I have a confession to make: I hate grading. And no, I don’t mean that I hate the time it takes to read papers and give feedback (although I have thoughts on that too). I mean I think traditional grading as we know it and use it in our schools is not helping students in any way. And I’m not alone. Recently, Mark Barnes over at Brilliant or Insane has been writing about the issues of traditional grading and student learning and is hard at work at getting us to rethink why our grading system should even remain.
I have a lot to say on the grading issue. So much in fact that I don’t even know where to start. I’ll just jump in and start by sharing with you what is happening in my summer class that I am working with. We’re headed into week three of six as of today.
The first three weeks, I was told, needed to focus on writing. So we’ve been working on learning how to write an essay for college applications as well as reading essays and discussing them. Right off the bat, I talked to my students about why we would be focusing on essay writing and what I hoped they would learn. I also had them share with me what they thought were their biggest challenges in writing and how they wanted to improve.
I set up a schedule so that I saw student work every other day and could give them feedback. However, they also gave each other verbal feedback in class nearly every single day. Additionally, I set up a rotating system so I could have short conferences with students about their writing twice a week. I explained all of this to them. I never mentioned grades.
Of course, someone eventually got around to asking about grades on Day Two. She wanted to know how I would be grading them. I said I wouldn’t, and she wanted to know why not. Here’s my answer:
You’re in this program because you want to be the first person in your family to go to college. You recognize that you need some additional academic support to make this happen. That’s what we’re here for. I’m your English teacher. It’s my job to help you improve in writing, reading, and discussing texts over the next six weeks. It’s your job to make sure you show up and do the work. We’re in this together. A grade isn’t going to add any value to what you’re learning. I’ve got everything in place that I can think of to help you improve. If you do your work, and I do mine, you’re going to learn. That’s what we’re here for.
And no one questions this. The students accepted my response and dropped the whole grade thing. It became a non-issue. Later, some became concerned that they wouldn’t be able to produce a top-notch draft by the end of three weeks. I assured them it was ok. They needed to continue on with their writing. They were here to learn, and one of the things they were going to learn was how long it can take to produce a high quality essay. So what if it takes longer than three weeks? We can keep working on it beyond that time.
No one asks me what they have to do to get an A or even a C. Do you know what kinds of conversations we have? We celebrate the work that we do. Students applaud each other when they see someone has written something well. They thank each other for the help they receive. They toss out ideas when we do editing together as a class, and they have no problem recognizing when those ideas fall short.
I tell them it’s ok to play with words and ideas in their writing. It’s ok if they don’t work out because we can just re-edit the work, and no one groans. No one is stressed about their grade or even completing the essay because it’s not about that at all. It’s about learning the process of what it takes to write an essay and learning what it means to be a writer.
I ask them what they need for support, and they tell me. When we do things their way, they fully engage in doing things their way. When I ask them to try out something a bit different my way they do. It’s a back and forth respectful balance of learning we have going on.
In the end, I have given my students freedom to learn, explore, and be creative. They do not have to conform to my standard of an A. Don’t get me wrong – they need to learn what works in an essay that they would submit for a college application. But we have open, honest conversations about that. What counts in such a situation? How does what counts shape their writing? I would never ignore these structures because to do so would be a great disservice to them.
The freedom from grading is a priceless gift – more for my students than for me. They have nothing to be concerned about except learning to write.