“Is this being graded?”

What to say to this dreaded question (or how to avoid hearing it all together)

“I have this really well-written paragraph, and she’s not even going to grade it?” Xander exclaimed in response to finding out I wasn’t planning on grading his write-out. Are we breaking our students? They wrote that paragraph because they assumed I’d collect and grade it and were frustrated to find out I wouldn’t. No kids, this one was just for you. For you to practice, grow, and share with your group (if you so choose).

I recently was at a conference where the keynote speaker advised that if you need to grade every day of your professional life, you need to change some of your practices. Not constantly grading is obviously a time-saver for teachers, but can it benefit students, too? I have been fascinated learning about my GMWP colleague’s philosophy on not grading, rather focusing on growth. (Check out Jen’s blog here.) I’m mystified-everything I’ve ever known about teaching involves evaluation and assessment to gauge understanding and (in my case) language proficiency. How can I get away with no grades in the language class?

Truthfully, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have a “no grades” classroom, but I am of the philosophy that we shouldn’t grade everything. Contrary to what a former colleague once claimed, I do not need to grade everything to in order for students to actually do their work. Isn’t the goal to increase intrinsic motivation? Do we always want students to do things for validation from another person? That’s what we’re teaching them when we choose to evaluate everything— how to jump through hoops. But writing can be so much more!

So, no, I do not grade everything. And yes, they still do their work. Here’s how:

1. Self- assessment:

Sometimes self-assessment can be just as powerful a tool as teacher feedback. In the classroom, I’m the expert, students look to me for the answers — they take everything I say to heart. Am I just teaching them to take everything at face value and not think critically? Do I set the gold standard for what constitutes good writing and good proficiency, when I, myself, speak Spanish as my second language? Teaching students to look critically at their own writing and evaluating their own level of understanding is sometimes even more powerful than having a teacher assign a grade.

2. Peer-assessment:

Often I’ll ask students to read their writing to a partner for grammatical editing. The key here is to ask students to focus on one grammatical concept so they can tune into the errors. Of course, I’m circulating during this and I’ll chime in to help them recognize their mistakes as needed.

3. Journaling:

This is a practice my students do regularly, although not quite daily. It’s something that I’d really like to incorporate into my teaching every day, but I find that journaling even several times each week causes students to become accustomed to writing for themselves, for the practice and the processing. For more tips, check out my fellow GMWP-ers Karla and Katie’s posts about this topic!

4. Optional Sharing (aka: Author’s Chair):

Another way to hold students accountable is to give them the option to share their writing with their classmates. I haven’t established a full-blown author’s chair yet, but I often give students the option to read their journal entries to their familias at their tables. I find that, almost always, all students decide to share their writing in small groups. Sometimes students will then find the confidence to share with the entire class.

5. Grading some things:

My principal always tells me that it’s not about constant accountability, but the illusion of accountability. Sometimes, if there’s a chance that you could grade an assignment, students will put more effort into it. I know this isn’t exactly the goal, we’d prefer them to be intrinsically motivated to write, but I won’t lie, knowing they’re writing for an audience helps them take an activity more seriously.

6. Circulating:

Somehow, circulation seems to find its way on to many of my enumerated lists of quality teaching tips. Obviously, being near students is best practice because not only does it increase accountability, it enables you to make corrections or guide towards self correction. Not to mention, interacting with your students is key to relationship building, which is important for the vulnerable act of sharing our writing.

Because my students are used to these patterns, they rarely ask me the question that makes me cringe. When they do, I simply smile and tell them, “I haven’t decided yet.” Or “Maybe.” Sometimes, in effort to be fully transparent, I blatantly tell them “No, I’m not grading this,” and they nod and continue writing. They seem to understand the benefits of writing without performing. As I’ve stated in my previous post, writing is powerful, and I want my students to see that for themselves. Writing helps us process and the practice increases our proficiency. I can’t say that I remember every fact from every paper I ever wrote about Miguel de Cervantes, but I can guarantee spending hours writing papers has helped me grow as a Spanish-speaker.

My goal is to show students that writing isn’t always a prescriptive response to a prompt that you do for a grade. If you take away the hoops, writing is a powerful learning tool.

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