This is Part II of my record and reflection on Ungrading. Part I is here.
I am two weeks into the semester now.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Revolt? Shock and awe? Between my description on the syllabus and the supplementary video I recorded for my students, I got almost zero questions about the grading system. I think I had to elaborate once or twice in six “live” sessions and not-at-all for my one purely online asynchronous class. Of my 200 plus survey responses, very few mentioned the grading system. One notable exception read:
“My concerns right now is that I have to grade my own essay and I have never done that before. Also the grading system it somewhat excites me knowing there are no more points but at the same time that terrifies me.”
Which is pretty much exactly what I would hope a kid would think and say about it…well, except for the terror.
I can relate, though. I started to feel, if not terror, then at least anxiety as I began grading, er, dammit–began reading my students’ writing samples last week. They were assigned a one page analysis of Anna Quindlen’s “Write for Your Life” so that I could get a sense of their capabilities and have a benchmark for their writing portfolios. Ordinarily, I would soak these pieces in comments, correcting typical errors, criticizing over-summarization, suggesting angles for deeper thinking.
But, this semester, I’d vowed not to make anyone cry with my feedback, so…
I tried to keep my feedback almost entirely in question form and to only post about three questions for each student to think about in revising their pieces this week. For me, though, it felt like pulling my punches. I worried that I was being too soft. After all, kids whose writing needed a lot of work might not get the sense of how deeply flawed their efforts were. Kids who really knocked it out of the park may not have a sense that they had done well. I also felt like the questions I was asking were just the same old critiques in different syntax.
So, yeah, maybe there was some terror. Fear I wasn’t doing anyone any favors.
But when I found myself writing this comment, I started to feel like I was getting it:
It was a simple moment in feedback. Last year, I would’ve just put “example?” in the margin and moved on. Or, worse, might have just slapped something like “this is vague.” But the open ended question felt like much more of an invitation to conversation than a rebuke. I started to, I think, get a sense of the ethos I was going for with all of this. So in another essay, instead of just barking at the student to be more specific, I said:
So I thought back to those kids whose work needed lots of, well, work. How much good was I going to do them by just overwhelming them with negative feedback? Wouldn’t that lead to the kind of shutting down I said before I wanted to avoid? And what about those kids who could already write a great one-page analysis (that actually took them three pages)? Shouldn’t they get more out of it than a sense of smug satisfaction? So I left them notes that part of academic writing was working within limits and guidelines and asked how they could focus on the most important elements for a one-page response? And I found questions to ask them about their ideas, too. More nuanced, more focused, perhaps. But I tried to give everyone something to think about.
It felt like progress.
But looming on the horizon is the prospect of progress reports.
My original plan was to give the students a temporary grade as feedback. I would use the BlackBoard rubric for their online discussions to give them my sense of how well they were doing and protest up-and-down that it wasn’t really a grade and they shouldn’t think of it as such and it’s just feedback, I pinky promise.
Looking back, as the first number to get slapped on them in this supposedly fundamentally different class, this now looks like a terrible, horrible, very bad idea.
Fortunately, fate intervened. There was massive miscommunication between our high school campus and the college where the students are enrolled for their Dual Credit classes and the rosters on the college side look like they were diced in a food processor when compared to the real class rosters at the high school. Going into their first weekend reading assignments that require BlackBoard discussion posts, at least 20% of my students are either in the wrong class section in BlackBoard (and would see their contributions to the BlackBoard forums erased when they get moved) or aren’t even yet able to access BlackBoard.
On top of that, I want discussion to extend throughout the whole week, but knowing my campus, we’ll have to post progress report grades by noon on Friday, leaving me very little time to actually record scores for BlackBoard participation.
Again, thank god for all that nonsense.
Because thinking “what am I going to do” got me past the cockamamy plan of just trying to grade hundreds of BlackBoard posts Thursday night–if all the kids can even get into BlackBoard by then–and made me remember that the students are supposed to be evaluating themselves. If this is their first of the necessary-evil grades, then they should, ya know, grade themselves.
So instead of me slapping a number on them as teachers always have before, in class starting tomorrow, I will take them through a BINGO game identifying common errors and stylistic faux pas in writing to let them get a sense of what issues they need to improve. Then they will read a sample student exemplar of the assignment they just turned in and write a reflection in their portfolios assessing how well they did. Then they will give themselves a progress report grade with this rubric:
A – I completed a thorough analysis in a timely fashion and took thoughtful notes on all the weekend readings.
B – I completed a solid analysis on time, but I feel I could have done a little bit better; I read the assigned readings and took helpful notes.
C – I completed my analysis (but it was late or not the best I could have done); I did some of the assigned readings and took some notes.
D – I completed my analysis late and did not get very far with the readings.
F – I did not complete my analysis.
There! Now I’ve completely acclimated to Ungrading and from here on out, everything will be hunky dory?