Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why I Grade

As a secondary English/language arts teacher I am working to create students who are curious, who find writing meaningful, who are willing to invest themselves in their writing (Alfie Kohn's "support model"). At the same time, I want to teach my students how to write coherent paragraphs, how to create thesis statements, how to support their ideas with examples, and how to use language with accuracy and precision (Kohn's "demand model"). Kohn sets these two sets of goals in opposition to each other, but I don't want to think that I have to choose between the two. I want my students to learn to play with words, to construct meaning through words, but I also want my students to be able to write strong thesis-driven essays -- the kind of high-stakes writing that they will need to do over and over again in school. I don't think these goals have to exclude each other, though I think Kohn believes that they do. . .

After reading Lynn Bloom's "Why I (Used to) Hate to Give Grades" and Alfie Kohn's "Grading: The Issue is Not How but Why," I am left thinking: "So the kids are better off without me???" In both pieces, the authors suggest that teachers most often do more harm than good, with regard to the assessment of writing. Grading writing (mostly) discourages, stifles, or misleads our students, so better to resist quantifying anything -- instead just let them write? Hmmmm. . . . . .

I believe that students become better writers through revision. I like what Kelly Gallagher tells his students: You have to write the bad writing first to get to the good writing. I really believe this. And it is grades that motivate students to revise. I think this works. (I know Bloom and Kohn would disagree). 8th graders tend to want to view writing as a kind of race -- get it over with as quickly as possible. Revision is not appealing at all -- but because a grade is attached, students do revise and rework and redo, and they become better writers and thinkers as a result. In the last two years, I have begun using a policy in which students are allowed to revise and resubmit all of their major writing assignments if they choose. Most of the students who do choose to resubmit are motivated to improve their original grade. If nothing else, students are learning how to revise their work.

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