Saturday, October 20, 2012

The War on Writing Without Red Pens: Winning?

"The conditions of conquest are always easy. We have but to toil awhile, endure awhile, believe always, and never turn back." - Marcus Annaeus Seneca

I've been struggling with the logistics and assessment of student writing for my entire academic career and I'm not using hyperbole (again). I've written about peer editing and I know that works to help improve students' writing, but when it comes to the teacher putting a grade on the paper, I have issues.  I have never been satisfied with any rubric, checklist, or method.  Red penning the essay until it bleeds doesn't improve the writing on the next assignment because it is the teacher telling the student what is wrong, it isn't the student taking responsibility for crafting what is written on the page.  Red penning is a one-sided battle: the teacher has conquered and the student is caught in friendly fire.

I know, students could write draft after draft, revise until hands fall off, but where is the time for that? Unless I am teaching a writing class to 5 students, I will not be able to effectively balance all the curricular demands at the high school level with 150 students under my charge and get them to where they need to be as writers. And on a philosophical point, I have issues with putting grades on students' writing. I can use rubrics, but it feels so forced and formulaic (uh yeah, like those 5 paragraph essays...). I hear the science folks chiming in, "But formulas work!"  Yeah, they do: formulas are good for getting started and modeling. I'm no Heidi Klum, but I've modeled some formulas on my RUNWAY- A. But, I want to get off the runway!  I want writing to take flight! (How many metaphors & allusions did I just mix? OH NO! Don't take off points!)

Speaking of points, teachers and students all know what happens when the grade is plastered to the top of the page: the students stop writing; the paper is thrown in a folder rarely to be looked at again. I could use portfolios and have students present their best work at the end of the marking period.  But you want to know why/how most of those pieces got picked for the portfolio, I bet you can't guess....  oh, that is right....  the ones that got the highest grade from the teacher and needed the least amount of tweaking. Who is being responsible for the writing? And how to grade those portfolios?  I could instead assess them on their presentation of the portfolio as a way to test public speaking, but the writing wouldn't be the focus.

Having students revise, revise, revise is a wonderful ideal, I can't get passed this question: If students didn't KNOW how to write well the first time, how are they going to KNOW how to make it better? We know red penning doesn't work.  Students need to do more than revise, aka fix, the grammar errors. I want them to get into the meat of the ideas of the writing, and cook up a good meal, but that takes TIME and DESIRE to develop and craft, and in this current educational and societal climate, there are too many "more important" things to tackle. Writing for the sake of good writing just isn't happening unless one is a writer.

I sound worse than Grendel on one of his existential nihilism rants in this blog post, and my intention is not to whine and lament the death of intrinsically motivated writing. So let me get to my latest idea (oh here we go again...).

For the first marking period my one section of seniors focused on the concepts of heroism, bravery, and honor. After reading "Beowulf" and Grendel and learning the Hero's Journey pattern, I asked my not very academic senior students to write a personal essay on their own hero's journey.

Essentially, I asked them, "What do you want to be when you grown up and how have your past challenges prepared you for the future challenges you will face to attain your goal? How can you become a "hero" in your own life?" They had two weeks to write it, and I made it clear that they SHOULD be writing a little everyday, but most waited until 3 days before the due date to start it. Most confessed that they had a hard time writing about this topic and didn't know how to start, but I rebutted, "If YOU can't write about YOURSELF, who will?  Shouldn't this be the easiest topic to write about since no one knows you as well as you? Graduation is just 9 months away, shouldn't you have an idea of where you will go after graduation?" They like the idea of graduation, but not the reality and uncertain-ness to follow.

I collected the personal hero journey essays on Friday, and I had a feeling this would happen: the essays are horrible. Poorly written. Bland. Generic. Boring. Lots of telling, no showing. Ugh. Now, I could use that 100 point rubric stuffed somewhere in my files and I could red pen them to death and put equally horrible grades on the paper, but what purpose will that serve? The students will just get more negative reinforcement that they can't write well. I have a feeling that they couldn't write about themselves as heroes because most of them do not see themselves as heroes. And while they won't slay a dragon to save their kingdom, they can be heroric in their own right and slay metaphorical dragons in real life.

But in each essay, I did see something: a small glimmer, a hidden seed that could, with some nurturing, flower. So instead, I thought that instead of writing a letter or percentage grade on the paper, what if I pointed out some suggestions and highlighted the best part of the essay (the glimmer, seed) and wrote one motivational word or phrase (EMERGE, CAN DO, SYNC) on the top as a grade? The motivational word can't be transferred into the grade book, and I don't want it to. The grade on a piece of writing does more than harm than good. If writing is a process, shouldn't the revision and evaluation of the writing also be a process? Putting a magical motivational word on top isn't going to suddenly cause a writing epiphany for the students, but if the word could encourage them towards action, and if the word could trigger a positive response, then it could be one part of the overall process.

I don't want to give these students what they've always gotten. We'll see what the student reactions will be... they may or may not like it. Things are going to change and I want to show them that even though our time is running out, they still have the ability to grow in the time we have left. "Good enough" is not good enough anymore, and really, what will grades really matter after graduation? (And what do grades matter before graduation???)   I want them to learn some intrinsic motivation because no one will be there to push them in the real world. Writing doesn't have to hurt! Writing is not a battle!

Next marking period, we are reading Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and, while this group of seniors will most likely not become professional literary scholars, the concept of story-telling is relevant. What makes a good story? How are good stories told? What is their good story? The seniors will be revising those personal hero journeys into a personal story. Take that seed and nurture it.

“There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can't move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” ― Robert Frost

***** ********  *******   ********

Update: 10/25/12

This video has been floating around on Twitter this week and Seth Godin articulates eloquently much of what I base my own teaching philosophy on:  connecting the dots, not collecting the dots. Enjoy!


  1. Kate, this is a great reflection and it speaks to me even though I teach math. It makes me think of how I try to get my kids blogging about math, because I love to read their writing, but I hate marking it. Last year I had 3 kids out of 25 who really took to blogging, who blogged because they really loved it, and since there was no mark at all, I knew their motivations were true. I guess you and I are always focused on the ones we didn't get, though, but I like your idea of the glimmer. I hope it works at least on someone, 1 is better than 0! (I'm a math professional, I know these things...)

  2. Thanks Audrey for your comment! I've been writing the one word comments on their work and I get alot of "What does this mean? What is my grade?" I still keep plugging along and keep them focused on the process and their own reflection, but it is a battle retraining them.

    Thanks for reading!