Annotated Intentions (and Why They’ll Change the Way You Grade)

I’ve spent years searching for a fair-minded approach to grading that demands accountability but also doesn’t crush student spirits when products don’t turn out well.  

I’ve definitely been given the “hard grader” label over the years, but students have also mostly agreed with my observations when it comes time to conference.  Our district writing rubric is clear and concise, and since students are familiar with it we can have conversations using common vocabulary.  I would venture to say that most of my students are not surprised by the grades they earn.

I did once have a student respond to my feedback by shouting, “Ah, fiddlesticks!” but I consider him an outlier…

Despite being generally happy with my approach to grading and encouraging a growth mindset in my writers, I’ve still sometimes wound up frustrated with myself, or with the firm language of a rubric that feels fair until those peculiar moments when, on a particular paper, it suddenly doesn’t.    

One of the most effective remedies I’ve discovered is the practice of pre-annotation.   Continue reading

The Door of Chaos: Responding to Original Ideas

An Authentic Problem

Quite often, we ask students to respond to original ideas. We ask them to reflect on an author’s claim. We ask them to connect their values to an author’s values. We even ask them to make personal connections to an author’s background. A colleague of mine has students write letters to Sherman Alexie after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to which he has responded once). Importantly, we also ask students to respond to the writings of other students. These opportunities provide moments of authenticity in terms of revising and publishing that carry genuine weight as students begin to see themselves as writers.

The push to allow for students to respond to one another was alive and well in my classroom until a student asked why she couldn’t respond to her friend who was in a different hour of mine. And so began The Door of Chaos.

The Door of Chaos

The idea behind The Door of Chaos is that students have the opportunity to respond to ideas that were generated when they weren’t in the room. Continue reading

Helping Writers Listen

I split my teaching days between AP Language and Seminar and working one-on-one as a writing coach with struggling students. Two weeks ago I got to the spend the day at the AssisTechKnow conference to learn about how we can use assistive technology to support students. It was a great conference, but one session in particular has me thinking already about specific ways to improve my practice.

Presenter Craig Steenstra (@csteenst), an Ed Tech Specialist from Kent County ISD, encouraged us to think about ways we can help students “record the storm” of ideas and phrases and words jumbling around in their heads. So many students have a hard time getting their ideas down on paper and, unfortunately, get frustrated and give up.  Craig walked us through several examples of ways to use various audio recording apps on phones, iPads and Chromebooks, and I realized quickly that this was something I could apply right away. My students are willing to listen to me when I talk to them about their writing, but I’m starting to wonder how I can help them listen to themselves as writers.

Continue reading

5 Tips for Teachers Who Want to Quit Grading

I would wager that grading is probably the very least favorite element of teachers’ jobs. (I would also guess this is quickly followed by complaining parents and senseless, top-down mandates.)

colorsof fallfestivalWe’ve all had the fantasy of the perfect teaching job that would exist if only we weren’t bogged down in numbers and rubrics and gradebooks. And on Monday, I posted a final installment of a year-long series reflecting on my attempt to do just that — to quit grading.

It’s summer (or just about!) Time to start thinking about next year! I’ve walked you through my story this year, but I thought it might be helpful if I synthesized some of what I’ve learned as a list of recommendations for you as you begin considering new ways to approach grading in your classroom. Continue reading

So, I Quit Grading: Part III, A Conclusion

Before reading this post, you might want to catch up with my grand grading experiment this year in my first post and second post in this series!

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The Trinity Episcopal School Class of 2016

I cried at graduation this year. No, that’s not right. I sobbed at graduation this year. Something that has never happened to me in the previous 10 graduations I have attended as a teacher. A crazy, unexpected tidal wave of emotion slammed into me as I thought, “I’ll never be their teacher again.”

Now, I am not given to  big (embarrassing) public displays of emotion. I was caught off-guard, unable to account for my reaction. What has happened? I wondered, choking back tear-filled gasps, trying to pull myself together, hiding puffy eyes behind my sunglasses.

I think I’ve figured it out.

I expected that the way I thought about grading would shift this year in my grand experiment with my seniors. I expected that students would work harder under this new system of accountability. I expected they would own their work, and, as a consequence, own their grades. I expected there would likely be misunderstandings along the way. I expected change. But here’s what I didn’t expect:

Changing the way I graded changed everything in my classroom.

Many of my hopes for this project were realized — as I gave up bits of my control, students found their voice in the classroom and in their writing. Students became risk-takers in all the best ways. They accounted for their mess-ups and  for their enormous victories. They learned to tell me what they needed.

But something even more significant happened.  Somehow, as a result of removing grades on individual assignments, I developed the deepest relationships I have ever had with students. Changing the grades didn’t just change the classroom atmosphere or the students’ work ethic or my paper load. Somehow, changing the grades changed our hearts— theirs and mine. More than ever before, I knew them and they truly knew me.

In a career of experimentation, this particular change — this heart change — has been the most profound.

The ResultsChanging the way I graded

So, at the end of the year, how did it all shake out? Will I do it again? What will I change? Continue reading

A Revision Plan for You + Your Students

KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. A mantra I usually don’t heed until the end of the year. When I don’t have a choice.

Our end-of-the year to-do lists are sometimes so lengthy and complicated, the only way to keep up with them is to simplify. To pare the lists down to their essentials. To prioritize.

Sometimes student drafts feel a lot like the end of the year: fraught with chaos and  accompanied by a miles-long to do list. Fix your commas. Bring out your voice here. Can you say more about that? Add detail in the fourth paragraph. Have you thought about a title? Consider zooming out more in your conclusion. Don’t forget to italicize the title of the book and refer to the author by her last name! Paragraphing needs work. Let’s have a conference!

Just as our heads swim at the end of the year, students’ heads swim when they receive a paper — or have a conference — with copious amounts of motley feedback. Continue reading

Writing Conference Realities

I spent all last week immersing myself in writing conferences with my students. We talked one on one about their writing, reflected on what was going well and what wasn’t, and made some plans for steps going forward.  I was modeling good writing behaviors for them, providing specific and useful feedback, and encouraging young writers to experiment and grow.  Birds were chirping. I think a butterfly landed on my shoulder at one point.

Ha. In my dreams.                                            

 HELLO (2)

What was really going on? By Wednesday I was driving into school wracking my brain for something–anything!–I could do in place of writing conferences. My eyes were swimming when I looked at students’ papers, I felt like I was saying the same thing over and over, and  I was concerned about the level of engagement of my non-conferencing students.  I was exhausted from the constant mental challenge of giving just the right feedback to my writers.

Writing conferences are certainly important, but they can be so very difficult and so very exhausting.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge believer in writing conferences, and I know they are often the key to helping students grow.  Don Murray, one of the original proponents of teaching writing as a process, claims in his book Learning by Teaching “at least 85% of the teaching–and learning–takes place in the writing conference, not in the writing workshop or classroom.”  Continue reading

Working as Our Students’ Editor

Working as Our Students' Editor

Print this infographic, and tape it to your desk or inside your planner! Share with a friend or your department members.

Near the very top of the Things That Disheartens English Teachers list are the comments we leave on students’ papers that aren’t considered, aren’t heeded, and — if we’re honest — often aren’t even read. I hear it from secondary teachers constantly; even in the best case scenario, it seems that students work hard on a piece of writing, the teacher works hard making thoughtful comments to move the writer forward, and then … nothing.  

Sure, there are measures we can take to ensure that students are reading and thinking about our comments. In the past, I have required students to respond to every comment I left to demonstrate their understanding. At NCTE15, Jeff Scheur (@jscheur) shared that he has students write a paraphrase of the feedback they have received before they dive into the revision process. I love that idea.  But while these mechanisms work and are absolutely a step in the right direction, they don’t drill down into why this happens, why students glance at the grade and then ignore the feedback.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking: students don’t read our feedback because it’s boring, it’s small, and it isn’t meaningful to them.

As a teacher, regardless of my best intentions, I find myself getting sucked into minutiae when I read students’ best drafts. We’ve had writing conferences about the big ideas, the structure, how the ideas flow and work together. When I get to that finished piece, more often than not, my feedback has much more to do with missing punctuation and craft techniques that I don’t yet see

As a writer, the best feedback I’ve ever received was from our editor, Katie Ray (@katiewoodray). I checked my email every ten minutes for days after sending Katie a chunk or chapter of Writing With Mentors, excited to see what she would say. I treasured my editor’s feedback — not because it was always glowing, but because her feedback taught me something about my writing, taught me something about myself as a writer. Katie could see the work from the 30,000-foot view — she saw how the pieces fit together (and when they didn’t), she often understood what we were trying to say better than we did.

A great editor doesn’t start out looking for the deficits in a piece of writing; a great editor holds a mirror up to the writer so that she can move forward.

Here are some moves that an editor makes when giving feedback on a piece of writing:

An editor honors what has been achieved

Editors don’t give cheap and easy compliments (like, “I really like your formatting. The bullet points are so nice and easy to read.” – an actual piece of feedback I have been given.)  An editor honors the work that has been done and what is going well. An editor also pushes at the edges of those promising bits — deepening, complicating, expanding them.

An editor sees the bigger picture

One of the chief beauties of an editor is that they can see what the writer herself is too close to see. An editor sees when a writer is veering off course or when the writer is actually moving in a different direction altogether. This bird’s-eye view of the work can refocus a writer, build connections within the text and outside the text, or help them pull together disparate ideas into a more cohesive whole.

An editor removes the “audience fantasy”

Brian Sweeney (@MrSweeneyNYC) spoke at NCTE about the “audience fantasy” — an imaginary game we play with our students whereby we pretend that a real audience beyond the teacher is clambering to read their writing. We write things like, “This is unclear for your reader”, when, in reality, the only reader is the teacher. An editor’s job is to make a piece of writing its best before it goes to publication. Katie Ray’s feedback aimed at making our book useful and readable for a real audience, and this real audience motivated our writing. If we are helping our student move toward real publication rather than pretend publication, our feedback might also prove more meaningful for our young writers.

An editor uses the language of possibility

Katie always charged her feedback with what if? and maybe? Editors make suggestions, bring forth new ideas,see potential  and use language that reflects that hopeful sense of possibility. Editors dwell in what could be — with some tweaking, restructuring, revising — and help their authors see the same potential in their own work.

An editor gives the writer agency

By using this language of potential and possibility, an editor gives the writer the final say over their creation. So often, when we leave feedback and put a grade on a piece of writing, we are taking the final say over the creation. We say, “This is an A” or “This is a C”.  And though we hope our students will choose to revise, the verdict has already come down.

Ralph Fletcher (@fletcherralph) says that there is always tension in the editor-author relationship because while the editor suggests, the author has the creative authority to say, “No, I would really prefer it the other way.”  As teachers, we encourage our students to make author’s choices — we need to gives students the authority to make all of the choices real writers make, even disagreeing with their editor.

I don’t want to leave small, irrelevant feedback for my students any more.  They do need to improve their punctuation. They do need to incorporate the conventions of a given genre. And I will need to figure out how to help them do these things while refocusing to work as their editor — showing them what is possible in their writing, encouraging them to move forward, giving them feedback that is meaningful and inspiring.

For you, what’s the difference between a teacher’s feedback and an editor’s feedback? What are some moves you might make to become an editor for your students? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.