I have spent this morning carefully placing copies of the revised edition of De-testing and de-grading schools: Authentic alternatives to accountability and standardization in envelopes to mail to chapter authors.
It is a bittersweet task since we lost my co-editor Joe Bower during the process of creating a revised edition.
Concurrently as well, I read a post from John Warner, in which he opens with a confession: “Like a lot of college instructors, I have, from time to time, expressed my dislike of grading.”
First, let me urge you to read Warner’s blogs, especially about his work as a teacher of writing (he is a professional writer as well). But this post in particular has hit home because of my own 34+-year journey as a teacher of writing and a much less successful life as a writer as well.
In my updated chapter of our de-testing and de-grading book, I examine in detail my own reasons for and approaches to not grading student writing, but instead to focus my time and energy on giving ample feedback while students brainstorm and then draft original essays they find compelling. In part, I explain:
Along with the pedagogical and assessment autonomy I experience as a professor (now tenured), the university’s transition to first-year seminars has influenced greatly my practices and offered ample evidence about how de-grading a writing classroom works, and doesn’t. In all of my university courses, in fact, I refuse to put grades on assignments throughout the semester. Instead, I have two practices: (1) I provided ample feedback as well as require and allow students to revise most assignments until students are pleased with the work, and (2) I invite and urge students to arrange conferences as often as desired throughout the semester to discuss their grades (what their grades would be if assigned, what they would assign themselves, and what I anticipate they will be assigned at the end of the course).
De-grading the writing class and encouraging a conversation about grades instead of labeling assignments with grades have combined to lift the effectiveness of my writing instruction significantly because these practices reinforce the autonomy and agency of the students and shift the focus of the classes to the quality of the compositions and the growth of the students as writers and away from courses as credentialing.
I want to stress again here that I began de-grading my classroom while still a K-12 teacher without the protection of tenure (I have always worked in a right-to-work state without union protection) so I am not suggesting that de-grading is reserved for the rarified air of high education .
I urge all teachers of writing, then, to set aside the urge to grade essays, and instead, to embrace a process in which the teacher/professor is a collaborator in helping novice writers grow through drafting their own work as real-world writer do—as Warner details:
The final assignment is different. It asks them to craft an argument of their own design aimed at an audience of their choosing. Their is to use the skills they’ve practiced earlier, and I am instead reading to discover what they have learned about the subjects they’ve chosen.
Instead of a teacher, assessing skills, I am a reader, responding to ideas, and in many cases the students are presenting ideas and arguments I wasn’t aware existed.
The path to de-grading the classroom is difficult because we face traditional hurdles of teaching being inseparable from evaluating students, and then we must help our student shake off the shackles of being evaluated students in order to explore the opportunities afforded being an apprentice.
Teachers/professors too must cast off the shackles of grading. Consider Warner’s epiphany that addresses how he has taught and graded essay writing in his first-year courses versus how he has taught and responded to writing in fiction courses:
By accepting the flaws as inevitable before I begin, my fundamental orientation changes, both in how I read and respond to the work, but more importantly, my own emotional experience when grading. In fact, I’ve never even called what I do in a fiction class “grading.” It is simply reading and responding, which is a lot more fun.
Finally, then, from my chapter in the de-testing and de-grading volume, I want to share here a few “guiding principles for de-grading the writing classroom”:
- Reductive responses to student writing (grades, rubric scores) fail to enrich the writing process (see Gould, 1996, regarding singular quantification of complex processes). Teacher feedback must be rich, detailed, and targeted to support revision. The most powerful feedback includes identifying key strengths in a students work (“Do this more often!”) and questions that help guide students toward revision (“Why are you omitting the actual names of your family members in your personal narrative?”). To share with students the specific and contextualized characteristics that constitute an evaluation (such as an A) provides students as writers the evidence needed to build their own rubrics of expertise for future writing, and learning.
- Teacher and student roles in the de-graded writing classroom must be revised—teachers as authoritative, not authoritarian; teacher as teacher/student; and student as student/teacher (Freire, 1993). The de-graded writing classroom allows a balancing of power that honors the teacher’s agency as a master writer and master teacher of writing without reducing the status of the student as beneath her/his agency and autonomy, both of which are necessary for the growth of any writer.
- De-grading the writing classroom increases the importance and impact of peer conferencing by removing from the teacher the primary or pervasive role of evaluator. Feedback from peers and from the teacher becomes options for students as they more fully embrace their roles as process writers.
The teaching of writing, in my opinion, is not unique compared to teaching anything—so I am a strong advocate for de-testing and de-grading all education.
However, as Warner has discussed so well, the teaching of writing as authentic practice is impossible to separate from the corrosive impact of grading on both the teacher/professor and the students.
The de-graded writing classroom seeks to honor the sanctity of teaching and mentoring, the autonomy of students as writers-to-be, and the act of writing itself as essential to human liberation.
 Please see this post and below from my de-testing and de-grading chapter:
I want to emphasize, also, that these are not idealistic practices or claims; I do practice concessions to the reality of grades in formal schooling. The “de-” in de-grading of my classes is best framed as “delayed” because I do invite students to discuss the grades their works-in-progress deserve throughout the process and, of course, I do assign grades at the end of each course.
While delaying grades, however, I am increasing the quality and quantity of feedback my students receive and of student engagement in learning for the sake and advantages of learning