If only I could articulate to my students exactly what drives my actions as a teacher. Every time I try, I feel like I’m making an awkward soap-box type speech in which we are too serious and all eyes are on me and I remain the figure of authority that I’d like to subvert a little bit, because a community of writers needs to see me as a fellow writer, not as the gatekeeper, not as the giver of grades. I really struggle with this.
And so today, inspired by the Two Writing Teachers post I linked to earlier, I tried to explain in note form to my students the dilemma I was having over giving them grades at this point, knowing their struggles with navigating new experiences and expectations. Moreover, I was completely blown away by how handicapped my students feel by the 5 paragraph essay they were taught throughout grade school, something that was made known to me through their reflection letters that were part of their Unit 1 Invention Portfolio. As one teacher friend said to me as I was trying to figure out how to respond:
This line from NCTE’s Belief’s about the Teaching of Writing made me think of you:
“Often in school… students are taught a single type of writing and are led to believe this type will suffice in all situations.”
They all can’t get past that 5-paragraph essay model because that’s all they were taught.
Which is exactly what my students have said. The 5-paragraph essay is all they know.
How do you assess writing without also boxing in a writer’s efforts? I explained that a grade is not a measure of your ability to write, that it isn’t about the quality of the writing but rather about completion: did you do the assignment? Did you do what I asked you to? But then my rubric breaks it down further: how well did you do what I asked you to? The categories are as follows: Not Applied, Needs Improvement, Applied Consistently, and Excellent. Is that a measure of quality, afterall? Am I contradicting myself here?
Unit 1 is worth 10 pts out of 100. 10% of their grade. Low-stakes, but still significant.
What happens when completing an assignment takes a student so far out of their comfort zone that it can’t be their best writing because it’s so radically different from what they’re used to? How do we take that into consideration when grading? How do I account for the fact that my students have a skill set – the 5-paragraph essay – that I don’t want to discount entirely (because that makes them feel unprepared and incapable) but rather use as a jumping off point into a more broad understanding of college-level writing (positioning them as able to succeed)?
And how can I make more apparent the difference between grading on quality versus completion? How can I convey that grades aren’t fixed entities to a class of students who have been drilled on one-and-done, high-stakes test performance for their entire education? How do I build a community of writers when, in the end, I am still giving grades?
I have so many questions.
I can justify my grades like this: If I’m baking banana bread, and it doesn’t turn out so great, I need someone (or myself) to acknowledge that it needs improvement. It doesn’t mean I’ll never make great banana bread, it just means that something didn’t go quite right this time. Being able to identify what I need to do differently next time is huge in terms of self-efficacy…if I don’t know how to improve, I won’t feel capable of trying again.
It’s also like craft. If I’m knitting a scarf and I make a mistake, I have to take it apart and go back to that dropped stitch. I have to figure out what caused me to make a mistake – are the needles uncomfortable? I used bamboo needles for a while, but the tips got so dull after a while that it was really hard for me to knit with any fluidity. Or maybe I was using cheap yarn. Or maybe I was rushing. Or maybe I’m just still learning…I haven’t been knitting very long (a few years), and I’ve never knit anything very complex. And that’s okay.
I’m not sure, though, that I would have been able to understand this as a college freshman. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to understand this even two years ago.
So back to that blog post about building community: I brought copies of the blog post to class and then we discussed together some of the connections we made with what the author had written. Most of my students wished out loud that they would have had a teacher like her, and one mentioned that having the opportunity to identify weaknesses (or areas of improvement) earlier on in his education would have really helped him along the way. Almost all of them said they felt nervous about asking for help. One student pointed out that those who determine what is taught and how have never been in a classroom as an adult, and that she wished more teachers were like the author of the post.
The author, Nicole Frederickson, had her middle school students write her a note as another form of “assessment:” “Dear Mrs. F., here’s what you need to know about me as a writer.”
I asked my students to do the same. “Dear Ms. Lonsdale, here’s what you need to know about me as a writer.” I have 24 notes from my students, and I wrote one for them:
But is that enough?
I handed back their grades. We moved into our unit on genre, and they made fun of me for trying to analyze rap (like, they took a picture and it’s probably already on Instagram). They probably love me right now because I didn’t assign any major homework (long reading or writing).
What now? How can I be more transparent about my thought process, especially in terms of assessment and support, and how can I continue to maintain that transfer of agency from an authoritative, top-down model to a more community-oriented, workshop-based practice?