Epiphany! This past summer, I woke out of a deep sleep with an epiphany about grading writing. After 16 years of teaching, I was no longer willing to spend my limited free time out of school grading students’ papers. This declaration was not out of sheer laziness, instead, it stemmed from the proven ineffectiveness this traditional style of grading has shown after many weeknights and Sunday afternoons spent reading and writing in-depth feedback on students’ papers. All of this time and effort given, then to hand back the papers to the students on Monday morning to only have them do what…look at their letter grade and disregard the rest. Every English teacher has experienced this type of frustration and I had been looking for a solution to this issue for quite some time.
What was this idea? Simple. Swap out solitary grading for writing conferences. Being a fan of Pernille Ripp, Penny Kittle and of course, Nancie Atwell, I knew the value of conferencing with students and have always done so on a small basis. However, I knew I wanted to do more, and I realized that if I stopped grading in a traditional way, I would be able to whole-heartedly incorporate writing conferences. So, I stood in front of my classes last August and told them that I would no longer be grading their papers on my own; instead, it would be a team effort and they would help me come up with a grade and list of writing strengths and weaknesses. Some of them looked at me like I was crazy while others looked a little scared. The accountability factor just went up two-fold and they could no longer hide behind turning in a paper with no face-to-face conversation about its contents. They had to sit with me and talk with me about their writing and that was a scary situation for some and exciting for others, who liked the prospect of talking about their writing with another person.
Fast forward four months and we have successfully conferenced two major writing assignments. I asked students to reflect on their own writing before conferencing with me (I’ve attached it here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/18vfU_GYtgy7kA_3jDbifHUidi6aXJG_mtBkyyycg6PI/edit) and to come up with a grade based on a holistic rubric (here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WQxLlX6EdBtGrIPs0sC5r-Br1rqi9T2VWGc-2m9iHcI/edit). I spend 5-6 minutes with each student and read through the paper with them after reading their responses on their writing reflection sheets. I explain my comments as I make them and always end with something they need to work on for the next writing assignment. In short, we have a valuable conversation about their writing which is truly how assessment should work! I’m also very lucky that we have a fabulous platform called Turnitin (here: http://www.turnitin.com) to which students turn in their work, which runs a spelling and grammar check for them, so I do not have to spend valuable time reviewing comma splices and run-on sentences; my feedback is truly content based, so assessing is much more focused.
How has this gone? Not perfectly by any means. But I will say that writing has improved so much more since I’m able to articulate to the students a little clearer and they seem to take the feedback more seriously. When I asked students how they like writing conferences, they all said they feel like they are getting better feedback and have seen bigger improvements in their writing. So, I will continue this practice of conferencing with each students. Why? Improvement in their writing, more accountability on their parts and best of all, I can enjoy my weekends with my family, confident in the fact that I am still helping my students be the best writers they can be.