Sorting and ranking

WRITEThe papers are finished. I’ve just marked the last few character essays on A Tale of Two Cities. Though many students nailed the assignment, others struggled to find the organizational structure needed to make the essays work. Others organized well, but then failed to move beyond the obvious.
I didn’t want to grade them. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. But it’s not that I didn’t want to read them.
No, what I always agonize over is putting a letter or number grade on the papers, even when I have relied on a rubric to guide my thoughts. Writing, learning to write, is hard work. It takes time. And I’m not sure my evaluations are all that accurate, anyway. I can’t tell you how many times I have graded an essay only to take a second look the next day and questioned why I had marked it that way.

So. I am trying something new next semester. I am going to have students write and conference with me as they work. Then, when they are finished, I will meet with them again, sharing the strengths and weaknesses of the essay. If they want to re-do, they may. In fact, they may re-write until they get the grade they want, as many times as they want.
I wonder how many students will take me up on this. I wonder if having on-going conversations about their writing will serve as a better approach than simply writing comments in the margins that I am not even sure they read or understand. I wonder if I’ll be overwhelmed with writing conferences during those rare free moments of the day.

It’s worth a try.

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7 thoughts on “Sorting and ranking

  1. This is a brilliant idea, Susan. I can’t imagine it could fail. Those who want to learn and improve will take you up on the new process, and those who don’t haven’t lost anything from the previous setup. I’m interested in following the progress. You really care, because this obviously takes up much more of your time.

  2. Facing the grading problem, I once tried making end comments (without a grade) and asking each student to respond to my comment and suggest a grade. I made it clear in advance that the final grade was my responsibility and decision — that was simply to restate an institutional reality and a condition of my employment and their “student-hood” that the students understood just as well as myself.

    Somewhat to my surprise, it worked really well. I rarely disagreed with a student. And as I ought to have anticipated but did not, the situation of commenting on my comment led to argumentative writing that on the whole was of considerably higher quality than the arguments carried on in their papers proper. Showing once again that when something students recognize as real is at stake, they show themselves perfectly up to the task of thinking and arguing on paper. It also set up a situation where they read my comments really, really closely!

    This was, admittedly, with students in a master’s degree program. Would it be worth trying with middle schoolers? Intuition tells me that people qua people, of whatever age, have untapped capacities for judgment and evaluation and argument and thinking that, if we just create the right prompt and situation, will flower before our amazed eyes. (Just think of the arguments proposed by your own toddler children to counter your own desperate efforts at parental logic!)

  3. Tania, yes, those who want to learn and improve will take me up on this (and I am seeing this already).
    David, thanks for sharing your experience. How validating. Yes, when students have a true audience and a real reason to write and think, they usually respond with greater depth and clarity than otherwise. Great point about reading your comments closely, too. I will remember this as I move ahead with the plan.

  4. Standard practice? Yes, for me, for many (but not all). However, the difference here is allowing students some say in the assessment of the paper. Previously, we might conference once for each paper, but then students would turn in a final paper, and I would grade it. This way, they rewrite as often as they need, revising and editing as often as they want.

  5. What opportunities for feedback on these types of essays have you offered throughout the process of writing them? In other words, is this “grading” you speak of the first time you or the students’ peers have read the essays? Do you consider this essay a ‘formative’ assessment or some sort of ‘summative’ one? The answers to these questions may help you decide the best route to take in the future. I admit that I teach high school math and am envious of the possibilities for formative feedback (peer & instructor) in your discipline.

  6. Matt,great question. Generally what I do is write comments and then meet once with the student–a formative assessment at that point. When I receive the final copy, I grade it according to the rubric we’ve established as a summative assessment. However, what I am finding is many/most students need much more than that. For most, the essays need to be rewritten many times with much more conversation with me. (Peer evals work for some but not most at this stage.) I am hoping that by allowing students to continue to work on their writing (for each piece) as long as they want to, the final writing will be stronger. Of course, this means we are also moving along in class, reading the next novel, writing the next essay. This is an eighth-grade language arts class, not only a writing class. Thanks for your thoughts.

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