This has been a year of teaching shakeups for me, of seeing my classroom and my students through new lenses.
This year, I decided to stop grading writing.
I am a seventh grade English teacher, but I don’t grade writing any more.
Are you freaking out yet? Many teachers do. On the other hand, most of my students do not. They are psyched on this new arrangement.
I am, too. For years, I created different rubrics for every assignment with probably one hundred details in teeny tiny font to squish it all on one page. I revised or recreated them every year. I taught from these rubrics, a different one for every different writing assignment, and kids self-evaluated from it. But they didn’t own it. They didn’t use it as a tool to grow as writers. I’m just being painfully honest with myself here. Rubrics worked for me for a long time, until they didn’t. Until I started looking through some different lenses, until I realized what I’ve known for a long time. It wasn’t working for my students, whether any of us realized it or not. It was time for a new lens.
For clarification, not grading does not mean not teaching. Here’s what I do to get kids using the writing process during our genre studies.
First, we read many mentor texts written by published writers and former students, as well my own writing. Then, my students discuss what made that writing strong and brainstorm criteria. We’ve done this in fishbowls, though I want to try some other techniques that are more comfortable for my introverts. The criteria becomes the map they follow as they draft, revise, and edit. It becomes the blueprint for our conversations with me and with peers. “Am I cutting to the bone? Is my “So What?” clear? “Did I share enough of my thoughts, feelings, and opinions?”
This criteria becomes the foundation for the mini-lessons I teach the whole class and for the conferences I have with individual students. I conference multiple times with each student face to face about what they’re currently writing, and I track how many times we’ve met as well as a quick description of what we talked about during the conference. I try (sigh, I’m going to try harder) to give students a sticky note reminding them what we discussed during the conference so that they remember what to do. Students track their progress in the writing process on a big huge white board, and they can also see other kids’ progress. We are also working on setting goals for each new piece of writing, though this is a total work in progress as I figure out how to make it work best for kids.
For the record, this process is often a hot mess. I am just beginning. I try not to be too hard on myself!
Then, based on the criteria that my students and I established at the beginning of the genre study, they self-evaluate their writing. They use a single-point rubric to evaluate their strengths and areas to work on next time.
Because there will be a next time.
It’s not the last time they’ll cut to the bone, write a “So What,” or use TFO (thoughts, feelings, and opinions). They’ll try it again during an essay, a short story, or a book review. They get many chances to give it a go.
But we do not end any more with my purple pen stating, “This is advanced, or proficient, or, God forbid, novice.” I experiment with what the notation looks like in my gradebook. We don’t have portfolios at my school; we still give letter grades every quarter, so I keep thinking about what I want these notations to reflect. This shift is complicated, so I will save my thinking for another blog.
I have read a lot about giving feedback once a student is finished with a particular piece. It’s tantalizingly hard to resist writing all over a finished piece; won’t THIS insight make them see what they need to do next time? Sure, kids read the feedback, and they look at the grade. But does this really help them grow much, if at all, as writers? I have my doubts, and trust me, I have scored thousands of papers and worked with thousands of writers.
If feedback is most important during the writing process, where the writer can make changes in that moment, then why don’t I spend a whole lot less time and energy at the end? Why don’t I focus my efforts and my energy on the process-won’t this benefit the product most? More importantly, timely feedback in the moment benefits my WRITERS the most.
In the past, I always offered students the opportunity to revise and edit again, and I would regrade it. Very few students-maybe a few every year, if that-took advantage of this offer. This leads me to believe, once again, that it’s not about the grade, it’s not about the final feedback I used to spend hours on, it’s not about the rubric I created with fifty million little specific details that STILL doesn’t say exactly what I want it to.
And the grade itself? Well, if it’s an A, kids are happy momentarily, and if it’s not, it makes them feel bad. I’m oversimplifying, but my target has shifted.
I want my writers to grow. I want them to see their own growth. I want them to move towards this growth by figuring out what they care about, by taking risks, by experimenting, by playing with words, sentences, and ideas, and by figuring out how to make their audience care, too. A grade isn’t gonna do much. My feedback, my instruction along the way, their feedback and support from their peers, how we “float on a sea of talk” (Britton, 1970)-that’s what makes the difference.
I realize, acutely, that this is a work in progress. You can probably tell by my blog post! I have so many questions, so much to learn, and so many ways to grow. My students still need quarter grades, and I keep experimenting, tweaking, refining.
I do know, in the immortal words of Dolly Parton, “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another.” Luckily for me, there are plenty of teachers out there paving the way. My job is to keep finding new lenses for my glasses.
If you are interested in single-point rubrics, here is a blog about it.
Here is a terrific blog from some Colorado teachers. They presented their ideas powerfully at NCTE 2017 in St. Louis.