A Happy Medium (or, how I learned to stop worrying and love writing online; or, how I got my students to enjoy writing more and stop stressing about grades)

Blair Mahoney
Nov 28, 2018 · 24 min read
The picture of a worried man

The way I like to lay it down sometimes
there is too much traction on paper.
The ink soaks into the cloth of the page.
The words adhere like burrs to a woollen cuff.

I would love to write on water
like the final words of Keats
so a current would carry the sentences away
and the slightest breeze would ruffle
the glassy curves of their meaning.

‘Medium’ by Billy Collins

I would love to write on water just like Billy Collins describes in his poem. And I would love my students to write with that sense of freedom and lightness as well. Too often their writing feels burdened, with the sense that what they are doing is merely an artificial construct, an arbitrary task that they must produce for their English teacher and that no other eyes will ever see (or would want to see). How do we get them to see their writing with new eyes? How do we get them to think that they are producing writing that matters?

Funnily enough, over the past year or two, I’ve been moving away from students using devices in class as much. There are all sorts of good reasons for this. However, I think that writing online opens up a range of possibilities for students, not least of which includes having an authentic audience for their work. My ‘Medium’ of choice is the one you’re reading right now. I choose it because it’s free (it’s possible to upgrade to a paid experience, but not necessary), it’s free of advertising, and it provides a clean reading experience that is devoid of unnecessary and distracting colours and different fonts.

Medium (which was formed in 2012) and other online writing platforms offer a number of advantages that pen and paper and Word documents don’t:

  • there’s the aforementioned authentic audience, which can mean that students take their writing more seriously and feel like they’re held more accountable;
  • there is also potential for interaction with that audience, with readers able to ‘clap’ articles that they enjoy and comment on articles (this could potentially be a negative for some, given the culture of abuse that can thrive on the internet);
  • that audience can also be their own classmates (something that shared documents can also offer, of course), helping to foster a culture of collegiality rather than competitiveness; writers can provide links to further information;
  • images and videos are easy to embed in articles and can make work seem more ‘fun’ than formal essays;
  • most of the writing and reading that students will do in their lives is and will continue to be online in some respect, so it’s a medium that we want to help them master.

Now, none of this is new. Teachers have been getting their students to write online since the beginning of the World Wide Web, but I think what I’ve come to realise over the past couple of years is that what we get them to write and how we respond to that writing can serve an emancipatory function in the lives of our students. It can free them and it can help make them happier, both of which are goals that I think we should be getting behind. Is this about ‘empowering’ students? Well, I think it is in a sense, but we want to move beyond the idea that all we’re doing is preparing students for the workforce and teaching them how to serve the interests of corporations. As Benjamin Doxtdator says in his article ‘Empowerwashing Education’:

The self-confidence and skills accumulated in school is supposed to provide the human capital needed to be an entrepreneur in adult life. The dominant use of empowerment in education is liberal rather than liberating, and focuses on “individual capacity, realization, and status” and “the maximization of individual interests.” It’s as if people stop reading Freire half-way through Chapter 2 where he critiques the banking model of education in which the “scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.” Friere’s larger political project of revolutionary futurity drops out of the picture to be replaced by constructivism, the dominant psychological theory of learning in education. The ‘child-centered’ focus of constructivism blends neatly with the individualistic tendencies of neoliberalism which equates freedom with the free-market. Thus, we have corporations catering to a choice of learning styles — a consumer choice — rather than cultivating a critical consciousness which would challenge their interests.


Teachers as writers

The teacher pretends to be a writer (Edgar Allen Poe)

I’ve been writing online and off for a long time. One of the earliest pieces I wrote online was a page about a favourite writer of mine, the American postmodernist John Barth (at the now sadly defunct The Modern Word website), back in 2000. Since I entered the teaching profession I’ve published work in the form of textbooks and study guides in printed form and that only exist online. Of course, all teachers are writers in that we prepare materials for our classes, it’s just that often most of the material we write stays ‘in house’.

I started playing around with Medium as a publishing platform in 2015. I’d long had lists of recommended reading for my students that were hosted online in different places, but I liked the look of Medium and transferred my lists here. I also started a (still unfinished) personal writing project where I wrote about watching all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order. I use Medium to write about occasional one off events as well, like going to see legendary Australian writer Gerald Murnane in Goroke.

Last year, inspired by some work that one of our teacher librarians, Tania Sheko, had been doing with Year 9 classes, I started using Medium to give writing prompts for students and getting them to write their own pieces. It went okay with my Year 9 students last year, but when I used some of the same prompts with my Year 10 students this year it really took off and they produced some of the best work that I’ve seen in my time as a teacher. The students also seemed happy to be writing, even when (especially because?) I wasn’t giving them grades for their work, which leads into a related element of my teaching that I’ve been playing around with over the last couple of years.


Going gradeless

Grades become invisible

I first came across the idea of not giving grades for student work long before I became a teacher, when I read Robert Pirsig’s 1970s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You can read the relevant section here. It was only a couple of years ago, though, that I remembered it and thought I could start to apply it to my own classes. We are, of course, required to record grades for a number of student assessment tasks each semester and these get published on their reports. But I thought that it wouldn’t be a problem if I recorded the grades but didn’t tell the students what they were and just gave them the feedback. They would eventually discover their grade when their report was published at the end of each term.

There are a number of good reasons for doing this, including Pirsig’s observation that it gets students thinking about their work differently. When we hand back student work with grades on it they tend to ignore any of the written feedback that accompanies the work and focus solely on the grade. It soon becomes a competition to find out how their grade compares with others and the grade is seen as the main point of the exercise, something they have ‘earned’. Students at my school, despite the school’s motto of ‘More than Just Marks’, tend to be extremely focused on grades and ultimately their ATAR. They can be less focused on the actual learning that may or may not be taking place and assessment tasks can just be seen as hurdles to be jumped over rather than any meaningful engagement with the work they’ve been doing. This can also contribute to a culture of cheating, particularly in the form of plagiarism, partly because they don’t feel invested in the work. Students also exhibit a lot of anxiety around these tasks due to the competitive element and the pressure they feel from their parents as well as the expectations they have for themselves.

The Cheating Culture

Furthermore, most of the writing I get the students to do on Medium is on tasks that remain ungraded. I give feedback on everything but grades only on some set tasks. Some of the writing tasks on Medium are not directly part of the syllabus but just issues that I want the students to reflect on. This means the distinction between work that is graded (and implicitly ‘more important’) and work that is not graded becomes blurred which can mean both that students treat ungraded tasks more seriously and feel less constrained with work that is graded.

Sarah J. Donovan writes, in her blog post, ‘Beyond Mandates and Measurement: Lessons from Genocidal Education’,

To sit alongside a student as she is reading and say, “Tell me about what you are reading. What do you think about it?” is different from standing in front of the class and saying, “Write your name on this worksheet, answer these questions, and turn it in. It is worth 10 points.” The identity of the teacher — one who knows, who assigns, who grades — is superfluous in the first encounter. In the learning conversation, the teacher is careful not to coerce the student into saying what the teacher wants. When a student has misunderstood a key component or skill, what do we do? Subtract points, cross out the error, write “awkward” or “do over”? That is easier. That is controlled. That is standardized because it minimizes diversity, marginalizing the students’ individuality and humanity in the process. A live encounter invites transformation — not standardization — of both teacher and student because the outcome is unknown and open to becoming. And isn’t learning about becoming?


Writing tasks: escaping from the cage of conformity

Doing English assignments can feel like being in Room 101 for some students

So let’s look at some of the tasks that I’ve asked my students to do this year and some of the responses they’ve come up with. My usual method is to write a post of my own that includes some links to articles for them to consider. Students read my post, follow all the links and then come up with their own ideas.

Something that I like to do early in the year is ask students to reflect on their own education and consider what the purpose of education is. Surprisingly few students have thought about this before. School is just a place they are forced to attend on a regular basis and they tend not to think too much about why they’re there and what they’re hoping to achieve apart from ‘getting good marks.’ I called my post The Road Not Taken. Jeremy gave his response a less literary title: Education? More like baducation!

I’m also interested in the culture of reading amongst students and both how it tends to stop once they reach the upper years of high school as well as the influence that increased screen time has on their reading. I explore this in my post, What lies between the covers of books? Daniel, like a lot of my students, confirmed my suspicions, observing that he used to be a big reader in primary school but that it all stopped once he hit high school. His post is called Some Remarks on Reading.

Poetry is something that students can sometimes be less than keen on and it’s a particular passion of mine, so I asked them the question, What’s the point of poetry? Will came up with some interesting ideas, including the provocative thought that memes are really a sort of poetry.

This year I did a unit on fake news with my Year 10 students. The post I got them to respond to was called “I know not if’t be true”: fake news and what we can do about it. Sachila appropriately titled his response This is 100% true and you should believe me.

Those writing tasks that I’ve listed so far were all ungraded pieces that did not go on their reports. Students submitted the URL for their pieces on Canvas, our learning management system, and I wrote my feedback on their writing there. I wrote earlier about the blurred line between the graded and ungraded pieces and that seemed evident to me when I got them to also write an ‘essay’ on Othello that would also be on Medium. There were various instructions on what it should include, but the first and overriding imperative was: ‘Write me something insightful and interesting!’ Here’s what Savva wrote: Artistry Beyond the Arts — A True Villain’s Contentions. It’s the kind of thing that definitely hasn’t been lifted from an online essay database because it’s not the kind of essay that students are conventionally asked to write.

I also used Medium for other classes for their work, including my Year 10 Philosophy elective and Year 10 World Literature elective. The latter provided a good example of authentic audience interaction when I ran a World Cup of Literature with the class. When I published the draw for round one of the tournament, one of the authors responded and she ‘clapped’ the student who wrote about her story. It’s a bit of a thrill (and somewhat nerve-wracking) for students to think that what they’re writing about a work could be read by the actual author.


Billions of blue, blistering barnacles! What did the students think about it all?

Do students really trust this teacher?

I’ve been really pleased with both the writing tasks that I’ve set this year and the experiment with not giving grades (which may not work next year due to a changed reporting system). The biggest bonus for me is that students have been producing work that is way less boring to read than it otherwise can be. But what do they think about it? Well, I asked them and here’s what they said:

Do you feel that the ungraded Medium tasks (thoughts on education, your reading habits, the point of poetry, fake news) were worthwhile, especially as you weren’t ‘earning’ a grade to ‘reward’ you at the end?

The Medium tasks throughout the year were certainly a different approach to English but I found it to be a lot better. In comparison to last year, I think Medium allowed me to become more active in writing and as a result, the final exam essay was less stressful and I began to find the joy in writing.

Doing the ungraded Medium tasks was very worthwhile in my opinion. It allowed us to express our ideas and opinions in a written way, meaning that we could show both our creativity and personality. This felt different from the stale tasks I was assigned from my past English classes, especially at my old school. These tasks expected a certain answer, and it was expected that you would know that answer. Medium was different; sure, there was a task to do, but it was up to you how that task was done.

I feel that these assignments were very worthwhile, as not only is this good writing practice, but it also forces us to research on topical issues.

To be completely honest with you, at the beginning of the year, I completed these posts with what you told us to be ‘priming’ at the beginning of this year in mind (which was kind of smart to tell us looking back in hindsight because of how it motivated some of us to work harder). I thought that our first posts like ‘thoughts on education’ and ‘reading habits’ were your ways of testing where all of us were individually with our writing abilities like a maths teacher would hold a ‘pre-test’ at the beginning of the year. Though as I came to the realisation that these posts really didn’t mean more than they were told to us on the surface, I actually began to enjoy writing the posts (though not like ‘wow I would do this in my spare time!’ enjoy, just like the ‘wow this is pretty fun for an English assignment’ type enjoy.) I felt that after I came to this realisation, I was able to be more free and casual with my writing that I did on medium. This was really great and allowed me to discover a new writing style to myself which was hiding behind my ‘essay/English class’ type writing self and which I would otherwise not have discovered. TLDR; Once I came to the realisation that these posts were not graded, I was able to be more casual and write in a style that was more representative of myself.

Did the Medium tasks allow you greater freedom in your writing? Were you more interested than you usually are about work you’re asked to do in class (English or other subjects)?

The Medium tasks definitely allowed greater freedom in writing but I feel like the structure of an essay was at most times, ignored because I was busy typing away my thoughts on the issue. The prompts given were interesting to write about and I learned a lot of new things from exploring these topics, some things you can’t get from a textbook.

Medium presented this new concept of work to me. Rather than me having to do the work, I wanted to do the work. It was weird though. Every piece I felt excited to start, but halfway through I would feel unmotivated because I would think it would be bad. But, knowing that it would be ungraded, I would press on, and by the end of it come to be happy and proud of what I had written.

I have always had a love for English, but the Medium post assignments offered an alternate way to approach writing. It allowed me to explore different writing styles, which ordinary graded essays would not have allowed me to do.

Did the Medium tasks get you to think differently about your education?

Yes, I feel like Medium acted as a means of connection to the modern outside world. The Medium tasks encouraged me to look deeper into ordinary encounters (education, reading) and why we need to improve them or continue them. In other words, it provided an opportunity to reflect on our decisions.

How did you feel about the Medium tasks that were graded (the Othello response, the creative remixing task)? Did you feel differently about those tasks than you normally do for assessment tasks?

The fact that these Medium tasks were graded made the task a bit more stressful. For instance, a formal tone was adopted, making my word choices sound very forced as well as the flow of the writing. However, these Medium tasks when compared to other assessment tasks presented many means of approach because there were few restrictions despite being assessment tasks.

Rather than making it seem like an actual test, Mr Mahoney let us explore different styles of creative and informative writing. This ultimately allowed me to perform to the best of my abilities, as it was both fun and fulfilling.

Among the other assignments, I lost track of which ones were marked or not and found myself only discovering that specific assignments were marked after I has submitted them. As a consequence of this, instead of putting less effort into all of the assignments, I weirdly put the same amount (more) of effort into all of my assignments.

Were you conscious when writing your pieces on Medium that other people could read them beyond your English teacher (unless you made them unlisted) and did that change the way you thought about them?

The fact that we were exposing ourselves to the others users on Medium was a bit daunting, but ironically, it pushed me to be more confident in presenting my writing.

I didn’t care about random people viewing my writings. I was absolutely thrilled especially when they clapped my work.

The environment of writing for an online application was that there was more pressure to write something that other people would enjoy. Even when I wasn’t actively thinking about this, the thought that other people, including my own peers would be able to read my work made me more conscious about what I was writing and motivated me to try and show my best side, more so than I may have done for an essay that was not graded.

I noticed that some of you ‘clapped’ each other’s work. Did you find you were looking at each other’s work more than with other ‘normal’ assignments?

I cannot say I looked at the work my classmates submitted but it is something I should keep in mind to develop creativity to interpret a topic.

It was nice to have others look at my work, as I felt that rather than trying to find my mark (nonexistent), they were interested to see my point of view on the matter. Since there was no mark involved, they were free to give their feedback and encouraged each other

I for one was definitely checking out my classmates work, scouting the competition (half kidding) because I wanted to gain a grasp of where my peers were at with their writing and also the level of work that I should have aimed for. I also found that I got to know my peers better through their posts, checking what ‘everyone else wrote’ was one of the most exciting aspects of medium for me.

How did you feel about me just giving feedback with no grade on the work that you did this year?

Honestly, I believe a letter grade along with circles on a rubric can not compare with written feedback. There is more detail to where you went well on and where you can improve, but also, it avoided the habit of comparing grades with someone else and ranking yourself.

The major thing I felt about giving feedback without a grade was the learning. I learnt what I needed to better. There’s something about a rubric which makes me feel unencouraged to do better; it makes me feel like that is my final set score for that whole course. But the feedback exclusively, that tells us what we could have done better.

Also, when we would get our results back, it felt good to not have that comparing between me and my friends of who got the best grade and who was the ‘alpha’ smart guy of the form.

I honestly prefer just receiving feedback rather than the grade. When I get a bad grade, I normally try to find out what I did wrong. Just giving feedback is a much more productive method.

I felt that not giving grades helped to keep the focus on improvement for the future rather than what was done wrong in the past. It also helped so that there was no ‘toxic’ type comparison when assignments were released. I found that no one really asked me ‘what feedback I got’ more if ‘it was good feedback’ which was good, it also made the feedback feel more personalised, rather than a paragraph of text that was copy-pasted for each student for the sake of it (they did this at my old school). The personalised feedback reassured the student that the teacher was not just skimming through the assignment.

Did not getting a grade straight away change the way you thought about the assignments? Did it make you pay more attention to the feedback?

I was completely fine with not getting a grade straight away because hopefully, that suggested you looked at the work longer and looked harder for improvements.

To be honest, I didn’t even notice that we got grades for our tasks. I didn’t even bother checking because I felt that the grades were sort of irrelevant compared to the feedback.

Yes, it did. I was willing to try different styles of writing rather than reverting to the usual structure I was taught since young. If I messed the structure up, I would receive negative feedback from Mr Mahoney and would never use it again.

Did not getting a grade straight away reduce the distinction between the graded and ungraded tasks?

It felt more comfortable writing these tasks, knowing that there was no mental difference between a Medium task and a Medium assessed task. It made me think more about making the content and less about the fulfilling the requirements.

I was more adventurous with my style, which I would not have done if it was a graded work.

Yes definitely, this was one of the reasons as to why it was hard to distinguish between the two if you didn’t pay attention in class or to your canvas post.

Did you feel differently when you got you report and discovered what grade you had received?

In comparison to the Medium tasks, the reports do not provide any feedback. They give you a bar, the only information you get is how you compare with the rest of the year level. I didn’t know where to improve on unlike the feedback given in Medium tasks.

No, it felt very reasonable, even if you got a C, the students could probably have concluded this through the type of feedback they received from their post.

No, because I would have known the feedback and been able to address the issue. It is better to learn my mistake rather than wallow in self-pity over my grade.

Did your parents complain about you not getting grades at the time? Did they even realise? How do you think they felt about the way things were run?

My parents did ask about how well I did in an assignment and instead of giving them a grade and the class average, I told them what I did well on and what I need to work on. I think they were pretty supportive of the system because they didn’t really ask for other classmates’ performance and tried to give me some further tips instead.

My parents were very happy with my grades this year for English, because they were highest this year even comparing to my old school. I think they realised that my grades weren’t being given as often, but they didn’t care because they saw how much higher my grades were, which can be probably attributed to the Medium tasks.

My parents are extremely easy-going parents. Their aim for me is to learn my mistakes and fix it rather than getting A+, so they weren’t fussed.

My parents don’t check my individual grades on canvas (though I do tell them if I get a good mark) they just waited until the grades arrived through the report and by that time no difference could be distinguished.

Did you feel less stressed about the work you were doing because you weren’t going to get a grade attached to it straight away?

I may have got a bit lazy in submitting work on time.

There was less pressure, as I knew that I would only get feedback and not a grade.

I definitely felt less stressed while writing my medium posts, but not because of the grade aspect which I dare say I didn’t even think about. While writing my medium posts, I was more thinking of trying my best to show the best side to myself to the people of the internet, who may have perchance stumbled upon my article. I guess this worked in the end, because I think the time and effort I dedicated to my pieces was proportionate to the grades I got.

Any other thoughts about the Medium stuff and the grades that haven’t been covered by the questions?

It was very smart the way you did things this year. It’s almost like you tricked us into learning! At the beginning I slightly doubted your methods but looking back, I was definitely able to learn things about writing formal posts that would be available to the public. Like hyperlinking and attaching pictures which would not normally be done in an essay. Now I feel like I have to hyperlink stuff and have even begun doing it in word for some of my other assignments. My only piece of feedback would be to alternate between hand-written tasks/essays and tasks that were conducted on medium, as I found that my handwriting got quite slower at the end of the year in comparison to at the start.

Thanks to Zachary, Eric, Edric and David for your thoughtful responses to my questions!


What do we do now, now that we are happy?

It’s been clear to me that reorienting the focus away from grades and towards what is truly important (learning) has made my Year 10 class less competitive, less stressed and happier this year. I think in part this has had a lot to do with the kind of highly able students they are and an extremely positive class dynamic that made them open to new ideas and receptive to me as a teacher. I withheld grades from all my classes this year except my Year 12s and it did seem effective, even in more challenging classes. It felt like some of the Medium tasks would be more challenging with students who weren’t so invested in learning and who weren’t so positively disposed towards me. However, I’ve gained enough confidence as a teacher after 15 years in the game to be a bit more experimental in approach and I’m lucky to work in a supportive school environment with students who are mostly attentive and motivated. Could the kinds of tasks I’ve set be widely applicable? Maybe or maybe not, but whether or not they can, I do think we need to be a bit more subversive as English teachers, less concerned with helping students achieve what they want (high grades and a high ATAR) and more concerned with helping them achieve what they need (open minds and creativity). If we give them what they need, the grades tend to take care of themselves.


Teaching writing in high stakes times

One year on from what I’ve written above, I’m still happy with the kinds of tasks that I’m setting students. Our assessment and reporting system has changed this year, which has meant some adjustments to the way I’ve approached things in class, but I’ve expanded the range of tasks that I’ve been getting students to write online, including with my Year 11 English class, where they wrote analyses of the Terence Malick film The New World. I’ve been frustrated in the past when having students write about film in conventional text response style under exam conditions, which tends to promote a superficial analysis that ignores visual elements of the film. As an avid reader about film myself, I want to read analyses which include commentary on film technique and that is supported by screenshots and clips from the film, and writing on Medium allowed the students to do this. Several students across the course of this year had their work noticed by the editors at Medium who deemed it of sufficient quality to make it a ‘featured’ article (which then goes behind their metered paywall). For example, this piece by Navod was featured: Experiencing A New World; The Transformation of Pocahontas — The New World (2005). Navod was so inspired by this experience that when he was assigned a comparative essay on The Crucible and The Handmaid’s Tale at the end of the year he wrote it up on Medium on his own initiative and again had it featured by the Medium editors.

One challenge in teaching writing in these high stakes times that we live in is getting beyond the kind of ‘drilling’ that we can be tempted to do as teachers in order to prepare students for the kind of writing they will be asked to do for assessments in their final year of high school. If students will be forced to write a text response essay in one hour in their final English exam in Year 12, then we’ll get them to do the same thing in their SAC (school assessed coursework) earlier in the year, maybe with a bit more time for them to do it in. And so they’ll know how to do that in Year 12 we’ll get them to do the same thing in Year 11, and so it goes down the chain. I was filled with despair when my son was asked to respond to The Merchant of Venice in Year 8 with a text response essay of the kind he will be expected to write in Year 12. It kills the possibility of creativity and gets students thinking that the kind of writing we get them to do in English is the kind of writing that nobody but their English teacher would ever want to read. Darcy in my Year 10 English class was tasked with responding to Othello this year and came up with this self-referential internal dialogue between himself and another part of himself that he calls ‘The Reliable’ that’s one of the strangest approaches to writing about a text that I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, I loved it.

Navod won’t be able to produce something for his SAC on Rear Window next year that is like the piece that he wrote on The New World and in two years’ time Darcy won’t be able to write something ‘out there’ for his SAC on Much Ado About Nothing that is like the piece he wrote on Othello. They will be sitting in a large room surrounded by other students with pens in their hands and a pile of paper and a time limit. Does that mean that I have failed in my duty as a teacher, to prepare them for the assessment that they will face? I don’t actually think that it does at all. They learned how to approach the text they were studying in a nuanced way and the substance of the pieces would still be there in a different form. I think we’re actually failing as teachers if all we are doing is teaching them to conform to arbitrary conventions that produce writing of no interest to anyone. We want them writing pieces that people might actually want to read, if not 400 years on, then at least for a year or two.

Would you read something by this man?

This article was written to accompany a workshop at the 2018 VATE Conference, which had the theme ‘What do we do now, now that we are happy?’ Another version was delivered at the International English Education Symposium, held at Monash University on Friday 29 November 2019, which had the theme ‘Write now: Teaching writing in high stakes times.’

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