Sorry for the semiotic profanity, but the more research I read, the more conversations I have with students, the more reflecting I do about my practice, $%^@* is what comes to mind. The inherent contradictions between meaningful learning and the system in which it takes place become most apparent about a week before grades are due, which for many of us is right about now–the end of a quarter. And the accompanying frustration and anxiety seem especially pronounced in writing courses, where our emphasis is on process over product.
I teach Advanced Writing, one of several English courses for seniors. The whole of third quarter has been devoted to an author or genre study: students must read 3 full-length texts and a number of critical articles by and about their author/genre, and express their findings through a variety of genre, ie a multigenre paper. Students made their own schedules, although I assigned drafts throughout the process to be workshopped and revised prior to the due date, which is today.
Many students held firm to their own and my deadlines all along, becoming heavily invested in their work — and the work of their classmates. Claire, a self-professed “math & science person,” immersed herself in the work and the philosophy of Camus. RJ, a devoted journal-keeper, examined the work and the critical reception of confessional poetry. Grace, a reader of all things spooky, explored the connection between horror writers and themes of lost innocence and coming-of-age. (I could go on, but I want to save their work for another post). These students and many others made careful, purposeful decisions about how to express their discoveries in a variety of genre, even — gasp! — taking that bold writerly step of abandoning a draft that wasn’t working and trying something new. Workshop and multigenre at its finest, right?
Sort of. Last week, drafts started to trickle in from students who had arrived late to the process party. I gave feedback as effectively as I could and kept my teacherly admonishments about deadlines under control. By Saturday morning, I had returned at least one draft to every student who had submitted work, and so I carried on with my weekend. Sunday afternoon, my inbox was full again with drafts of genre pieces. I still don’t know why I was so surprised, given that the quarter-long project was due in less than 24 hours. As I skimmed the list of submitted drafts, I faltered between pride in the work that finally came in and frustration over how late it was.
This course is about nothing if it’s not about writing as a process. For three quarters, our work has been based on no other principle more than this one. Students who handed in drafts so late clearly did not engage in the work at this fundamental level. Surely I couldn’t award them the same grade as those who had. Right?! Right. So I started drafting a not-so-nice email to those stragglers pointing out that they all have known the due date for quite some time and surely they must have had no intention to revise in the first place so why did they even bother handing in a draft and was it just to get a number in a gradebook but of course I will not award the same credit so you will receive that fat ZERO because you’re seniors and by gosh I’m going to use that fat zero to show you how the world works because it’s time you start …
OK, no, I didn’t go that far, but that’s where it felt I was headed, and it felt wrong. How could I disregard their work yet still claim to value the process? How could I do the talk (and walk) against grades as an artificial, arbitrary, inaccurate measure of ability and achievement and then use them as a punishment? The only lesson they are likely to learn is that yet another adult they wanted to trust is revealed as a hypocrite.
In the end, I made my best attempt at a compromise, the details of which I’m sure resemble what anyone reading this blog would have done. But in that initial moment of composing that email — and that it was my first instinct — reminded me how ingrained the system can be even in those of us who do all we can in our practice to skirt around its limitations. I’m sorry this post doesn’t provide any grand answers to this pervasive conflict between meaningful learning and hierarchical measurements of such, but gosh I feel so much better for having shared with an audience that can commiserate. I hope you do, too.
Yup. Yup. Yup. This is why I’m going without grades until the end of each quarter in our 7th grade ELA class, when students and I sit down and have a chat. We look at the evidence and decide on the grade together. Revisions still come in at the end of the quarter, but MORE come in DURING the quarter than ever before. Thanks for sharing your angst. I still have this with the ONE grade, but it’s not half as bad as it used to be.
I now give my students a process mark which is based on their ability to attend to the work of being an English student in addition to their product mark. It’s based on a conference with me and my observations of their work. Both of those marks only go into the computing system at the end of the quarter. It’s the only way I’ve been able to make peace with those pesky number grades.
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I have faced similar problems this year — especially because I have gone “gradeless” on individual assignments. Ultimately, one of my goals for forgoing grades (except for quarter grades, which are mandated by my district) is to value the individual processes inherent in writing. That being said, it’s frustrating to get late or lazy work from students who wait until the last minute. My goal for next year is to do more “evaluation conferences” alongside students as well as raising the bar for what I expect in portfolios; it should not be possible to cram multiple weeks of writing into one weekend! That means the volume needs to go up for next year.
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I feel this ALL THE TIME! We always have to balance the requirements of the district and what’s the best feedback for students. Those two things aren’t often in accordance with each other. We do our best.
Some thinking out loud here – would it make sense for kids to have a performance feedback meeting with you, kind of like the way you are on the job? One year towards the end of the year I told the students I was going to hand an index card of comments to their eighth grade English teacher, but before I handed over the card, I wanted them to see the card and I wanted to talk about what should be on it. I had some powerful conferences with students that way, especially when they looked at comments like “Needs reminders to meet deadlines”or “Encourage him to speak up in class” with that “Yeah, that’s me” reaction.
Would something like that work for you? Some way of reminding your students that you are watching and observing?
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A great reminder for all of us. I tend to get bogged down by the grading expectations (monster, more like it) but we all know that students developing as readers and writers is our main goal. Seems a bit unfair to have to put a number or letter on that. I also get frustrated by the fine line we walk between doing what we know is right and what we need to do to say employed. Perhaps a blog post for another day…
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