Passing the Buck: The First Major Grade

This is the latest in my updates about my experiment in ungrading. The first post is here. The second here. And the third here

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.

Dear Melissa, who said she wasn’t voting for Biden because she’s Cuban and would never vote for socialism

Dear Melissa,

First of all, no, I would not like to “spit at you” and didn’t think that asking if you’d support Biden was at all like spitting at you. So, sorry about that.

I would have liked to discuss some issues with you when we spoke on the phone, but since I was calling on behalf of the Sierra Club and they’d asked me not to argue with anyone, I didn’t argue.

But I do wish we could have talked more. You said that, as a Cuban, you could never vote for Biden because his plans were socialist.

That’s not really accurate, but that’s not even the part I want to discuss with you.

Let me ask you, Melissa, what is the real problem in Cuba? Is it really socialism?

Are the Cuban people complaining about their socialist healthcare system, for example?

Or is the real problem in Cuba authoritarianism? The lack of transparency in government? The lack of democratic representation in government? Aren’t those the things that are really wrong with Cuba?

Because those are the things that Trump represents.

He has already gutted our government by installing figures loyal to him–not to America, and not to the constitution, to him. Does that remind you of any communist dictators? Guys like Castro? Demanding loyalty? I think so.

You can kind of see how Trump feels about authoritarianism from the way he talks about dictators, don’t you think?

Because he sees himself as an authoritarian ruler like those dictators, Trump has undermined our democracy as much as he can, both by seeking foreign interference and by questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming election. He and his party are trying to suppress voters and delegitimize votes, basically doing anything they can to maintain what is already minority rule by the Republican party. (I’m sure you know Trump lost the popular vote by millions, but did you know, Melissa, that the 53 Republican senators represent ten million fewer Americans than the 47 Democratic senators?)

Basically, Trump’s party knows that they are facing a country where they can no longer win in open, fair elections at the national level and they’re looking to rig the process in their favor. Rigged elections where the outcomes were already decided are one of those things I remember learning about communism in school. How about you?

Now, Melissa, I know that the scars from Castro’s regime run deep in the Cuban American community, but everything that makes America different from Cuba is under threat right now. So maybe you should look past boogeyman scary words like “socialism,” which is–for the record–actually a pretty far cry from what Joe Biden represents, and focus on the tangible, harmful things that this president has done to our nation and our world.


Richard Helmling

(and not the Sierra Club)