others that just appreciated it as pretty colors on a paper and nothing else. And confusing for others that could SEE the error but weren’t sure what to do next.

So what if I stopped a ONE SIZE FITS ALL approach to grading their papers and asked them what they needed? Novel.

Included on the printed page of each writing assessment (or digitally with online writing assessments)

Students that feel confident in being able to see each error can see each error. The ones that just want to see what they did good can focus only on that. Having the checklist option forces me to provide clarity with expectations going into the assessment (see below). And while it’s nice to be more effective with my time, here is the funny thing: I’ve gotten better with my feedback to them. I noticed that when they chose “Show me one error…”—-I better make sure my suggestion to them is focused and useful. So I began to look at their work with a different perspective. Instead of looking at the overall assessment and judging overall proficiency, I became more student focused: what can THIS student fix or what do they NEED to pay attention to. Finding just ONE thing on an assessment to address yielded more useful feedback for the student and also helped me refine my perspective of looking at assessments.


I mentioned above that my assessments usually include a checklist of skills or criteria that correspond to proficiency ranges or grading levels. The idea is that students can see on the assessment what is expected of them in order to reach a certain level of excellence.

Sometimes I use simple language like “JV” and “Varsity” or “All State” to show the different levels of work that could be achieved. I try to make these markers easy to understand so that when I return the assessment and students see that some boxes are NOT checked, they understand what criteria I felt was missing. I have found that including the checklist helps me isolate the important criteria ahead of time and guides me while assessing.

When it came to bigger writing assessments, I always struggled in Spanish 3 and Spanish 4 to explain the nuances of upper level writing. This year I have a tried a bigger checklist of writing behaviors with my Spanish 4 class. While the points do equal 100 points, we’re not grading in Spanish 4 this year so this checklist really just serves as identification for the skills demonstrated in the writing assessment.

A sample from Spanish 4’s recent assessment

I consider these specified checklists as a feedback component because it gives the students a snapshot of specific things included or missing from their work.

Social-Emotional Checks and Reflection Questions

Considering all aspects of the learner is important today. You can’t tackle specific assessment feedback without addressing general social-emotional issues in your students. And in order to do this you have to establish a safe environment. At least once or twice I week I try to regularly give the students an opportunity check in with me to tell me something. A lot of times it’s something innocuous like “you should have chicken alfredo for supper” or “Brother Bear is the greatest movie of all time”. But occasionally (or once the door has been open for awhile) you begin to build those connections and trust. Students begin to tell you how they are feeling honestly about their progression in class or in school. They let you know if they are dealing with something or struggling. And it’s important for them to have that connection with me SO THAT when I give them specific Spanish feedback, they respect it, trust it and understand it comes from a person that not only cares about their Spanish learning but about them in general. I can’t have it both ways: I can’t ask for them to care about the feedback I’m giving them if I don’t let me know that I care about all the aspects of them.

Besides the social-emotional components of inserting these types of reflection questions on assessments, it also just provides a great opportunity for self-reflection. It’s an important exercise for my students to assess their own growth and isolate the skills they need improve. It’s useful for me too, sure, but I like the idea of having THEM do this reflective work at the end of every assessment. That focus on growth and fostering reflective practices is key to life-long learning and it’s something I think they need help and guidance on.

In the past I’ve reflected on using self-assessments and how important they are. Self-assessment can still be a part of a regularly structured assessment too.

I’m learning a lot about being more effective with feedback this year and it is not taking me a lot of time throughout the year. I’ve built these procedures and they are in place now so I feel confident I can keep pace and just keep rolling with it throughout the year.

Exploring a Gradeless World Language Classroom: (Part 3) Contract

I have reflected on some different approaches and reasons for eliminating traditional grading practices (Part 1 & Part 2) in the classroom and this Fall I implemented a Grading Contract with my Spanish 4 classes in an attempt to capitalize on learning and move away from the pressures of quantitative grades.

At the beginning of the semester, I gave the students a copy of our grading contract. This is a layout of expectations that are required for getting a certain grade. It was (and is) muddy at first but now that we have finished the first Unit within this framework, I think the students understand and we were able to have some great conversations about learning versus conversations about grades.

One thing I stressed to them is growth and reflection. Throughout our time together they need to show growth and need to be continually refining their skills and getting better and stronger at something. Good students can no longer coast with consistently meeting the expectation. They have to document and point to areas of growth. This was a key missing component in my traditional grading practices and one that I really wanted to highlight with contract.

A copy of the grading contract can be found AT THIS LINK. I’m already in the process of revising the language a little bit to remove the specific measurements of the percentages so please understand it’s a living document.

The Brochure

At the beginning of the Unit, I gave students a brochure with our Unit standards and skills. This brochure also outlined all of the assessments that would be used in the Unit to measure how well they could demonstrate these standards. To begin the Unit, students did a quick pre-assessment reflection on their confidence in these skills and (on a separate paper) identified things they thought they needed to get better at in order to do these things. Throughout the Unit, students marked their proficiency on the individual assessments and reflected on their ability to do these things along the way. At the end of the Unit, students completed a reflection about their growth and learning and (using the contract) decided on the grade they deserved and provided me evidence that supported their proposal.

I met with the students individually at the completion of the Unit and—using their brochure as a guide and as evidence—we talked about what they learned, what they need to improve and what they demonstrated that they deserve in the course. It was a quick meeting and although we did discuss the final grade, the conversations were more full of talk about learning and evidence and growth than ever before.

The Assessments

I really did nothing new when it came to assessments. That is to say—I pretty much used the same assessments for this Unit that I did last year. The only difference was how they were “assessed”. For each assessment, I set a proficiency marker: you have to earn 200 points on this OR you must get at least 13 questions correct OR you score Intermediate Mid on the rubric attached etc. Students knew about these markers ahead of time so they all knew exactly what was expected of them in order to meet the expectations.

For each assessment I also set an “exemplary” or “exceeds” marker too; a marker that would communicate to the student that not only can they do this but they can do this well and with ease. When I student completed an assessment, they received a simple score of 1 or 0. One signifying they met the expectations and 0 meaning they did not. I did not mark whether or not they exceeded in the official gradebook BUT students did mark this in their individual brochures.

Final Thoughts

I was very happy with this. The entire Unit felt very focused and purposeful. And I can tell you that learning happened without having to quantify it all into numbers and percentages. And the students accepted and understood. My final meetings with them and their brochures were (for the most part) super revealing and honest. There were moments when they were hard on themselves but we had great conversations.

And it was not perfect. I didn’t love how I locked them into “90% of assessments were met with proficiency” because in our Unit, we had only 6 or 7 assessments and the math on that was unrealistic. My instructional coach suggested terminology like “consistently” and “majority” so I’m already in the process of editing this contract to be a little more wiggly.

A few students completely knocked it out of the park when it came to providing evidence of learning. One student came up with 3 different papers and assessments and pointed to his progression in a certain grammatical skill and pointed to the feedback that I had given in earlier drafts to show that he learned and used that feedback to improve in the most recent attempts. That was killer. But I feel that some others need help with finding that evidence and articulating their thoughts, so I’m going to make some improvements to our brochure to really isolate those moments of growth and identifying corroborating evidence.

But you want to know the best outcome of this? For the first time in my adventures as a Spanish teacher, I had real conversations with students about confidence. A lot of my students pointed to their growth in confidence as their evidence of growth and development. One impressive student actually referenced his pre-assessment reflection where he mentioned some of the things he was not confident in at the beginning of the Unit and discussed with me the ways he feels differently now and how he is not only more confident but certain that he no longer is that same learner as he was 3 weeks ago. And I think that was the moment in the midst of these conversations where I knew I was doing the right thing. This was the right work. That moment right there was worth it. Maybe it was just a cliche thing for him to say that he thought would sucker me in to agreeing with him–but I didn’t disagree with his evidence. He felt a certain way on Day 1 and I saw he was not that same student at Day 21. That matters. And that’s the philosophy I want to continue to foster. (Although it needs some tweaks going into the next Unit (Part 4 coming soon)).

Exploring a Gradeless World Language Classroom: (Part 2) Grade Negotiations

This Spring (of 2021) I decided to try something different with 4th Quarter grades. I boldly made this choice within the final 2 weeks of the quarter and my gradebook was already filled with assessments that were graded using my standards referenced strands of 85s and 95s and 100s. But I wanted to engage in learning conversations with this group of kids and not grade based conversations. Before they left me for the summer, I wanted them to reflect on the level of achievement they think they attained and the learning that they believe happened.

In a previous post, I worked out my broken feelings about traditional grading and assessment and felt strongly that I wanted to do something to break-free from a grade-based classroom. Since I already lean heavily on self-reflection and self-assessment, I felt I had an opportunity here to build structured reflective opportunities that would help the student clarify their achievement in learning.

A list of the standards learned during 4th Quarter of Spanish 3 in Spring of 2021

I started by giving students a list of the standards I assessed (that matched the assessments they already completed that were in our grading program). I asked them to review and think about each of these skills and think about whether or not they CAN or CANNOT do that and how strongly and confidently they were able to do that. I wanted to stress that A quality work can perform the work confidently, without help and with strong quality. I also gave the students a larger worksheet that included space to prove and practice these skills in case they weren’t sure. I wanted them to really and personally explore their own confidence in meeting the expectations and standards we supposedly covered this quarter.

So during the final week of the semester, I called students to my desk for a one on one conversation where we “negotiated” their final Skill Grade for the course dependent on what they can demonstrate that they learned. (My student grades were weighted 90% Skill Grade and 10% Employability Skills) I came armed with the grade printout of numbers reflecting how they did on that one specific test that I used to measure each standard and they came armed with their personal reflections and practice. I used a (brightly colored) grading strand with information to help them identify where they are on their learning journey.

Grade span visual to help with the negotiation of their skill level

The goal was conversations about what you can and cannot do and how well you can and cannot do it. For the most part, students deferred to the gradebook. “Well you said that I got a 95% on that assessment so I agree that I can do that well” After we went through all the skills and talked and proved competence, we had a conversation that looked similar to this:

Me: Well, the gradebook has all of your skill grades averaging an 91%

Student: Yeah, I think I agree with that. There is some stuff that we’ve done that I would need help with so I don’t think I’m a solid 95 yet.

Me: But you do think that you can do some things without help? Would you be somewhere below a 90%?

Student: No no, totally not. (Points to practice sheet) I can do these three things without any help at all and they’re pretty easy for me. It’s only once and awhile that I need help.

Me: (pointing to spectrum) So where are you on this span? What point here on do you think represents the work and learning that you’ve done this Quarter?

Student: Umm…somewhere between 90 and 95. Maybe like a 93? I think there are more things here that I don’t need help with that there are things I do need help with.

Not every conversation was so easy. Sometimes the kids were highly critical and not realistic about their level of achievement. Sometimes the kids downright just wanted a high grade. But through conversation and by looking for evidence and trying to prove it, we were able to come up with a 4th Quarter grade that they CHOSE and I approved.

Reflections on Grade Negotiation

  • When it came down to pinpointing them on the colored spectrum of overall achievement, we were usually pretty close to the gradebook representation of their achievement. As positive as it made me feel (“Hey! My assessments accurately are reflecting their perceived level of achievement!”), it’s really confirmation bias OR a self-fulling label. For a quarter I have labeled their work as “Above Proficient” so….guess what they believe about themselves? They are Above Proficient. It was almost completely POINTLESS to do this type of negotiation when there were already existing grades to point to. The students truly USE those grades as a measurement of their own success regardless of how much I want them to use authentic self-reflection. If I say it’s a 75% and doesn’t meet the standard–that’s what they will believe.
  • Occasionally I had the interesting conversation with the student that failed to complete an assessment or makeup work. I do not grade homework but the policy is that if you miss an assessment, you have to make arrangements to get it down. If you don’t, it is a 55% in the gradebook. That mathematically dragged down their skill grade so these conversations were actually REALLY interesting. One student in particular skipped 2 out of 12 assessments this Quarter. But when I talked through the skills with him and asked him to prove it right then and there, he was able to show me that he could indeed DO the things I wanted him to do during the Quarter. So he (and I) felt that he deserved a higher grade for this. One of my colleagues felt a little uneasy about this because she felt that this student in particular needed to learn consequences for him skipping assessments and not coming to school. I explained that I DO hold him accountable for that under the category of Employability Skills but that I wasn’t going to penalize his Spanish skill learning grade because of his lack of accountability and self-direction.
  • I was well aware of a student that really just wanted an A and I was prepared to make them prove it. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t show evidence with no help or resources, I couldn’t go higher. I would point to the spectrum and say “I can’t go higher than this” and all of the time, they understood. It was awkward and uncomfortable but very focused on the learning.
  • Role playing is fun. The conversations were real but the negotiation process opened the door for a kind of fun, tongue in cheek role playing. Some kids were real into it as if they were buying a used car. “What do I have to do to get you to agree to a 95% today?” And the best was when I could tell that we agreed on the general area or span (for example, it was going to be around a B+) and we just wanted to haggle the number. I offered one student a 88.5% and he requested I change it to 89.12% because 12 is his favorite number—and since it didn’t change the letter grade or span area, I was happy to oblige. One student requested a 94.66 percent because his friend received a 94.67%
  • One of the reasons I became disenchanted with standards based grading was the subjectivity that can involved in differentiating exceptional work from work that meets the standard but is still pretty good. A few times in my conversations with students we circled around trying to determine whether or not the student’s performance was ‘above average’. Most of the time they wanted ME to supply that determination, which I realized defeats the purpose of student self reflective conversations. And I couldn’t quite identify what aspect of this subjectivity left me unsettled until one of my last conversations of the day…
  • A very enjoyable, bright and reflective student sat before me with good reflections on his work. His performance throughout the Quarter had it’s up and down moments and “the math” said his skill level was in the 90% range. He countered that with his own reflections that his work was high quality, impressive and that qualified that for higher distinction. He could tell I was unconvinced and then he shrugged and looked down, saying “Well…I mean, I guess for ME that was high quality work”. And we proceeded and had a great conclusion to the conversation and I thanked him for giving me things to think about. He said you’re welcome and said he understood that it is hard and—-he just hates being compared to what other people are doing because he can never be as good as some of his peers. And that was the gut punch I needed. The “kid-friendly” perspective of what standards referenced grades can be. If you asked me if I compared student work and determined grades like that I would have emphatically said no. But sometimes in determining the “exceptional”, you isolate specific things you see in student work as exemplary and those inevitably and over time become the ruler in which you measure and perceive things by. And I do have criterion specific rubrics; the subjectivity of language and expression opens too many doors to factors I don’t think are necessary in the student assessment progress.

Where do I go from here?

There are definitely aspects here that I want to continue:

  • A student’s overall grade is determined by two weighted categories of Language Skills and Employability Skills
  • Quarter grade determined by one number (1-100) representing the overall learning that took place in the quarter
  • Student and teacher conversations and reflections about specific things that have happened
  • Defined-ahead-of-time descriptors for grade spans (This is what an A means…This is what a B- means, etc)

Things that don’t work:

  • Giving numeric specific grades for each assessment and then trying to have a conversation that doesn’t involve numbers and math
  • Having this reflective conversation one time at the end of the quarter (versus ongoing and throughout the Quarter)
  • Negotiating numbers–even though the role-playing was fun the numeric process was super arbitrary and pointless. Once we agreed on a span (B+ area, for example), haggling over the number was unnecessary.

Keeping these things in mind, after reading “Ungrading” by Susan Blum and reflecting on what I want grading procedures to mean, I began laying out a grading procedure I plan on implementing in my Spanish 4 classes this Fall of 2021. I will share what I am thinking soon and then in the Fall I will share it’s failures and successes.

Exploring a Gradeless World Language Classroom: (Part 1) Why?

Once I made the effort to move my students along a Path of Proficiency and began to focus on ACTFL skill levels, I changed my grading procedures to try and reflect that. It began as a standards referenced grading scale of Not Yet-Meets-Exceeds primarily landing on scores of 75-85-95 and reserving a 100 for the one or two samples of work that were truly extraordinary and exemplary. I made visuals using ice cream cones and talked constantly about the levels and even waxed poetic in relatable metaphors so everyone could understand.

To accompany that switch I became resolved to NOT engage in grade-based conversations and instead spoke only about feedback and growth and skill development. Ad nausem my room was one that was “All about the learning”. I probably repeated in 15 times a day.

It’s all about the learning.

And it was! The students seemed to understand and engage in great conversations with me. We talked about feedback and things to focus on. We reviewed strengths and weaknesses and really had momentum going. The students would see which skills are their weakest. We had conversations about strengths and weaknesses and was to improve. It seemed like my class environment was one of growth and learning! Then a funny thing happened two weeks before the end of the Quarter.

The Numbers

Grades were due soon. And even though there had been grades put in the computer already for weeks, the impending deadline that these grades were soon to be finalized and averaged together and would equal a number on a report card that would determine Honor Roll and Class Rank—suddenly the numbers took center stage. The calculus of those numbers was alive. And those are my numbers! I put them in there. I “awarded” those scores so it is my responsibility. And once the grading deadline passed and we could stop stressing about the cumulative math of grades, the conversation shifted back to the learning. And this cycle just repeated itself. Until finally I realized what I hypocrite I was.

I can shout all I want that it’s Just About The Learning but because I assigned a number to that learning and that number needs to reported—it’s really all about the number. Grades matter and the learning is secondary. That’s the broken nature of secondary education today. And they DO matter. Once I had a conversation with a student about their final grade which really came down to how they would do on one of our last assessments and she remarked that my class would be the determining factor in whether or not she maintained the GPA necessary to give her a discount on her car insurance. And we joked about it and laughed it off but I started thinking about that later. To her family, my ONE test would be worth a hundred dollars or so one way or the other.

The Students

So in the back of my teacher brain I began to see my grading structure as a broken part of a bigger systematic problem. I began to see shades of standards based grading that I did not like. I began to see more and more problems that prevented growth and development. And although I wanted to say that the gradebook stood as a reflection of what you can do with the language–I really questioned the reality of that.

A few students fell into the category where everything worked the way it was supposed to. The grades (although a numeric representation) provided good feedback about what they could and could not do. And they adjusted based on my measurements of their assessments. That was really the minority of students in my classrooms though. The majority of my students fell into one of three other categories.

A few of the students I began to see that challenged the idea that it was all about the journey of learning

I relate and understand The Compliant Ones. Some call them Grade Chasers but I think it’s more just Generation Z. In a lot of my psychological research on the characteristics of Gen Z students, I realize this just IS the clientele now. You aren’t ever going to change that but instead you just have to adjust your business model to accommodate their style. I’m most challenged by the Stagnant Stars–even when I move the goal post, they still find success but I can’t say they push themselves to learn or improve. Enrichment opportunities that aren’t just more work are hard for me to implement, so that’s always a challenge for me.

The Nuance

I carefully concocted rubrics that laid out beautiful language regarding proficiency. My writing rubrics and feedbacks were so informative and packed with information. But inevitably I would run into problems determining where something fit or whether or not I had student work that simply MET the standard or EXCEEDED the standard. I began to get really in the weeds of dissecting work like I was on NCIS just so that I could accurately assign the appropriate corresponding score to communicate to the student how proficient they were. And when I would agonize over these details, what was the payoff? The student would see the number, glance at the feedback and move on. And if they DIDN’T just move on, they would begin performing their own autospies of their work and of their peer’s work and we would lose sight of the forest because we were so closely examining bark. (Inevitably leading to the dreaded comparison with peers over who got what and why).

Getting stuck in the minutia of the details is one of the reasons why I think my recent crop of writing scores in the AAPPL ended up missing the mark. Over time they became so trained to carefully watch how they did their conditional tense with their accent marks and to include proper transitions and they were so into the mechanics and details of their writing that some of them lost focus on the whole meaning of the writing passage.

And lest we mention the fact that ANY pride a student had in completing a task would be eroded by the magnification of any imperfections that comes with having to pick something apart by grading. I vividly remember giving back feedback forms on interpersonal tasks only to see a face fall in disappointment–even though I cheerily said they met the expectations (85%) and just needed to work on this category here and here. “But I thought I did pretty good on that” they would say confused. And I couldn’t say much else but point to boxes on a rubric–because I was locked in a land of nuance and subjectivity. I accidently did a control study of this when I forgot to mark grades on one section’s assessments and all they got back was their strengths and weaknesses feedback. They were all so happy and proud! Then the next day when they asked to see their scores (because the other sections saw THEIR scores—all the happiness went away and they turned surely and dejected. Because now that feedback (which yesterday was welcomed!) was married to a numerical judgement of their performance.

The Judge

I read “Ungrading” by Susan Blum and really started to gain momentum with my thought process on what might work. There were so many lessons and thoughts I had from reading her book and the experiences of the contributors in her book–especially Alfie Kohn. The biggest thing that I kept coming around to was that GRADES aren’t feedback–they are judgements. As good as our intentions and as carefully constructed as our rubrics are–at the end of the day the grade that we assign a student is not informative, it’s a verdict on how we believe they did.

I’ve wrote in the past about the importance of self-assessment and I believe that is a powerful component of a classroom focused on personal learning and growth because it keeps the power in the hands of the student. Anytime they can become their own judge and jury, the product always seemed to be more engaging and the growth conversations more authentic. When students knew that I was going to be assessing them it was more about performance and pleasing me. I was seeing an obvious disconnect.

The Stress

And an element that cannot be ignored are the social-emotional impacts facing Generation Z and the chase for economic stability and future vocational success. The students I see everyday experience high amounts of stress related to the institution of school. Classrooms aren’t refuges or places of joy and experimentation anymore; they are necessary stepping stones that must be endured on the pathway to a successful future. And the kids are stressed, ok? In my attempts to help relieve the stress this year I kept beating the drum that grades don’t matter to me–just the learning; just do your best and demonstrate what you know. That badge I wore as the “I don’t care about grades” lady demolished relationships with students because, as one particular frustrated girl would remark “You can say whatever you want but grades do matter so nothing is going to change that”. And it hurt me to hear, it hurts me to believe, it hurts me to see that is her life and it hurts me that it is 1000 percent true. She’s right. She’s totally right. Because grades exist, they matter and it doesn’t matter if I pull out my ice cream cone visual of proficiency standards referenced grading and explain it or use language that kid-friendly. At the end of the day because the numbers exist, that’s all that matters. And those numbers induce stress responses and stress reactions and impact the learning process in profound ways. Ways that I’m no longer willing to ignore.

The Journey

I’m beginning my gradeless journey now and I invite you to join me to hear more about the things that I’ve tried in the Spring of 2021 and the way I plan to setup my gradeless classroom in the Fall of 2021. Because grades are a reality and a necessity for reporting—especially when everyone else in the district is using grades—it’s not as simple as “I’m just not doing it”. Accountability for learning the standards has to exist and parental and student feedback is imperative. There is a lot of work that needs to be done–but I believe that this is the good work and the right work for the kids.

AAPPL Reflections: 2021 Update

It’s that time of year again! For the 3rd year, Denver High School students are earning the State of Iowa Seal of Biliteracy. We’ve been face to face all year so while last year we needed to do the virtual proctoring option, this year we were able to administer the test in the classroom during our regularly scheduled time.

Each year of assessing my students using the AAPPL test leaves me with wonderfully valuable instructional take-aways. I’ve loved pouring over the data, examining patterns and getting a better understanding of what it means to be proficient. Each year comes with some valuable lessons and this what I learned from 2021:

The Good Challenge

Opting in to the AAPPL test is optional and this year I had 29 students (out of 39) taking the test. The fact that such a high percentage wanted to try and put up their $20 showed how fearless they were and motivated to “see what happens”. A few remarked that they didn’t expect to maybe do super well, but it was worth a shot. And I think a more than a few were surprised by how great they did! Results are still being finalized (I’m waiting on ONE more test from one student), but I expect to award 18 graduating seniors the Seal of Biliteracy (and one Junior has earned the honor for next year already).

Last year I did an experimental process where a few Juniors took the AAPPL test after just three years of instruction. Two of those students earned the Seal last year and the rest just needed to re-take one or two skills this year.

Results based on 29 students; an anticipated 19 earned the Seal of Biliteracy in the State of Iowa.

Interpersonal Breakdown

I’m aware (and my students were aware) that interpersonal listening and speaking was a hard skill for us. We’ve tried all year to do interpersonal activities that challenge our ability to provide information, ask questions and think on our feet. I ended up feeling really good about our interpersonal output by the time the test rolled around. (Those Interpersonal activities work!)

Here is the tough part: The tough part of the AAPPL Interpersonal test was not necessarily the output–it was just identifying what information was being solicited in the prompt and responding directly to that information (more about hitting the Targets later). To prepare for this, I “scaled back” some conversational practice and simply recording myself giving a short narrative that asked questions and asked for more information about something. Instead of responding, I just had students practice identifying all the parts of the prompt and tried to get them to zero in on the prompt. This remains the toughest part–largely because there is only a 7 second gap to replay and re-listen and then you have to be read to speak. There is a lot of mental gymnastics that needs to be done. This section is by far the most complicated and complex.

Here is something we tried this year while testing! 1) I suggested that students STAND on their feet while recording. Many of them get stiff and unnatural while sitting. If they were able and comfortable, I suggested they stand, rock, pace or dance while speaking. For some I think it really helped. 2) I made cutout of people on popsicle sticks (I used characters from Internado) and we put them on the edge of the computer screen so they felt happy and comfortable while testing.

Hitting the Targets

This winter I was able to identify the importance of responding directly to the target for the interpersonal test. (I should mention that my instructional coach was so helpful in helping me process the data.) Last year I had several examples of students responding for over 1 minute 30 seconds about a topic related to the prompt but it was just too “off to the side”. This is a hypothetical example: the narrator in the prompt begins with a narrative about how she is a competitive person and loves to compete in soccer. Then she asks about what types of competitive activities there are for young people in the community to participate in, how they are structured and what she may need to do to join a competitive sports teams. Several of my students responded with something along the lines of: I love to play soccer. Messi is my favorite player. I watch the World Cup with my family. My dad doesn’t like soccer. (And other soccer related facts). They heard that one hook of SOCCER and produced a whole lot of content related to soccer but missed all the info about general competitive sports and info about how to get involved. They scored very low. My first thoughts were: But they used multiple tenses! But they spoke for a long time! But after thinking about it, how weird would that be as an interpersonal skill if I asked you to describe your school schedule and you responded “Spanish is my favorite class” it’s not exactly right.

This example references the topic in the original prompt but strays from the exact information requested. Even if this selection was grammatically sound, the response is too far off the mark to be a strong response that demonstrates the ability to give information.

What was interesting is that I noticed the same issue in our writing prompts—which I thought was weird because the prompts are in English and not timed so, how did students miss the mark? It was the same kind of thing: the general topic would be “school” and while they did generate some related content, it wouldn’t be EXACTLY what the whole prompt is.

I think just reviewing this and intentionally practicing “hitting the target” next year will help immensely.

Ratings Review

I’m a big fan of a standard test like the AAPPL because I know I’m a subjective evaluator. Even when I have clearly defined standards, it can be hard to be consistent. So I have always appreciated the unbiased AAPPL report. Even when a student I think is superior does poorly, I trust the raters and learn from their ratings and what qualifies as I1 vs. I5.

However I had some trouble with one or two interpersonal ratings this year. I listened to the submissions (another great feature of the dashboard of the AAPPL for test administrators) and couldn’t grasp the difference between this student’s I1 rating versus higher rankings. In my mind the target was hit, the language control was better than some with higher rankings and while the student sounded nervous and a little unnatural, I wasn’t sure that equated that low of a deduction.

Enter the rating review: I appreciate that LTI stands behind their raters and also wants to offer unbiased, accurate results. I submitted the information for a re-rate—the submissions would be rescored by a second rater that did not know what the original first rating was. I felt crazy vindicated and grateful for this review process when my student’s I1 rating came back as an I4. I felt that something was off that first time! Without the ease and transparency and willingness of the testing company to offer this, that student would not be earning the Seal of Biliteracy this Spring when she indeed demonstrated Intermediate high skills.

We were testing during a high volume time so it took about 2 weeks for a rating review. It took a little digging to find the process but this is what you need to do: send an email to with the names, test types, and ratings of the students.

2nd Person Writing

We work very heavily on 1st and 3rd person output. And my students get a lot of 2nd person input during questioning and answering exercises but I noticed were were a little weak in 2nd Person OUTPUT. During our prep I noticed a lot of “Tú es….” or ¿Tú le gusta…?. One Unit I made sure that I did in preparation for the AAPPL was to work on writing informal emails and 2nd person communication. I believe that really helped my students and it’s something that I look forward to doing more of. (Click here for my 2nd Person Writing Activities on TPT)

Updated: My AAPPL Prep Bundle on Teachers Pay Teachers has been converted to a Google Folder full of different activities, practice assessments and instructional information that teachers and students can use to prepare for the Spanish AAPPL Test. It is mostly geared to Form B. (And it includes the 2nd Person Writing Activities mentioned above).

For previous year’s reflections, please see:

AAPPL Test 2019

AAPPL Test 2020 (the year of COVID)

Great Things from the 2021-2020 School Year (Part 1)

I know that it’s only March and I’m about to go on Spring Break…but I have to celebrate making it this far and some of the great things to happen in my professional growth because of this wacky year. For context, I have been in the classroom face to face with students since August. At times as many as 50% of my students were online—Zooming into classes so I was teaching both in person people and digital people at the same time. While it’s easy to mourn the loss of the things I used to do, today I choose to happily reflect on some great things I HAD to do this year to make this work. And professionally I’m grateful that I changed course and did these things.

GoFormative: My Go-To

I always used the free version of GoFormative but really wanted to be able to use the Audio Response feature for interpersonal communication practice this year (FlipGrid never really worked great for me). Once we made the plunge to use GoFormative, I started seeing how I could use it All.Of.The.Time. My spirit guru Meredith White shared how she uses GoFormative I started to see crazy stuff: embedding of Quizlets, embedding Edpuzzle and Word Wall activities, providing live feedback to students, etc. I think the thing that opened my eyes the most was the notion that GoFormative could be like a Peardeck without having a Peardeck.

Daily Questions: I would occasionally do Daily Questions that students would answer out loud with shoulder buddies. But there was always a problem: What if you’re absent? Do you just get to skip that day’s daily questions? And what if you don’t have a buddy? ENTER GOFORMATIVE. I display the Daily Questions on the board and direct the students to GoFormative to answer. WHILE they are writing their answers, I am monitoring their answers and giving them live feedback. And they are correcting immediately because I can see it. And they started to ask me questions during it too. Absent? I post all of the daily questions in ONE GoFormative Activity so that if you are missing—you can always go back and do the questions on the days that you missed. This way EVERYONE has to do every day’s daily questions and gets practice and feedback almost instantaneously.

Why was I not doing that before?!?! Thank you 2020-2021 School Year.


I’ve used Grid View or Master Slide shows for student work in the past: Using the Google Slides Add a Roster template, I would make ONE slideshow in which all of my students had a separate slide with their name where they had to do their work. I used to like that for quick things that we would share with each other.

I started to make all my handouts or practice materials like this. The benefit of doing this VERSUS sharing a digital document that everyone has while “Making a Copy” is that I can see everything all at once and really easily.

See it up close

For a recent writing practice assessment, I made a table on each student’s slide with the work that needed to be done. While they worked during class, I made comments out loud or using Google comments. I shared links and resources and reminders on their slides and gave them approval when everything looked good. And in this view, I was able to quickly move between students to help them and look at their work instantaneously. Both my in class and digital students get to do the same thing and receive the same type of feedback.

This was so much better than having them do it on paper, turning it in, waiting to get feedback and passing it back out.

Why was I not doing that before?!?! Thank you 2020-2021 School Year.


I occasionally struggled with listening assessment or a speaking assessment that was done live in the room; what do I do if they are absent? How do I recreate that? How do a schedule them in to do that with me? It became evident in late 2020 that I was going to have to do some things differently when it came to assessments.

This is an assessment meant to take the place of an interactive simulation the students are doing in the classroom. Those that are absent or virtual can still meet the standard by completing this GoFormative and recording their responses.

Because I’m planning for virtual students, I tried to convert all my assessments to have a digital version. Sometimes that’s as easy as creating a DOC that you can push to the students in Google Classroom. Sometimes it does mean creating something a little bit different “on the side” so that you have it in case you need it. But I’m loving the accountability that comes with being able to say “You didn’t do A, so you will have to turn in B by Friday”. It takes a little bit of thought ahead of time but has saved me SO many headaches in chasing down late work or missing work or makeup assessment.

For this assessment I also put a link to a Google Form that absent or digital students could use; the in class students marked answers on a paper and turned it in

I’ve come to use the Google Extension MOTE to embed audio into documents for listening tests. If I end up reading out aloud to kids in the room, that’s fine. Otherwise it is there in case they need it.

All assessments should have some digital version–either as their main option or an alternate option.

Why was I not doing that before?!?! Thank you 2020-2021 School Year.


The hardest part of the fall/winter was finding student work. Was it turned in? Were you done yet? Did you know you had to do that? I was seriously losing my mind.

(Again, gracias a Meredith White) I saw an idea with a Google Form where students had to submit a form whenever they turned in something at a different time from when others did—either because it was late or because they were absent. This Form has SAVED me.

I get email notifications if someone turns in a form. I usually will go through the submissions Friday morning and update grades then. Until then, I don’t chase down anything.

I coached the students on Accountability and they know they will receive a place holder of a 55% for any assessment that is not turned in. If they are absent, they are responsible for getting that assessment done and THEN have to fill out the form to let me know. Once I coached them and led them through this process, it has worked. I have students self-advocating for the first time and students solving their own problems. They understand that they are actually the ones in control here. They have to fill out this form because I can’t be chasing down submissions all hours of the day from all different websites.

Why was I not doing that before?!?! Thank you 2020-2021 School Year.

Wide World of Feedback

Giving students feedback and receiving student feedback is something I am trying to work at. I always thought giving students feedback had to be in the form of written comments in the margins or (in the digital world) in Google comments. I’m slowly learning all of the different ways that feedback can exist between students and teachers. Here are some of my favorite takeaways recently.

Writing Feedback: Student Choice

Years ago I abandoned being a copy editor for Spanish writing assignments and rather than correcting errors FOR the students, I highlighted errors to make them examine and think about “what is the problem in this area?”. For more information on highlighting errors as a strategy, visit the Teaching Channel.

I then started to notice that not all my students grew the most from locating and giving their attention to every.single.error that was in their writings. And sometimes I found myself wanted to mark a misuse of past subjunctive (that we had not learned yet at Spanish 2) for one student who was advanced and ready to learn but not mark it for others. Meredith White (my inspiration for all things and a creative goddess) shared a way students choose their feedback. I started to include this on my writing assignments and it’s been very interesting and positive. I thought more students would continue to want every error to get to perfection, but more were interested in the favorite part or the biggest mistake. One straight A student I had did not pick the “perfection” choice and I gently (without judgement) asked why she didn’t want everything pointed out. She sighed and said “Uh I just have a lot to focus on right now. I feel good about what we are doing and don’t want to know all the problems. Too stressful. Just give me one thing to fix or improve. That’s about all I can handle in my life right now.” Hugs for honesty and helping me get perspective.

Writing Feedback: Checklist

Amy Lenord shared a feedback checklist years ago (I can’t find the link now) that really set our department on a mission to create a standard feedback checklist for each writing assessment. My goal is to mark 3 successes and 3 focus areas. Students collect these and we review them before going into the next writing activity so that they can focus on those things (capitalize on what they do well and focus on something else to improve). I like for them to have this checklist while they are writing. Some students mark it up and self-assess. They are often overly critical of themselves but still genuinely insightful.

You can see my upper level feedback checklist HERE.

Student Feedback with Social-Emotional Understanding

I love everything about GoFormative for assessments and practice activities. It has been great. And the students love the instant feedback from multiple choice assessments because it is instant gratification. Truthfully I like it often too because it aligns with the Interpretive Modes of the AAPPL tests so I structure a lot of my reading and listening tests to be multiple choice.

I’ve always included open student feedback questions on my student self-assessments but I started adding some open questions to the end of more structured tests too and I’m loving the feedback from students. It’s more valuable to me than the raw scores most of the time. It’s been important in building relationships with the students and for my own mind to “take the temperature” of what’s going on in the student world.

The students that I teach are very driven and grade oriented. I have to spend a considerable amount of time teaching them to value growth and valuing the process of learning independently from the score the receive. I like giving them the opportunity to tell me what they think they earned credit for. It helps show them that I am not a giver of grades—I’m a rewarder of learning.

Consistently the best part of my grading day is reading these non-graded responses at the end of each assessment. I like to hide the names in GoFormative and try and guess who said what. This is the most valuable way students give me feedback on learning in our class and on life in general.

Google Classroom Rubrics

Google Classroom speaking rubric; although it says it is out of 16 points, I have a conversion scale that converts this to my standards-referenced 100 grading point scale.

I love how easy Google Classroom makes rubric grading. I don’t love the setup of the rubrics or the fact that I can’t do them on an IPad, but things will get better with time. I’m still working on the best way to use them but recently I’ve been using a standard oral presentation rubric to grade speaking that focuses on articulation, poise, tempo and content. This is helping point out the varying weaknesses in our speaking skills. Some students are so confident and poised but a wreck with content or correctness. Some are technically perfect but sound memorized, robotic and uncomfortable. The rubrics are helping me give simple feedback to the students about these different skills. I need to get more sophisticated with using these. (And also would like to figure out a way to digitize my writing feedback checklist above).

Scaffolded Writing Assessments

Assessments shouldn’t have to take hours to create. That’s something that is hard for me to accept and learn because I love the creative process so much. But good assessments let the students do the work and demonstrate their skills.

A recently went back to using scaffolded writing assessments with my Spanish 3 class. There was just such a range of abilities and I didn’t want to limit them or overwhelm them. I needed a good assessment that could cover A LOT of area.

The beauty of a scaffolded assessment is that the students have a little bit of choice and freedom and also it really allows them to understand how strong their skills are.

Scaffolded Assessments like these could be used for any unit. Just change the specific vocabulary in the first column.

In addition to just going straight to the assessment, I used a couple of digital review activities to help my students prepare for this End of the Semester exam.

I think that all of these resources can be easily manipulated and edited to help any language teacher. Please let me know if you have any questions!

Dot Game (Digital Version): I always loved the Dot Game for a quick vocabulary partner review. I also liked having the students create sentences using the vocabulary. With dual F2F and virtual students, that was tough so I had to recreate a way to get this activity virtual. I created a Dot Game Template that had multiple slides inside ONE GOOGLE slide. Students play against each other and draw lines connecting dots. Once one partner has closed in a box, the OTHER partner has to use that word in a sentence. I monitor and protect all the slides at once so I can see progression as it’s happening. And virtual students were able to play live against a F2F student without missing a beat.

Preparation Slides: Have students analyze different types of phrases and sort them. I like that there is no answer key—students can use their own ideas to differentiate between the phrases. In this activity the discussion that is generated and the examples to learn from are worth more than the finished product. I use this as the prep/intro to the writing assessment.

Summative Writing Assessment: I liked showing the students different level of proficiency. I also liked letting them choose which word they wanted to use for each box.

This is an easy assessment for teachers to edit and personalize. Just fill the boxes with words associated with your content. I recommend choosing very basic vocabulary for your first few rows and go up to some advanced words and phrases for the final few rows.

I think a good summative assessment is like a 10 foot ruler—not everyone is expected to get 100% or to be 10 feet tall. But you need to use a tall enough ruler just to check. If you are constantly measuring kids with a 6 foot ruler, how do you know they aren’t taller than 6 feet versus exactly 6 feet tale?

If you found these resources helpful, I’d gladly accept a coffee or a Tweet of thanks. I hope to continue to bring you ideas to share that can hopefully help others.

Getting Collaborative with Google Slides

Here we are in the Fall. I’m teaching Face to Face but also have some virtual students that I’m teaching simultaneously. My classroom used to be one of bustle and movement and interactions but I have to curb back on some things this year. My two big problems I wanted to solve this year: 1) how do a cut back on paper sorting activities we did (where paper was constantly being shared and shuffled around) and 2) how can I get the kids to do things together when some of them are at home?

I was inspired by a few things from Maris Hawkins Sept 4 Brillante Viernes post, including the ideas Rachel posted about and gave template ideas for (seriously—check them out!). I immediately shifted course for that week and tried a vocabulary sorting activity as my Spanish 3 started to learn some new vocabulary. It was a huge success! They were engaged and competitive—-and they were competing with and against some students that were home quarantining too. Everyone could hear me say a word and then they rushed to find it. Sometimes we would do this on paper but I LOVED using the Google Slide corner click-and-drag. All kids were on the same slidedeck so I could go into Grid View and see all slides and activity LIVE and at the same time. I shouted out play-by-play and “Great job Connor!” messages to let the kids know who scored points. It was easy and quick and they were very much into it. They have asked to play a few more times since then. It was a great win.

Here is a sample of the slidedeck activity I did to practice their vocabulary words.

I similarly used this format for another activity that we were doing in Spanish 4. Instead of a vocabulary comprehension task though we were doing sentence completions using infinitive verb phrases. I would project a prompt (something like “On the weekends I like….”, or “I hate…”) and students would sort through some infinitive phrases to find some that were true for them. I created it with a Venn Diagram so they could work with a partner to find out things they had in common and that were different. After they finished each prompt, we discussed different things (using different verb forms for they, we, I, he, etc.). There was a lot more I could have done with this activity but it was fun to see how similar some students were.

Here is a sample of the Infinitive Sorting Activity I did. I projected or said some prompts in Spanish.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Google Slides over Google Docs, but I love the visibility options it provides when you view things in Grid view and can see everyone working at the same time.

I haven’t shared much on this blog since quarantine. I truthfully didn’t know if I had anything of value to share but I’ve come to understand that participating in discussions, conversations, sharing good ideas and bad ideas is all part of supporting other teachers and receiving support myself. I value the voices of others and like just getting a window-glance into their classrooms because it helps me reflect on my own practice. Thanks for reading and best of luck on navigating the rest of this 2020 school year!

Have any topics or questions that I can help you reflect on? Let me know what to write about next. Follow me and message me on Instagram @espanoldhs.