The Ides of March Approach


I can’t get past the lack of time and space for reflection and creativity this semester, and how detrimental it is to reel from one task to another without breathing, without taking stock, without time for humor or fun. Yesterday I started my Twitter day with a tweet about my students in need of these slow-spaces, and then while catching up with blogs and tweets, I saw examples of all kinds of people off-kilter. We’re all stressed out.

Today it’s no better. I’ve watched students filling just about every seat in the library. I should be delighted to see our splendid space so well used, kids with books and all, but I suspect it isn’t about deep, sustained learning at all. In other words, the Ides of March and midterms coincide rather nicely around here.

The students in the library look sickly, tired, stressed out.
In class they look sickly, tired and stressed out.
In conference they look sickly, tired, and stressed out.

Even when I try to help my students to develop reflective and creative practices by giving them ample space and time and encouragement, they look at me wanly, smiling fondly, knowingly, as if to an uncomprehending child–and then, as though against their will, they let all the many demands on their time poach that quiet, creative space. They apologize. And get more stressed out.

So the question is–a conundrum–how, under these circumstances, do I help them find reflective, creative slow-space (which is by its very nature open-ended and ongoing) if I do not specify how, exactly, and when, through actual teacher-directed and evaluated assignments?

A tweet this morning by Nathan Rein, asks about his stressed-out students, why they care so much about grades when they will hardly matter down the road. We all know that it is a downward spiral, the relationship between stress and grades–students cramming and writing furiously–for ALL of their classes at once, but separately, carving their days into “If it’s 10:00, it must be chemistry; if it’s 11:00, it must be sociology.” They didn’t have time to vote. But we don’t stop. We stick to our midterms and our papers. We are deeply complicit in this frazzed-out state of affairs. At what cost?

To address the stress-grades-lack-of-creative-risk-taking problem in my own classroom, a long time ago I realized that in concert with creating space within the syllabus for deep thinking and creativity, I had to rethink evaluation altogether. Whereas I had always threaded community-building and critical-thinking development and effective writing processes and formative evaluation into my courses, I struggled with meaningful summative evaluation. And so, I stopped grading individual papers, stories or assignments in favor of more holistic unit portfolios, which in those days I did grade, based on narrative reflections the students wrote to self-evaluate, and my external evaluation of their work. I blogged the details of this method of grading a couple of years ago.

With the shift to subject-centered, collaborative, connective learning practices, I had to change this locus of control. Over the past couple of years, as I have gained confidence in a fluid, open, connective teaching and learning classroom, I have thrown all interim grades out of my courses. I no longer grade those unit portfolios, because while that method freed students up from the stress of a graded paper or story, it kept me as the evaluator who counted, and put too much emphasis on work produced too early in the course–before they had the full learning experience to draw from. I had been the one to establish the rubrics for grading; I took their comments into account, and their self-reflections, but ultimately it was up to me to tell them how they had done. Such an approach was counterproductive–while we worked hard to create a model built on reciprocal apprenticeships, students still leaned on me, much more than as an experienced expert who could guide, mentor and model, but in ways that detracted, I felt, from their ability to find their own ways creatively and critically. It was as though they couldn’t tell whether they were learning unless I told them so. It was as though they couldn’t learn without me. Baloney.

Over the past couple of years, I have developed an evaluation process inspired by my colleague, Hector Vila, and his hybrid system of giving frequent, pointed formative feedback and then having the students propose and defend a grade at the end of the semester. I do something somewhat similar: we grade as a conversation. My classes build the grading rubrics and approaches together, carefully considering the aims of the course and the individual learner, and base them on process and product, and the fact that students have access to models of good writing and bad on previous course blogs archived and linked off the Motherblog.

Here’s a rough sketch of the process at work (it varies of course from class to class):

1. In the Course Overview, under Grading, I write:

The following system both allows you to experiment wildly and requires you to take three pieces of writing from first inklings to completion:


We will develop a grading rubric together during the semester.
You will each write an ongoing narrative reflection about your learning and progress in the course, keeping these standards in mind. At the end of each of the units you will write a unit reflection and meet with bg to discuss your progress based on the standards from our rubric. At the end of semester, you will write a final, hypertext narrative self-evaluation and present your work, including a proposed final grade to bg in a one-on-one conference much as people do in performance evaluations out in the work world.

We discuss this system briefly during the opening class. I also ask them to write letters to the class introducing themselves and telling us about their histories as writers. I open the final week of the semester by giving them copies of these letters to read, and asking them to write to that self who wrote the first letter. In other words, I open the ending by circling right back to the beginning.

2. Three or so weeks into the semester, once they are comfortably situated and beginning to come together as a community, we talk about grades generally and how to recognize excellence in this particular course. We discuss what we should value in their work and why. They share past grading experiences, and I ask how many have had bad grading moments (as opposed to bad grades). Everyone raises a hand. In fact, we did just this in class today–here is the board-scribble charting that first step:
Opening the Evaluation Conversation
Today, after coming up with the areas for evaluation and the evaluators, we stopped. I asked them to think over what we discussed, and to be ready in a week to propose percentages to assign Effort, Improvement, Risk and Quality and how we’ll use grades to assess these areas. We talked about when should they evaluate themselves, and when should they have external evaluators, and whether they wanted to/should evaluate one another after having worked so closely together and providing one another with ongoing feedback. In past semesters, some groups have opted to give one another a “feedback evaluation” (not a grade) as to how responsive and effective they had been on the blogs and in workshop.

3. Over the course of two-three weeks, we continue the conversation in short bursts, 10-15 minutes of class time on a couple of days. Some readers might recoil from this expenditure of precious class time, but I have found it an incredibly beneficial use of our time. We get to talk about what we’re learning here and why. They ground the bits of the course within the context of the greater learning goals, and they take ownership of their process and progress. Suddenly, grades are not quite so evil. (I’d prefer to go through the process without the grade part, but my hands are tied on that score.) In my experience, the quality of the work improves, the students are happier, and the learning endures. And the grading is fair.

Notes from our grading discussions in a first-year seminar this past fall:

<img src=”” width=”240″ height=”180″ alt=”grading” / gradingelements


4. Feedback. Students give one another ongoing constructive feedback (I put them in 6-person feedback loop groups, changing the groups with each unit), and receive it from me, and from our course tutors, seniors who have taken this course with me. I assign the class the tutors’ writing from when they took the course–they can see that even th tutors weren’t necessarily so skilled or confident at creative writing when they started. I cannot understand how we expect students to learn how to produce work reflective of their learning if we never show them models of whatever kind of work this is in our courses. Why do students read professional writing only? My students have available a wealth of examples through the archived course blogs (seven years’ worth). They write hypertext narrative reflections at the end of each of four units, and then meet with me one-one-one in conference to discuss their progress.

Two posts ago (back in November), I wrote the following:

“The challenging process of working through the course grading rubric with the class, to reach consensus, was well worth it–I think. I won’t really know until the end of the semester when they have met with me individually one last time to propose and defend a grade based on that rubric. What has been particularly striking about the conversations over the semester about the grading is the sharing about the mysteries of high school grades, of their interest in finding a fair balance between quality versus growth, and of their suggestion to evaluate one another. Grading Rubric Post from Course Blog and one student’s take on the balance between growth and quality. They want that experience and feedback, and to have those evaluations taken into consideration when proposing their course grade. And so, there are three layers of evaluation to this course: their own, their classmates’, and mine. For once I am actually looking forward to the grading process. Imagine–did I just say that?”

5. At the end of the semester students write a hypertext reflective narrative of their journey through the course, taking into account the initial letter they wrote, as a marker from which to explore their learning. They propose a grade based on the grading rubrics and guidelines, which they defend in a one-on-one conference with me. I evaluate their work as well, and we come up with a course grade together. Sometimes, but not usually, a student and I will initially disagree on the grade, but through the course of the discussion, we reach consensus. It is always a wonderful experience for them to trace the journey to me, with me.

At the end of last semester, I posted an entry with excerpts from my students’ final reflections as they took stock of the entire process, grades and all.

This kind of ongoing feedback looping and close bonding makes the end of the semester tough on the first-years, in particular, but for good reasons. I wrote the following reflection at the end of the seminar:

“My first-years, most of whom were accustomed to year-long courses, felt the end of their first semester writ large as a strange, unsettling flurry of final papers and exams and then DONE. OVER. MOVE ON. How strange to have bonded so closely, so intensely with fourteen other students and a teacher in a first-year seminar and twelve weeks later know that you’ll never all be in class together again. This is a huge tension in my way of teaching which encourages students to integrate this course into their lives instead of shoe-boxing it. It makes the end potentially wrenching, and so the process of collaborative grading needs to bring a measure of closure to the experience while encouraging ongoing exploration and application of the learning to their lives.”

And so on I go, searching for ways to foster learning that matters to students, that endures and encourages contemplation, creativity, and fun. And I’m going to make sure I keep balance in mind for myself, too.


4 Responses

  1. Barbara – your process is very interesting in getting the students to take ownership in considering their own work. That’s a big plus. But I continue to wonder about this counter-factual — If the institution didn’t ask us to assign course grades, would we come up with the need for giving them based on the learning benefits alone?

    I’m not going to try to answer that here – I don’t know the answer. But I would suggest a different type of thing is possible based on what you’ve done already. Given the stuff is already online, could you give alumni of your class, 6 months hence, a year hence, several years hence, access to their own writing in your course and allow them to reflect on it in retrospective. For the pieces that they were proud of near the time of composition, are they still proud? Has their writing continued to mature? (It’s on this question that I wonder about the end of semester grade.) Would they even be interested in doing such an exercise – only for themselves and not for any type of cert? But if the were, say out of nostalgia, would the process hold up that way?

  2. Lanny,

    Good question–I hope the answer is no, we would have the good sense to eshew grades altogether. My younger daughter attends gradeless Hampshire, and has to go through a good deal of rigorous review, including reflecting back. It begins to get at what you suggest about having alums look back. My tutors do that as they have those early works in front of them, being read by the younger students. It’s a pretty interesting, humbling, and actually inspiring experience for them. For instance, one had forgotten all about a piece she had written, and now wants to return to it for her thesis.

    I frequently receive emails from alums, years down the road, looking back at those early writing experiences, remembering those pieces, fondly, and seeing the seeds of their current writing selves in those young writers. They find their old blogs. I think your idea is quite an intriguing one, to follow up with alums, have them look at the writing from years before, and reflect once again. If I were sticking around here, I’d follow up on it. Maybe I will anyway. Thanks.


  3. Barbara —

    I have been running around electronically the past two weeks trying to get our class’ contributions to the college alumni fund fleshed out. Your name wasn’t on my list, but when you decided to contribute, your name came my direction with a mention of your blogging passion and a link. Which I followed and found a bear snarling about the Vermont primary election. Having a house in VT, and remembering you vaguely from freshman year, I read a little further.

    Then came to mind an e-mail I had sent earlier in the day to our classmates Sherry and Diana, at a low point in the quest for more donors. About my daughter, who as a freshman in public high school is complaining daily about boredom in her classes. She is a competent student, maybe of Middlebury caliber and maybe not. Her threats about stopping doing homework, in an attempt to force me to send her to another school, have me worried that she will lose her shot at a college that might resolve her boredom.

    Here are the guts of the e-mail I had sent:

    “I am sitting here having just read three short vignettes written by my 14 year old daughter about “tears,” for her freshman English class. One concerns her confusion re. traveling to Chicago at age 5 or so to attend the funeral of her grandfather. She still doesn’t fully understand as she puts on a black dress and later goes through the viewing line and sees him lying cold and still in the casket. But after turning back to take her seat, she finds her oldest cousin with tears streaming down his face, then she runs back up to the casket to touch her grandfather’s hand for the last time. Another is about being locked out of my office one Saturday afternoon, trapped in a deserted hallway with her older brother, who had forgotten the key code to get back in. She finds herself for the first time being the stronger one, comforting him as he cries over their desperation and his failure. The third is about receiving a note from a boy in her homeroom class in 5th grade that caused her to start crying as she sat in her seat. And the kindness of her teacher who ended class early and spent time with her quietly in her office talking about her own adolescence in Germany, and then her best friend who comforted her by twirling her as they had done to each other for years. Neither of the comforters, sensing how hurt she was, asked her to reveal the contents of the note. (Although her essay remains quiet on this, the passed note made her aware of a hurt she had unknowingly perpetrated on the boy and shattered her sense of belonging and self-worth; a year later, she succeeded in convincing us to let her change schools — I think in large part to leave the scene of the crime.)

    Whew, amazing! Enough to make a person cry.”

    I did in fact cry reading her writing. Something is working for her in her English class, but she doesn’t recognize it. And I think of my own life, increasingly connecting with others via e-mail — some of them people I hardly knew in college, but we are finding conections in what we exchange around the edges of — in my case — raising money for colleges, chasing branches of my genealogy with total strangers who happen to share a last name somewhere far back on the tree, etc. Almost random connections, but they lead to writing, and being funny, and developing a persona. And in many cases, leaving it behind when the alumni fund year ends, when the tree is exhausted, when the project ends. How I wish it could be more intense, even for just a while. How I wish for my daughter, whose life revolves around text messaging, to find a deeper, more satisfying connection to her schoolwork and to a future that might, just maybe, have some resemblance to what you are plotting for your own life direction as spring starts to blow in from the west, as the crust starts to soften on that VT ice pack.

  4. I thought of this post when I read your article.

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