Grades might be the death of me. Not grading — I can handle that. It’s my students’ obsession with grades that is beginning to break my already aching back.
Right after we’d spent 75 minutes of our 85 minute class period color-coding our best drafts and revising what we thought was pretty good writing to craft better writing, a student — we’ll call him JWP — asked me if I would read his essay.
I thought he asked for a writing conference.
“Sure, what would you like me to look for in your essay?”
“Um, I don’t know,” he said, “I just want to know what grade I’ll get on this.”
“But, you haven’t done anything with the ideas you got in the discussion today,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. But I really just want to know if this will get me a passing grade.”
I can feel my breathing change. I sigh.
“I am happy to read your essay,” I said taking the paper, noticing the green and red marks from our color-coding session but no blue, orange, or purple. I tried to think fast, not sure of the best way to bridge the obvious gap: Writing for a grade versus writing to convey meaning because we care about our message and our craft.
I hope what I said to JWP made a difference. I thought of a million things to say but knew he wasn’t in a place to hear anything more that this: “Are you proud of this piece? Does it represent what you’ve learned about the writing process?”
I guess I’ll know if what I said made a difference when JWP turns in his essay today.
How do we get students to care more about the learning than about the grades?
I believe it has to do with helping them change what they might believe about school. This is hard. My students are juniors in high school with 11 years that have shaped their beliefs. Somehow I have to get them to want more.
Searching the NCTE website for info unrelated to the topic of this blog post, I found this page, which discusses the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, a collaborative piece by NCTE, NWP, and representatives from Council of Writing Program Administrators that details what it means for the 21 Century student to be “college ready.”
The aha hits me: These habits of mind are what my readers and writers workshop instruction is all about: a “way of approaching learning that is both intellectual and practical and that will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines.” At least I try to make it so.
My students need these habits of mind. They need them so they can be successful in college and careers years after they leave my classroom. They need them if they are to be the change agents in the workplace and the world they inherit.
I am persistent. Little by little we embrace this thinking in my classroom. I keep inviting and encouraging.
“Make choices,” I say. “Choose the books you read and the topics you write about. Let’s think about issues that matter to us. Let’s experiment with risk.”
I meet with my learners to help them think through their thinking, conferring with every student as often as I can.
We explore different texts we can write and different authors we want to read. We talk about our reading experiences. We share our writing and our writing processes because everyone has a different way of practicing their craft. We discuss complex texts and practice complex thinking. We choose projects that challenge our comfort and lead to deeper learning.
Many students quickly adjust to the freedom and uncertainty of workshop. Others struggle. Like JWP.
He’ll get there — we have until June.
Do you have JWPs (Just Wanna Pass) or, on the other end of the spectrum, those students who grub for grades? How do you deal with the grades over learning conversations? Please leave a comment and join this conversation.