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Running Away From Grading My Students’ Problems

when-i-runWhen we had to run the mile in elementary school, I was always at the back of the pack, inhaler in hand, slowly walking my way across the finish line. I have never been a runner; believe me, I’ve tried. So on Saturday afternoon, when I got the urge to hit the pavement in a light, albeit slow, jog, I was running away from more than my problems—the heaps of papers, laundry, meetings, assignments, and work I had waiting at home. I was running away from grading the problems of my students.

In the beginning of the year I always find that students are hesitant with their writing, cautious to share with one another, eager to find personal stories that are interesting yet not too revealing. I don’t blame them—after all, as much as we want to believe high school is a safe space to share our feelings and experiences, it isn’t. Bit by bit though, students unravel, some sooner than others, and slowly I begin receiving stories that are raw and honest. This last set of personal narratives I received included stories about the deaths of parents and grandparents and the suicide of a close friend. Students spoke about dealing with anorexia, suicidal ideations, and clinical depression. At 16 and 17 years old, many of these students have lived more life than some adults.

Part of this process has to do with the fact that my students peer review each other’s work. I find that as they are exposed to one another’s writing they tend to open up further. In addition, I share my own writing with them, in particular one piece on the complications that happened after my father had open heart surgery two years ago. I pick and choose what classes I share this piece with. Some classes are ready to hear that their teacher is capable of fear, anger, anxiety, and hurt; some classes aren’t. The piece is revealing of who I am as a daughter and sister instead of pigeon holing me into the role of a leader and teacher.

The problem with this dynamic is that it doesn’t fit into the traditional education system. While I am not an advocate of grades, I am also not anti-grades. Still, I find that no number can adequately convey the power of writing or the strength and guts of these students. As a teacher, I have to look at the structure, craft, mechangrade-620x425ics, and formatting of a paper, but no matter how much I observe the concrete aspects of a piece, I cannot help but remember that my job isn’t just about correcting punctuation or spelling; my job is to do justice to the stories of my students, to help them tell these stories in the most compelling way possible, which is what led me to my run on this fall day.

Unfortunately, my tromping across scattered leaves with heavy breathing and a stitch in my side didn’t bring any clarity, and when I returned to my kitchen table, the same stories sat underneath my pen, covered in blue ink that praised their bravery, their craft, their story. But still, these stories were gradeless, waiting for a number, waiting for the end of the quarter, waiting to be put into my online gradebook. So my question for all of you teachers, those of you who have been teaching and grading for far more many years than I, how do you tackle these difficult papers? How do you tack on a number to something that has so much more value?

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5 thoughts on “Running Away From Grading My Students’ Problems

  1. […] fair.  I’ve had conversations recently with the lovely Amy about this, and Jackie wrote a great post about this same dilemma last […]

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  2. jackiecatcher October 30, 2014 at 5:47 pm Reply

    Thank you for all your advice! These are great suggestions and they reinforce how much value our students stories really have. I love the idea of grading the journey as well as having students grade themselves. Just today I had another student share an essay about anorexia with me. She told me that it has taken her a long time to get to the point where she was willing to be open and discuss that she had an illness. In my book, she will always get an A–she is going on to college to help others who face the same problems she does. What more could I ask for from my students?

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  3. amyrasmussen October 30, 2014 at 11:04 am Reply

    I love these comments here, and I also try to grade on growth, but it gets difficult — and often frustrating. As you know, I teach advanced classes, and I expect students to be at a certain level of proficiency before they ever begin learning with me. Often, that does not happen. This year I started putting up a “skills chart.” When I teach a particular skill in a mini-lesson I write it on the chart, and then as we get closer to producing of best drafts of our writing, I remind students that I expect to see them using these skills that we’ve specifically covered in class. This is helping me stay focused as to what skills I’ve taught, and what I need to teach again, and what we need to focus on next. And I know I can base grades on how well students show me they have mastered those skills.

    Also, and I do this often — I let students “grade” themselves. They know if they have improved, if they’ve put in the time and effort required to produce something they can be proud of. I trust my students to score themselves on a regular basis (of course with the right to override). Some of my best writers score themselves low, and some of my laziest kiddos score themselves high, but overall, most students are usually spot on.

    I love your thinking here, lady. Your students are so blessed to have you, Miss Catcher!

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  4. SGC October 29, 2014 at 8:20 pm Reply

    I love the fact you share your writing with your students. I teach fifth grade and find the same situations you describe. I use a rubric. We in Room 208,, much like those in Erika B.”s Room 382, also work on growth. We don’t have a page requirement and I do not grade on spelling unless we have done a mini lesson on homophones, homographs, etc. We do know all sentences need a captial letter and need to have a punctuation mark. We learned how to read a rubric. Then individual class sections (I have thre sections of English Language Arts in the fifth grade) developed our own rubric. We change or adapt our class rubric, for example I may throw out a challenge: use descriptive adjectives at least 4 in an entry where they describe themselves. Another time we may determine which adjectives are describing internal v. external characteristics. Just a thought! I know I stuggle to assign a grade as well and I commend you for recognizing and bringing to light the struggle many educators have and don’t want to talk about! 🙂 I feel much like Erika B and yourself, when teaching from the heart we grade on the journey not the story itself and when we are aware of the dichotomy of the grade, we look at the individual growth and still make concise precise goals for the individual as well. Thank you!

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  5. Erika B. October 29, 2014 at 7:59 am Reply

    Jackie,

    How lucky your students are that you share your writing with them; especially that piece (that just may have been inspired by the writing you started tackling at #UNHLit13) about your father’s complications. So brave.

    Here’s my take…and really, mine alone (unless others agree)! I ‘grade’ on growth. I make sure to confer with students daily and very clearly (and when necessary, concisely) about where they are, where they and I want them to aim to be, and then I ‘grade’ the journey.

    Because for us in room 382, we find that to be most comfortable, fair, and low stakes. It allows us room to make mistakes and flourish in ‘fixing them’ (together). It opens up room for discussion, use of thesauri, research, peer conferring, and sometimes even family input.

    We pick one technique or element or strategy or risk and we ‘watch it grow’. And when we feel comfortable enough to move onto the next, we do. And, when we want to get really fancy, we juggle two…just as the first one feels ‘managed’ we start to integrate a second focus. And so goes the cycle.

    I hope some, any, a tidbit of this helps you with this arduous and wildly uncomfortable task of ‘grading’. Your students are lucky to have an honest and openly inquisitive educator.

    XOXOX
    E

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