As those of you who read this blog know, I recently embarked on a no-grade experiment with my SCAPA Literary Arts students for 12 weeks. We are now on week nine, and the results have been interesting.
The unit in which we embarked on this experiment is the novel unit, which requires four weeks of plotting, thinking, developing, sketching, and storyboarding, and eight weeks of execution: actual writing day-in-day-out, putting black on white. It’s a ridiculous timeline and everyone knows it, but we are pushing ourselves for the experience and the practice.
From the outset, I conceded this unit might be difficult for the people whose writing process resisted plotting. Writers generally fall into two camps: plotters and pantsers – those who plot, and those who write by the seat of their pants. But even the non-plotters in the class agreed that they wanted to know something about it, and the class was very excited to receive James Scott Bell’s craft book, Plot and Structure. This is a nuts and bolts book on structure— no theory, no literary hoo-ha, just plain carpentry aids.
Each night students read one chapter, and the next morning, I would give them a five-question quiz to assess their comprehension of the reading, then we had a discussion and completed an activity that would allow students to apply what they had learned from the chapter to their burgeoning novel.
It was the same format I used in the first unit on the short story. We read a craft book, students took five-question comprehension quizzes, then we discussed the chapter, and I gave them an application exercise.
Here are the scores from the previous unit when grades were actually being given.
|Quiz 1||11 out of 21, or 52%||10 out of 21, or 48%||7 out of 21, or 33%|
|Quiz 2||7 out of 21, or 33%||14 out of 21, or 67%||5 out of 21, or 24 %|
|Quiz 3||3 out of 21, or 14 %||18 out of 21, or 86%||7 out of 21, or 33 %|
|Quiz 4||3 out of 21, or 14%||18 out of 21, or 86%||8 out of 21, or 38%|
|Quiz 5||5 out of 21, or 24%||16 out of 21, or 76%||7 out of 21, or 33%|
This chart represents what most classrooms look like. About 80% proficiency overall.
Even though I wasn’t recording grades (they already had a 98% A guaranteed), I continued to collect data to see if the lack of pressure to “make” a grade actually impacted their performance either positively or negatively.
Here are the scores from the novel unit when grades were not going to be given.
|Quiz 1||13 out of 21, or 62%||8 out of 21, or 38%||7 out of 21, or 33%|
|Quiz 2||12 out of 21, or 57%||9 out of 21, or 43%||6 out of 21, or 29%|
|Quiz 3||15 out of 21, or 71%||6 out of 21, or 29%||6 out of 21, or 29%|
|Quiz 4||10 out of 21, or 48%||11 out of 21, or 52%||8 out of 21, or 38%|
|Quiz 5||14 out of 21, or 67%||7 out of 21, or 33%||5 out of 21, or 24 %|
When no grades were on the line, the pass rate for quizzes dropped, on average, from 72% to a 39%. But then I noticed something very interesting. On every quiz, I had 5-7 kids who got 100% each time. I looked back at the quizzes from the previous unit and realized those two charts were virtually identical. For about a third of my students, grades are a non-issue. They did their absolute best whether they were being rewarded externally for it or not.
Of course, you might say that quiz grades aren’t really a great measuring stick for actual learning, and I would agree with that, but I noticed the same results when we completed hands-on activities and exercises that were student-selected. After reading the craft book, the tools that the students indicated they needed prior to writing the novel were: a plot summary, a timeline of events, character profiles, and some kind of plotting device, like a story board or intensity scale, that would allow them to lay out the beats of their novel.
There was more buy-in with these activities. In fact, 50% of the students completed these activities with some degree of accomplishment and 45% either didn’t complete these activities or completed them in a manner that would have been deemed failing. I only had 1 student who turned in nothing. And there was still those 5-7 kids who did the activities with aplomb, going above and beyond the requirements, turning out activities like they were vying for the Pulitzer.
And maybe they are.
Conventional wisdom dictates that without a paycheck at the end of the week, we wouldn’t be driving to work every day. I can’t wait to query these high-flyers to find out why they excelled when no grades were on the line.
There are other considerations, of course. It could be that those 30% are the true writers in the group, that they would write if the world were burning down, if they were locked in a closet with only a piece of charcoal and blank wall on which to write their story.
It could also be that those other 70% just aren’t mature enough to be self-motivated or to handle the kind of freedom that would allow them to direct their own path. Or it could be that they were going home every night and writing reams and reams of poetry, the genre that they truly love.
In November, we started writing our novels, and they are keeping spreadsheets and “state of mind” calendars to chart their word count and their disposition o’ the day. I will be updating you with their progress in a future blog post.