The No Grade Experiment: An Update

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.

Stay tuned!

Self-Inventory: The Key to Realizing Writing Goals

In the freshness of August, everything seemed possible.  A new school year.  Pencils were sharp. Apathy didn’t exist yet.

At that time, my students and I set goals.  And we took an honest inventory of the personal barriers that stood in our way as well as the habits we wanted to cultivate to assist us in achieving our goals.

But now we are three months in—one week and two days away from Thanksgiving Break—and I can see the sluggishness, the fatigue, the caving to our old habits instead of forging new habits that lead to realizing our goals.

Sometimes our best intentions are buried under the avalanche of life.  And the first step to digging out is naming the time stealers, being honest about how we contribute to our own dysfunction, realizing how we sabotage our goals.

On Monday, I will ask students to read the list of behaviors they need to avoid and the list of habits they need to develop. Many of the hurtles they named are the same pitfalls all writers feel as they struggle to complete a creative project.

Here is our list. Here’s to recalibrating,  to finishing out the year by avoiding our worst habits and cultivating better ones.

Barriers to Overcome Habits to Cultivate
·         Too much time spent reading

·         Drinking too much caffeine

·         Procrastinating all the time

·         Being afraid to attempt something

·         Distracting myself

·         Lying to myself about distracting myself

·         Apathy

·         Last minute writing

·         Online shopping

·         Staying up too late

·         Wasting time on the Internet

·         Binge watching TV

·         Smoking

·         Drinking too much

·         Staying up late

·         Putting stuff off

·         Being an asshole

·         Putting TV and books before my writing

·         Having no initial self confidence

·         Procrastination through apathy

·         Relying on clichés

·         Staring at the disco ball all class

·         Talking/laughing/sleeping in class

·         Getting fat

·         Overwriting

·         Saying “I’ll do it later.”

·         Peer Pressure

·         Believing that saying you’re a writer is what the entire Internet does and that everyone’s already finished a novel

·         Giving up before I even try

·         Fear of not getting things right

·         Controlling volume and narrative excess

·         Believing that I don’t have what it takes to be a writer


·         Being okay with silence

·         Driving me word count

·         Draining laptop batteries

·         Writing

·         Learning language

·         Loving myself

·         Reading

·         Sleeping

·         Caring

·         Hard work

·         Time management

·         Observing details

·         Understanding people

·         Taking risks

·         Doing research outside of class

·         Filling notebooks (committing to them)

·         Looking for story ideas

·         Looking at new genres of writing

·         Submitting stuff

·         Thinking

·         Sitting up with the empty page/the pencil

·         Life, in general

·         Doing things, in general

·         Goodness/decency/closure

·         Compliments/taking compliments

·         Self-control/restraint

·         Progress

·         Time management

·         Not procrastinating

·         Books

·         Exercise

·         Myself

·         Conciseness

·         Narrative poems

·         $WAG

·         Minimalism

·         Spell check

·         Coffee





Flash Fiction: Sharp Stories in Small Packages

This weekend I delivered a session on flash fiction at the Write Eastern Kentucky Conference on the campus of Morehead State University and decided to share some of my plans here.

While the length of most fiction is determined by the guidelines of the journal or magazine to which you plan to submit your work, a generally accepted word count for a traditional short story is 2000-8000 words while a piece of flash fiction can be as small as 100-1000 words.  Most of my student’s flash fiction pieces are between 500-750 words, which is about two-to-three standard 8 ½ x 11 pages, double-spaced in 12 point type.

Unlike vignettes, which tend to be impressionistic or slice-of-life narratives, flash fiction pieces are complete stories with a beginning, middle and an end.  Because of the economy of the form, every word, every image, every shred of characterization needs to be exact to deliver the narrative arc precisely, resulting in a full story. My students tend to embrace flash fiction because the stories are simpler, clearer with fewer characters and one central conflict.

There’s no room for exhausting exposition or tangential descriptions that tends to bloat student writing anyway.  Because of the demands of the tiny frame, students can’t spin off into pages of backstory either.  They have to have a clear vision of a simple story: How do I establish time/place immediately? Who is my main character? What does my main character want? What stands in the way of the main character’s desires? Does she have a distinctive voice? What is the climax and resolution?

I typically start my flash fiction unit with a simple and often-used prompt: Write a 500-1000 word story about two people, who are attempting to do something together, yet become trapped in a small space and each want to do something different than the other.  For example, two siblings traveling home over Christmas when a freak snow storm traps them on the highway. One wants to try to get home for Christmas; the other wants to abandon the trip altogether. What happens?

While I like to see students wrestle with structure and framing in a longer, traditional story, I often use ready-made story shells when teaching flash fiction. Because the narrative framing is already there in a story shell, students can focus on the smaller details of diction, selection of detail, verbal precision, and the power of image in characterization.

Here are a few of the story shells I like to use when teaching flash fiction.

  • Stories in songs: Country music was once known for the story song, but many pop, rock, and R & B songs have simple, narrative stories in their lyrics.  The website Lyric Interpretation and Listal’s Songs That Tell Stories allow students to pick a song which offers them the essential elements of the narrative as a shell to develop into the flash fiction piece.


  • Stories in poems: An About Education site has a collection of ballads that also provide students with a story frame that they can use to develop into small, insular works of fiction. After reading the poem, students delineate the character, conflict, climax and change necessary to create a full story.


  • Stories in arts: Students can also distill the stories from art. This is a great cross-curriculum activity for humanities as well. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has hundreds of pieces of art works that can be used as the start of a simple story for a flash fiction piece. Using the character and conflict in the art as a starting point, students can render the full narrative in a small story.



  • Stories in memories: At the beginning of the year, I have students jot down 25 stories or anecdotes that are often retold or repeated by their family. These tend to be funny or sad or bittersweet or haunting. The anecdotes generally have one or two characters and there’s almost always a conflict.  With a little fictional tweaking, these personal stories can develop into great flash fiction pieces.

While Short Shorts and Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction have been around since the late 80s and early 90s when the genre seemed to spike, I am partial to the flash fiction on Flash Fiction Online for sci-fi, fantasy and horror flash models that students will enjoy.