Going Gradeless in Creative Writing

How I Use Quarterly Conferencing to Illustrate Learning

Inevitably, they squirm.

Some squirm because they lack the confidence to answer truthfully, some squirm because they are trying to inflate their efforts, but most squirm because they’ve never been asked the question before.

So I repeat the question, attempting to put them at ease: “What grade do you think you have earned this quarter?”

That question is the culminating moment of my Creative Writing quarterly grading conference.

A year ago I sat across from my Creative Writing students in conferences to discuss final grades on short stories. One girl’s response to the grade on her story humbled me; she saw the grade as a reflection of her writing ineptitude instead of a reflection of her progress. I vowed at that moment to never do that to another student. I was already not assigning grades to writing in my other writing class, but I hadn’t transitioned Creative Writing yet.

So, my Creative Writing colleague Lisa and I sought solutions to this imbalance between our responsibility to the school to give grades and our responsibility to the students to facilitate learning. We researched and read blogs, and found Sarah Zerwin’s gradeless classroom and were inspired. Sarah had created a way to offer authentic feedback to students without relying on letter grades on each project.

Using her ideas as inspiration and structure, we designed our Creative Writing class grading system to rely on a few basic ideas:

  1. We created expectations/requirements for students to earn their grade. These expectations were given the first day of class. We also had students do a mid-quarter self-assessment to monitor progress.
  2. Daily classroom focus was on feedback for writing and revision. Some of that feedback was from conferencing with me or a peer, and some of the feedback was written on drafts.
  3. No letter grades are assigned on individual pieces. Ever. (By district requirements, I still have to offer each student a letter grade, prohibiting me from being completely gradeless. However, no individual piece of writing ever receives a score.)
  4. Once a quarter students conference for their grade and prove what they have learned.

This classroom relied on constant conferencing with students to assess progress and facilitate their individualized instruction. Students created goals for each unit, and were responsible for tracking their growth on their goals. Ultimately, each project was determined finished when their growth was proven and revisions were complete.

But then came the time to hold grading conferences. I knew this would be challenging. I have nearly 110 writing students, and I needed to talk to them all within one week. And somehow it worked.

Students were instructed to prepare for the conferences by gathering evidence (looking at drafts and skills learned on each draft) of what they had learned and how they were growing in their writing. This was hard for them. Instead of me telling them what they had learned, they needed to determine that themselves. And to earn the grade they wanted, they had to prove that they learned something. Ultimately, they had great observations:

I learned to welcome more personal vulnerability.

I expanded my comfort zone and broadened my view of writing. Writing is more than just writing — it is a format of art.

I learned to revise a poem; I didn’t know you could revise poetry.

I learned punctuation flexibility in poetry.

I learned more than I thought I could.

I can’t just write poems to get them done. To mean anything, each poem must have purpose.

I’ve struggled with loving my first draft too much.

I let my words speak for themselves rather than me speaking for my words.

I am way more careful with what I write.

I learned that writing can hone seemingly meaningless thoughts into epiphanies on a scale I didn’t think possible.

After students had proven their learning, each conference culminated in that squirm-inducing question: What grade did you earn?

Most of the time, I agreed with their response. I discovered that students were honest, often underselling themselves. (No, this was not an absolute, some oversold, but the lack of evidence was always irrefutable.) Only with discomfort do we change and grow, and I knew that having to identify their strengths and weakness, and take ownership for their own learning, made them uncomfortable. But I also hoped that this discomfort offered them perspective.

I have also realized that I am still learning, too. This is as much a squirm-inducing process for me as it is for them. I am confident that a gradeless classroom is right for my students, but I am constantly fielding unanticipated questions from them and my colleagues. However, I know that putting my focus on student growth instead of grades fosters more thoughtful writers. And I am willing to squirm a bit for that.