Grading Partnerships in the Classroom, Conversation #3

I know that I have been hammering away about grading in the new classroom, student responsibility, and faculty resisting substantive change to the way they teach and therefore use grades, but I’m doing it again here, because of an amazing class yesterday during which I watched my students connect with one another in authentic, deep-learning ways.

Lanny Arvan’s excellent post on personal responsibility in the face of our full-on financial crisis, and what it should mean to us and our students, reminds me of something Harry Matthews said in his “Excellence without a Soul” speech here a couple of months ago (and in his book): academic institutions have basically abdicated the responsibility to teach integrity, to teach values, to talk about the pressing questions of being human right now right here as we mentor our students along their way to responsible citizenship. We are distracted by our own research. By the lack of time. We complain that here isno time for anything, not as things stand now with our major requirements for graduation, our singular focus on only whatare doing in our own classrooms. We’re afraid to change. We’re afraid of change.

One of my students in a recent post wrote,

I enjoyed this unit tremendously. I think much of it had to do with the exploration of self and the reflective aspect and nature of the genre. Writing some of the exercises during this unit and doing the longer pieces gave me assigned time to think about myself, which I thought quite uplifting, in a way, because we, as students, are so busy these days that we hardly ever have time to contemplate—really contemplate—things such as our childhoods or moments that have shaped us. Writing about these moments gave me an opportunity to get in touch with myself, and I think I needed this.

Indeed. If we do not give our students time and space to contextualize their learning, time to contemplate who they are and what they are doing, then how do we expect them to do anything but find the quickest avenues to “success” ?

Lanny writes:

Somehow we need to create a grades-don’t-matter environment where the decisions that students make have clear consequences on others and where the students can readily see those consequences, then reflect on them and on their own choices. This would let them learn the lesson for themselves, not to please others. All I can conclude is that it seems more likely to happen in a co-curricular setting than in actual courses. Yet even then it seems more likely that students will learn the opposite lesson to what we want – everyone else is cheating so why shouldn’t I? This is a tough one to crack.

It takes time and a concerted effort to help students to slow down, as Mark Edmundson also urges, though I do not agree with his top-down approach. I want them to come to these conclusions themselves, together, looking at one another across the circle, listening, and entering the contact zones, wrestling for themselves with the questions of whether to have laptops in class, for instance, or how grades are going to figure into the learning experience. Have we forgotten the whole student?

I have written a bit about my current creative writing class, about the fabulous work they have done in multimedia expression, and just now in creative nonfiction, and some, too, about how long it has taken them to come together as a group, to trust one another, to open up to one another–to trust me and this process of participating in a learning community where learning to read one another’s work-in-progress and commenting on it is an important part of the course. I’ve blogged about the shift I have seen lately, how they are now coming together. They are beginning to care about each other as writers, and as complex people, not just fellow students who happen to be taking the same class.

Our three-part conversation about grading has played a role in this shift, I believe. During the initial discussion we decided upon the areas that should be assessed: risk, effort, improvement and quality.
Opening the Evaluation Conversation

During the second conversation, we discussed percentages to be given each of those areas, as well as how to consider the individual’s writing, and the individual’s contributions to the group, and the balance of self-assessment and outside assessment.
grading percentages

Yesterday we voted on the percentages to be given to each area.
The discussion explored the relationship between the various parts of the course to the whole–what does quality mean exactly, how can effort and risk be separated–doesn’t effort lead to improvement automatically? And questions about the individual’s responsibility to the self and to the group. I wish I had recorded the discussion–they wrestled with the urge to do their own work, to focus on their own writing projects versus the urge to spend time helping each other out, reading and responding, commenting and discussing, and participating in the group conversation. This is what happens, I believe, when we take grades out as much as possible–meaning, stop grading individual assignments, and yet discuss assessment to push their thinking about why they are here in the first place, and what it is they can get out of this course, and how. And what it means to balance self-interest and group-interest, and how serving the group is to serve the self, ultimately. Now, when they walk into class, the chatter subsides, and they move with excitement into a world where their contributions count and are counted on, where they have a say in the process and the outcome. This is not me being a magician, a guru, a cult figure. This isn’t about me at all–and that’s been the hardest piece of the puzzle to fall into place for them. For the most part, they know only classrooms dominated by the teacher.

Every year, it gets a little harder, I think, to pry the kids out of themselves (their in-the-moment needs and desires) and out of the rut of the way they have been conditioned to experience a formal learning environment while getting them to take their own work seriously (deeply, over time). Another student wrote recently,

“While some early discussions and workshops felt akin to having teeth pulled, by this time in the semester I feel that our class has laid down a solid foundation and begun to grow from it. This developing bond is encouraging to me as a writer, reader, critic, and classmate, and that dark bleak hour between 3 and 4 am has recently become much less intimidating on account of the obligation I feel towards the class’ creative, academic, and group health.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.


7 Responses

  1. Barbara,

    I have not read your blog in a while, but found myself yearning for inspiration. Reading about the possibility of a course without grades, students concerned with both ‘self-interest’ and ‘group-interest’, genuine accountability, and that last post from the student who mentions “group health” – I am again blown away.

    Students caring about group health in the sense of the whole student, in the sense that we are citizens participating in community larger than ourselves and larger than the classroom, is something to believe in.

    I wish I wish I wish that this classroom you write about didn’t sound like magic, that that classroom I remember was still as fresh in my memory as it was three years ago. Sometimes it seems so long ago that I can’t remember if what I’m now longing for was ever really there.

  2. Megan,

    It’s so good to have you here again! You have been one of the students whose own brave determination to shape her learning experience and to make every moment count has so influenced and guided my teaching.

    Don’t despair–make that magic happen yourself, if not in a formal classroom then in the informal ones. Blog about it, start a group on campus, speak to the administration–demand change! I couldn’t make it happen beyond my classroom, but you and your fellow students can!


  3. […] by Ganley was Grading Partnerships in the Classroom, Conversation 3 which you can access at In this particular blog she talks about how allowing students to be the teacher in a way of […]

  4. […] information about evaluation, I came across a March 21, 2008 post by Barbara Ganley titled “Grading Partnerships in the Classroom, Conversation #3.”  In this post, Ms. Ganley discusses how she and her creative writing students worked […]

  5. […] am I searched through a few articles by both Ganley and Fisher and found Ganley’s article “Grading Partnerships in the Classroom: Conversation #3″ to be my favorite.  The thing that stood out the most to me was what Ganley quoted from a speaker […]

  6. […] In Barbara Ganley’s blog, Good Partnerships in the Classroom, Conversation 3, found at, she discusses how grading should change.  Students need to learn in an environment where they […]

  7. I have had a similar dilemma recently with grading my students. Let me say this first though. Breaking down the parts of the course in weighting the grades has been very helpful with my Fine Arts/Special Areas team. This is the third year that we have sent notes home at the beginning of the year stating that our grading is broken down into 25% Tests, 25% In-class work and homework, and 50% participation. Participation may be based on if the student didn’t bring tennis shoes for the day they have P.E. and therefore, for safety issues, they have to sit out and not participate, or if they didn’t remember to bring their recorder to class, or if they are consistently off task that day and therefore not participating.
    This brings me to my initial dilemma. I have been sending practice sheets home with my students with a chart for them to initial when they practice and for a parent or guardian to initial it as well. They return this for a grade. Some students asked, “What if you don’t really practice the amount you said you did and the parent signs it anyway?” Well, I told them that I have had that problem in the past. Based on the criteria that was asked of them and the parent and that it was met, I had to give the student a good grade. However, I knew from their playing that they had NOT practiced and didn’t know their fingering and lied. This grade showed up in their performance grade. I also told the students that they would know in their heart whether they EARNED the grade they received. It’s not about getting an A or B but whether you did your best. I have given an A to those who did not sound the best, but did their best and tried hard. Sometimes that’s the difference between participation grades and written grades. It’s not always the quantity of what the student does but the quality of their learning experience.

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