Category Archives: Professional Development

Book Review: “Hacking Assessment”


I recently joined the FaceBook group Teachers Throwing Out Grades and it was suggested to read the book Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School by Starr Sackstein.  So, I went to Amazon, saw that book was relatively cheap (and it does have a kindle version), and I ordered a copy.  I mean, what could it hurt?


This isn’t the first time I have read a book on teaching practice.  But, it is the one of the rare times I read a teaching book that didn’t bore me, put me to sleep, or made me give up in the middle. Most books I read about teaching are full of wonderful ideas, but it gets lost in “grad-school paper talk”, if you know what I mean.  Hacking Assessment is written in a way that is comfortable and not off-putting.

Assessment must be a conversation, a narrative that enhances students’ understanding  of what they know, what they can do, and what needs further work…..they need to understand how to make improvements and how to recognize when legitimate growth has occurred.                               -Starr Sackstein, Hacking Assessment

Alright, let’s get to it.  Hacking Assessment is one of several books in the “Hacking” series. Starr Sackstein is a teacher who actually threw out her grade book and goes as gradeless as she can at her school–she is still required to have a grade for each semester.  So, she writes from a place of first-hand experience.  She also adds in the experiences of other teachers who have also tried to go gradeless.  One thing, for me, that was a major plus is that Sackstein is a high school teacher, and so were most of the other teachers who shared experiences.  As a high school teacher myself, it is helpful to hear from other high school teachers.  They understand the issues of GPA, college applications, and a whole “lifetime” of using grades as a measure of learning and smartness.

Sackstein breaksdown her book into 10 chapters or what she calls “hacks”.  Each addresses a different area of grading and assessment.  The different hacks include:  shifting the grades mindset, promoting buy-in, rebranding assignments as learning experiences, facilitating student partnerships, digitizing your data, maximizing time, tracking progress transparently, teaching reflection, teaching students to self-grade, and cloud-based archives.

Each hack is broken down into different parts: the problem, the hack, what you can do tomorrow, a blueprint for full implementation, overcoming pushback, and the hack in action.  It is this breakdown that makes the book so accessible.  As I read the book, I kept shaking my head in agreement and saying, yes…this makes so much sense.

As we rid ourselves of the grades, risk taking and questioning became a natural part of the process.                                              -Starr Sackstein, Hacking Assessment

As a TAB teacher, I already do some of the things she suggests, but I don’t do all of the things.  Hacking Assessment outlines how each hack is important, but as you read you understand how they all work together to create a meaningful learning experience for the students.  The addition of the hack in action section helps to put it in perspective.  You start to think, if this can be done in a math class, or an English class, of course this can be done in the art class.  I also really appreciated the pushback sections for each hack.  It gives the common arguments against that particular hack and how to combat that.  For me, having it all in one place is helpful.  I have conversations about the different aspects, but they seem to be everywhere, all over the interwebs, and it is hard to gather my thoughts easily on the matter.  It helps me to focus and have the conversation more easily.

Hacking Assessment is a quick read, but one I encourage if you have any thoughts about going gradeless, or even lessing the amount of grades in your class.  If nothing else, using some of the hacks will help your students be more reflective of their learning and gain back a little bit of the love they used have for learning.

My week at the TAB Institute in Boston, 2015.



On July 12, I woke up at 4 am to get things ready to board my flight to Boston, MA so I could attend the 2015 TAB Institute.  I would be in Boston for 6 days–living, breathing TAB (Teach FOR Artistic Behavior), surrounded by others who felt the same as me.  It was a week-long intensive look into the world of TAB–what TAB is, how TAB came to be, how to implement, how to assess, how to advocate, I could go on.


Our “Treehouse” home for the week

Treehouse at night

Treehouse at night

By Monday night, I knew I had found my tribe.  We all knew it.  It was the most amazing thing to me to be surrounded by others who just got it; who just felt the same way I did.  I had talked to some on the interwebs, but to meet them and talk face to face…it was a whole other thing.  A better thing.

I got to meet several of my mentors.  In particular, Kathy Douglas and I finally got to meet face to face.  And, if it wasn’t for her suggestion of me going to Boston this summer, I probably wouldn’t have made it.  So, thank you Kathy for the suggestion.  I also got to meet Ian Sands.  Granted we met briefly in New Orleans, but this week in Boston, I really got to meet Ian.  Ian (and his colleague Melissa Purtee) have had major influence on me and my switch to TAB.  I am so grateful to have stumbled upon them.  So, for me to converse with Ian and work through things TAB related, and to become (dare I say it) friends with him, is a big deal to me.

Kathy, Diane, Clyde, Julie, and Ian

Kathy, Diane, Clyde, Julie, and Ian

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Our other faculty members included Julie Toole.  She is so much fun and if you want to know how to advocate for your TAB program, she is the woman to go to.  Clyde Gaw was there.  His Facebook profile picture makes him out to be this scary guy. He is the complete opposite of this.  He is fun and a big child and has this amazing way of connecting his vast knowledge with what/how artists act and the choices they make.  Lastly, the woman that made it all come together, Diane Jacquith was a wealth of knowledge.  The week ran so smoothly and she had set up an amazing group of mentors, guests (including George Szekely and his daughter, Ilona) and wonderful places to visit, like the Museum of Fine Arts and Fenway Studios.

George Szekely talked to us about play

George Szekely talked to us about play

Fenway Studios

Fenway Studios

Studio of Mae Chevrette

Studio of Mae Chevrette

Studio of Ed Stitt

Studio of Ed Stitt

Studio of Peter Scott

Studio of Peter Scott

I can’t leave out the people who I came to love while I was there.  While I clicked with everyone, I want to give a shout out to my crew that just made the trip over the top—Liz (Leg Day), Andy (Canadia), and Hillary (iPad).  Thanks guys.  You accepted me for who I was and celebrated it.  I am normally a shy person around new people, but you guys made me feel at home.

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Enough with the mush.

Breaking into two groups, we met in tracks first.  Track 1 was for those completely new to TAB.  Track 2 was for those that had practiced TAB for at least a year.  This is where I was.  We also met as grade levels–elementary, middle school, and high school.  My HS group was made up of 4 of us, Liz, Meta, Kathy, and myself.  Of course, Ian was our guide.  This was most helpful to me.  The conversations were lively and honest.  We talked about assessment and grading and how we set up an open studio without centers.  Sometimes we didn’t even notice how long they went on.


Ilona Szekely



Tasks from our Task Party

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I have come to point in this blog post where I just don’t know what to say.  I have been trying to decompress it all once the haze of the TAB utopia wore off.  I have been trying to figure out how to sum it all up and write about it for over a week now. And, honestly, I just can’t.  So, instead I will end the post with some pictures of this amazing PD.

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