Grading– it’s my Achilles heel, the most vulnerable area of my teaching practice. While I am quite skilled at responding to student writing, situating myself most often as real reader, prompting dialoguer, and involved co-creator, quantifying the complex and nuanced ways that students perform texts makes me terribly uncomfortable.
Nearly four years ago, I plunged myself into the Tar River Writing Project, an intensive professional learning community that prompted me to deeply reflect on the ways I think about teaching, writing and the practice of teaching writing. As I bathed in the experience of shared reading, discussion, research, and best practice with K-12 teachers from eastern NC, I braved a Stygian transformation. Through the process, I came to understand the mythic importance of my work, and emerged as a teacher-hero.
With the support of my fellow Writing Project teacher-heroes, both near and far, I sought to develop more accomplished writers and learners–in my classroom and in my region. Using fierce pedagogies, I strategically designed my writing courses to defeat complacency, disengagement, and indifference. I valiantly stepped away from the lectern, implemented a Writer’s Workshop model, sought authentic writing situations for my students, and pledged my alliance to writing processes, as opposed to writing products. In and outside of the classroom, students were deeply engaged with their writing, forging the tools they needed to say something important–to real audiences and for real reasons.
As a valiant new writing facilitator, I went mulimodal–slaughtering the five paragraph essay model and slaying the rubrics that preferenced correctness and polish over voice and substance. I embraced the non-authoritative writing response roles that were most closely aligned with my previous experiences as a writing consultant and worked to create a collaborative classroom community that supported literacy achievement for all.
Then, at the end of the semester, the reality of teaching at a university that calculates grade point averages materialized. The registrar’s office mandated that I reduce all of this learning to a simple letter, and I only had five to choose from. The gods must be have been bored.
Without a set of numbers, derived from objective rubrics, my already-fragile assessment practices were completely exposed. In cowardly desperation, I became the hostile reader, the omnipotent evaluator, and the judicious lawgiver who penalized those writers who didn’t act on my coaching comments, devaluing the work of those students who didn’t do what I’d suggested.
Still, despite the summative assessment conundrum, I was proud of my teaching and my students’ learning that semester. So when student survey responses came back early the next semester, indicating that their course experience was not the epitome of composition excellence, I was floored. While they had exhibited behaviors of confidence, most making real gains in rhetorical thinking, developing voice and strategy, they had, as a whole, harbored deep dissatisfaction and fear about their performance in the class. They reported that they were perpetually in the dark about their class standing, unclear how they were assessed, and much to my surprise, had receive little useful feedback from their instructor. Surely they must have forgotten all those probing questions, coaching comments, and in-class mini-conferences, spanning multiple drafts and multiple projects.
As I considered the stark differences between my perceptions of my classroom and those of my students, I began to interpret this phenomenon as a conflict in values. While I was primarily focused on improving their ability to compose and communicate effectively, they were concerned with the measure of their achievement– the grade. In a university where first-year students are typically enrolled in lecture-based survey courses which employ web-based course management systems that calculate quiz and test scores on-demand, my students have become accustomed to referencing course grades daily, knowing how many 10ths of a percent they need to propel them into a higher grade range–or how badly they can bomb a test and still pull a B. That context, coupled with a history of product-based English classes and standard assessments, led to a great degree of ambiguity and dissatisfaction with a student-centered, process-oriented writing course.
As I was pondering this disconnect, lamenting over students’ obsession with grades as opposed to meaningful learning, a wise college (who happens to also be one of our Writing Project co-directors) said to me, “Well, you know, it is possible to negotiate those differences. A skillful teacher can meet the students’ need to feel comfortable in academic standing and challenge them to growth their thinking and writing through a process approach.”
So began my teacher-inquiry quest to find an assessment model that could accomplish both of these goals. Some teachers, I found, do use negotiated rubrics this terrain, but that practice remains problematic for me because grades are still tied to subjective teacher evaluations quality. While I have no problem pressing the “like” button on my students’ blogs when I find a post to be particularly engaging and well-written, I don’t want to saddle that “like” to a grade.
My search is ongoing, but the most useful assessment armament I’ve found, to date, is Danielewicz’s and Elbow’s “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.” This grading contract model articulates the behaviors that strong writers engage in, linking behaviors, not products to specific grades. Based on Danielewicz’s and Elbow, I created the following contract and have implemented its use in my first-year research writing class this semester. The contract states:
You are guaranteed a B* in this class if you:
1. attend class regularly—not missing more than a week’s worth of classes;
2. participate in all exercises and activities both in and out-side of class, including instructor conferences
3. meet due dates and writing criteria for the formal and informal writing assignments (e.g., exploratory, micro-blogging, blogging, etc.);
4. engage in ambitious, thoughtful, mature projects that demonstrate a complexity of thought and sustain effort and investment on each draft of all assignments;
5. locate, evaluate, and synthesize primary, print, and electronic bibliographic sources that contribute significantly to those projects and that demonstrate the writer’s ability to use research in different ways and for different purposes;
6. convey the results of writing and research to a particular audience that will learn from and potentially act on those findings;
7. make substantive revisions when the assignment is to revise—extending or changing the thinking or organization—not just editing or touching up;
8. copyedit final revisions of major projects until they conform to the conventions of edited, revised English;
9. give thoughtful peer feedback during class workshops both face-to-face and virtually;
10. submit your midterm and final e-portfolio on deadline.
The asterisk complicates the issue, though, as A grades are awarded for exemplary writing, a caveat that speaks to our collective inability, as writing teachers, to disassociate stellar products from stellar grades. We are after all, only demi-gods.
After I introduced the grading contract this semester, students informally reported that they felt comfortable with the criteria, one saying that it was “like a safety net for bad writers”. A few students expressed concern that it might be hard to make an A, an impression that I am ok with. I believe it should be challenging, although certainly not impossible, to make an A.
During the first half of the semester, I’ ve found it liberating to provide authentic commentary. I’ve been able to give more immediate feedback as I don’t wait to read all submissions, group writing in piles according to proficiency and couch comments in a way that indicates satisfaction or dissatisfaction with writing quality.
At midterm, I sent out emails that indicated whether student performance was in the B range according to contract criteria and listed specific behaviors that were excluding performance from that range. I noted that to remain in the honors range, substantial revision was necessary to all major assignments; however, student writers aren’t obligated to revise according to the feedback I’d provided. I ask that they critically consider it, as they do with their peer feedback, and make informed revision decisions, articulating the reasons for those revision choices. So far, I like this approach, because my students retain sovereignty over their process and products, and I’m not using comments to march students toward the “perfect text” that I’ve conjured and employ as a baseline for evaluation.
I’m eager to continue collecting data to support this grading contract approach, and I’m very interested in how both my grade distributions and student opinions of instruction may change because of this approach; but for now, I am comfortable in the liminal space, oft inhabited by great heroes of antiquity, that characterizes a shift toward more critical pedagogy.