This is the second in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom. Read the first post here.
The Limits of Community and the Future of Going Gradeless
Teaching can be a lonely profession. Even though I come into contact with 120 people every day, most of the interactions are asynchronous. The relationships I have with my students are authentic, and I do my best to build reciprocity and trust, but I’m in a different place than them. -To restrict our focus to matters of measurement is to miss an opportunity not just to reimagine education, but to reimagine our place within education. o circumscribed by centuries of hierarchical teacher/student dynamics. On the other hand, my peers and I are on equal footing. But the demands of the job keep a tight leash on what we talk about and when we talk about it. When I meet with my fellow 7th grade English teachers, for instance, we’re expected to follow the district’s meeting template. And when it comes to instruction, the three of us are expected to maintain a certain level of consistency in what we teach and how we assess it. This creates a fixed community, a group of teachers bound by shared purpose, goals, and ideally beliefs.
My coteaching community hummed along until I started changing my beliefs about grades. As soon as I started questioning the role I wanted grades to play in my classroom, I began drifting away from the group. Every question I raised about the purpose of our common assignments sent me farther away from my coworkers. The disintegrating kinship I was experiencing had little to do with conflicts of personality or a lack of professionalism. A series of systems all pointing in the same direction can’t accommodate someone being at cross purposes with the flow. I wasn’t a wrench in the system, just an outcast.
Our biweekly meetings stopped being productive. The three of us came to an unspoken agreement that our time together would be spent on filling out IB unit planners for units we would never teach. The unwieldy and overly complex unit template made it easy to spend 45 minutes working on it without actually accomplishing anything. The unit planners became a way to keep up the facade of being on the same page. By the end of the year, the assistant principal was in every meeting to help make sure we were creating common assessments and focusing on similar skills. The situation wasn’t anyone in particular’s fault; none of us wanted to compromise. I was alone, a prisoner of my dogmatic beliefs.
PLNs, Social Media, and Belonging
Fortunately, the demise of my coteacher community was offset by the discovery of an online network of like-minded educators. Frustrated at having no one to talk to, I began reaching out to the academics I’d been reading: Paul Thomas, Alfie Kohn, Maja Wilson, and Lawrence Baines. I asked all of them if they had ever found themselves on the wrong side of their respective communities. Much to my surprise, each of them responded. It was like shouting into the void and receiving an invitation to a secret club filled with the coolest and smartest people ever. Kohn’s response has stuck with me. With his permission, I’ve reprinted it below.
I can certainly sympathize; taking unpopular stands has a way of making folks, well, unpopular. Naturally it helps to find a kindred spirit if there’s one in your area. Otherwise you have to decide whether to reach out to others — perhaps by sharing books, articles, and videos — in the hope of persuading some of your colleagues to question the conventional wisdom and thereby *creating* some kindred spirits to connect with.
The alternative is to push on alone and connect with colleagues around other stuff so you don’t feel completely isolated. How best to proselytize, or to sustain friendships in spite of divergent views, depends on your personality and values, their personalities and values, and various details of the situation in which you find yourself — all matters on which I can’t advise you, of course.
Taking his advice, I decided to search for kindred spirits on Twitter and Facebook. My first discovery was the Teachers Throwing Out Grades community. I was surprised to see a lot of resources about standards-based grading, proficiency scales, and single-point rubrics. All of the talk seemed to revolve around perfecting the measuring of student learning. For me, this is the least interesting part of education. My brain recoils the second I ask it to focus on learning outcomes or to disaggregate state standards. Rather than offering me a safe space to connect with others, the TTOG community kept my attention trained on the very thing I was escaping. On top of this, a few big names seemed to dominate the discussions. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the group was little more than a chance for the big name members to push their books, consulting services, and brands. I lurked for awhile, but I knew I had to keep looking.
Around this time I attended a standards-based grading seminar led by the outstanding Rick Wormeli. I was ecstatic. These could be my people! Indeed, many of Rick’s points, such as eliminating zeroes, questioning the efficacy of homework, and allowing for retakes, fit easily into the definition of teaching and learning I was developing. I knew by the end of the seminar, however, that the SBG community wasn’t for me. Standards-based grading’s emphasis on content mastery and tracking student progress of state standards was a turn-off. So was what I felt to be an obsession with self-assessment. I value self-reflection, and I spend considerable time every year working with students to build their capacity to accurately and honestly evaluate their work. But I’m not interested in linking their self-reflections to rubrics or asking them to rate themselves. To me, this is another example of the managerialism that I’m trying to avoid. There’s nothing particularly interesting or liberatory in asking students to pick apart everything they do, and the majority of self-assessment practices I read about strike me as extensions of the teacher-led grading.
Becoming Something More
I gave up actively searching for a community that would support who I was becoming as a teacher. Anything that dealt with the removal of grades seemed to focus on other stratified systems of measurement. And websites and Facebook groups devoted to pedagogy and improving instruction always discussed traditional grades. So when my colleague Arthur Chiaravalli told me he was forming a new group with Aaron Blackwelder devoted to teachers going gradeless, I was hesitant. Once the Facebook posts and blog pieces started flowing, I started disengaging. It was just too much. Don’t misunderstand me; the quality of the posts and the nature of the questions were fantastic. I just don’t want to talk about grades. That’s why I stopped using them. I’m done with them. Nor do I care about what to use in place of grades. The whole situation can lead me to endlessly compare myself to others, too, a sort of meta-commentary about grades and competition and our culture’s relentless drive to be the best.
Students should be receiving feedback from teachers and peers. It should help students see what they’ve done well (so they can keep doing it) and what they can improve. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the extent of it. Lots of feedback given by lots of people combined with lots of chances for revision. Feedback comes in many forms, and it’s important to find a method that works, but I think something valuable is lost when a community does nothing but showcase different systems of measurement.
In my own practice, removing grades has given me the opportunity to focus on the stuff that I think matters: building relationships, creating meaningful lessons, and providing a safe space for students to stretch, fail, and grow. For me, this is the work of teaching. This is what I want to talk about and puzzle through. To that end, the gradeless community can function more as a station than a destination, a launching pad for educators to come together before heading off on their own individual paths. The topic of removing grades also feeds into many of the education issues of our time: personalized learning, ESSA, equity, and policy.
I can feel my desire to align with Teachers Going Gradeless and to place the corresponding hashtags on my social media bios. But at the same time, I’m wary of becoming entrenched in any one community. This has more to do with the idiosyncrasies of my personality than it does TG2 (or any community). The relentless drive to connect my heart with my instruction is restless. Perhaps it sees within any community the threat of calcification and the gravity of consensus. I remain confident, however, that restricting our focus to matters of measurement misses an opportunity to rebuild and reimagine who we are as educators.
Listening to teachers complain about student writing is exhausting. They can’t write; they don’t know where to use commas; they don’t capitalize every i; their spelling is atrocious. When this sort of narrative pops up in mainstream discourse, it’s often to complain about education’s failure to prepare kids for the workforce and to provide a platform for ‘back in my day, teachers made us diagram sentences/memorize parts of speech/etc.’ bloviating.
When these sentiments appear inside a school, they take on a slightly different tenor. Behind every complaint about a kid’s writing seems to be an underlying message about the failure of that child’s previous language arts teacher(s). It’s as if the teacher is throwing their hands up and proclaiming ‘Look at the mess I inherited! What am I supposed to do? How can I teach my content when these kids don’t even understand the basics!’
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, this nagging is counterproductive and can build resentment among teachers. Schools have more than enough finger-pointing as it is; engaging in ego-driven grandstanding serves no one.
To the teachers who regularly engage in this sort of carping, please stop. If you don’t like what your students are producing, then address it in the classroom. Regardless of content or grade, helping children learn to read, write, speak, and think is everyone’s responsibility. These complaints also elevate surface features (spelling, grammar, basic syntax) above all else.
The notion that mechanical perfection is the goal of writing instruction is deleterious to good teaching. It reinforces a deficit view of student writing by focusing on what a child did wrong. It trains us to approach student writing as something to be endured, some sort of gauntlet all language arts teachers must go through. It also encourages teachers and students to see writing as a series of levels to be mastered. Writing doesn’t care about scope and sequence documents or district-wide vertical alignment. It grows in fits and starts, evolving through recursive spirals of progress and regress.
Historically, evidence shows that teachers have been complaining about student writing since the first American universities. In The Rise and Fall of English, Robert Scholes examines primary documents such as university syllabi and commencement speeches to conclude that
English teachers have not found any method to ensure that graduates of their courses would use what were considered to be correct grammar and spelling. A number of conclusions can be drawn from this situation. One is that the good old days when students wrote “correctly” never existed. A second conclusion might well be that two hundred years of failure are sufficient to demonstrate that what Bronson called beggarly matters (spelling, grammar, capitalization, punctuation) are both impossible to teach and not really necessary for success in life. (p. 6)
This isn’t all to say that mechanical correctness doesn’t matter. The above notion that grammar and spelling are not “necessary for success in life” should be followed by “for certain people.” I’m reminded of an anecdote from Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. Emdin recounts a conversation with a white teacher about the role of appearance. The teacher doesn’t understand why her students of color seem so focused on fashion and style. What do these things matter? After all, she says, she comes to school every morning in casual dress. Emdin replies that the ability to be treated professionally regardless of dress is a luxury many people of color can’t necessarily afford.
So of course grammar and spelling matter. Certain errors like nonstandard verb forms and incorrect subject/verb agreement can carry serious connotations of race and class. The legacy of mechanical correctness is steeped in racism, xenophobia, and class anxiety (for more on this, check out Mechanical Correctness and Ritual in the Late Nineteenth-Century Composition Classroom by Richard Boyd and The Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Grammar Teaching by William Woods). As teachers, we have the responsibility to help students understand the intersections of power and literacy. But this doesn’t mean chastising students for every mistake they make in their writing. Nor does it mean requiring every student draft to be mechanically perfect.
My go-to authority for how to treat errors in student writing is Constance Weaver. She urges us to see errors as a necessary component of growth. The following chart, taken from her Teaching Grammar in Context, sums up what a more compassionate and purposeful approach towards errors might look like.
Along with the solid tips outlined above, remember that students should focus on superficial edits using their own writing, on a topic they care about, during the final stages of the writing process.
If nothing else, stop complaining about student writing. It’s counter-productive to our mission and makes an already exhausting job that much more draining. If you’re not enjoying yourself, neither are they.
“Can we have naptime? I think we should have naptime.”
Ever since September, I’ve been meeting with a select group of students to receive feedback on my classroom instruction. Wooed free 7-11 donuts, five students spend every Monday’s lunch period sitting in a circle and telling me what’s working and what could use some improvement. Nap comment aside, the students take the time seriously and view our weekly meetings as important.
I was first introduced to the idea of meeting with students to discuss instruction in Ira Shor’s books Empowering Education and When Students Have Power. I loved the idea, but I wasn’t entirely sold. Shor’s books deal mainly with higher education, and I had a hard time visualizing what such a meeting would look like at the middle grades. It wasn’t until I read Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood that I realized I had to create a space for teacher-student dialogue. For Emdin, these “cogenerative dialogues” are an important and powerful step towards building emancipatory classrooms.
The idea is simple. Gather a representative selection of students from your classes. This means students of all ability levels, race, etc. I explained the process and then had interested students fill out a short Google Form. Then, you ask relatively simple questions with easy-to-implement answers. For instance, what are some ways we can do in the opening/closing minutes of class? What are some things I can do more of? Then, depending on everyone’s comfort level and the nature of the class, the questions ramp up. Instruction, discipline, text selection, etc. All topics are fair game. Students then rotate out of the group every six weeks or so. The idea is that students come to see themselves as co-creators of the educational space.
The first few weeks were spotty: kids didn’t show up consistently, I struggled with schedules, and discussions were more dead air than authentic exchange. But after a couple of months, we settled into a groove that’s persisted into the new year.
The C.A.B., or class advisory board (even after saying it for a month, ‘cogenerative dialogue’ felt forced and weird coming out of my mouth. Instead, I embraced my inner bureaucrat and created a sterile acronym-friendly moniker that fits me), hasn’t yet reached Emdin and Shor’s descriptions. The meetings remain fairly teacher-centered. As soon as the kids come in I pepper them with questions. We make sure everyone speaks, and I move the conversation along at a rapid pace, but my questions and presence drive the meetings.
The Limits of Student Feedback
For the last two weeks, I walked the lunch group through the previous week’s lessons. I created lesson summaries and asked them to tell me what worked and what didn’t work. In my mind, the students would be eager to “thin-slice” each lesson, offering me suggestions for better transitions, more engaging mentor texts, etc. Instead, they tended to remember single activities more than a lesson’s nuts and bolts. “This was fun because we got to move around,” or “This was boring because we’d already done it.”
In order to get around that, I ask every class for feedback on the day’s lesson twice a week. This usually takes the form of answering “What worked about today’s lesson? What would you improve?” on a sticky note and plastering it to the wall as they leave.
This week we talked about how to handle our end-of-quarter portfolios. Students responded with,
“You should give us quizzes so you know what we know.”
“Yea! And quizzes tell us what we know, too”
“If you let us pick our grades everyone will give themselves an A.”
Their answers, while certainly authentic to their experiences, reminded me of a quote from Paul Thomas. “Students remain uncritical of their behavior as students as opposed to learners or humans.” I don’t have discussions with my seventh graders about why I stopped use tests, grades, or quizzes for this reason. (It’s also one of the few aspects of my class that is not open to debate or wiggle room.)
Class Advisory Board has become an important part of my pedagogy. As administrators from central office continue their walkthroughs of the schools in my district, the authentic feedback I’m receiving from students who spend every day with me makes for an interesting contrast to the faceless forms following a 2-3 minute classroom visit. Students aren’t yet co-planning parts of a lesson a la Emdin, but it’s a start
Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.
Our second demonstration lesson of the day comes from Matt Hendricks. He’s going to talk to us about the art of conferring with student writers. He begins by reminding us that conferring is incredibly complex, and that he isn’t coming to us with all the answers.
Quickwrite: Describe your first memorable experience a face to face writing conference.
Hmm. I can’t seem to think of anything off the top of my head. What does that mean? I do have a bizarrely deficient memory. The frustrating thing is that I’m sure I’ve had them; I just don’t remember them. For the sake of this quickwrite I’m tempted to make one up, but that doesn’t seem right. Everyone else around the room is fiercely scribbling, so I’m glad others are able to conjure something up! I was fortunate enough to live in an area with a lot of resources, so I’m positive my teachers spoke with me about my writing. I was never really a good student until college. The only piece of teacher feedback I can remember is when my senior year English teacher handed me back a paper and simply said “Think less.”
We share. Someone says their first conference was during college with Lad Tobin. I love Lad Tobin’s writing! Amazing. She remembers how he spoke of nothing but the content, choosing topics and themes instead of punctuation. Another person talks about the bonds created through her college conferring. As the room shares out I notice that most people mention college as the time of their first conference. These are not the answers I was expecting. It’s clear that there is a lot of energy in the room around conferring, around the relationships and the power dynamics and the trust involved in them. What an intriguing start!
Conferences are powerful.
Matt talks to us about the institutional pressures that work against conferring. How instituting a systematic program of conferring with students is likely to come against a lot of push-back. Conferences are a great way to provide students with a safe space to grow and exercise power.
What do we mean by conferences?
This slide has a lot of valuable details on it. While there are different ways to do confer, the most important aspect is just being present for the student and the student’s writing. He reminds us that students are often way more nervous about conferring than we are.
Carl Anderson is often considered a modern expert of the conference. He recommends conferring at every stage of the writing process.
1. Rehearsal: What’s the topic? This is a great way to make sure that students don’t feel sucker punched at the end of a writing assignment. Conferring in the beginning of the process can help the student select a topic that’s going to work.
2. Drafting: Developing the idea, checking out different genres and structures
3. Revision: Rethinking how ideas are being developed and presented, helping the student figure out what’s rhetorically important
4. Editing: Here’s the place, and pretty much the only place, to get at any glaring mechanical errors.
You teach the student, not the writing. The listening space is a learning space, O.F.L. says.
So, how do we do these? What do we say? What do they say? How do we track the conferences? We have so many questions! Carl Anderson provides a simple template to get us started:
1. Listen to the writer! Vicki Spandel says “Writers learn to be listeners first by having someone to listen to them.”
2. Invite them in with a question: How’s it going? What are you doing today as a writer? What do you need help with today?
3. Question: Avoid questions that only deal with content (teaching the paper) and instead focus on questions about the creation of the piece. For instance, why have you chosen this topic? Could you explain what you mean by…? What do you think you want to communicate with this piece?
4. Give specific, useful feedback: Describe what you see and then describe ways and means for students to improve the piece.
5. Teach a strategy or concept: Give an explanation, connect to a writing mentor, remind student of past lessons
6. Leave the student to write.
We watch Penny Kittle conduct three writing conferences with students. If you confer with students I recommend watching this clip. Penny annotates what she’s doing in conference along the bottom of the clip.
We close out our afternoon ready to try out our new conferring techniques in our writing groups. Fantastic!
A few weeks ago I posted a graphic organizer I created based upon Peter Elbow’s book Writing Without Teachers. While it wasn’t too bad, it still needed a lot of polishing. This is because helping students take part in writing groups is, in my limited experience at least, one of the most difficult tasks an English teacher can do. I also think it’s one of the most important. Composition truly comes alive when students are allowed to read, share, and respond to each other’s writing.
To that end I wanted to share the second version of my writing group graphic organizer.
Here’s a quick rundown of the changes to the second draft:
-streamlined the placement of visuals and text to maximize space on the page
-replaced the clothing analogy with a lump of clay analogy
-added textbox at the bottom of each section asking students to give their natural reader response to the text
-added a reflection component to the back
-sequenced order of response tasks from most concrete/”simple” to most abstract/”difficult”
The organizer asks students to respond to writing in four specific ways.
- Pointing: point to words/phrases that penetrated the skull
- Summarizing: write down a few key words, stream of consciousness it, then end with a single sentence explaining what you feel to be the piece’s center of gravity/main idea
- Showing: compare the writing to something non-linguistic, the more ‘out there’ the better. This type of metaphorical/analogous thinking is a wonderful way to help students think critically and outside the box.
- Telling: explain how the words affected you. What were you thinking and feeling during each part of it?
I recommend doing this as a whole class before having students go off on their own in writing groups. For instance, photocopy a student’s piece for everyone in the class. Then, after everyone reads it and hears it read to them, go around the room and hear everyone’s skull penetrations. Repeat the process with each of the four response types. Students need to hear each other’s thinking.
I love this method because it circumvents students’ tendency to rely on the “I didn’t like X so you should do Y” response patterns learned through schooling. Elbow’s method isn’t about enforcing someone’s vision on someone else. Instead, it helps students understand and articulate their own honest reactions to words. Writing is all about communicating, and this method lets students close the gap between intention and actuality. Link to the document below.
*Thanks to Jonathan Lovell for helping me think through revisions to this organizer!
The writing approach described in Writing Without Teachers eschews skill based instruction. In its place, Elbow details a system that harnesses the power of students-as-readers. One of my favorite sections of the book is about the use of writing groups to “cook” writing. WWT requires students to respond to writing, not evaluate or judge or critique. It’s all about learning how our words affect others, and then shifting our writing accordingly.
Elbow explains how students’ responses to writing should fit into four categories: pointing (how you felt during specific parts), summarizing (what’s it all about?), telling (how you reacted during the entirety of the piece), and showing (using metaphors). Both author and listener have prescribed roles.
I created the following graphic organizer to help my students learn a few key points of the process.
While the author reads their piece aloud (2x), the listeners make note of:
-any words or phrases that ‘penetrate their skull’
-what they believe to be the center of gravity (the main idea)
-what type of clothing the piece resembles
Then, they report this information back to the silent author who copies it down on the reverse side. The goal here is to get them responding from a place of affect, creativity, and connection. This is just the first step on our journey towards revelatory writing groups. The organizer certainly isn’t perfect; I identified changes within the first few minutes of observing students.
I’m excited to watch and learn and read and write. I know I’ve only begun to unlock the ideas contained inside this book!