Reflections on a Writing Experiment

This year, I decided to consciously avoid the use of a points-based grading system and evaluate students with bi-weekly narratives, indicating their progress in three key areas: content knowledge, skills, and mindsets (creativity, engagement, collaboration, promptness).

In student writing, I offered unlimited re-writes, and instead of giving them grades, I identified the “percent of perfection” they had achieved. In other words, the first versions that students turned in might receive a “grade” of 25%. This was not a grade in the way we currently think about it–it simply indicated that they were about 1/4 of the way to a great essay.

Most of the inspiration for this has come from my dedication to the Design Thinking (DT) process and how it can be implemented in different ways in the classroom. I particularly appreciate DT’s focus on the prototyping process, and the need to gain constant feedback on how to improve something. This has infiltrated everything I’ve done this year, especially writing.

I’ve reduced the number of writing assignments, but focused more on the revision process, using the ideas advocated for by people like Grant Wiggins. His focus on ACTIONABLE feedback is crucial–why bother giving students comments on their writing if they can’t immediately internalize that feedback by responding to and acting on it? Thus we did only one major paper this semester in my 10th grade history course, but students were given unlimited rewrites over the course of a month in order to get feedback from their peers, outsiders, and me. The intention was to force students to examine their writing as a process, not a performance. After the process finished, students were asked to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as writers both before and after the process.

The final versions of the papers were due yesterday, so I feel now is the time for reflection. For me, there were two major takeaways:

1. This process is exhausting. Expect to do more reading of student work than you ever have. Furthermore, expect to have to push yourself as a grader in ways you never thought you’d have to at the K-12 level. As the students respond to criticism, their writing becomes significantly more sophisticated, and your later comments have to be responsive to that level of sophistication. You have to make a number of decisions that involve differentiation: “Is this student ready to respond to a comment about their inability to use an advanced writing technique, or will that confuse them to a point that they give up or make the paper worse?” You have to be responsive to where the student is at the moment, which makes the grading process both more time consuming and more demanding of your expertise.

2. The process is utterly, completely rewarding. The students I have are better writers than any students I have ever taught, hands down. Their ability to recognize good writing and respond to their own mistakes, is on par with students much older and more experienced. At a macro level, they have a meta cognitive ability to see mistakes in their own writing that make the revision process a fruitful conversation, rather than a series of questions that essentially state “what do I need to change to make this an A?” Furthermore, while the process was difficult, it wasn’t soul-sucking, for one simple reason: I didn’t have a single student in my class ask this question:

“How many points is this worth?”

Never. Not once.

I had no conversations nitpicking about why I took points off here or there, or conversations about extra credit, or making up long-overdue missed assignments. Removing the quantitative element in grading made the conversations more about what the student needed to do to improve, not how the student could acquire assets (i.e. points).

I cannot say enough good things about the process I engaged in this semester. I highly, highly recommend considering it for any and all teachers who are sick to death of mind-numbing conversations about points, or simply want to engage their students in real, honest feedback loops that get them to think, not focus only on the end product. I won’t lie: this is a lot more work than a traditional graded course. It’s harder to do, plain and simple. However, it’s professionally fulfilling in a way I’ve found few other pedagogical approaches.


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