This will have to be quick. I need to get some other writing done.
But there was a moment this week with my AP Lit students that really clarified why I don’t put grades or points on my students’ writing.
We just finished our second full week of school. In week one, my students wrote a first timed write, in the style of the AP Lit exam question three that asks students to choose a novel they know well to respond to the prompt (as opposed to questions one and two, which ask students to do close analysis of a poem and a passage).
I responded to their work with a score I determined using the 9-point AP Lit rubric for essay responses. Not a grade, just a score, a data point. I also filled their margins with various numbers that correspond to a list of common comments teachers find themselves writing on student writing of this type. Thank you to my AP Summer Institute teacher for this awesome resource. It’s not something I could create for the other senior language arts class I teach where students choose varied genres that help them to achieve their different writing purposes. The writing in the AP Lit curriculum is mostly one type (analytical interpretive responses to literature), so a comment guide can work. And it has enabled me to leave copious feedback while spending less time.
There are a few items on my comment guide that are, well, nit picky. Really nit picky. As students were asking me questions about the comments, the numbers, the overall score… I explained to them that the conversation we were having at that exact moment was one huge reason why I will not put grades or points on their writing.
In a previous teacher life where I used points to evaluate students’ writing, I would have taken off points for the nit picky things. And in some cases, those lost points could have meant the difference between an A and a B. And there we would be, quibbling about points. Students would be annoyed. I would be annoyed. And they would leave my class thinking I was too hard of a grader, or unfair, or unrealistic. Would they be thinking about what in that piece of writing they learned they needed to work on to grow as a writer? No. They would be thinking about how unfair those lost points were.
To decrease their frustration, I used to say, “this grade is not final. Revise and resubmit and I’ll bring up your grade.” A few of them would look at the rubric and find the quickest, easiest path to the grade they wanted and do minimal revision. It wasn’t revision that actually helped them grow as writers. It was all about getting a few more points. Their motivation to revise was not to improve as writers at all.
Now in my new life as a teacher where I don’t put points or grades on individual assignments, I can still be nit picky. After all, I really want to challenge my students to write as concisely and precisely as they can. To be clear. To use words that are simple and direct but powerful. To be able to translate a complex argument into words clearly. So that’s what I’m doing. But because there are no high stakes attached to my evaluation of their work–no number that will go into the math machine of the gradebook to affect the ever-important overall Grade with a capital G–our conversation isn’t us quibbling over points. Instead, I explain why I’m suggesting they take a different approach in their writing, and they consider it, and they decide–as writers–if they think they will take my advice or not.
And the data I have now in my gradebook! I record the timed writing task as “complete,” and in the comments box I put the AP rubric score and a list of the numbered comments I put in the margins. After the ten to twelve timed writes they’ll do this semester, think of what a great body of data this will be. Students will be able to see trends in the comments they’ve received and hopefully upward movement in their rubric score. This is way better than just a number in a box in the gradebook.
They are free to take risks without grade penalty.
They are free to mess up without grade penalty.
They are free to really figure a new writing challenge, without anxiety about a grade penalty.
My students and I are talking about learning and writing instead of fighting over points. They aren’t mad. I’m not defensive. Their primary work in my class is learning rather than playing the grade game.
I had some people ask me if I was going to try to no grades thing with my AP Lit students, because they’re so grade focused, right? They need the points and the grades or they won’t do the work, right?
WE make them grade focused when we set systems up in our classrooms that keep the conversation so focused on grades. When grades aren’t a constant, high stakes presence, students can relax and just learn.
I’ve worked hard to set up systems in my classroom to make the conversation about reading and writing and taking risks and learning and working because the work matters, not because they’ll lose points if they don’t do the work. Yes, I have to get to a grade for each student by the end of the semester because grades still matter in my school, but there are meaningful ways to get there that don’t have to orbit on a strict point system that organizes every moment my students spend in my classroom. Here’s my latest iteration of how we’ll get to the semester grade:
It’s up to us to shift the conversation from grades and points to learning, and we can.
What are you doing to shift the conversation?
This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series.