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.


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.

Flying into Fall: Productive Anxiety* and Creative Tensions

finneyleaping eveningflyers

The beginning of every school year takes me by surprise–I am invariably charmed by my new students one by one as I hear their stories of home and culture, and connect with their learning journey, and welcome them to our classroom community–but I am also reminded of the previous semester and the learning collectives that grew into examples of Pierre Levy’s collective intelligence, each class distinct in character, in attitude, in outcomes; each semester teaching me something new about how to teach with and without computers; each new online learning experience sending me back into learning theory and media theory and current takes on composition theory so as to ground the work, to question what I am doing, and to assess it. I miss the old semester; I delight in the new. And so it goes.

blurringoftheleaves fall woodpile

And now, a month into the semester, I feel the many tensions a teacher feels just about now if she believes in problem-posing, student-centered learning helped along by social software and digital media:

This class is not like any other I have ever taught.

I have to learn how to teach all over again.

What worked last time out might not work now.

I have to help my students survive in this academic culture while trying to bring about change, and sometimes that means that even in an institution that affords me incredible freedoms as a teacher and encouragement in my explorations, I have to teach forms and approaches rarely used outside the halls of the Academy–why do we, in our undergraduate institutions, insist on preparing all of our students for careers as old-school academics?

I try to remember that, as Stephen Downes put it in the wrap-up to the UK edublogging conference this past June, “To teach: be the person you want your students to become.”

For me that means being alert and responsive to the needs of students, helping them light their own fires of learning. That means staying up with developments in my field. That means playing around with digital media in my own work. That means spending the first two weeks of every semester exploring our educational and cultural backgrounds, our individual goals, ourselves as learners, our roles within the collective. We look hard at our deep learning experiences inside and out of classrooms; then we write personal narrative essays out of those experiences, connecting as we do to the larger conversation about learning. I design assignments and experiences for the collective which the group shapes and revises as they get accustomed to having a real hand in the course design. We read one another’s work and get excited (hopefully) about what it could mean to be a part of this learning collective.

And that means that some of the things that I take for granted, that I have prepared for and with the students, need to be shifted, tweaked, or thrown out altogether.


Blogging, for instance, doesn’t always work out quite as I envision. Or at least, some groups take to it, others do not–at least the kind of blogging that asks for conversation, for deep connecting with the material and one another in lively intellectual interaction. Sometimes a group will want to talk in class but work as solo artists on their own blogs. Other groups–and these are usually the ones who are taking my courses because they have announced themselves as writers–can’t wait to talk to each other through blogging–through this kind of exchange. Because I teach a range of courses, this seems absolutely right to me. The flexibility of the online tools allows us to configure and pool them according to the emergent practices, goals, and chemistry of a learning collective. Sometimes we’ll work more in audio, other times in image…sometimes we’ll write the long solo post, sometimes shorter, conversational bits. It’s impossible to predict exactly what we’ll do until we’re doing it. So my class blogs look and feel quite different one from another. And I find it much easier to describe to people what we’ve done than what we’ll do.

I also get asked about reluctant bloggers, how to “motivate” them. I don’t. It’s up to me to show students how these things work and why–I make the pedagogy transparent, exposing them to learning theory and composition theory and new media theory–to get the intellectual juices flowing and the collective engagement moving, to give them a chance to practice some approaches that can feel antithetical to what their expectations about what the college classroom would be like.

But I can’t make them like it or even do it. That’s their responsibility. Their commitment to make. Yes, I want all my students to have this experience connecting with one another, with themselves, and with the world through social software–but they don’t all have to take to this kind of interaction at all. As long as they gain skill in the use of this medium for this kind of deep learning, they can choose to use it or not as they see fit in the future. I’ve learned not to be disappointed when any one group doesn’t really take to blogging. And so far, this group of first-years are moving into blogging versus posting drafts and assignments to blogs, quite slowly. They love being connected to one another; they crave the feedback, but it takes longer for them to see conversation-in-writing as part of thinking-and-learning.

And so that pushed me last week into getting more creative and to put pressure on my reasons for using blogging with this group. I came up with an exercise in collective intelligence ( a bit like Open Space work with lots of stickies and newsprint stuck to the walls) to demonstrate the power of conversation to find, grow and complicate ideas through connecting, questioning, and finding relationships between their thinking and that of others. They were floored by the difference between the ideas they had come up with on their own the night before and what happened to those ideas once pushed up against those of their peers–they had to clarify, build, and defend their stances. We talked about how doing the same kind of collective, connected work online while they were wrestling with reading and writing could help them deepen and contextualize their ideas, and in turn to get pretty darn excited about what and how they were learning. We’ll see over the next few weeks what this blogging-as-conversation experience will do for them as learners across disciplines and media and how it will help them as writers in traditional modes.

window.jpg fallmilkweed

Meanwhile, last spring’s creative writing class, an avid blogging group during the semester, is finding their way back to one another, to their own blogs and to the group blog. They miss the collective. It’s interesting that when they are away over the summer, they are too busy to blog, but when they are together, back on campus, they want that kind of deep, connected interaction.

And the Blogging the World group is up and running from Cairo, Damascus, Paris, London, Florence. One student now in Cuba, who blogged in class but is NOT from his semester abroad, explained to me, when I commented that his email missives were so compelling that I wished he had a blog so that more people could read about his experiences, that he wants to make sure that people do read him–and so he likes to flood email boxes instead of leaving it up to his readers–the ones he values– to find him on the blogs. These are readers unlikely to use RSS or bookmarks. Interesting. He’s afraid they’ll forget him (out of email box, out of mind…) And because we have filters here that do not allow the email pinging with blogposts, he makes an interesting point.

A few returnees from study abroad are missing the blogging but finding it more difficult to blog reflectively (outside the parameters of any course) about learning here (too self-indulgent, one blogger told me–too isolating, said another, if others aren’t doing it as well, which of course goes to the social part of the software). All this pulls at something I’ve been thinking about (and will lead to a fuller blog entry eventually) about how people don’t read far back into the blogs, or at least my blog–and when I feel I’m repeating myself, others respond as though I’ve covered some brand new ground. Maybe it’s time for a wiki for some of the old posts, pulling them together into something better organized and tagged–something people will find useful….These posts here are about the moment for readers if not for me so much. It’s only when they move back over to their own blogs and pull apart something I’ve said, connecting it to their own growing web of thinking that it becomes anything more than of the moment. The undulations of blogposts across the edublogosphere. Fascinating.

river.jpg tree.jpg

These are productive anxieties indeed.

*I was much taken by the way Edward Ayers uses the term, Productive Anxiety, to describe how his students feel in his classes where they write narrative histories they should imagine were written for the cellphone.

An Old Russian Custom…Or…Stopping for a Moment Before the Journey Begins: Responding to Student Writing


At the end of the recent faculty writing retreat, when asked to share a choice that we had made over the past two days about our fall courses, several people spoke about awe in the classroom, a concept introduced the first day by one of our colleagues in response to a prompt about the role of reading and writing in our own lives. One faculty member, in wanting to establish an environment in which his first-year students could make note of and reflect on their awe at being in such a community engaged in learning, said that to open his course, he would tell a traditional story about Russian emigrants: Just before they set off on the long journey across continents and oceans to whatever new life awaited them, they would gather as a group and sit down upon their bags, look around them in silent awe and reflection. How important this is to stop and make note of the moment, at what has come before, at what it means to be in this moment—it is a lovely story that I, too, plan to tell my students on Tuesday the 12th when I meet them, and we’ll do our own version of sitting on our bags taking in the wonderment of this moment when we are about to begin our journey together.

Then we’ll write.

And we’ll thus have walked though the door of the semester, committed ourselves to this community of learners, of reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy), a moment indeed fraught with awe, a feeling that mixes wonder and fear. When we study together and write together, we open ourselves up to one another; putting our writing out there can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable (particularly an eighteen-year-old entering college and quite sure that he or she was somehow mistakenly admitted in the first place and will be so woefully behind everyone else in the room) –ah, the delicate moment when there is the potential for response or evaluation from those around us.

After we write for ten minutes or so about this feeling of awe, we will talk about the gremlin sitting on our shoulders laughing derisively at us as we write for an audience, sneering at the very thought of us presuming to be a writer, at having something to say and being able to say it elegantly. We talk about ways to shut that gremlin down, how we can develop ways to write hot and read cold—to balance within ourselves the artist and the critic. We’ll talk about the evaluation process in the course, how they will see no grades until the end of the semester but they will receive a good deal of feedback from themselves, from one another, from me and perhaps even from people beyond our classroom.

Responding to Student Writing
We use three and sometimes four concentric circles of responses to our writing—the writer reading her own work, the writer’s peers reading her work, the teacher reading her work (and as much as I would like to place myself squarely within the circle of learners in all senses of that notion, whether I like it or not, I will always wield power in the classroom due to my position of experience, of expertise, of responsibility for grades and mentoring and crafting the parameters of the course—it is how I invite the students to use that power to their own learning advantage that makes the difference), and the outside world reading her work. We talk about these audiences as we work through a writing project, reflecting as we go on, deciding when we need eyes other than our own to reflect back to us what seems to be written on our pages.

Feedback Circle One: Responding to One’s Own Writing
First off, I think it is crucial to keep the reins firmly in the hands of the writer. We each need to take responsibility for own learning, our own writing. And so we develop an ongoing reflective practice as we write—sometimes we write letters to ourselves and/or to our writing about our own sense of how our ideas are moving from fuzzy shapes to clear articulations; sometimes we write in another genre about what we are working out; for example, I often talk about writing a poem version of an essay, or about writing a poem to our essay. Sometimes we tell someone else in a conference about our piece of writing, the other person asking questions and acting as scribe without offering opinions. Sometimes we record ourselves reflecting aloud on the process, the content, the writing—I am very much a believer in using many ways of expressing and thinking—using our entire creative & critical selves. Sometimes we dance our writing (yes, we do) or color it by using a range of tones—from cool tones where the writing and the ideas are quiet to hot ones where the argument might get heated, the imagery intense, the passion of the writer clear. These are all ways for the writer to respond to her own work and thus to deepen her own understanding of the tender shoots of ideas that need sun and water and tending, sometimes pruning or training, if they are to flower.

Even when we are adding other circles of response to this first one, we are still engaged in our own ongoing review of the work—(we are careful not to judge ourselves as writers in the process—keeping that gremlin at bay). I share my own horrendous early drafting of stories and papers. I show them blog posts that I keep in draft mode because they aren’t ready for the light of day—the ideas aren’t developing, the writing lies flat and uninspired, something just doesn’t feel quite right about it.

Feedback Circle Two: Peers Responding
If from the first day of a course, the community itself has been valued and nurtured through a series of exercises and downright open consideration of what an effective learning community looks like and feels like to us (I’ve written a bit about this topic before, but will perhaps return to it this week as it is foremost on my own mind as I get ready to step back into the classroom), then moving our writing out into the group, no matter how early on in the process, can be of real benefit. We can hear back what our writing means to readers who have only our words as they read and not all of what we meant to write down or that remains snagged on some corner in our mind.

In large classes, we set up feedback loops, groups of five students (I like to rotate these groups every three weeks or so to keep the feedback unexpectedly fresh) per group, who through the blog (RSS feeds and/or blog clusters moving off the Motherblog) have access to everything their peers choose to post. We post anything we want a response to, keeping off-blog that which is either private or not yet ready for the eyes of the world. Then the writer indicates what kind of feedback she is ready for and hopes to receive; she ends her post with her own sense of where she is in the process and what kind of feedback she seeks. Her readers first off read back to her what they think the piece is about. They let her know what they have learned through reading the piece and when it moved them, when it confused them, when it left them wanting more. Students write to one another via blog comments and/or email. They get together one-one-one and all five together during quasi-weekly feedback workshops to talk as a group—face to face discussion is essential during the process because body language and ideas generated through the give-and-take of conversation can provide feedback not picked up in written comments. Responders ask lots of questions, summarize; sometimes they color the piece with markers—red for when it really grabbed them by the jugular or showed the potential to do so. We talk about taking the work seriously but not ourselves—we are responding for the good of the writing and the writer, not because we want to sound smart or glib or talented. We talk a whole lot about honesty and respect. We don’t ever say, “You should do this…”

From time to time, when I see blogged responses that either really seem to do very little for the writer: “Hey, good job—I liked it a lot. Keep everything just as you have it” kinds of responses, I will show this kind of response in class, and we’ll talk about ways to work towards better responding. We talk about how responding well to other people’s writing will serve our own writing, how reading well and writing well are inextricably intertwined skills. We learn how to read as writers and to write as readers. We talk a lot about intended audience and the expectations of different kinds of audiences and how that can affect our choices in terms of content and expression. We look at a range of publications; we pretend near the end of the process to be editors at an appropriate periodical trying to help a writer prepare a manuscript for publication. We talk about what’s essential; we talk about voice. We talk a lot.

Feedback Circle Three: The Teacher Responding
We talk about my role in the feedback circle. I avoid full, teacherly responses for as long as possible, because no matter what we say, as soon as we move in to put in our two cents, the writer forgets to listen to herself or her peers. We become the only audience that matters; we hold the grading pen; we are the experts, the authorities; that’s what we’re paid for. Early in my courses, students crave this kind of feedback from me; they want to hand things in the way they always have and get from me what they need to do to make it an “A” level paper if it isn’t already. I of course resist that role because it jeopardizes what we are really after here—growing learners who see themselves as the experts on their own writing, and as reciprocal apprentices within the learning community. And yet I DO have things to say because I have spent many years reading student writing, my writing, published writing, It is what I do. And of course I am opinionated, too!

I do not write responses to student writing until the project is very near completion—then I choose just a couple of what I see to be the issues most ripe for tackling and write about those. I also write about what works for me—where in the piece I find myself thinking, engaged, enlightened. I write questions.

I meet with my students one-on-one in short (15-minute) conferences during which they are invited to bring something they feel is ready for my feedback. They must prepare for said conference by being ready to talk about their own response to the writing and about that of their peers. Often I find that they already know what works and doesn’t—they may need encouragement and a little help in the HOW—how to pare away the boxcars of overused phrases; how to integrate a particular quotation into their argument; how to find the ending. I never bleed a pen through their essays, copyediting, trying to cover every mistake, every clumsy use of language. Instead I’ll teach a little impromptu lesson in dangling modifiers, say, if the writing is hampered by them and have the writer search for more of them in her draft.

I do not need to read everything they write. I do not need to comment on everything I read. That is not a good use of my teaching time—pointed, timely feedback is crucial for them and reasonable for me.

The Fourth Circle: Readers from the World
I often try to enlist outside readers to take a peek into my classrooms and leave feedback for my students. I also encourage my students to get outside readers—the kind of reader they are thinking of when they write the piece.


I do not grade individual essays, poems or stories.

I find that grading individual pieces detracts from the development of the writers—their early-in-the-semester pieces SHOULD be disasters, yes? If they are ambitious enough and stretching, challenging themselves to the core of their being, they will encounter numerous glorious failures along the way. And that’s as it should be. We talk about the writer’s rule that for every ten pages you keep, you throw away a hundred. That’s what good and messy creative thinking is all about. Often we have to write for a long time to get to our real subject. School is, of course, an unnatural environment. The writing assignments are not often useful in the world—they are exercises. Students write notes to themselves after each writing project about what they learned—the successes and the failures, and what they know they want to work on in the next paper in order to continue their development.

I write the students a short letter at the end of each unit (they collect their work in mini-portfolios—this way they take long hard looks at their learning journey periodically during the semester rather than just at the end) in response to the letter they write to themselves and to me about the work contained in that unit and in response to the goals they set for themselves in the upcoming writing assignments. My letter is based on notes I have taken during our conferences, what I notice about the evolution of their writing, helping them take a step back and see how their writing is working and how it is not.

At the end of the semester, they hand in one last portfolio which pulls in all the work (we do not have time in our semester for another series of revisions—I would rather have them treat each new writing assignment as essentially a revision of the one before and so we rarely do three drafts per essay even though we talk about how when we write outside of classrooms, we write many many drafts) and one last hyperlinked reflection on the entire semester. Even these are read by themselves and their peers –even these have the potential to move and teach those in reciprocal apprenticeship with them. For example, Zamir’s final reflection helped Leah to write hers; Katie’s moved several members of the class by its inventiveness and beauty as well as its spot-on self-understanding.

And grading? I do it at the last possible moment. At the end. Holistically. This way grades reflect where they get to, not where they were when they had no experience at the beginning of the semester.

A couple of helpful sites on responding to and evaluating writing–

U Washington’s “Responding to Student Writing”
An article from University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center –with a helpful bibliography

Michael Kischner “Should Teachers Comment on Drafts of Student Essays?” also with a helpful bibliography

Indiana’s “Articles on Evaluating Student Writing”

WAC Clearinghouse Bibliography

Responding to & Evaluating Student Writing

Tomorrow, I head to Middlebury’s annual Faculty Writing Retreat where I’ll be leading a discussion on how we respond to student writing across the curriculum including evaluating the work. This is one of the trickiest and one of the most important topics to consider as we head back into our classrooms this fall. I will follow this post with one outlining how and when I respond to writing in my classes, and how I evaluate writing, but for now, I want to raise questions and see how the group responds.


When do we teachers respond to our students’ writing and when do we step back and resist giving feedback?

When are we not the best responders to student writing?

At what point in the process can our comments best aid the writer?

What kinds of comments help the writer develop skill and confidence? Do we address content over organization and style? How do we address mechanical errors? How do we find a balance between giving too little and too much feedback?

Do we have our students work through a drafting-revising process, with checkpoints along the way?
If we incorporate a drafting process, do we look at everything?

Do we expect students to turn in a rough draft? If so, are we the best responders to the draft or would it benefit the writer to work with peers or a tutor at this point?
(Some teachers do not read the papers until they are “finished”; others read and respond in depth to the rough draft but not to the final draft, which they read quickly to see how well the student executed the corrections/suggestions.)

If we do not respond, who does? How? Why? When?

Do we have students respond to one another’s work? When? Why? Do we provide them with rubrics? Questions to answer about the writing? Do we have the learning community itself establish rules of responding–the etiquette, the substance of the response? Do we let the writer lead the feedback sessions by asking the questions of the reader?

Do we have peer writing tutors assigned to our classes? How and when do they interact with the writing and the writers?

Do we have the writers themselves read their own work as readers, making comments about strengths and weaknesses during the process and at the end?


Do we use rubrics? If so, do we create them or do we have the class design them?

Do we show them examples of what we consider to be exemplary, satisfactory and deficient writing?

Do we have students self-evaluate their writing? With grades? Through an ongoing reflective process, conferences with us and class tutors, written self-assessments at the end of a writing project?

Do we give a content grade and a writing grade?

Do we grade the writing at all? If we do not grade written work, how do we factor this work into the course grade?

Do we use portfolios? eportfolios? In all courses with a strong writing component? Do we let students decide on the contents? How often do students hand in pieces of a portfolio? Do we respond to and evaluate each piece or to the whole? Do the portfolios have a narrative reflective component?

Links to helpful sites, including examples from Middlebury courses:

Middlebury’s Teaching Resources: Grading

From Harvard’s Bok Center: Grading Rubric

Amherst’s List of Words Faculty Say They Never Want to See Again

Dartmouth’s Detailed Website: Responding to Student Text, including Using Peer Groups and Model Responses (Dartmouth’s entire Writing Program Site is filled with terrific resources for faculty and students
U of Texas’s Site on Evaluating Student Writing
St. Olaf’s Web Portfolios
Kalamazoo College’s Portfolio SIte

Assessing Multimedia Composition (or Digital Stories)

As part of Middlebury’s ongoing summer series for faculty on Exploring Pedagogies and Tools, yesterday Karen Gocsik, the Executive Director of Dartmouth College’s Writing Program, talked about Assessing Multimedia Composition, a term she prefers to use instead of digital storytelling as academics often resist accepting narrative, especially if laced with the personal and/or the emotional, as a means of scholarly discourse. (What she does at Dartmouth looks a whole lot like what we do at Middlebury with digital stories, meaning creating multimedia essays through incorporating a voiceover, images and sound. It’s good to see other undergraduate institutions using multimedia composing as a viable form.

She opened by offering reasons for integrating multimedia composition into the writing classroom:

As it is no longer possible to cling solely to textual notions of discourse in this world where we converse and are immersed in multimodal forms, we need to improve visual literacy (I’d add that we need to pay attention to a whole new spectrum of literacies, visual being one)–to learn about how images are composed, students must compose with images. (Indeed, I would add that it is natural to want to communicate in as rich and varied a genre as possible: we gesture with our arms and express emotion through our faces while telling stories; draw maps while giving directions, make noises while describing animals, etc. If we could have composed in hypertext or in sound/image/text forms as we now can, we might never have ended up relying so heavily on the written word, pushing away image and sound away from text because they could not easily be transmitted and/or dispersed to many over time and space. And it is true that my students find it a little uncomfortable at first using images and sound files in an academic context because they have no experience doing so, no expectation that writing in college could involve more than text. But once they have a taste of the digital story or multimodal/mutimedia compostion, there’s no turning back for them. Their expression grows richer; their engagement more active, and the learning community’s bond stronger for the new forms of writing.)

Karen also pointed out that in her classes the process of multimedia composition has led to stronger traditional writing skills–her students would never have paused over a text to examine transitions closely, for example, but they now easily spend an hour arguing with one another over a transition in their multimedia work. Once they return to traditional writing, they transfer these skills, remembering what they learned about the importance of effective transitions, and the writing improves. I have found the same to be true of my students and why I use non-text-based writing in all my classes, asking students to compose an story in images only–an assignment I try out, too, of course, on my own blog to model and to test my own notions of what will work in a class, and I do so publicly because that’s what I’m asking my students to do, yes?–( here’s more on how I do this John Berger-esque exercise )–or to dance a poem, or create a story in non-speech sounds only.

Other talks about evaluating digital media projects I’ve heard don’t go much further than this, focusing mostly on why we need to include images and sound in our classrooms instead of on practical and effective ways to assess the work and why. Not so Karen. She came ready to talk about how it is she actually grounds the work within writing courses, and how she assesses the projects.

(And yes, assessment seems to be on my mind a good deal these days on the blog, and I do like to listen to people who are struggling as much as I do in creating a method of assessment that makes sense.)

Her Four Principles for Assessing Multimedia Composition Projects:

1. Assessment Mechanisms Should Reflect the Goals of the Assignment

In other words, you have to think through your objectives with the assignments–are you trying to get your students to create a visual argument? Structure? Work with primary sources? Technical prowess? Voice?

2. Assessment Values and Standards Must Be Transparent (YES!)

A) Show media to your students–talk about what we value in the pieces

B) Invite students to participate in creating the standards for assessment based on the particular assignment’s objectives. Review and revise the standards according to the group’s input.

(I particularly like how she involves the students in creating a rubric for evaluation–they have ownership, which is essential to effective learning.)

3. Assessment Should Be Public

Film is public–in fact it is most often a collaborative form with every moment negotiated. It is made for an audience (here I would add that what distinguishes the webfilm from the big-screen film is the intimacy of the experience of watching, webfilms being made for one viewer at a time or many viewers dispersed–see Peter Horvath’s work , and so if your students are making work for the Web, different sorts of objectives and ways of evaluating have to be considered.)
The audience for the projects should be real (as opposed to the inauthentic-feeling audience of an undergraduate paper), and they themselves are a part of this audience.
The assessment cards they came up with as a class are handed out to the audience which fills them out and ends by grading the project. (I wonder how they decide as an audience on what constitutes an A, etc.–this seems potentially problematic when the audience–as I think it should–includes more than just the learning community itself.) These responses become at least half the grade for the project.
The project creator(s) holds a Q & A session with the audience and essentially must defend the choices, in terms of content, argument and aesthetics.

4. For Collaborative Assignments, A Mechanism to Assess the Collaboration
The students answer questions asking them to reflect on their own process and participation relative to the group’s. She takes this process reflection into account when grading the projects.

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Blogs and ePortfolios and Assessment: Thinking Out Loud


Three recent moments–reading my spring semester teaching evaluations, reading Lanny Arvan’s post on LMS, and participating in a lively and stimulating discussion with Pete Smith ( UT-Arlington) and Jan Marston of the DULAP program, and Barbara Sawhill of Oberlin College on her languagelabunleashed skype show— have me considering the relationship between blogging, ePortolios and evaluation in my classroom. And while I have used the term portfolio to describe our blogging, I’m not sure I will in the future, for I don’t want my students or anyone else confusing what we’re doing with blogs as solely filling the traditional role of a portfolio, that Scott Wilson in his eportfolio PPT describes as “a collection of artifacts that say something about the subject.” (Slide 8) . Now, I’m no expert on ePortfolios (see Scott Wilson or Helen Barrett, who in her white paper on “Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement” writes:

…an educational portfolio contains work that a learner has collected, reflected, selected, and presented to show growth and change over time, representing an individual or organization’s human capital. A critical component of an educational portfolio is the learner’s reflection on the individual pieces of work (often called “artifacts”) as well as an overall reflection on the story that the portfolio tells.

Also complicating research and literature regarding portfolios in education is the fact that there are many purposes for portfolios in education: there are portfolios that center around learning, assessment, employment, marketing, and showcase or best work. With so many purposes for portfolios it becomes clear that the term “portfolio” should always have a modifier or adjective that describes its purpose.

Cautioning against eportfolios being turned into static vessels for deposit of artifacts only, she and others emphasize the importance of reflection and of storytelling in the making and content of eportfolios.

Explore, too, the TenCompetence site from Europe or the excellent paper, “Creation of a Learning Landscape: weblogging and social networking in the context of eportfolios” written by David Tosh and Ben Werdmuller in 2004 as they worked on ELGG, the open source learning landscape platform. What they describe is what I am after:

It can be argued e-portfolios are more valuable when used continuously throughout a course as an integral part of the learning experience, as opposed to a reporting mechanism used after the main body of learning is completed. To affect this, there are three important aspects a system would need to encompass:

• Reflection – the student can map out his or her thoughts on a course, a piece of work, or more general experiences.
• Communication – the student can communicate his or her reflections to other students, staff, tutors and lecturers.
• Sharing – the student can give selected other users access to their digital objects. Learning is not as effective in isolation; there is a great deal of discussion involved in traditional courses, and this would need to be reflected in any electronic learning aid. The importance of linking together people, ideas and resources cannot be overestimated.

It’s a complex series of possibilities, this ePortfolio phenomenon, and one that Lanny touches upon when he thinks about what his institution needs in a robust, flexible, responsive LMS–should there be a way to evaluate the group as well as the individual? My response to LMS will have to wait for another post, but that he brings up blogs in the same breath as LMS and assessment means that I can no longer use such terms as portfolio when I talk about our blogging, as casually as I have in the past.

In my classrooms blogging is about organic, emergent possibilities, a fluid weaving of the group’s and the individual learner’s many stories –to try to articulate this narrative as a portfolio of any kind perhaps limits blogging by asking it to be one thing only–something to present, assess, evaluate, collect, select. Blogging with learning communities not so much captures that which traditional learning portfolios do: snaphots of a student’s work at given intervals and often in relation to specific competency benchmarks, but as Pete said during the skypecast, by weaving these moments into a larger tapestry, builds a linked, richly textured conversation with the self, the work, the learning community and the world by including and valuing just about everything created in conjunction with the course (images, text, podcasts, digital stories–informal and formal, drafty as well as polished, conversations with the group as well as individual work. We don’t do much selecting, if selecting means keeping drafts and failures off the blogs–we do selecting through the tagging, the naming, the categorizing of the posts) .

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