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.


Memories of an Art History Class: Inspiration and Perspective

Chinese Peony

One of my professors in college, I recall, an art history professor, would move into class by dimming the lights, leaning against the back wall behind us and clicking his little slide projector clicker to illuminate the first slide. Then, unlike most other professors, instead of lecturing us about what it was we were seeing and what it meant, etc. etc. in the larger context of our discipline, while we madly scribbled notes about the stuff we thought would be on the next exam, he would ask us to comment on what we saw and what we could glean from our observations based on the reading and looking we had done to prepare for class and what we had seen and discussed during previous class meetings. He’d challenge us to figure out when it was painted, maybe by whom, and why we should spend time looking at and discussing the work. He cautioned us to question our initial responses; he urged us to think as much with our guts as with our intellects. He’d ask questions, add context, push us to come up with more, to come up with better. His comments on our papers were much the same. And he told us the first day that he would grade the non-majors differently because they didn’t have the experience the rest of us had. We majors howled that it was unfair– no one else did that in any other department….

Bloomington Window

Nearly thirty years down the road, every time I see one of the paintings we studied, I am transported back to that classroom–I can still speak quite confidently about the content of that course while most other classrooms experiences have faded to mush.

IWU Theater Sculpture
(Illinois Wesleyan Theater entrance)

Sometimes he would slip in a slide of a fake. Sometimes a painting from a different country. Sometimes a lousy modern approximation. We never knew what was coming. And it was up to us to smoke it out. Once he came in and showed a pair of side-by-side slides which at first glance seemed identical. Only when we looked more closely than we had ever looked before could we begin to detect the differences. Our task that day was to figure out which was the original, which the copy. Our final exam was filled with such moments.

It was a course about discovery. About the joy of discovering something fundamental about painting, about the world at that time and place, about ourselves as art consumers, as critical thinkers, as contributors to the discussion. We didn’t need blogs or wikis or any of the Web 2.0 tools to have that profound experience. But sometimes I find myself thinking …

… it would have been even more interesting, the learning even deeper, the development of our skills even more pronounced if we had had opportunities to talk outside of class via asynchronous slow-blogging, linking out to articles we had found, and pushing each other and ourselves by posting images we had come across in our Web wnaderings, annotating them, publishing our papers–sharing our drafts with one another.


But that’s ridiculous. Absurd. Preposterous. Web 2.0 was not for that time; it is for THIS time. My professor taught brilliantly for that time but not for this. (Much as my father had.) The world is different. The generation is different. The skills graduates need include those we were schooled in–but others, too. We cannot compare what we need to do with what our teachers did. It’s that different.

I remember that some of my professor’s colleagues didn’t approve of the way he taught. Or at least that was the buzz. I imagine he’d be really excited about the ways we can connect, link, share and tag. He’d understand that teachers who do not weigh all the tools they have available, all the practices possible are as guilty as doctors who fail their patients because they haven’t kept up with advances in treatment. (I heard Chris Dede use this analogy that in his 2007 ELI keynote) I like to keep that in mind when I face yet another audience, as I struggle to find ways to help faculty understand why they should not feel threatened by new ways of teaching and learning, but delighted, because in one sense we are not abandoning tradition–just remembering it–the best of it, that of Socrates, for instance, and clutches of great thinkers who hung out together through history, either in place or through letters and their responses to one another, artwork by artwork, letter by letter, essay by essay.

I’ve been on the road A LOT this semester, mostly to give talks and workshops to faculty teaching undergraduates. planeWhen I first started doing this a couple of years ago, I was pelted with questions about intellectual property (fear of plagiarism), assessment, and the time commitment taking to the Web would mean for someone thinking about giving blogs or wikis a go in their teaching. And those are still questions I get when I talk blogs, no matter how much I thread a talk with learning theory, progressive pedagogy, and the realities of a world simultaneously moving towards disconnection within local communities (which center on plurality) and greater connection through ME-oriented social networks); no matter how much I show the slide that puts the teacher as part of the learning circle after the slide with the scary desks in a row.


At Illinois Wesleyan University and then at University of New Hampshire, I recently gave versions of the kind of talk I’ve been focusing on lately in which I try to help faculty dare move into the 21st century. I try with each talk to convey more clearly the realities of the work world, of social networks moving beyond teens, of GenMe; I show them blogs and wikis, and some really interesting class projects such as ArtMobs and second language blogging such as Barbara Sawhill’sSpanish classes at Oberlin, and Jim Groom’s use of tagging with his UMW summer class.

Faculty seem to like what they see- learning by reflection (through hyperlinked slow-blogging techniques), learning by doing and making (multimedia projects, service learning mentoring through blog connections), and learning by connecting and conversing (asynchronous blog discussions and linking between blogs, referencing one another’s work and scholarship beyond the classroom). They love the idea of bringing experts in the field into the classroom through blogging invitationals, and the students to the world by publishing their work on their blogs, the class blog, wikis, ‘zines. All’s well so far.

Even Twitter has been making sense to people, how it might work to teach the art of concision, to get students to hone an idea, or to share urls, etc. Annotating slides and creating course photo sets on Flickr–you get the drift–it makes sense–to anyone once they see how it works.


At UNH, especially successful was kicking off the talk by asking them to come up with a metaphor for how it feels to be a teacher who trained in the 20th century but is teaching in the 21st.

But then I get to RSS and–both of which I am planning to place at the heart of all my courses in the future–and things get a little unsettled. The questions get interesting; in other words they approach what’s really the heart of the matter: what happens when students are given much of the responsibility for their learning, what happens when risk and failure are seen as good things–fumbling together in the dark as we learn to think and read and write critically and creatively; what it means when even the syllabus can be changed at a moment’s notice as the group discovers a new direction. How Web 2.0 teaching and learning and living practices are butting up against age-old sacred cows: i.e. the dominant value of the expert, the teacher as trained authority, and a sense of order in the classroom.

Why do RSS and tagging, in particular, provide an opening for this kind of essential discussion? Well, I talk about having students not just create feeds to one another’s blogs–that can be done on the Motherblog or with multiuser blogs and is a given when you are using blogs within a community. Yes, it’s essential to have students see and learn from one another’s struggles for meaning. Yes, it’s essential to weave the stories of their blogs together in a larger community tapestry. Yes. But having students–and NOT the teacher or the librarian–go out and find resources in the field and bring them back via feeds for the group–well what an excellent opportunity to gain skill in evaluating sources, for one. I get concerned questions from the audience about quality control–who is responsible for making sure the sources linked to are “appropriate” or “valid”? Ah…that’s the beauty of gathering RSS feeds as a learning and not a teaching practice. What a learning moment to discover a deep bias within a blog in the field (or a journal, for that matter) or factual errors!

And so, we’re making progress, Laura, I agree. It’s slow, yes, and often frustrating. But it’s happening… At UNH a couple of days ago, some forty faculty members showed that they get it. They want to move their teaching. They just need a little help understanding what that means–and how they can do it well, navigating through the sea of options. It will take the kind of inspired and innovative and fearless IT people of the likes of the magnificent crew at University of Mary Washington or Laura Blankenship at Bryn Mawr, Todd Bryant at Dickinson, Barbara Sawhill at Oberlin, the staffs at UNH and VSC and IWU. It will take classroom teachers making their pedagogy transparent on blogs for themelves, their students and their colleagues. It will take leadership from in our institutions, of the kind Lanny Arvan at the University of Illinois repeatedly demonstrates. And the tireless work of the Bryan Alexanders and Alan Levines of this world–showing us, encouraging us. But finally, I think we’re actually making strides in the right direction.


My college professor would be happy, I think, to see me taking risks, pushing my teaching forward into this century as I strive to be for my students the kind of teacher he was for me. And to see that I’m not alone in this. Not by any means.

Here are the slides and notes from the two recent talks over on Flickr. I’ll pull them over here as well in a few days.

UNH Talk Slide1

For the Flickr version (slides and notes) of the University of New Hampshire FITSI talk, click here.

IWU Slide1

For the Flickr version of the Illinois Wesleyan University the Teaching and Technology Workshop keynote, click here.

A Recent Conversation on Blogging for The Vermont State Colleges


Ah, I’ve been away from the blog too long.

I have several posts waiting for me, posts stirred by comments from the likes of Terry Freedman and Lanny Arvan, on topics ranging from a clearer articulation of what I mean by teaching in a syllabus-less classroom to a clearer articulation of how, exactly, I see images in my classes. I am afraid that the frantic pace at which I am moving these days between teaching, talking and family have made my posts a little thin, a little less carefully developed than I would like them to be. Oh well–at least I’ve been able to show my last few posts and the resulting comments to my students as models of useful blogging conversation and feedback.

So, no, today I am not going to blog back to Terry or Lanny; I’m not going to talk about Chris Sessum’s wonderful new post on “relationships of knowledge, teacher learning, and practice”, or the interesting Skype show I participated in two nights ago about assessment of student blogging over at languagelabunleashed, or even the fascinating group of students I am lucky to be teaching this semester or the new group of world bloggers embarking on their study abroad ventures. Soon, I hope, I’ll get to those posts. For today, I’ll share the slides and text version of the talk that kicked off an afternoon-long conversation a couple of days ago with a spirited group of teachers and administrators from the Vermont State College System on the other side of the splendidly autumnal Green Mountains. And if I can get the audio sounding okay, I’ll post that, too.

I’m not covering new ground here–it is a talk introducing my classroom work with blogs and urging the group gathered to think first of the goals they and their students have for their learning, and how the new literacies affect how and what we teach.
The text served as a guideline, but in the actual talk, I departed from it frequently, pulling in additional examples both from theory and practice.


Continue reading

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