A moment of clarity that helped my AP Lit students see exactly why I don’t put grades on their writing

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:

Screenshot 2017-09-02 at 3.26.11 PM
Click on the image to open up the google doc.

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. 

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, feedback, grading, not grading, teaching reading, teaching writing. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A moment of clarity that helped my AP Lit students see exactly why I don’t put grades on their writing

  1. YES YES YES!!! Thank you for giving me the confidence and the tools to move in this direction!!!

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading, Erica! And your students are so lucky to have you getting them focused on learning instead of points.

  2. Pingback: My Classes are Pointless – Mr. Dr. Science Teacher

  3. Darren Birch says:

    Any chance of sharing the comment bank you got at the Summer Institute?

  4. Pingback: Sharing the Feedback Load With Your Students #WorkshopWorksForAP | The Paper Graders

  5. Jen says:

    I’m interested in going in this direction. How do I begin to go graceless? What resources would you recommend? Would you be willing to share the list of comments and codes tight used?

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading, Jen! I’m not actually using the comments/codes this year. I’ve found the new AP Lit rubrics from the College Board are really helpful to get students thinking about their writing for the timed essays. As for how to begin, have you looked at my blog series? (http://thepapergraders.org/?page_id=1611). A few years ago, I wrote blog posts to capture the process from the beginning. My book will be out at the end of March–I hope it will be helpful, too. Happy to chat more. Good luck!

      • Jen Misek says:

        Hi Sarah. Thanks for responding so quickly. I have looked through some of your blog series, and honestly, I wish I could read your book this weekend! I’ve been on a journey for the past year to shift my teaching to a more workshop style, and as I’ve shifted, I’ve really questioned the purpose of grades. I’ve begun to research, but I’m thirsting for more about how to actually put some of the theory into practice. What were a few of the resources you initially used? I will continue to read through your blog. Thanks for documenting your experience!

        • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

          My colleagues and I worked together to figure a lot of it out. But Maja Wilson’s two books have been helpful (one about rethinking rubrics, and one about reimagining writing assessment). There’s the Teachers Going Gradeless blog (https://www.teachersgoinggradeless.com/). On Your Mark by Guskey will introduce you to the work of one of the often cited academics on grading. Asao Inuoe’s Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies (I reviewed it in my most recent blog post here http://thepapergraders.org/?p=1937) offers a helpful way to think about it all.
          Yes, I think workshop doesn’t totally work unless teachers back off on grades as usual. Students won’t feel safe to take the risks necessary to grow as writers if there are grades at stake.

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