It was just about a year ago when I decided my 2016 New Year’s resolution would be to start a blog. It was a no-brainer what it would be about-education and teacher education–and edukention seemed to be a pretty honest name for what I planned to do: express my own opinions on whatever aspects of my profession I felt like in the moment.
I began my blog in early January 2016 with the first post about a nasty part of education that has always bothered me. This remained my most-read post until recently. But I followed up quickly with a post about how lucky I was when I first started teaching. (In 1988!)
I kind of lost focus in the middle of the year, but I picked it up again in October 2016. In November, I wrote a post on the futility of grading objectively, which became my most-read post by far.
It’s been a pleasure to write this blog because it’s helped me clarify some of my own ideas. It’s also helped me better understand a genre I frequently assign my students to compose, and I made some friends (via Twitter and Facebook) along the way. I have no real evidence that my blog has contributed anything to anyone except myself, but some have expressed gratitude for some of the posts, which is truly icing on the cake.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about blogging is the tracking. I don’t mean any of this to brag (my blog remains an incredibly modest effort), but rather to show how cool a blog can be and what fun it can be to put one’s ideas out there. Here are some fun stats I’ve gotten from WordPress:
In 2016, my blog got 4733 views from 3478 visitors:
December was my biggest month for views, after last January. This is due primarily to the one blog post.
WordPress also logs the countries of your visitors, which is really fun. Most of my views (about 4500) came from the US. But I also received hundreds of views from visitors in over 40 countries. And one of my posts, one on liking my students, was translated into Norwegian and reblogged there!
Regarding my most-read post, even though I published it on Dec 8, something happened on December 16, as the graph below shows. Someone shared it somewhere, where a bunch of people read it at once.
Another thing WordPress does that is pretty cool is track shares of the post on Facebook, LinkedIn, and some other sources. Here is the tracking for that popular post:
That’s a lot of shares (for me) on Facebook. My closest to that for Managing the Grading Grind is only 65.
Final Thoughts and Looking Forward to a New Year
I have enjoyed my blogging, and I have every intention of continuing it in 2017. I think it’s going to be quite a year for educators, and I am certainly going to want a platform to express my views and try to keep some clarity.
I think blogging is fun and valuable. I will continue to encourage (obligate) my students to blog. I think a free exchange of ideas is important. I will try to read more blogs, too, and to comment on more of them. I will also continue to participate in professional discussion on Twitter. I’m not ready to dive into Pinterest or Snapchat, and LinkedIn is still primarily a place for resumes for me.
If you’re following my blog, reading it now or then, or sharing it with others: Thank you!
Happy New Year, and good luck to all of us in 2017.
Since before the Common Core State Standards were just a flicker in David Coleman’s eyes, education reformers with no experience as public school teachers have been trying–within increasing success–to impose their ideas onto public schools.
Many working educators, particularly teachers who work constantly with students, wonder how those without any experience doing the job could possibly do a good job of creating curriculum or education policy. Think about it: all military leaders have been through basic training; all union leaders have been “on the line;” all bishops have been priests; all principals have been teachers. There’s a symmetry of experience here that makes sense.
Elected officials are not expected to be experts in everything; but, they are expected to surround themselves with experts who will lead efforts in their areas of expertise and advise the elected official on the matter. But on education for too many years and under democratic and republican administrations, education leadership (especially education reform) has lacked any genuine expertise.
An Unlikely Model: Tony Danza
A few years ago I was given the opportunity to meet with Tony Danza who had recently published a book about his year-long experience teaching in a high-needs district in Philadelphia. The meeting never happened, as the actor had a fall on his roller-blades a few days before and wound up in the hospital. But the meeting gave me the impetus to read his book, which I confess is not something I’d have probably done otherwise. (There was also a television show, which received some very harsh criticism, and some criticism that praised his efforts, even though they failed to make good TV or to show good teaching.) I thought he book, however, was actually a very thoughtful and endearing read–and I’m not the only one.
Danza taught a tenth-grade English class for a full year under the tutelage of a fully-certified teacher, and during that year he experienced many of the challenges that classroom teachers face. He saw the extreme impact of poverty, encountered gang issues, hard-nosed apathy from students, being out of his depth, and utter exhaustion. And he taught only one class each day!
After a few months the cameras left, as the director and producers found the show was not going to be entertaining enough, but to his great credit, Danza remained for the full year, out of the spotlight and in the real classroom. His book is full of missteps and the “wisdom” he offers is a bit quaint for experienced teachers; but, it is pretty amazing to watch a bright, confident, accomplished person really experience the job of teaching and come completely around on how hard it is and how much expertise it takes. When Danza named his book, it expressed the fact that he now understands the enormous amount of stamina, intelligence, patience, and energy being a good teacher requires. As a result, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had has my respect as an educator.
To hear him give a brief discussion of his experience, check out Mr. Danza’s video about his year teaching.
All Education Leaders Without Real Teaching Experience Should Take The Danza Challenge
I realize that not all education leaders have the time to take a full year from their other work to teach. But, should education leaders–particularly those who are paid with public dollars or who have significant impact on those public dollars–be permitted to shape education without having experienced it as a professional educator? No, of course not.
To address this deficiency in many ed leaders’ backgrounds, I propose The Danza Challenge: Find an ordinary, probably high-needs public school (not a charter school), select a class to teach, and under the tutelage of a certified, professional teacher, teach for at least six weeks. No special treatment, no research assistance, no publicity, no special classes or help. One teacher, one class, one certified teacher. Go!
Is six weeks asking too much from people who are going to shape education nationally? I don’t think so. If Tony Danza–an actor with no political ambitions–did a full year, they can do six weeks.
Why Take The Danza Challenge?
The Danza Challenge would offer the following benefits:
- Education leaders would experience a real-world classroom, bringing them insight into the daily workload and challenges real teachers face.
- They would understand the kind of exhaustion that comes from teaching. It’s not like on television and in movies. It is grueling work.
- They would appreciate the advanced level of intelligence and expertise it takes to teach a room full of students effectively, particularly when that room full of students includes a dramatically wide range of student abilities and backgrounds.
- They would get a better sense of the awesome responsibility real teachers have. Education reform in the board room is one thing. Actually seeing the living, breathing young students–looking into their faces, seeing their eyes as you implement pedagogical strategies and make decisions about cutting or funding services–is something completely different.
- They would learn much more about the real challenges real students face. It’s not just about behaving well in class or getting the “best” teacher. Students’ needs are vast and complicated.
- They would earn a modicum of respect from teachers. In six weeks, it would be just a modicum, but that’s a good start.
Six weeks in the classroom will not give anyone the legitimate experience to claim that they have been a teacher. It’s not enough time. So no one should think of what I’m calling “The Danza Challenge” as a way that non-teachers can suddenly start claiming they are teachers. Instead, the hope here is that education leaders with no experience as teachers will begin to empathize with real teachers. Education leaders should come to understand the awesome task that is teaching, and ultimately education leadership should develop a strong dose of something that’s been missing: Humility.
Education leaders, particularly education reformers, have not been listening enough to real teachers, those in the trenches doing the actual work of education. Anyone who is going to have influence on education policy or practice should walk in the shoes of real educators for at least six weeks. At that point, we can hope those leaders understand what they do not know and they should develop a disposition to run all their ideas past real educators for substantial feedback and probably very deep revision.
The Danza Challenge won’t solve all the problems in education policy, but asking education policy-makers to walk in the shoes of real teachers may be a few steps in the right direction.
I’m sure most teachers have experienced this: You watch some students struggle and struggle to write well. They revise and rewrite. They come for extra help. They work with a writing tutor. But, short of having someone else actually do some of the writing for them, their final products are only so-so.
And then other students with very little exertion of effort can produce a good or even excellent piece of writing that scores high on the rubric. Do we simply file this under “Life Isn’t Fair,” and move on, or is this more of a dilemma?
What is Effort?
Effort goes by many names: sweat-equity, determination, perseverance, grit, work-ethic. To reach one’s true potential, it’s imperative that one expend one’s full effort in a task. In a 2014 Research in the Teaching of English article, Asao B. Inoue calls it “labor failure” when a student underperforms on a writing assignment due to lack of effort.
“[L]abor-failure,” Inoue says, “is often associated with not achieving or demonstrating a defined degree of effort, quantity of written products, and/or amount of time spent on an activity such as reading or drafting. . . Labor-failure is associated with noncognitive dimensions such as conscientiousness, persistence, and motivation.” (339)
An ability, a willingness, even a disposition toward expending effort is a good thing. Few adults would disagree.
Oddly enough, some students disagree. I remember an enlightening conversation I had with an extremely intelligent, accomplished young student when I was in my first couple of years of teaching. Sydney was talking to me about the comments we teachers put on students’ report cards along with their grades. (This was in the very early 90s, and we had a scan-tron system that allowed us to choose from about 40 different comments, such as Student shows excellent potential or Student is frequently late to class.) Sydney told me bluntly that the “smart kids” considered the comment Student works hard in class to be an insult. She said it was equivalent to saying the student wasn’t really succeeding, but at least the student was trying. I countered that often I assign a grade of A and I also comment that the student works hard in class. Sarah was unimpressed. She said, “That’s just as bad. You’re saying the only way the student did well in class was by having to work really hard.” Huh?
This was extremely telling. It wasn’t enough for “the smart kids” to be getting As. Those As had to come from natural ability, not hard work. I was polite to Syndey–who went on to an Ivy League college and I’m sure a fantastically successful career–but I found her attitude utterly loathsome. Doesn’t effort matter? Shouldn’t determination, work ethic, sweat be admired?
Clearly not all students believe this. Maryellen Wiemer cites a study in her 2012 blog for The Teaching Professor in which 120 undergraduates were asked how much effort should count in a writing assignment’s grade. They said effort should count for 39%.
Even still, is the amount of effort expended really relevant to the quality of a piece of writing?
The Value of Writing Quality
Ultimately, writing is what writing does. And no matter how hard one works on a piece of writing, what it does is all that matters in terms of its success. In the world outside school, no one really cares how much the writer has worked. The quality of the piece of writing itself is all that counts. At least until the writer achieves celebrity acclaim, a complication few of us will ever have to worry about.
Students deserve an honest assessment of the quality of their pieces of writing, and they need such an assessment to have an accurate sense of how effective they are as writers in general. Putting too much emphasis on effort could give students an inflated sense of their strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t being nice: This is setting students up for failure.
So what’s a teacher to do?
Putting Effort in Its Place
Teachers have several dilemmas when they grade. I’ve blogged recently about deliberately avoiding objectivity and about retaining humility when one responds to writing. I think determining how and when to include Effort as a criterion is another judgment a teacher has to make each time s/he assigns writing.
Here are some of the guidelines I use as I decide how and when to count Effort:
- The younger the student, the more important it is to include effort as part of the grade. We need to assess and count students’ effort, so they expend the best efforts they can and learn to derive pleasure from working hard and achieving higher-level success from that effort.
- The more advanced and more unfamiliar the genre of writing is to the student, the more emphasis should be placed on Effort. Students will take more risks and try harder if they know their trying will be counted more than the quality of their finished product.
- The older the student and the more specialized they become in the genre being assigned, the less Effort should count, even to the point of not counting at all.
- At the beginning of a school year or a semester, Effort should count more than it does toward the end of the class, when the students are more comfortable with the genre(s) and the teachers’ grading. The steepness of the change should depend on the maturity and writing experience of the students in the class.
- Just as we suspend judgment in some aspects of writing process (brainstorming, for example), we should also suspend judgment of quality in some writing assignments. When that happens is the purview of the teacher and needs to be made on a case-by-case basis for each assignment. As Inoue points out, grading solely on effort can help students focus on their efforts and can also help avoid “the damaging psychological effects, such as performance-avoidance and low self-efficacy, that grading by quality can cause many students” (345).
- There may be occasions when effort should count differently for different students in the same class. It depends on what experience and tolerance for risk-taking the student brings to the assignment.
- When a student’s effort is being considered as part of a grade, the student should be told. It’s important that students know that their effort has real value and is thus worth grade “credit.” Students also need to know what the quality level of their finished writing is.
How to Solve This Dilemma? Student Learning!
Like all dilemmas in teaching, there is a clear compass: student learning. Do what will increase your students’ learning best. Use grading Effort as a dial you can turn from 0-100 to employ the appropriate degree to get the best learning results in each writing assignment in each class for each student. Making these decisions effectively is what professional teachers do, and it’s what makes us experts.
If you’re interested in learning about five (really six) important books that have shaped my professional thinking, please see a blog post I published today on the Heinemann Publishing blog.
In my last post, I wrote about the futility of trying to be objective when grading student writing. The point I make is that teachers must bring their professional judgments to bear on writing as they grade it. Teachers must be completely, intentionally, and unapologetically subjective in their responses to student writing.
But with that authority is the responsibility to be humble.
The Power of the Grader
It’s not news to anyone that teachers have power over their students. Grades and other feedback are among the strongest ways teachers exert their power, sometimes more than they even realize. A stinging comment, a too sharp wise-crack, a too-direct suggestion can crater a student’s confidence and his or her trust in that teacher. But a student’s hurt feelings is actually not the most important reason for teachers to be careful about how they wield the power of the grade and response.
Teachers, like everyone else, can only read through their experience and knowledge. Even the smartest among us has limited experience and knowledge—and it’s likely you are not in the group of “the smartest among us.” I can guarantee you I am not in the group of “the smartest among us”—and I can almost hear my former students’ (and current family
members’) heads nodding in annoyingly enthused agreement! We should not respond to student writing as if we are the sole arbiters of writing quality; nor should we make comments that imply as much. If you do respond to students as if your way is the only correct way, you will set your students up for future failure.
Even more important: well-designed, authentic writing assignments require students to write for audiences well beyond the teacher. The best feedback on that writing comes not from the teacher, but from members of the audience to whom that writing is aimed. In these cases, teachers can pretend to be members of that audience, but this completely artificial. It’s far better if the teacher can devise ways for students to get real feedback from real members of their intended audience. And teachers should use that external
feedback to grade and respond to students’ writing. Teachers shouldn’t be the sole arbiter of student writing, but rather at least in some cases, should be collectors, synthesizers, and communicators of external feedback. If you never count the feedback of other readers in your students’ grades, then you are inflating your own sense of correct and of effective writing. Again, you are setting your students up for future failure.
Four Strategies for Practicing Humility as a Grader of Writing
- Work from a specific handbook for correctness. Choose a style guide that you and your students can use to consult for questions about what is right and wrong regarding grammar, spelling, usage, and other debatable matters in writing. If you don’t choose a standard, you are probably subjecting students to your opinions of what is right and wrong. Even if most people would agree with your opinions (and that’s doubtful in more cases than you might realize), it’s not fair for students to have to guess at what you think is right or wrong. Select a handbook and use that as a reference to which students have access. I favor Diana Hacker’s inexpensive and portable style guide, but there are many others out there. The Purdue OWL is also a terrific resource and is free to anyone with Internet access. For deliciously in-depth debates regarding style & usage there’s no better resource than Garner’s Modern American English.
- Work to make your feedback facilitative, not directive. These are terms I learned decades ago from Cy Knoblauch and Lil Brannon, and they remain critically influential in my teaching and in the teaching of many others. Instead of writing, “This is awkward, organize!” write, “This is hard for me to understand. Could you write this more clearly?” Instead of, “Not enough detail,” write, “As a reader, I’d enjoy reading more about this here.” The point is to honor students as the writers of their papers; we are mere visitors, hoping to leave student writers more aware than we found them.
- Allow students to get and use feedback from each other. But be careful not to make peer response a game in which students have to help each other guess what the teacher will like or not like. Instead, allow the students to talk about what they like in each other’s writing and what they like to hear more or less about in their peers’ work. Even better: incorporate students’ feedback on each other’s work in your grades and responses. In my classes in which I use peer response, I often make comments like the following on student work: “I would really have preferred to see _________ in your writing, but I have to admit that ______ & _______ liked it just how it is, so your writing was effective with them.” Teachers can’t abdicate their authority to make useful judgments on student writing, but we should acknowledge that in the world outside school, there is rarely a single, all-powerful audience like there almost always is in school.
- Swap papers with another teacher and respond to each other’s students. Then you put the grade after reading that other teacher’s feedback. This is a great way to open your mind to other ways of seeing your students’ writing. Sure this can cause debate and could even lead to some embarrassing moments (say you make a mistake in your response), but that will remind you that writing to someone with as much or more authority than you is kinda scary.
Developing Grading Humility
The strategies above can certainly help any teacher remain humble while grading student writing. But, without question, the absolute best way to be humble as a writing grader is to be a writer.
Write often and share it in any of the following ways:
- Start a writing group with friends and colleagues
- Contribute to a blog in your fields of interest
- Send a letter to the editor to your local paper
- Write an op-ed piece for a newspaper
- Send an article to your state NCTE affiliate’s journal (or whatever your professional association’s affiliate journal is)
- Send an article to English Journal
And to really be a writer who teaches writing surrounded by other writers who teach writing, get involved with the National Writing Project. I’ve actually never been a member of the NWP, but I have learned tremendous amounts from those who have.
Striking the Right Balance
Giving supportive, useful, professional feedback on student writing is challenging. I believe it’s something all good writing teachers struggle with throughout their careers. If you’re trying hard to do this well, you’re probably on the right track.
Many newer teachers and non-specialists believe that above all else, teachers should be objective when they grade student writing. That is, they should grade based on fact, not bias. After all, this kind of thinking goes, isn’t it wrong to judge student work subjectively, bringing one’s own thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives to bear on student work?
If teachers are permitted to make distinctions about the quality of students’ writing based on their own ideas and pre-conceived notions, doesn’t that give the teacher too much power? Doesn’t that allow teachers to indoctrinate students, control the ways they think? Doesn’t this encourage brainwashing?!
Grading Writing Objectively is a Myth
You are human. You filter everything through your experience, your understanding, your identify. Who you are is inherently part of how you read. When you read, you make judgments. Making judgments is, in fact, the process you use to read. Trying to eliminate yourself from your understanding of the world is a doomed project.
Plato knew this, and he spent his lifetime trying to find a way around it. He failed. His student, Aristotle, embraced this failure and turned it into a strength, creating entire fields of study to find ways to create data upon which to base decisions.
Don’t be Plato. Be Aristotle.
To put it a little less grandly: it’s actually impossible to read objectively. We can try to create distance from the texts our students create (by using rubrics, for example; or by designing authentic writing projects), but we can only achieve so much of that. Teachers create the assignments, teach ways to complete them, and then have to assess the success of their students’ products. Teachers are way too implicated in this entire process to be able to claim any real level of objectivity with a straight face.
This doesn’t mean teachers should ignore the responsibility to put aside some of their personal beliefs when they great student writing. In fact, teachers have a professional responsibility to be mindful of their personal biases and to ensure they do not interfere with their ability to grade student writing fairly.
Bottom line, teachers should not feel the need to be completely objective in their grading. Nor should they describe their grading as objective. Objectivity is impossible. It’s a fantasy. Objectivity–whether or not we, our students, their parents, our supervisors like it–is a myth.
But that’s good. Grading objectively is actually not desirable.
Grading Writing Objectively is a Trap
Computers can grade objectively. They can read T-Units, count clauses, determine Lexile level, identify most spelling and many punctuation errors, and perform other rote tasks. If you think you should be reading work objectively, you’re trying to be a robot; and, despite all the problems with machine-scoring of student writing, robots will always be better at objective scoring than you will be.
So why do we pay writing teachers? We actually pay them to be subjective.
The whole point of getting grades and responses from teachers is to get their feedback, their opinions, their professional judgment. The more professional judgment a grader can impose on student writing, the more valuable that grader’s feedback is. If teachers remove too much of their professional judgment from their grading in an attempt to be “more objective,” they are actually withholding the very skills, knowledge, and abilities for which they are being paid.
Accepting Responsibility for Making Professional Judgements
Most mature teachers are very comfortable with their responsibility to impose their professional judgment. (In fact, a few are too comfortable.) But newer teachers need time to understand the value of their professional judgment. What they are learning in their education, in their professional development, in their days of teaching and hundreds and hundreds and then thousands and thousands of responses to student writing is that their judgment matters. Writing teachers are, in part, professional judgers. We need to accept that role with confidence, responsibility, and–of course–humility.
In a follow-up blog, I discuss the important ways in which teachers should remain humble as responders to writing, so they are accurate judges and effective teachers. But for now, I want to leave readers with this: Grading effectively requires the use of professional judgment. Objectivity is neither possible, nor desirable in writing assessment.