Saturday, April 2, 2011

Grade Crusade

Grading was probably my least favorite part of being a teacher because it underscored how much I didn't know what I was doing.* It also highlighted the fact that I had several inchoate and incompatible philosophies of teaching that I hadn't merged into any coherent theory. (I pictured it would be something like a cross between Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society.) Basically, I couldn't articulate what I was looking for. So my students didn't really know what I was looking for either. And I would then have to give them a grade based on... what, exactly? How well what they actually did measured up to a nebulous idea in my head? I also had trouble sometimes with giving lower grades, even if the work deserved it, because it seemed a value judgment on the person somehow, and I remembered my own perfectionism as a student. Suffice to say, I tended to procrastinate on grading, the papers piled up, and everyone wound up terribly unhappy.

Looking back, what I really wanted was for them to think, to engage meaningfully with the issues they were reading about and come up with their own ideas. (This means NO PLAGIARISM!!!) And I didn't know how to assess that. So if the students thought about their grades at all, they probably focused on superficial things, because that wound up being what was easiest to grade, there in the trenches. Based on what they said, I think they thought I wanted my own ideas parroted back at me. This was sad, and actually the last thing I wanted. It upsets me that this is what they had gone through school believing was important--just find the answers and fill them out. If I had realized earlier that this was a problem, maybe I could have broken them of this habit of ignoring their own thoughts, of assuming that I would be upset at them for having an original idea that disagreed with mine.

*To clarify exactly how much I didn't know what I was doing, I was hired as basically the 10th grade English teacher one week before classes started. I had no previous training, unless you count half a semester's worth of an education class in college. There was no preexisting curriculum or lesson plans for me to draw from. I had the English standards, a lesson plan template, and a dream of making a difference. That's about it.


  1. Kelli – you’re not alone. My husband is primarily a German teacher at the college level, and that is somewhat easier to grade because there are more specific rules and “right” answers. But he's currently teaching some reading/writing courses (in English), and his experience is very similar to yours. In fact, he was just grading yesterday and he commented that his favorite part of teaching these classes is reading over the peer edit reflection papers because that's where students comment on the process and reflect on their own experience writing an essay, reading and editing other students' essays, and receiving comments and edits on their own essay. Since the goal of the class is really to improve students’ writing, these are the papers that give him insight into how he’s doing in that regard, not necessarily the final essays.

    Sometimes he does get really excited about a good essay, but more often than not, he dreads reading the actual essays, and instead, he looks forward to conversations with students about essay topics and reading their personal accounts of the writing/editing experience in their reflection papers. This is something to consider when thinking about appropriate assessment tools. Which is most useful as a tool to gauge students’ understanding for a particular topic: the end result or a reflection about the process? I can see that there might be times when the reflection is actually more valuable for assessment purposes.

  2. Oh the pain and suffering of grading writing! Oh the feelings of incompetence that surface after reading a string of sentence fragments that don't make sense. The teacher asks herself--how do I respond to this mess without squishing my student's spirit?? How do I balance the emotional needs (the student's and my own!) with the academic needs? I have so been there--in fact, my inability to make peace with this may be part of why I'm not teaching English at this moment in time. Instead of finding a good solution, I found myself spending an ungodly amount of time grading and it came at a real cost to the rest of my life.

    Kimberly's insights about the value of the process are HUGE, especially when it comes to something like writing. I experimented with all kinds of arrangements based on this insight--their final grade is based in part on the extent to which they responded to comments, they receive a process grade in addition to a final grade on the writing (and the process part is weighted significantly), there is ample time for writing conferences during class etc. I have various books on this subject--if anyone is interested, I'll rifle through my collection.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post--it's an important conversation!

  3. The process grade is definitely important, and I think I would have had my students do more reflection if I had known better. What is writing, really, but a process of conversation with oneself and the surrounding ideas? I think that's what I would have emphasized--that it's a conversation. That they have a chance to get involved with the ideas around them and to influence these ideas.

    If that's the goal, I guess the trick would be to come up with a form of assessment that the student couldn't pass without serious thought and reflection. (Why did I write this? What did I change from the first draft and why? What was I trying to accomplish? How well did I accomplish it? What could I still improve?)

  4. I get a sick, nervous feeling just imagining you in that classroom, waiting for the kids to file in! Yikes! My husband went from teaching high school to college and he talks about how so little of what his education classes taught him actually gets used. It's usually about classroom management, the confidence of the instructor, and finding a balance between being flexible and sticking to his rules. Of course, he's a choir director and voice teacher, so he sees it a little bit differently.

    Actually, all of this brings me to another topic entirely: how many teachers stay in public schools? Look at these examples here of several bright, intelligent people who could not spend an entire career in a classroom. (I tried out the idea of getting a teaching credential and my first ed. professor found it useful to give us "real life" experience by utterly humiliating us on the first day. This is why I didn't go through with it.) What is wrong with this picture? I guess it makes me wonder what is going on in universities and public schools. Do universities teach actual, practical skills? Are public schools asking too much of their teachers?

    I was reading a USA Today article ( about education, where they attempt to identify the reasons why US schools aren't doing well. Here's their idea:

    The key difference between the U.S. and top scoring countries is that those countries draw their teachers from top college graduates, and we don't. The results, especially in our urban schools, are striking, whether measured by high school graduation rates, the number of students entering college in need of remediation or the number of military recruits unable to pass screening tests.

    It makes me wonder if just valuing teachers to the point where these jobs are highly competitive would make that much of a difference.

  5. I have to say that as a former public school teacher (and a teacher still at heart) the piece from the USA Today article makes my blood boil. The assumption is that most public school teachers are second rate, and if only we got smarter people in there, everything would be better. That is a major part of the thinking behind a program like Teach for America (think Michelle Rhee) which seems to recruit graduates of fancy universities, gives them close to no preparation, deposits them in low-income schools in places like New York City or New Orleans, wishes them well, then praises them for genius for their two-three years in the classroom. Many do not stay in the profession but leave for law school etc. having padded their cv with some service in a "ghetto" school. That's not a long-term solution, folks! And it's totally disrespectful of of the many hardworking people who do make a career of it and find ways to do good work over the long haul. Ignoring the complex web of factors that contribute to students' low academic performance and imagining that it would all be better if our teachers were smarter--that seems awfully short-sighted to me.

  6. shelfninja,

    You definitely win the OJ prize for the "Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society" combo! The trial by fire teaching is pretty stressful. I will never understand matching teachers with no or little experience ( no offense shelfninja) with the most under serve, at risk students and expect a good outcome.Oh wait. I'm confusing warehousing with a classroom, my bad.

  7. This conversation touches a nerve - like Kelli assigning a grade is not fun for me. I love reading, I enjoy responding even if it is hey great idea, or more critical - examine this more closely, its unclear. But I hate the actual grade. As your teacher I probably shouldn't say that, but wth. :)
    Like Kathleen that notion of second rate teachers makes my blood boil. I still strongly identify with K12 public school teachers, in my head I still am one - cannot break that self-identity apparently. And myself, and my friends, and the peers I respect are NOT second rate.
    Like Cassandria I have that feeling in the pit of my stomach when I imagine what that experience must of been like for Kelli. What a rough introduction. But here is the thing about that I love teaching (grading aside). And I bet there were moments that were, I don't know, memorable in a positive way. At least I hope so.
    If you haven't check out the Assessment as a Dirty word? video I posted. I don't think assessment should be such a negative experience but we have conflated it with grading. And yeah, that is not easy.

  8. I have to say, I LOVE (meaning HATE) the "blame the teacher first" mentality. Teaching is just like mothering in this respect: lip service is offered to the profession, but no practical support, and the person actually stuck dealing with the thankless job day in and day out is the first one blamed when anything goes wrong. Re: the USA Today article, I think it would be helpful to make teaching jobs competitive and valued. But unfortunately, I think people are going to draw the wrong conclusion from the article, namely "Our teachers are dumb! Those who can't, teach!" (PS: Knowing, doing, and teaching are three totally separate skills. Being smart doesn't necessarily make you a good teacher. I think I actually shouted at the television during the episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon tried to teach Penny physics. "You are a TERRIBLE teacher, Sheldon! Step AWAY from the white board!")

    The whole teaching experience was less "trial by fire" than "trial by napalm." On the upside, hey, I can apparently withstand a napalm attack! :D Not a lot intimidates me anymore. And there were some positive experiences, too. I just think I would have enjoyed teaching a lot more had I actually been able to focus more on the parts I liked.

    @evole: Yay, my very own OJ Prize! (I don't know what that is, but I don't care! I won an award! I'm a winner!) And no offense taken at your comment that I had no experience. Those were just the facts. I wonder sometimes about their judgment in that situation my own self. But I wasn't the only person that interviewed for the job, so I don't know.

    @Mary Ann: I saw the video! I felt like you were speaking directly to me. And I agree completely. Assessment is fine, but grading will always be terrible and kind of stupid.