The end of the semester is the time that I dread most. Regardless of how many "creative" ways I've tried to catch up on all of my grading, there is still a stack that I could bury myself in for hours. But I've come up with a system that allows me to give my students the feedback they need to improve their writing, assess where they're at, and create a plan for where we need to go from here.
Deadlines, Gradebook Codes, and Late Work
Call me unconventional, but I don't give students points for everything I expect them to do. And, I don't spend hours on end updating my gradebook, calculating grades, or driving myself insane with numbers that my math colleagues can meddle with in their grading efforts. In fact, I don't use a point-based system at all.
When students submit their writing assignments to me, I collect the entire assignment as a whole. Often, I have a checklist with EVERY step we've gone over in class. On a deadline day, I use this checklist with my own writing piece and literally check off each step I expect to see. Then, I have my students do the same.
Because I've spent so much of my instructional time modeling various writing strategies I want my students to use, I expect to see they've followed the Writing Process as well. This means I want to see "proof" of each phase in this process:
While students use the checklist I've created to mark each step they've completed, I walk around to those students who believe they're ready for me to check their work. I have them spread this work out across their desks, and I quickly flip through each page (which they've numbered and labelled with the appropriate step). If everything looks good, I have the student place the cover sheet on top and everything else in the order we completed it. The student staples it, and I collect it at the end of class.
Students who believe their work is complete can submit their work on a given deadline day. Those who are missing steps are given the option of creating a new deadline day for themselves within reason (usually within a few days). Those students who submit their work first have their writing piece(s) assessed first. Those who are submitting it on the deadline day of their choice will have their work evaluated AFTER I have evaluated the work that was submitted on time. If a student submits something after the deadline of their choice, it's marked as LATE.
In my gradebook, writing pieces submitted On Time are given a YES (Y); those that are INCOMPLETE are given an INC; and those that haven't been submitted at all are given a NO (N). Anything submitted Late (after the student deadline) is marked with a Y and L as an exponent. I factor Late work into final grades at the end of the semester.
As needed, I use these statements with my students:
- I accept work that is complete.
- I accept work that is organized.
- I accept work that shows "proof" of each step we've gone over in class.
- I'll accept this work when I see that you have completed_________.
Evaluating Student Writing
When I evaluate student writing, again, I do not use a point-based system. I also do not use letter grades. Instead, I use rubrics that students and I have created that have focus areas for a particular genre/form/mode. Or, I use holistic rubrics that correlate to district, state, and national standards for Language Arts/English. During test-prep time, district and state testing time, I assess their work with Holistic Rubric Based on 6 Traits (the same rubric used to score our state assessment in Arizona, AIMS).
For most of our writing; however, I feel strongly that my goal is to take students through the Writing Process as many times as I can throughout the school year. Our goal for the year is 15-20 pieces of writing. While this may sound crazy, again, I don't grade everything my students write. I simply follow the aforementioned steps on deadline days.
Often, I've had so many writing conferences with my students throughout the Writing Process, that I don't need to grade every single piece of writing they do. I've seen their growth and progress throughout the quarter/semester/year. We also do a great deal of reflection about the improvements they're making as writers and the areas they still need to work on. Writing conferences, sharing, and the informal and formal evaluations I do allow me to determine what I need to teach with our next writing piece. This process also shows me what I may need to reteach as well.
Because I firmly believe that we are a numbers and grade-crazed society, I'd rather produce writers who can write clearly enough for their readers to understand them than earn a certain number, score, grade. Many good writers know the way we get better at writing is through practice, rinsing and repeating steps, and experimenting with different writing strategies, styles, etc. I'd rather produce writers who can tackle any writing situation they're given than writers who can write to a test prompt or earn a particular score/grade. In the real world, test scores, rubric scores, and number grades don't matter. What matters most is whether or not a reader/readers can clearly follow your ideas.
Giving Feedback Students Can Make Sense Of
Besides rubric scores, I give student feedback in a non-threatening, informal manner. One of the ways that I do this is by simply creating a T-Chart that looks something like this:
3 Things I Like About Your Writing 2 Things That Would Make Your Writing Better
I often give this feedback on a medium-size post-it note that I place on the first page of the student's piece (our first page is always a prewriting strategy like a T-Chart). Depending on the form/genre/type of writing I'm giving feedback on, depends on how much feedback I give my students. With longer pieces, I typically give a lot of feedback.
In a student's final draft, I highlight the mistakes I notice, but I don't correct them. Instead, I inspect the writing and make suggestions on how to improve the writing to make the writer's ideas clearer to the reader. Students must take my advice. They can take or leave their peers' suggestions. Often, I'll leave notes like the following:
Revise again for:
- A new beginning/lead/introduction
- A new ending/conclusion
- More explaining details
- A better title
- A clear main idea
Edit again for:
- missing punctuation
- wrong words (grammar)
- repeated words
- better words
The note I leave for my students is contingent upon their need(s). They may only need to Revise again for a clear main idea. Or, they may need to Revise for multiple changes. In Editing, one student may need to Edit again for spelling and capitals while another student may need to Edit for sentence structure and one main idea per paragraph.
If a student doesn't understand why I highlight a particular mistake, during Work Time (or Tutoring time after school), I give a quick mini-lesson. Again, I don't correct the mistake for the student. I simply read the sentence or paragraph aloud, which often allows the student to "hear" the mistake that needs correction. If the student still doesn't understand how to fix it, I give a mini-lesson on how to fix the problem.
Opportunities for Improvement
Once I've evaluated a student's writing piece through informal feedback or formal feedback (think rubric score), I give the student the opportunity to improve the score or Re-Do it to make it better. Often, the student will fix what I've suggested and then re-submit it for a better score or more feedback. Those students who take the time to Re-Do their work begin to see the patterns in the types of mistakes they're making, and why the need for spending most of their writing time in the Revising and Editing phases is so great.
I'll re-score, or re-evaluate their pieces, give them more feedback and keep following this process until the piece is almost perfect. This means there are very few (if any) mistakes. I'd like to see each student produce one Perfect Piece by the end of the year.
The other way Re-Do pieces work is by having students select their favorite piece of writing from each quarter and having them Re-Do it each quarter using the new writing strategies I've taught them. Again, by the end of the year, they should have a Perfect Piece.
Life as an English Teacher, Simplified
Grading student writing doesn't have to be complex. If we want students to take their writing seriously, we have to show them that we're simply readers trying to make sense of what they've written. We do this by:
- modeling the writing strategies we expect them to use in their writing with our own writing
- reading their writing as readers (and writers)
- giving informal and formal feedback in language they understand
- allowing many opportunities for growth (ie. Re-Dos)
- providing tangible feedback in language they can make sense of
- inspecting their writing for mistakes and avoid correcting them
- scoring/evaluating their writing with rubrics
- taking them through the Writing Process as many times as we can in a school year
By following the aforementioned process, I've had a lot of success in helping my students become better writers. At the end of the semester when grades are due, those students who have followed the writing strategies I've shown them, taken my advice, completed multiple Re-Dos, and have put forth a lot of effort to become better writers typically earn a good grade. More importantly, they've learned the skills that good writers use everyday. Skills that they'll carry forward long after they've left my classroom.
For more ideas on practical approaches to grading, see: The 3P Grading System: A Faster, Fairer, Easier Way to Grade.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.