Saturday, April 6, 2013

Writing about Grading Writing (Again)

I'm constantly writing about the dilemmas of student writing and how to grade student academic writing in an efficient and effective manner. This is probably borderline obsessive... but, I am the type of learner who when faced with an issue/problem/question, obsesses until ... ...  ....

Options for Grading Writing:

  1. Traditional: teacher does all the grading and marking up of students' writing. 
  2. Progressive:  students peer edit and self assess using guided structure provided by teacher
  3. Techie Traditional: teacher uses Google forms with the Autocrat, Doctopus, and  Goobric scripts, as well as other online rubric tools to assess student work.
  4. Techie Progressive:  teacher designs the rubric and assessment process on a Google form using the Autocrat script and the students peer edit each other.
  5. Ungraded: the teacher does not grade the writing.

Options #1-3 require time and effort in class and by the teacher.  I have happily peer edited on paper with my students, but there was just too much paper and it took up time in class.

Option #4 can be completed in and out of class, but it takes time to set up the forms, feedback docs, and scripts. BIG HUGE THANKS to Cheryl, Karl, Troy & all the Twitter peeps (Again & AGAIN) for walking me through creating this process, and the creator of the Autocrat script, Andrew Stillman, for answering my gazillion questions. I'm working on ways to better streamline the process (and not split my infinitives), but trust me, it is well worth the effort to guide students through troubleshooting their writing.

But, Option #5 I'm stealing (again) from Cheryl Morris. :-)

Un-grading Student Writing

In our #ElaFlip Hangout talking about assessing writing, Cheryl stated that she tries to detach grades from student writing. I forgot to ask if she was talking about creative writing or academic writing, but should it matter? 

Art & Academic Writing

Picture from J. Kronenber'g's Blog Post "I Can't Explain  It"
I completely agree with not scoring creative writing. I have never been comfortable putting a grade on creativity and therefore have never sought out teaching a creative writing course-- it is art and art is subjective: one critic might give Ellsworth Kelly's Blue Panel an A+ and another might give it an F. The simplest question in assessing the art is, "Does it hold meaning for me as the viewer?" The same subjective scoring can be used on student creative pieces.

I know, I know, some will say, rubrics make the scoring objective, but really? Rubrics turn writing into objects that sit on shelves. Rubrics are limiting!   Students only strive to hit the points on the rubric and not beyond.  They become complacent when they get the grade, and whose grade is it when the teacher designed the rubric?

I know, I know, I could get my ninth grade students to design the rubric with me, but they are just learning how to write, so do they know what to even put on the rubric? And me leading them for what to put on the rubric is still me, the teacher, controlling the rubric. I could use my O-S-U rubric (again) or use standards based grading and score for mastery, but does the grade on the paper push the student to continue writing? No! As Cheryl and the other ELA flippers (Andrew, Katie, Dave, & many more) will agree, as soon as a student receives the grade, he/she thinks the process is done. The point should be about keeping students writing until ...  ... ...

I fondly remember the yearly high school trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and every time we flew through the exhibits just to sit in front of that blue panel and "critique" it.  My naive teenage friends and I would mimic high brow folks and comment in horrendously fake British accents on the composition, scale, and other fancy art terms, nicknaming it, "The Blue Rhombus of Life". Granted, our obsession with this painting was seemingly in a joking manner, but the fact remains that painting is still hanging in Gallery 915.

"I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges and mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness."- Ellsworth Kelly

But, this got me thinking: is this why I've had so much trouble scoring student academic writing? Every method I have used, revolves around my expectations: how well did the student follow my directions, display the knowledge I taught, and use the conventions the students have been taught throughout their academic career? I can lead the students through trouble shooting and revising their essays. I can score them on participation  meeting checkpoints, and being held accountable for the process, but do I, the teacher, really have to put a final grade on the essay?

During the #ELAFlip hangout, Katie Reagan explained that her students peer edit with other classes and students not at her school.  Getting students out of their comfort zone certainly motivated them to perform. What about an even greater audience on the web?  What about publishing their work for a bigger audience than my two hazel eyes to see? Wouldn't that "grade" the piece? It is so simple:  Is the writing ready for publication and to be "hung in a gallery"? And wouldn't that prospect motivate the student to perform well? Isn't that better than any grade I could put on the page or in my gradebook?

To adapt Kelly's words, writing is also about playing with the "color and tonality" of words so that words take shape and have a "definite relationship" that has "clarity and measure". Creative writing is an obvious form of art, and academic writing should also be considered no less an art, but many teachers and students drown in the red ink and forget the art of academic writing.

So, stop grading and focus on crafting, molding, and painting with words. 

Turn your student writers into artists.

Post Script:  Check out my next post, #OdysseyExperts, because I put into practice my ideas about showcasing writing.


  1. I found it helpful to formatively mark one teaching point at a time. In the Middle School context, I would have students take one column of the rubric (i.e. Ideas and content) and underline descriptive parts of the paper. I might have students analyse a section of a paper by underlining setting in green, dialogue in red, action in blue, and yellow for thoughts/feelings.

    This helped because I could do a quick scan of the markings to see who needed re-teaching on an aspect of writing and who could use a challenge - and I didn't have to grade the whole paper to do that.

    Self-editing, peer-editing, and teacher-editing of an entire paper is daunting. The key is to use class time to reinforce and check-up on a skill so that students understand the expectation. Homework, then, is to use the same process on the rest of the paper.

    Janet |

  2. Janet, those are great techniques; have you thought about making it a digital process? Self & peer editing can be scaffolded, as well. We start with small assignments right at the beginning of the year and work up to larger essays. By the time my students get to the big essay, they've become accustomed to the process and it isn't as daunting. Google forms have also really helped to streamline the process. Thanks for commenting! I appreciate it!

  3. How funny that the second I saw the blue painting in your post, my thoughts went to Mr. Speck!

    Anyway, I'm thinking a lot about grading in general. I have a blog post sitting and waiting to make sure it won't get me into trouble. I wish I knew what the answer is--how do we motivate by learning for learning's sake when students have been trained in the carrot and stick method all their lives?

  4. Speckles! The blue panel expedition was absolutely instigated by Mr. Speck.

    In reference to grading, I keep asking myself, "How can I assess the students in a different way but still target same skills?" I'm constantly flipping and spinning assessments, looking at them from various angles: "What if I assess the process instead of the outcome? What if I do this instead of that? How can I meet the requirements of administration, but not assess in a traditional manner?"

    I don't always have the answer, but I'll keep asking!