Grades, Schmades

Last week I started to have this funny feeling, a feeling I had never had before. My students were e-mailing each other the first drafts of their Unit 1 Blog Posts, and I was reading with such glee how much this whole literacy-based inquiry had captured their interest. Every Single One of them engaged their personal literacies in the service of some kind of argument about what literacy means or how we teach reading and writing today. Every Single One of them challenged a traditional portrait of literacy that only values alphabetic, academic reading and writing. That is to say, every single on of them did, to some extent, what I asked them to do on their assignment sheet, and what I really wanted them to do. They engaged.

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance, and a Crashed Crop Duster in the Background

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance, and a Crashed Crop Duster in the Background

And for the first time ever I had this crazy little feeling like, I didn’t want to give them grades.

I never had a philosophical problem with grading before. I know grades really motivated me in college to do well. And when my students at Michigan turned papers in, I could see their grades written all over them. Giving grades was easy: somehow in my guts I knew what each paper deserved, give or take a +/-. It’s giving qualitative feedback that’s hard.

But last week–as I told my students, when I discussed this with them, on Thursday–I didn’t want to give anyone a B or a C. Suddenly “shocking them into working harder” didn’t feel like the right approach. They were working hard. We didn’t talk about theses or organization or paragraphs in this unit. We talked about personal literacy. And they wrote about it. They asked questions they hadn’t asked before, in writing. I was, and am, really super proud.

So on Thursday I suggested that I only give my students qualitative feedback, no letter grades, until the end of the term.  I’m giving them til Tuesday to decide.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because my beau is into motorcycles and we spend a lot of time riding around on them together. So imagine my surprise when I got to the middle of that book a few summers ago and discovered that it is not only about zen and motorcycles but also about teaching first-year composition. In the book, the narrator recounts teaching FYC (in the midst, it might be added, of a nervous breakdown) without giving his students regular letter grades. With their consent or not, he is on a mission to discover “quality,” to figure out what quality is, and to try to get them to recognize quality on their own, without the imprimatur of his authoritative A.

Phaedrus’s little non-consentual experiment had some interesting results, which I remember quite clearly. The good students, he said, the students who would have earned A’s anyway, never quite believed they were doing well. They were always striving and striving to meet his every criticism, so that by the end of the term they had grown and excelled to a tremendous degree.

The less motivated students, however, Phaedrus reports, didn’t do so well. Without the slipping numerals of the B-, the C+, and the C, these less attentive students seemed never to realize they were increasingly in danger of failing. Looking back, the narrator of ZATAOMM suggests that while gradeless feedback pushed the good students to new heights, it extinguished a necessary flame under those students who needed it (to indulge a weird metaphor) to keep their motivational balloons full of hot air.

So, that is one thing I am worried about: that less motivated students might not notice, without the clear-cut numericism of grades, if they’re doing poorly. Luckily I have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so I can keep my eye out for that phenomenon. But that raises this interesting question of, How do we tell students they’re not succeeding without using a letter grade? In all kinds of feedback, I am thinking grading without grades will put new pressure on my specificity of language. Even though giving out grades is hard, and makes a teacher feel like an asshole, I’m seeing now that giving a paper a C frees you to spend your letter praising its meager virtues. Without that C, you really have to say what’s wrong. Explicitly. Similarly, a letter on an A paper can be spent criticising, pushing the writer to go further. Now I might have to be clear that yes, actually it’s pretty good.

I’m already noticing other things, too. Like, my students blog posts are due at 5pm. We had a long talk in class about, could it please be due at midnight. I said no. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter. How am I going to penalize them? I can’t. They can edit it up to the day I grade and really I can’t do anything until the end of the semester, at which point I’d probably be inclined to reward them for being so invested in improving their work.

I’m also seeing how giving out A’s lowers the bar. Suddenly, without grades, its up to them to set the curve. When I send them out on their own research projects, when I start giving them more freedom to create their own homework assignments and track their own research and writing, who knows what they’ll do in pursuit of some invisible A. Probably, for some of them, way more than I’d ever actually assign. (Again I worry about the other kids. What will they do? Way less?)

Already I’m feeling how grades police a classroom. Do this, due then. Do what I told you, no less and no more, turn it in how I told you, and then kindly turn away.

I’m a scared and excited by this loosening of the reins. I feel as though I have less control, less busy work, but more real work. I need to carefully tend to each of them, my little freshman flock. An A or a C will no longer suffice as information about how they stand. Like them, I’ll have to use my words. I’ll have to clearly, responsibly articulate my claims about their performance, and back it up with evidence. Oh, how terrifying. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

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