New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.

 

New Teacher Blog Series: Some Questions

This morning I met a brand new teacher. She’s bright, bubbly, and energetic.  She just landed her first full-time teaching gig. She currently works at a local coffee shop and knew I was a teacher.

“I just want to pick your brain.”  She handed me a coffee-stained menu. On the back she had written fourteen questions, jotted down, I imagine, during her shift.

A multi-tasker.  I liked her already.  I gave up this simple gratitude:  Thank you for young, engaged, smart, caring, pro-active, ever-learning, ever-growing new teachers.

I skimmed down her list.

“When does your next shift start?”

“In 45 minutes,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to scratch the surface.”

Books can, have, and should continue to be written about these questions. The questions are important and critical, especially to a new teacher who wants to do the very best job for her students.

These would make great blog posts, I mused.  And that’s how, kids, this blog series was born.

Dear optimistic, new teacher, we have three weeks before school starts. Gird your loins. In the next 21 days, I’m going to offer you some tips (First lesson: There are no real answers, only tips; anyone who says he has the answers is a company representative looking to sell your district a costly curriculum package that will, one year later, collect dust in the bookroom.) on the 14 questions you asked (plus one I’m adding into the mix) via this blog.

Below are the questions/topics.  As I complete each blog, I will hyperlink the post to its topic.  Bookmark my blog, and let’s get started!

Blog 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

Blog 2: Should I create a website? If so, what kind?

Blog 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

Blog 4: What system do you use for planning?

Blog 5: How do you gauge student learning and meeting their needs when you have 100 students?

Blog 6: How regimented should I be with rules and procedures during the first few days of school?

Blog 7: Should I create a classroom protocol list or go by school policy?

Blog 8: Keeping up with attendance and make-up work seem really time consuming with so many students.  How does a teacher organize this?

Blog 9: What are the best strategies for reading novels?

Blog 10: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Blog 11: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Blog 12: What are the best strategies for teaching writing? (You actually didn’t ask this one, but I’m suggesting a few tips anyway.)

Blog 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

Blog 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Blog 15: What is the best way to involve parents?

The No Grade Experiment: The Final Huzzah

Just to recap for those of you new to my romance with no grades:  In 1996, I decided, with a GPA-addicted senior AP Lit class, to abandon grades for a six week period, give everybody an A, and learn for the sake of curiosity and engagement.  The experiment failed miserably, but it did lead my students to reflect on their intellectual and academic motivation, and I was convinced even more of the power of a measured “end product” to shape student learning. (My thoughts on this original experiment can be found in “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation,” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28:31.)

In October 2014, I decided to do the same thing, but under much different circumstances: my students were younger, less jaded, less bought-in to the factory-grading system. And unlike the former class ( an AP content class), this class was an elective creative writing course.  During the unit, students read several craft articles plus a technique book on plotting, and they wrote every day toward an end product: the first 50,000 words of a novel   Mid-way through the experiment, I discovered some interesting things which I noted in an update.

However, the No Grade Experiment was over January 5, and I’ve had some time to decompress and think about our shenanigans and mull over some of my students’ reflections. The class of 20 was split almost exactly into thirds – those who hated it, those who loved it, those who didn’t care. Here, in their own words, are some of my students’ feedback:

I Hated It: Give Me Grades!

  • This “no grade” system would absolutely, positively NOT work in a long term period for me. I have no personal initiative or discipline, for that matter. I need the initial push to get my work done. – JW
  • The moral of the story is this: Don’t ever, ever, ever give me a choice to get a free ‘A’ in any class because I do not care about integrity. -AL
  • I have learned that once I have something I can hold, I won’t do another thing to advance that journey. Once I’ve won the trophy, I won’t run another meter. And I know, for a fact, I failed this experiment; it engulfed me and spat me out. – TG
  • I wish that the “no grade” climate could work for me, but unfortunately I am simply too unorganized and at times even too lazy to perform at levels necessary for sustainability in school. -NP
  • I would be cool with the no grades thing if everybody in the entire whole wide world were not giving out grades, but that seems like a hairy mess just waiting to happen. -BT

I Loved It: The Revolution Starts Here

  • With the no grade system, I felt relaxed and as worry-free as possible, which allowed me to truly learn and create something with confidence. By setting my own goal of finishing my novel, and achieving it, I feel much more accomplished than I would for getting an A on something I didn’t even try hard for. – RT
  • The only reason I stayed on track in this class is because I like to write. It’s not a chore to me, and to be honest, I never really thought about the grades in this class before they were taken away. But if you put something like this in my English class, it wouldn’t work. You have to be motivated in what you’re doing for this will work. -CB
  • I did find the experience to be a good one. I performed well due to my enthusiasm for this writing program. I would enjoy actually keeping this system because it shows a difference between students who work hard and those who don’t. While there are no real grades to prove this, it is more of a personal loss. –MH

This Experiment Didn’t Even Phase Me

  • The “no grades” system, in this class, never felt like a burden to me. It showed me that I didn’t need grades to drive my overall motivation. It gave me freedom from deadlines and the stress of them. I love this class, and what we do, and I don’t need grades for that. -CB
  • I am a nerd. A complete nerd. I love learning. I love doing everything to the best of my abilities. If I’m not giving all my effort in a class than what’s the point? The state has stuck me here, so I might as well make the best of my time. – HT
  • Before we started this experiment I expressed my concern that I would be too consumed with what fabulous work Julianna Margulies was doing on The Good Wife to pay attention to my writing, but I have found that the class really didn’t feel any different than it did when we started the experiment. -DC
  • My motivation to write probably comes from authors who’ve preceded myself, the ravenous need to reach the ridiculously high standard I’ve (sometimes regretfully) set myself to reach for and stay up writing into the wee hours of the night for, and/or to make real the stories and fantasies inside my head. I wouldn’t trade that motivation for any grade in the world. – KF

And for a final observation, I was struck by this lovely explanation from a student who captures all the nuances and cross-purposes of learning and assessment.

During this semester, there was no external motivation.  There were no grades, no nagging parents or teachers, there was nothing.  We were surrounded by a sort of carefree atmosphere.  There was no reward for doing the work.  There was no penalty for failing to complete it.  But I didn’t give up this semester because I wanted to do this for myself.  With all of the pressure of competing against other kids to be the valedictorian, to get into college, to get a perfect GPA, grades make the classes about everyone else.  They make the classes about competing for the perfect score, for the attention of the teacher.  They don’t encourage learning.  Grades make it so that your intelligence in that area is measured by a letter.  But how can we even do that?  Everyone starts off at different levels—not everyone enters the class knowing the same information.  So, to compare these kids right off the bat simply isn’t fair.  With this competitive atmosphere, school becomes more about skimming by on an assignment as opposed to actually learning the material.  That’s why when the grades were taken away in this class, I felt like I could finally make it about me.  Where am I with my writing? How do I want to improve?  Those where the kinds of questions I could ask myself, not do I have an A?  I am in this class to learn something, to improve who I am.  And that’s something that a grade can’t measure.

-LA

 

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.

FAILED PASSED Scored 100%
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.

FAILED PASSED Scored 100%
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!

No Grades: A Twelve Week Commitment to Ourselves

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms, says “students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply.”

Recently, I decided to embark upon a test of this theory. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am no fan of grades. I am disinclined to grade my students’ creative efforts as their writing is always plodding somewhere along Wallis’ Model of Creativity between preparation to incubation to illumination to verification. Some students move through these stages at lightning speed and start other projects; some nurse their projects along for months, deliberating and considering every step in one stage before bursting forth into another.

However, teachers in our district are required to update our online grade books weekly, so I’m required to record something.  After a particularly ugly round of reading quizzes dropped my A-addicted students into the B category, the natives were restless. I proposed to my students a radical system:  what if I gave you an A, so you could stop obsessing about your GPA and concentrate on writing instead?

“Is this some kind of mind game?” said Blair, a whip-smart cynic in the front row.

“Not at all,” I said.  “I’m going to give you an A, so we can get on with the greater business of Art.”

Grades, unfortunately, are often used as goads to motivate the academically inert.  But unlike the majority of classes I’ve taught in a general education population, I don’t have to convince these kids that writing, reading, or learning are worthwhile endeavors. My students have chosen to be in this program. They auditioned and were selected from dozens of applicants seeking a spot in the Literary Arts program, and they have the drive, talent and zeal to write that goes beyond a mere grade.

That being said, I’m still a little leery about embarking on so radical a stance since my students are products of nearly a decade of being told that grades were somehow representative of their mastery of a subject.

 

I have put this theory to the test before.  Eighteen years ago, I was teaching AP Lit in a rural public school in eastern Kentucky. My students felt the pressure to keep their grades up was interfering with their ability to enjoy, engage and commune with, and ultimately understand the literature we were reading.

I drew up a contract granting them a 98% for one six weeks period; I would continue to teach, issue tests, assign essays, and give students real and meaningful feedback on their mastery of the subject, but no test they took or essay they wrote would be given a numerical score.  They already had an A.  With the grade question effectively settled, we could embrace quality learning, driven only by curiosity and intellectual engagement.

The first two weeks after the contract was signed, I thought I had hit upon the elusive educational magic bullet; my students were on fire.  We read Crime and Punishment. We had brave discussions. We scribbled out lusty essays on themes and motifs and symbol.  But, as we continue through the unit, I noticed a decided flagging of enthusiasm.

By the middle of the unit, only two kids read Sons and Lovers, and by the time we got to Jude the Obscure, I carried the discussion, all of them looking forlornly at the floor, ashamed at their lack of motivation.  They reported later that their other classes that were still demanding grades took their attention. They stated honestly they didn’t have the maturity to learn without grades.  Ultimately, they needed something external to motivate them to stay on track.

At the time, I concluded learning must be somehow linked to a measurable product, and I parlayed this experience into a nice article (Mandrell, Liz. “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation.” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28-31). I resumed my regularly scheduled programming the following six weeks, but I never forgot about the nascent experiment that had lost its brilliance in the waning days of my students’ senior year.

 

I was 29 then; I’m 47 years old now, and I hope this experiment will be different for a variety of reasons.  Different classroom culture, different season of my teaching career, and a different grade level.  My current guinea pigs are freshman and sophomores, not seniors who check out by March anyway.

This time, I let the students vote on this experiment.  In a class of 21, eight students wanted grades, and thirteen students did not.   The students who did not want grades, however, were convinced by the effective arguments of the thirteen, and all 21 students signed contracts that granted them a 98% for the progress period.

This time, I also let students set their own group norms, so that the group—

instead of the individual student working up singular motivation to stay on track without grades—could encourage, support, and ultimately, police each other.  Their norms are:

  • Participate in workshop and feedback
  • Best effort always
  • Respect the community with support – Golden Rule
  • Productivity
  • Hold each other accountable
  • We are All Leaders
  • Prove Ms. Prather wrong!
  • Be mature human beings.
  • Keep on keeping on.
  • Set personal goals to keep individuals motivated.

 

And so it begins… I will be blogging throughout the next twelve weeks on their progress. I am as excited as they are about the possibilities of this brave new classroom!