After I first gave feedback to my online classes, I got a couple of “how can I raise my grade” e-mails.
I told them: “Remember that, as per the syllabus, you don’t technically have any grades yet. The score I gave you for your participation is only feedback. Your first actual grade will come when we confer on your Memoir essay in a couple of weeks. Your grade for participation in the discussion forums won’t be final until the end of the semester. For now, use the rubric in the syllabus to assess your own participation. Did you look at the comments I gave you about your participation? Do you agree with my assessment?”
So my students are definitely still thinking about grades, and–frankly–so am I. If anything, I’m thinking about grades more this semester than ever before.
In my “live” classes, the progress reports–required every three weeks–are weights around my ankles. I was so frustrated by them that I sought help and advice from my Facebook group for “teachers throwing out grades.” Some there were appalled at the idea of three week progress report cycles, and I agree. They are pointless, but mandatory. The people who’ve successfully managed this transition would probably have their eyes roll out of their heads if I told them that my district required fifteen daily grades each grading period–a requirement I am able to skirt only because I teach Dual Credit and the syllabus I file with the college trumps those rules.
This past week that syllabus said it was time for students to submit their first major essay, the Memoir.
I made one critical mistake leading up to this first “ungraded” essay–an unforced error. In class, I typically spend some time going through sample essays and practicing with the rubric. Because of remote learning, when I was prioritizing what students could do independently and what I would try to coordinate through the teeny tiny video windows in Microsoft Teams, I blundered and decided not to spend a lot of time calibrating with the rubric. This was a hair-brained mistake. Obviously if the students are going to be scoring themselves, then the last thing I should have trimmed back was time using the rubric. I foolishly counted on an example I provided with its own written evaluation being enough for them to calibrate. At least this is a mistake I don’t have to repeat and with the next major essay I can spend more time in scoring practice (punchline: we just got word that we won’t be going back to class in person next week after all, so I won’t be able to do the activity I’d planned–awesome).
The other problems I have with my system are harder to band aid.
And there are problems. I have to admit to being pretty disappointed. I know that expecting everything to go smoothly would be absurd. Obviously, a shift like this in my grading practices and in the structure of my class was going to require tinkering, redesign, and growing pains. But after the first major grade, I feel like my basic design is inadequate and that finishing the semester without rebuilding the plane in mid-flight is going to be tedious and tiresome.
Probably partly because of my poor decision not to spend more time putting them through the paces with the rubric, I feel like the grades students are walking away with are wildly inconsistent. I’m letting some talk their way into higher grades than I would have given them while others mark themselves down…But from past experience I know that even with group and class activities with the rubric, some students come away with wildly different notions of what good writing looks like. I think the only way to do this kind of ungrading well is to have individual conferences with each student. This system where I only engage when I see a big discrepancy just isn’t fair. But I cannot imagine how to scavenge enough time to meet with every student one-on-one.
But more than anything, I’m not seeing enough of the quality reflections I’d want to, ideally. Some are thoughtful, but for the most part I think they’re perfunctory. They’re not doing them because they want to think deeply about their progress as writers, but because they have to, because I made them.
Because they need their grades.
We are all, the kids and I, still trapped in a crappy system. My grand plan to try to break us out of it feels naive and draining for all involved.