We are in the waning days of the semester, and this is usually my favorite time of the school year. In my freshman composition class, the students are working on their researched essays, a process that takes five weeks from start to finish, and in reading their drafts, I can see the knowledge breaking through.
They are becoming self-regulating writers, capable of making the choices that meet their audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge. These are my goals for them, and it is exciting and gratifying to see this development, to experience a seed planted in week four flower in week fourteen.
When we formally meet class, it’s to exchange drafts and gather feedback. Half our periods are set aside for individual or small group conferences where we get to talk in detail about what they’re working on in their essays. We take a long time on this assignment because one of the things I want my students to experience is just that, working on something for a long time. They tend to have very little practice at developing a project over a period of weeks, having spent much more of their schooling on “just in time” task work. Task work is lousy preparation for their future lives and careers, so I take as many opportunities as possible to steer away from it.
Another reason I enjoy this time is because of what they’re working on in their essays. The topics are varied and unpredictable, as unique as they are as individuals. One is writing an argument as to why surfing should be admitted into the Olympics. A conservative student has become concerned about the “wealth gap” and wants to write to his compatriots as to why they should be worried as well. Someone else is examining the phenomenon of adults crying when viewing Toy Story 3.
The use of micropayments in video games, “health halo” marketing in frozen yogurt, why open format games like Minecraft are addictive, pedagogical methods for teaching foreign language…I would like to go on and on, but let this list suffice to demonstrate that when I am done reading their work, I will be much smarter and better informed than before. I get to experience the promise of education, that together we can make knowledge, and collectively be much smarter than we are as individuals.
I suppose it isn’t accidental that my favorite time of the semester comes just before my least favorite time – the end-of-semester grading, a period marked by dread and despair.
One of the benefits of having students work on projects for a long period of time is that we can divorce the work from the grade it might ultimately receive and concentrate on the doing itself, but semester’s end forces us into a final reckoning, a mark on the scorecard, which is inevitably what students will remember more than that moment we talked about possible audiences for their work, and they realized who, exactly, they wanted to write to, and in so doing, some previously intractable problem with their essay was suddenly solved.
It is not that I am against grades, per se. I believe I understand their utility. It is important that students have a measurement against which they can judge their efforts. I just don’t care for the reduction grading requires. Many weeks crunched down to a letter.
After I grade these assignments I have a final set of individual conferences with each student, and the first thing I ask them is how they think they did, what they were pleased with in the paper, what they wished they had more time to work on, and almost invariably their self-assessment syncs with mine. This is an excellent sign for their futures, I think. Even if the present reckoning is a less-that-satisfactory B- or C+, if they can recognize the roots of that evaluation, we are getting beyond the letter itself into a type of learning they can make use of.
But still, I hate it. For me, evaluation is the least interesting part of the job. I would much rather converse/engage/respond to their work because this is, after all, what I’m asking them to do with the information they encounter in class. I do as much of this as possible when grading these assignments, writing comments that seek to engage with their ideas, but ultimately students both want and deserve some measure of assessment, a judgment of where they excel, what needs more work.
I tell them often that their grades do not “matter,” which is something I believe to be true, but that doesn’t mean they are meaningless, and they certainly cannot be arbitrary, so while I hate grading, or more accurately, because I hate grading, it’s the part of the job where I have to work my hardest.
If I am scarce in these parts, you’ll know what I’m doing.