Wednesday, March 14, 2007


It's almost the end of the third quarter, and suddenly kids are showing up in my office in droves in order to meet the requirement, spelled out on the paper I gave them on the first day of class, way back in the second week in January, that they come to see me in conference at least once during the quarter. I'm not complaining; I really enjoy getting to talk with the students individually. But I wish they would spread it out a little bit.

A lot of my conversations with students wind up being about one of two things: their writing or their grade. I've got a standing policy that they can revise pretty much anything they hand in to me for a higher grade right up until the last week of the marking period. So many of them show up with a fistful of papers in hand, wanting to know exactly what all those indecipherable marginal comments that I've written on their papers might possibly say. So we have that conversation. Then usually, when I ask if there is anything else they'd like to talk about, they say something like "Well, could you tell me how I'm doing gradewise?"

I have a number of colleagues who dislike the whole idea of grades. They argue that grades artificialize the learning process and teach the kids to think in terms of a desired grade instead of in terms of what they might be learning, and that grades also artificialize the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the student, encouraging the student to see the teacher as the dispenser of grades rather than a mentor or interlocutor. Some of these teachers prefer to operate within a portfolio system, in which they do not ever put grades on individual papers, but ask the students to keep a folder of materials and then self-assess their performance at the end of the quarter or the semester.

I think I understand the logic of that, and I've tried working with classes that way. I think the portfolio system works really well with certain kids. But it also, in my experience, sets up another kind of kid for a hard fall. The kid I'm thinking of is the somewhat unorganized kid with a lot of outside interests who has a tendency to let things slide until its just past the time when it's possible to actually get it done. They tend to assume, in the absence of other feedback, that they're doing fine, that everything is okay. Then when they find out it's too late and they've let the work pile up too long, and that their grade is going to be a D or an F, they freak out. As do their parents.

So I go the opposite route. I put a numerical grade (on a scale of 1-5) on everything they hand in, and I try to get the papers they hand in back to them the next day so they KNOW how they've done on this assignment before they have to go on to the next assignment. Any time a student asks me he s/he's doing gradewise, I can do a quick scan and give a ballpark response.

Perhaps in the best of all possible worlds we'd all have independently-minded, internally motivated students, and grades would not be necessary. But since we're going to wind up with a grade at the end of the semester one way or another, I'm more comfortable trying to make the process pretty transparent from the get-go, and giving the students the chance to bend their grade upwards if they are willing to work on getting the writing right.

I've also taught in situations where neither the kids nor their parents took much stock in grades, and in that situation you have to find other ways of connecting to where the kids are coming from. But at the school I'm at now, grades are at least a moderately big deal for both the kids and their parents, and so what I'm trying to do is use that concern as a wedge to turn the conversation back to the work at hand.

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