Creating space for failure

In the twitterverse I feel like I often hear that the path to growth is through failure. While I always liked the sentiment because it fit with how I tend to learn things in the “real world,” it never quite squared with my experience in the classroom. There really isn’t that much room to fail–a bad grade on a summative assessment wrecks a grade. Especially with the recent trend to not grade formative work. 

This post is just an attempt to reflect on how the ideas of Sarah Zerwin and Maja Wilson, whose books I got to read with a cohort of my department members, helped create space for failure, specifically in our writing work. 

Point-Less: shifting self-reflection into the summative role 

When I read Point-Less by Sarah Zerwin I started to see that shifting what the summative assessment was could open up the room needed to experiment, take risks, and sometimes fail. (Side note: Sarah Krajewski reviewed here in June 2020, and revisited her attempts at implementing Zerwin’s ideas here this spring; I highly recommend checking out her posts for more context.)

Zerwin utilizes grading category weights to emphasize an end of semester self-reflection letter where students make the case for their grade. I haven’t made that full of a shift yet, but I decided to try that within a writing cycle. In the past I would collect three pieces, score and average them. This year I gave feedback on all three, focusing on our 4 writing goals (specificity, complexity, structure, style), but no grade. Then students had a chance to find the best examples of their work toward each goal in a reflection document (or evidence collection). 

This allowed them to share their best work and to do some self-evaluation about where their writing is in relationship to the goal (or standard–Hattie kind of calls this “self-reported grading”).

An evidence collection de-emphasizes the one writing piece that they bombed or the prompt they just couldn’t get into. In my old systems the C or D would harm their average and chance to earn an A. Now, they can reflect on what went poorly and demonstrate their understanding and growth into the next task.

This basically boils down to a shift in what evidence I’m looking for–from mastery of the specific standard (which is often kind of deficit-based) to showing how you are growing in relation to the goal (more asset-based). 

Now, the pressure to make each piece perfect is replaced by noble attempts to experiment with structure or evidence types, whatever the focus might be for the writing challenge. I think they know that they have room to try something and that taking a risk won’t harm their grade. I hope that it’s one more point for the good guys in the lifelong battle against boring writing. 

This is my feeble attempt to show how reflections can add layer of space that encourages risk-taking.

Reimagining Writing Assessment: shifting growth into the grade book 

The other challenge I always faced in finding ways to fail is that a letter grade like a C or D, which might accurately reflect your writing skill, does not always allow for or reflect your growth as a writer. 

In Maja Wilson’s book, Reimagining Writing Assessment, she explores the value of moving beyond standards and mastery to focus on the writing choices that students make. This is hard when you’ve lived with scales and rubrics and the need to accurately sort student essays (norming and scoring). And while that may have value in some settings, if the goal is to help our students grow as writers she makes a good case that a non-standardized approach is needed. 

I tried this in our first writing cycle. Instead of giving students a letter grade (or an AP number, or a Standards-Based descriptor like Sophisticated), I noted in the gradebook that it was complete. Then I added feedback about their work (strengths and goals that surface from the choices they made). 

What this did more than anything was help the students see that I cared about their thinking and their voices. It gave us freedom to talk about their writing outside of the context of a grade.

In the reflection doc, I’m not looking for mastery of each goal. I’m looking for good evidence of growth toward each goal. So an A no longer means that each writer has reached a certain level. An A means that each writer who earns one has demonstrated good evidence of their work toward each goal. There is room for us to discuss the quality of the evidence, but that occurs in my feedback throughout the writing challenges as well.

Takeaways

  • It’s possible to allow the kind of failure that encourages risk-taking and experimentation if I shift the focus of my summative assessments from performance to reflection.
  • It’s possible to create space for opportunities to fail if I shift from using on grades as a way to sort achievement level and move to seeing grades as a way to reflect individual growth.
  • Students are willing to focus on learning instead of gathering points if I reorganize the incentives (grades, points, rules, focus). 
  • When I find ways to take a more asset-based approach (v. deducting points or labeling them with an achievement level) to my students’ writing, it builds their confidence and willingness to grow.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s embarking upon teaching his second teenager how to drive, so thoughts and prayers.

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