Let me be honest: I hate grading.
Hate hate hate it.
I hate it, but you know what I love to do? Read my students’ writing. Talk to them about their reading. Absorb the creative projects on display after they’ve completed a reading or writing unit.
So, if I love to listen to and read and wonder about their work, why do I hate to grade it?
The idea of reducing a piece of student work to a number, or assigning some arbitrary value to a reading conference, or trying to measure precisely the growth of a writer from one genre to the next is not only intimidating to me…it also seems a little ridiculous. Unnecessary. Trivial. The beauty of a learner’s work is its creation, its completion, its courage. It’s out there…for me to read, for their peers to see, for their creators to reflect on.
But, too many of my students only know how to think in numeric terms when trying to measure their own achievements. Few are well-versed in knowing how to feel proud of finishing a tough book, or pleased with the revision of a piece of writing, or excited about the hard work that went into a project. They don’t know how to authentically self-evaluate, because for years, they have relied too heavily upon someone else’s assessments of their work–mainly their teachers’. I keep wondering how that’s fair. I’ve had conversations recently with the lovely Amy about this, and Jackie wrote a great post about this same dilemma last October.
Last week, this tweet from the always-wonderful Kelly Gallagher helped to focus my wondering. His words are not only true of writing, but of all other acts of learning as well. A grade can’t improve a student’s skills. Only feedback can do that–authentic, speedy, specific feedback.
So now, thanks to the combination of conversations with fellow teachers, Kelly’s words, and my own wondering, I know what I need to do. I need to focus more on feedback and less on grading. I know if I do less of the latter, I’ll free up time to do more of the former.
So, I’m pondering how to shift the balance. I’d really like to return written drafts with my comments and questions, but no number or letter grade at the top. I’d really like to have just one reading conferences without hearing the question, “what grade do I have in here?” I’d really like for students to abandon the habit of looking to me for grades, and instead look within themselves to figure out how they’re doing.
Because I can’t entirely forsake grades altogether (we need to update our gradebook weekly), I’ll move my focus toward improving my feedback instead. I’ll do this in three important ways:
During reading or writing conferences. Until now, I’ve tried to stay fairly quiet during conferences in order to let my students do most of the talking. Most of my talk is in the form of questions. Now, I’ll shift to giving students more feedback–much more than the one or two statements I try to make at the end of a conference, which usually are to give suggestions about where to go in terms of goals and growth. I’d like to comment more on my observations of students’ growth, strengths, weaknesses, and skills, so they can learn the language to begin evaluating themselves more effectively.
In writer’s notebooks. Although I collect notebooks every two weeks, I don’t read everything my students write–I don’t have time, and shouldn’t–they should write much more than I could ever read. Generally, I thumb through the pages, check that students have given a good faith effort in all of their various sections, and give a completion grade. Now, I’d like for each student to flag one page in their notebook they’d like me to attend to–maybe a woefully short to-read list, a favorite quickwrite, or a particular reading reflection. That way, they can decide what’s important to them, and I can give feedback accordingly…just comments and questions, mind you–without the pressure of a grade for reader or writer.
Through monthly “Meta Meetings.” I’d like to sit down with each student about once a month and just have a whole-person conference…not a reading or writing conference. Just a little checkup, to see how their brains and hearts are doing. I adore alliteration, and I want these chats to encourage my students to be metacognitive…so I think I’ll title them Meta Meetings. I’ll ask students a few questions about their strengths and weaknesses, and try to get to the heart of all the little bits of the language arts they’re curious about…strengthening their similes, or finding a system for keeping track of found vocab words, or writing metaphorical recipes (all questions I’ve had from students at random times). I also think that during these meetings, I’ll get lots of awesome curricular ideas–what do my students want to learn how to do? What things are they really wondering about that I might be able to help them discover?
What are your suggestions for improving feedback? Shifting away from grades? Providing more authentic evaluation? Please share in the comments!