Step Eight: Build your classroom community of writers to #StopGrading

I am one teacher in a room of thirty (or more) writers. They need copious amounts of feedback to grow, more than it is humanly possible for me to provide for them.

But yet, we teachers of writing often feel like we must read and respond to everything our students write, else it feels like it doesn’t matter, else we think the students won’t take it seriously, else it just doesn’t seem real in the context of a classroom.

We’ve got to stop doing this.

My student writers need feedback, but it doesn’t have to come only from me. My students can in fact share the feedback load to the huge benefit of everyone in the room.

Including me. The more feedback they give to each other, the less time I need to spend reading and responding to student work.

When I say “stop grading,” I’m referring to “grading” in two senses:

  1. “Grading” is the work we do when we use rubrics, points, and letter grades to assess and evaluate our readers and writers, which directs their focus on rubrics, points, and grades rather than learning. I’m working to focus on feedback instead to address this.
  2. “Grading” is also the work we do when we collect piles and piles of student work and spend hours of our time outside of school dealing with it. In my world, making space for grading means I have to cut into my time for being with my family, for keeping myself healthy, or for sleeping. Usually I trade sleep for getting the grading done, and this is not sustainable. I’m working to train my students to help me with this work.

This past week started my concerted efforts to build my community of writers so that they can become important feedback-givers to each other in my classroom.

Monday (50 minutes):

  1. We sat on the floor in a circle and sent a bucket around the room. In the bucket were strips of paper with questions on them–questions like “what are you most proud of?” or “what do hope to contribute to humanity?” or “what kind of foods do you eat and why?” Each student had to choose a question from the bucket and answer it. I asked students to study each other’s answers carefully and to look for people that they thought they could connect with. Yes, this is the fourth year most of my students have been in the same school together, but this does not mean that they know each other. We have 2200 students. I cannot assume they know each other’s names, or that they’ve ever seen each other before, or that they know anything about each other. Some do, but many do not. My students sat in this circle with the name tents in front of them that they had made on the first day of school so that they could focus on each other’s names as they listened to each other’s responses.
  2. Students went back to their desks and got their writer’s notebooks. I handed out to them a half-sheet of paper that listed the 11th/12th grade Common Core State Standards for reading, writing, listening/speaking, research, and language. I asked them to each tape the document onto a new page in their notebooks and then to select seven standards total–2 writing, 2 reading, one each of the remaining three categories–circle them, and then paraphrase them in their own words in their writer’s notebook and write a brief statement about each to explain why they chose them. (I will write much more about this later in a post about having students monitor their own learning.) After a few minutes of silent work on this and passing the tape dispensers around the room to make sure everyone had the standards firmly attached to their notebooks, I asked them to get up and walk around the room to see if they could find other students working on the same standards as they had chosen.
  3. Based on the circle with questions and the conversation looking for students working on similar standards, I asked students to form response groups of three to four people. I advised them to choose wisely–choose people that they think will help them grow as writers because they would be giving them lots of feedback on their writing. I asked students to fill out a Google Form by Tuesday evening to inform me of their chosen groups or to let me know that they needed help getting themselves in a group.

Tuesday (50 minutes):

  1. We had a Socratic Seminar on the first quarter of Into the Wild. We didn’t talk specifically about response groups (other than reminding them to fill out the Google Form by that evening), but students had their name tents out and they listened and talked to each other–yet another opportunity for community building.
  2. Tuesday evening I looked at the groups they had sent in to me via the Google Form and worked to tetris each class into eight separate response groups, working to honor their choices and hoping I was not making any grave mistakes with the few students who had not filled out the form.

Wednesday/Thursday block (85 minutes):

  1. When class started, I put up on the screen their response groups and asked them to move to sit together in a pod of desks of their choosing.
  2. I gave them their first response group task: talk to each other until you discover three things all people in your group have in common and one thing unique to each person in your group. I told them that they had to talk to find things in common that were not apparent by looking at them, like “we all have eyes.”
  3. After about five minutes, each group reported out their findings. And it was wonderful. We discovered for example that one group of young men had in common pet fish. And that another group all had a particular fondness of sandwiches of all types. In all three classes of my seniors, the few minutes we spent listening to each group’s discoveries in this brief conversation task led to laughter and smiles and general bonding for the class and the groups. This is time well spent in my book.
  4. I let the groups know that their next group bonding task for next week would be to determine a spirit animal for their group and use that spirit animal as the basis of a small flag for their group that would hang above their pod in the classroom. They talked excitedly about that for a few moments and then I asked them to get out their writer’s notebooks so we could transition to the day’s writing focus lesson.
  5. There was a reason why this was the week we focused on community building. Last week my students wrote their first weekly drafts–something that they’ll do every week before Thanksgiving, except for the three weeks where they choose one of those drafts and revise it very thoroughly. This week’s plans included teaching them that revision process, which anchors on effective peer feedback to drive their revisions. So at this point in the class period, I took about 10 minutes to roll through a writing focus lesson to give them some ideas about where they could go with revising their drafts from last week. After the focus lesson, I asked them to turn to the people in their response groups and tell them what ideas they have for revising based on the writing focus lesson. This was important–it was the first conversation (out of many) they would have with their response groups about their writing.
  6. Next up: nuts and bolts about the thorough revision task. Rather than reading over the instructions for them and explaining it all–something I’ve been trying to do less of–I asked them to read the instructions silently to themselves and then talk to their groups to explain the task to each other and identify any parts of the task they had questions or concerns about. I’m doing less of reviewing the instructions when my students can read them on their own because I think I end up doing too much of their work for them. If I review instructions, they seldomly go back and read them on their own when they are actually doing the work. Having students explain the task to each other and then report out to me what questions they had worked pretty well. I could tell from their questions that they really did read the instructions and were trying to put together all the details of the task.
  7. Knowing something about the thorough revision task, students were now aware of the role that peer feedback would play in the work. Getting feedback on a piece of writing from peers is one of the first steps of the revision task. I started the conversation about this by asking them how peer feedback had gone for them in the past–show us with your fingers on this scale 0 (disaster) to 5 (awesome) about how peer feedback has gone for you in the past. I asked the groups to look at how many fingers each person in their groups had showing so they could know about their new group’s history with peer feedback. Each class showed a small handful of students who reported that peer feedback has been a disaster in the past, pretty much no one saying it had been awesome, and most students reported two or three fingers to indicate that their experiences with peer feedback had been okay but not fantastic. Taking a few moments for this brief conversation is important to show students who are worried about how helpful peer feedback might be for them that I know it’s possible that it has never been a positive thing for them. I was able to assure them that we would take the time to work on making it useful. I told them that there was no way that I alone could give all 30 of them the amount of feedback that they need to grow as writers. We all had to work on it together.
  8. Next I told the class that they actually know quite a bit about what helpful feedback looks like. I asked the groups to talk to each other about what helpful feedback on their writing looks like and what feedback that is not helpful looks like. From here we built a list of peer feedback norms. The bullets in the first half of the doc are the ideas my three classes shared out about helpful/not helpful feedback on writing, and it’s obvious that they get it. They know that a simple “good” is not helpful. They know that being mean is not helpful. They know that you need to take it seriously to be a good feedback giver and actually read the piece of writing and think carefully about how you can help the writer. Below their list of norms are a couple of tables, one that sketches out a framework for responding that can help students get started with what to say if they’re not sure how to start. The second outlines the reader’s and writer’s responsibilities in the feedback process. I reviewed these two tables and then set the students loose to accomplish two things: pull up the draft you’ll share with your group for their feedback and review your writer’s memo to make sure it has everything it needs in it to set up your readers for the feedback you need. Then share the draft in Google Docs with each person in your group.
  9. The last item of the class was a few moments to make some plans. I asked the groups to turn to each other and decide how they would use their time in class on Friday and when they agreed with each other to complete feedback on each other’s pieces of writing. They turned to each other and started talking it out–should we do feedback before Friday so that we can use Friday in class to revise? Should we use Friday in class to read and give each other feedback? When do you all want to start working on revisions–we should have all of our feedback completed by then, right? It would have been very easy for me to lay down deadlines about this. I could have said, “you will use your time in class on Friday to read and respond to each other’s writing and you should complete that task by the end of Friday if you can. This way everyone has the weekend if they want to work on revising.” But I didn’t say this because I wanted the groups to begin to feel ownership for this process and responsibility to each other. I provide the time in class for them to work and some big deadlines to anchor that work (these revisions are due to me for my feedback by next Wednesday), but stepping back to let the groups decide how to use their time to help each other hit the big deadline is a powerful gesture. It shows them that these mini writing communities in their response groups are theirs, that they matter, that I trust them to manage them and work with each other, that they should be responsible to each other, that they can indeed become each other’s primary feedback givers.

Friday (50 minutes):

  1. We started with 10 minutes of silent reading and reading conferences. This was really important because for me to accomplish my ambitious plan for block day, I had to set the silent reading time aside. We needed to get back in the routine of starting with silent reading. I was able to conference briefly with 2 to 3 students in each class. After two full weeks of school I’ve almost conferred about writing or reading with every one of my students.
  2. Next was a brief tour around Google Classroom to point out a few useful features. I threw them into Google Classroom without any instruction, and now that they’ve used it for two weeks, I thought it might be a good time for them to share a few tricks they’ve learned for using it efficiently. We spent maybe three minutes on this.
  3. Before we headed to the writing lab so they would have computers to access their writing in Google Docs, I asked them to turn to their groups and remind each other of the plans they made on block day for using their time in the computer lab today and for when they agreed they would have feedback completed for each other on their pieces of writing.
  4. The writing lab time was focused and humming with purpose. Every screen had pieces of writing up and I watched the margins fill with comment boxes containing lots of words of feedback. I did, though, visit each student to ask to see the target standards we started work on earlier in the week on Monday. Today was the day I wanted to see that they had completed that work–selecting their standards, paraphrasing them into their own words, and articulating why they chose them. I took photos of several examples for use in a future blog post about this. It took me most of the writing lab time to get around to each student to look into their writer’s notebook for this work and to have a brief conversation, so I did not do any writing conferences. But as my student teacher pointed out in my third class today, the peer feedback was satisfying their feedback needs for today.

And that’s really the point about all of this. As the sole feedback giver in the classroom, the teacher cannot provide enough feedback to 30 (or more!) students so that they will grow as much as possible as writers. We should provide written feedback in a very targeted manner–and only on the pieces that students will continue to revise so they actually read and consider our feedback. That’s how the thorough revision task works in my classroom. They revise, I read and give feedback and invite them to keep revising. We may go back and forth at this several times until it seems a student has learned what he can from a particular piece of writing. If I limited my students to only as many of these tasks as I feel like I comfortably respond to in a semester (that’s three thoroughly revised pieces in my world for each of my students), they would not write nearly enough. So they write more than that and I enlist their help in providing feedback to each other.

My next steps? I will look closely at the kind of feedback they’re giving to each other this first time around to see what they need to work on to get better at it. All of their comments to each other will be there in the margins when I read and respond to the revisions they’ll give me later this week. I’ll pull out examples of really helpful comments and we’ll talk about them and why they were helpful. Also, with the wonders of google docs, I can reply to their comments right there in the margins with brief feedback on how they’re doing and they’ll get email notifications that I’ve done so. I’ll just need to remind them to monitor their email. I will also continue to build community, both within response groups and among the entire class. More conversation activities. More team tasks. More team goal-setting and plan-making. I’ll make a big deal out of their team flags and get them hung from the ceiling immediately. It’s a silly little thing, but these kinds of silly little things are memorable and make a difference. They are another opportunity to put student personalities at the center of my classroom.

Don’t create more work for yourself than you can manage and also remain a healthy, happy human being. We ELA teachers are good at creating a lot of work for ourselves under the assumption that we must respond to or grade everything else our students won’t take the work seriously. Students will take seriously the work that matters to them, and it if comes in the context of a vibrant community of writers who write and respond to each other’s writing with genuine care and interest, the work will matter to them. Time spent carefully cultivating that community is time well spent.

It’s true that students do need to write a lot and feedback is what they need, and lots of it. But that feedback need not come solely from the teacher. Making the move toward feedback instead of rubrics and points as a primary response to student writing may require more time of you per each piece of student writing. To make it manageable, you simply cannot read and respond to everything your students write. Rubrics can be efficient. Points seem objective and straightforward. But neither of these move writers as effectively as genuine feedback that comes as a result of a conversation between reader and writer over a piece of writing. Train your students to do this as a part of your classroom community, and even though you might end up reading and responding to only some of your students’ writing, they’ll get a healthy and helpful amount of feedback.

Enlist your students’ help as feedback givers and teach them how to do it really well. Your entire classroom community of writers will grow and you can be less buried in “grading.” No classroom benefits from a teacher who is trading sleep for grading time. Stop doing it. Stop creating mountains of papers to get through and stop turning to efficiencies like rubrics and points that deflect your students’ gaze from learning about themselves as writers. Focus on feedback and make it a cornerstone of your students’ work with each other in your classroom.


This is the ninth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, balancing, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, feedback, grading, not grading, teaching writing, time, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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