Friday, February 14, 2014

Grading Grading

I have promised (others!) to write this blog for almost a year.

I am not the first person to have these thoughts…but these are my take on them.  I also understand the counterargument.  I do.  Honestly.  I really do.

This is my grade of grading.


Imagine it is the first day of an introductory college course you have to take.  You have to pass AND learn the skills in this class to be successful later.  Your degree and future job depend on it.

For the people reading this blog, imagine this course to be something like taking Chinese. Or Calculus. Or Shakespeare. Or Nuclear Engineering.  Or Physical Education.  Think about your Achilles heel.  That subject your entire life you have been told time and time again, You need improvement on X.

Think about how you feel the first day of this class.  The first reading. The first quiz.  The first paper. The first test (if you stay in the class that long).

And you are scored.

Consistently scored on something new to you.  Hard for you.  Foreign to you.  Something you have a complex about.

And you get classified.

You are a D student.  If you try really hard, maybe you are a C.  You.  As a person.  Become this score. This thing.  This letter.

And that first failing score of the semester sends you down your spiral again.

Why even try?  Why even go?

Welcome to American Education 101: Survival of the Fittest.


Let's take running a mile as a metaphor to explain more fully what I mean:

After lecturing to you about running for a week, I say, "OK…next week is our timed mile." 

You dread timed miles. DREAD THEM.  If you had more time, you would be happy to attempt the mile…but the timing, really makes you anxious.

And I assess you. Not only on completion…but how you look doing it.  How well you ran it.  Were your arms pumping correctly?  Was your cadence right?

You may feel this is unfair.  You may feel like completing the mile is enough.  And why do your arms matter anyway?  You are new to running…and you never even noticed what people do with their arms before…this has to do with your legs, doesn't it?  That's what they told you in high school.

You even put a lot of work over the weekend preparing for this mile….but that wasn't enough time.  You hadn't been running for years…and a couple days of prep just weren't going to cut it.

So, I watch you run this mile…and rate it (with my rubric, hopefully) as a D.  

This is the life of a majority of native and non-native-English-speaking students entering community college English courses.  Most enter not ready to face the rigors of college-level reading and writing assignments, so they are placed in pre-college prep classes.  Statistically, if this happens, they most likely won't get a college degree.  This is not a condemnation of high school.  This is a reflection on a system -- K through university -- that is focusing on the wrong things.

And I'm tired of it.

So, I am doing something about it.


Grading is unfair.  It is.  When you put a score on an introductory student's initial drafts, it often demoralizes him/her…and honestly, it demoralizes me as an instructor.  If they don't do something correctly, they lose points.

Cause and effect.

This often leads to students and instructors looking for formulaic writing approaches: easier to teach, and easier to score.  If you are "good at school," this system is awesome for you.  If you are good at being told not think, this system is awesome for you.

But what about everyone else?

I just don't think grading is the only answer to student improvement.  On the other hand, mentorship and feedback are key!  In fact, it is part of a four-step process to student acquisition of new material that can lead to student autonomy and engagement (informally noticed by me, not deeply researched by me with stats and figures…yet.).

The Learning Process (I didn't invent this idea)

  • Step 1: Notice
  • Step 2: Think 
  • Step 3: Output
  • Step 4: Feedback
In my opinion, students struggle with non-content-based-life-skills such as metacognition, how to read and think critically, self-efficacy, and self-esteem because there is no time for teaching "that stuff" in my classroom.  I need to get through this material.  Students should just know how to do that, anyway.  That isn't my job.  

There is time to perform, though.  

There is time to get things right.  

There is time to reward those students who learn quickly.

There is always time for that. 


Why would a student take a chance -- try something new -- if they are only assessed on knowing, and getting things right.  Only using a scoring-based-instructional-model hinders creativity in my opinion, and a possible outcome may be robotic instruction: 

  • Write a five-paragraph essay
  • Put your thesis here
  • Use this transition word there
  • Every assertion has two supports
Why did writing become an easy-to-assess assembly line…where each essay looks like the last?  Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for formula; I'm not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bathwater…but should formula BE the classroom, and leave room for nothing else?  Do we have so little faith in students and teachers…that the result is creating a line-worker mentality:  Don't think. Regurgitate. Know the rules. Follow the rules. 

Carrot and stick.  Carrot and stick.

That is not my classroom.  I want things to be muddy.  I want there to be mistakes.  I want my students to take chances.  I want them to notice things for themselves.  I want them to experiment.  I want them to be confused at times.

And, most importantly, I don't want to punish them for doing these things.

I want to encourage it.


The past few years, I have experimented with removing POINTS/SCORES from the initial drafts of my pre-college, ESL-student work.  Some students resist at first.  Some never stop.  But why would I assess something, with a score, when the student is new to it?  Sadly, why have they been so programmed to expect it?


To return to our metaphor, why would I assess your running of a mile, with a score, if this is your first time running a mile in ten years, or you have been a swimmer for twenty years and are trying to "translate" into running now.  I don't think these are times to assign a score.  These are times for feedback, in words, in support, in conferences, in modeling, in coaching…but not a grade.  No points.

Why are we so quick to judge right away: THIS is a C.

Why is it so hard to remove the label? 


What I have noticed is a different conversation with my students since I have removed these scores on initial drafts.

I am no longer asked why they got a D.  I am no longer confronted with tears.  I no longer feel like I am demoralizing someone new to the field of academic reading and writing in English.

I am asked now, "How do I improve X?"  "How do I explain my ideas better here?"

The conversation has been reframed and:

  • I notice NEW and UNIQUE forms of writing.
  • I notice I don't get the same paper from the same student all semester.
  • I notice my students are writing differently than their classmates.

My process for writing assignments (which I continue to hone/think about/develop every semester), is as follows:

  • I will not assess -- with points or scoring -- the content of written work until the end of the semester.
  • Throughout the process, I provide points for: completion of drafts, submission of drafts on time, submission of self-reflections on progress, and following directions.
  • The students receive extensive written and oral feedback, mentoring, and tutoring on each draft.

Teacher voices:

Voice: Oh no…does that mean everyone can get an A on an assignment? Is this a reflection of their "true ability level?" 

Response: Not everyone gets an A….but I have a lot fewer failing scores; that's for sure.  And what is their true level, I ask?  Do YOU, reader, want to be GRADED on your first mile of the semester?  Would you not prefer to practice for months to get your skills up to speed, as it were, before I assess you with points?  Would you prefer to focus on your score or improving your overall health?  Don't forget, in our PE class, we are also going to be working on swimming a mile and biking for fifty.  Do you want to be failing all of those things along the way, too?  

Voice: I don't have time to give that level of feedback that many times. 

Response: I hear you.  Maybe we should have fewer students.  Maybe we should have fewer classes/instructor.  Maybe not every class should be sixteen weeks (schools vary by district) for every student (maybe some need less time, others more).  If we were concerned about improvement and not about maximizing the bottom line, maybe our entire educational system could be set up differently.

Voice: You are being unrealistic.  Students must be graded.  This is the way we have done it for years.  They are graded in all their courses.  And in life.  At work.  They get financial aid and scholarships and transfer based on grades.  

Response:  I cannot argue that. All I am doing is delaying the grade, not removing it entirely.  Also, I am not in control of all those things you mentioned above.  What I am in control of is creating a learning environment that attempts to accept everyone and not only the ones who would pass regardless of what was in front of them.  

Voice: Easy for you to say.  You are just an English instructor.  You can't do this in a REAL course like math or physics or history or engineering or science or…or…or...

Response:  I have not walked a mile (connection intended) in your shoes, nor you in mine, most likely. I'm not saying every situation is the same…just like not every writing assignment is the same.  Again, I didn't say we should remove ALL grades and ALL formula.  I'm saying this is what I did.  For me. In my class.


Assessment, with points, is one of the worst parts of being an instructor (IMO).  Especially in introductory courses, I don't see the utility in penalizing students for growing and thinking and trying along the way.

As of today, right now, this is my attempt at fostering life-long learning. 

Grade me.  Disagree with me.  Give me feedback.  Try it yourself.  

Whatever you do:

  • Notice
  • Think 
  • Output
  • Feedback
I just did that here.  And now, it's your turn.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Adventures in Babysitting

The good news is that everyone lived.  The bad news (for me) is I, once again, made a complete ass of myself.  The better news (for you) is I am going to share what happened.


A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said she needed help.  She needed someone to pick up her two-year-old son from daycare by 4:00 PM.  I LOVE this kid, been around him tons of times…and he is awesome.  I said I would be happy to help under one condition: she had to guarantee that he would not poop for the hour I needed to watch him.  My assistance has its limits, after all.  These limits clearly include not touching, smelling, or interacting with feces unless (a) it's mine (b) it's my dogs' or (c) it's been placed on a doorstep and lit on fire.

She promised  he would be as empty Philip Seymour Hoffman's (alleged) heroine needle (too soon?) or as backed up as the line to get into the men's room at a Justin Bieber concert.

She loves similes apparently.

Admittedly, poopy diaper or not, I was still a little apprehensive about picking up her son.  I guess I get "a little neurotic" when "the health" and "well being" of "another person's child" is in my "hands."  But I figured as long as I could keep air quoting AND didn't have to change a poopy diaper, nothing could go too wrong.  Nope.  Nothing.


I left early and diligently followed the directions to the address she gave me.  In my mind, I was expecting some large facility with a gate and a fence and a receptionist.  Why?  Who knows.

So, when I instead found myself in the middle of a neighborhood, my neuroses instantly took over:

  • I'm lost
  • I just stranded a two-year-old.  
  • He is definitely out wandering the streets RIGHT NOW!


Even though I was certain I was lost, I figured I would at least give the address his mother gave me a try.  Why not, right?

When I went to the door and rang the doorbell, the worst thing possible for someone like me happened.

No one answered.

I rang again.

Still nothing.

At this point, I really worked myself up into a tizzy.  I got out my phone to call my friend to apologize for leading her son into a life of crime within a Mexican drug cartel.   But then I heard it. Another car pull up behind me.

My heart soared as I noticed this vehicle had a car seat in the back.  And I did some quick deduction in my mind: Car seat = child or baby monkey.

I assumed it would NOT be a baby monkey.  This time.

Consequently, I figured these people must know things about daycare centers and children and picking said children up properly.  They also probably knew how to keep two-year-olds out of prison.


They got out of their car, and started walking towards me.  I was so completely frazzled that all I could muster was, Am I in the right place?

Now, keep in mind, I had never met these people before in my life.  They have no idea who I am or what I am doing there.  I could have been asking about a daycare center…but for all they knew, I might have been asking about a crack den.  So, they responded, Well, that depends.  What are looking for?

And, I shit you not, the following came out of my mouth, in retort: I want to pick up children.

As those words hung in the air, a sour look came over their faces…and I wished I could have lassoed them back into my mouth.  But I couldn't.  They just hung there.  And I stammered to self-correct, Um. I mean. Child.  A child.  My child.  I mean.  My friend's son.

These two women both laughed out loud at me…and pointed about five inches to the left.  One of the women, through a giggle, said, You just walk in right there.  Through the gate. The one with the daycare sign on it.


When I walked through the gate, I noticed two children playing in a sandbox, and I figured one of them must be my friend's son.  But I didn't see him.  So, I stared at these two children.  And they stared at me.  We just stared at each other.

Not creepy.  Not creepy at all.

Through the back door of the house, I notice a woman walk out holding another child in her arms.  She sees me staring at the two children in the sandbox and politely queries, Can I help you?

Now, I am still recovering from the crap that happened out front…and realize how awkward I must look at this moment.  So, I try to rectify this situation in a calm, cool, and collected fashion: Mark.  My name.  Pick up.  Friend said. Here.  Her son.  Here.  Me.  Mark.  

I only wish I were joking.

Anyway, she just laughed and laughed.  I now realize she is holding my friend's son in her arms.  Ohhhhhh…Hi, Mark!  Yes, J-- told me you were coming.  She also mentioned you don't like poopy diapers.  So…let me change him before you go.


I feel my face getting bright red…I didn't figure my friend would mention my poop-free desires…which flusters me even more.  I'm about to apologize when one of the kids in the sandbox, a little three-to-four-year-old girl, yells at me, ARE YOU HER DAD?

Me: Who?

Little girl: ARE YOU HER DAD?

Me: Who do you mean?

Little girl: ARE YOU HER DAD?

Me: I don't know who...

And she violently and abruptly points to the mid-twenty-something-year-old woman changing my friend's son's diaper,  HER!

Two things:

  • I don't believe this little girl had figured out how to modulate her voice yet…because everything was full force and loud.
  • F you, little girl.  I don't have a 25 year old daughter.

The daycare lady now responds, No, he is not my father.  My father's name is Mark…but this is a different Mark.

Then the little boy, also about three, pipes up, Are you her dad?

Me: Nope. Still not her dad.

Little boy: Do you have kids?

Me: I have dogs.

And then this little boy gets the most confused look you could possibly imagine.  His eyes widen, and he hopefully asks, Your kids are dogs?

Me: Well, they are like my children.


My first thought was maybe her dog ran away because she was always YELLING at him…but before I could find out, the daycare lady said my friend's son is all ready to go…and was incapable of pooping.  She then asked, Do you need help with the car seat?

*** Flashback ***

Earlier in the day, I picked up the car seat from my friend.  She put it in my car and attached it to the seatbelt.  I even asked how to use it to double check that (a) I could get him into the car seat and (b) I could get him back out of the car seat.

My friend gives me grief for asking how to use the car seat.  I feel like an idiot.

*** Flash forward ***

Me:  I would LOVE help with the car seat.

Her: No problem.  Those car seats can be pretty tricky.

And I feel SO vindicated about the previous ribbing I took from my friend about how to use one!  My concerns about how hard it is had been confirmed by someone who deals with children every day!  Ha!

When we get to my car, I open the door, and my vindication quickly disappears.

Her: Oh.  She says.  That's all she says.

Me: Oh?

Her: The car seat is already attached to the car.

And it is then that I realize we were having two very different conversations.  SHE thought I needed help latching the car seat to my car.  To her, THIS act was "tricky."

I thought she was asking if I wanted help putting the baby into the car. To me, THIS was "tricky."

Me:  *Trying to pretend that I don't know that she thinks I am a complete, helpless idiot,* Oh.  Yeah.  We (I actually said we) attached it earlier.

Her: *Silence*

Me: So, maybe you can put him in the car seat?

Her: Surrrrre.

You asked Mark to pick up your son?  Nooooooooooooo!


The drive home is remarkably wonderful.  After a few moments of crying when WE put him in the car seat, he calmed down.  He recognized me.  He read his book.  I drove extra, extra carefully.  I felt so proud.  I successfully (?) picked someone's child up.  I transported him across town.  I pretended people didn't think I was a fool.  This was a full day.

But then, we parked.

As I went to get him out of the car seat, I again panicked.  I pressed the harness release and nothing happened.  I pressed it again; nothing happened.  I thought about how fun it was going to be to have a two-year-old locked in his car seat for an hour until his mother came home.  I felt my palms getting sweaty…and my face flush.  I tried one more time.

One side unbuckled.

"OK.  OK.  If I got one side to unbuckle….that means I can do two."

Honestly.  I gave myself this exact pep talk.

I realized I probably just wasn't pressing hard enough on the harness release, so I pressed it again without worrying about crushing him.  Because, of course, if you press a harness release too hard, the child will instantly explode.

BINGO.  It released.  He jumped into my arms…and we got inside without a hitch.  I knew right where her place was, and all I needed to do was take the elevator up one flight up, and we would be home free.

When I got into the elevator, I pushed the wrong button.  I pushed the same floor we were just on, so basically, the doors closed and then reopened.  I started to get out to walk to her door, but even the two-year old realized this was not the right floor.  He stared up at me, and I swear he gave me a look of, "Dude…you seriously are a fucking moron, aren't you."

We got back into the elevator…I pressed the right button…and we got to door.  FINALLY.


I realize most of these issues came about because I was just worried about watching someone else's child.  I get that.  But in about a thirty-minute time period, I made a complete jackass out of myself, in front of other people, about five times.

So…who needs a babysitter?