Blog #3: Grading, Ranking and the Hierarchy of power.

The articles “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers” by John C. Bean and “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement.” by Peter Elbow discuss strategies that aim to ameliorate the process in which teachers revise and grade students writing. Both articles correlate to systems of grading. The weight of the negative comments discussed by Bean is based on the fact they translate to a negative grade. While Bean focuses on strategies to soften commentary and revising in meaningful ways, Elbow’s approach attempts to place focus on evaluations that are detached from ranking.  Elbow implies we have students on a hamster wheel of seeking approval. From grade to grade and instructor to instructor the rules change and during that  process students lose confidence in their abilities as both learners and writers.  When given a topic, students neglect critical thinking and focus on teacher expectations and rigid rubrics. 

“The best kind of commentary enhances the writers feeling of dignity”


 We forget “Feeling unapologetic and vulnerable” (Bean 1) as we climb up the hierarchy of the education system and our roles are elevated from student to teacher. In this transition of roles a paradigm of power is created. Bean states “At the drafting stage, our role is coach. our goal is to provide useful instruction, good advice, and warm encouragement. At the end of the writing process, when students submit a final copy, our role is judge. At this stage we uphold the standards of our profession, giving out high marks to essays that meet the criteria we have set.” (Bean 5) 

While I understand and agree with the argument the Bean is making, I take issue with the wide range of roles educators are expected to evolve into. A coach and judge are from completely different areas of expertise.  The role of coach remains the same, even after the player improves and becomes a star player, whereas the teacher is expected to transform into a completely different area of expertise. 

I do however, agree with commenting as guidance rather than negativity that may stifle student efforts and motivation. Commenting in ways that reinforce positivity and focus on student strengths not only provides necessary revisions to the writing but may also enhance the relationship between student and teacher. 

The author suggests useful strategies on commenting on a “hierarchy of concerns” (Bean 6). This strategy suggests focusing on high order concerns in relation to writing so that the student can focus on areas of concern rather than overwhelming the student with a myriad of issues.Commenting should serve the purpose of strengthening student writing in meaningful ways. Commenting on student writing should be guiding in a manner that is specific and clear for the student to understand. If the student is repeatedly making grammatical errors or sentence structure, rather than marking the errors , there is an opportunity to teach the student the principal the student is violating.  This is a meaningful kind of correction because it helps the student recognize what they are doing wrong and avoid it in future writings. 

The main purpose of revisions and commenting is for students to improve their ability to produce that is structurally correct as well as increase their intellectual development. 

  Elbows primary focus is moving away from ranking and grading to evaluating. He does so in an effort to relieve the stress that is often attached to grading, allowing students to write more freely and with more confidence. Removing this stress helps students focus on the topic and think about a topic thoroughly rather than focusing on a grade. They develop writing skills through practice rather than jumping through to meet a certain set of criteria. When students are constantly being graded, they are abandoning a free spirited element that makes writing enjoyable for most. Elbow states “ That is, if we evaluate everything students write, they tend to remain tangled up in the assumption that their whole job in school is to give teachers “what they want.” (Elbow 11) They write with the intent to please the demands of an authority figure without really staying true to their own thoughts. The problem with this dynamic is the demands change constantly from rubric to rubric and teacher to teacher. 

Perhaps the hearichy should change from the hierarchy of power structure to structure based on compassion and meaningful learning. all levels of the education system need to replace terminology of power with terminology that awakens a sense of compassion and empathy. Scoring, ranking and grading yields  a sense of power and authority among educators which defines the dynamics between student and teachers.  It removes elements of compassion, understanding and empathy required to make learning an enjoyable experience.

Perhaps the only lesson we are teaching students through harsh commenting and ranking of grading systems is that their worth is equivalent to their grade. This ranking system follows students their entire lives. In primary school it’s a grade, then SAT scores in highschool, then it’s a GPA in College and  later on in life the rank translates to job positions and salary. We continually impose structures that identify people on a very surface level basis, not as complete humans, with a wide range of abilities and talents. 

The goal of revising and commenting on students to be hand in hand with expanding critical thinking. Providing students guidance in improving their writing allows students to express their ideas and opinions in formal and informal ways. Improving a students ability to write whilst adhering formal writing principals commands the attention of their readers once they enter more professional settings. Meaningful strategies help improve students ability to write, not to get a better grade, but to be better communicators.

Key Points About Commenting on Students’ Papers

Writing Comments on Students’ Papers starts by addressing a fundamental problem in the teachers’ approach to students’ essays. It points out that teachers must not only be judges of their students’ writing skills, but also coaches that encourage improvement by their learners. The author cites studies showing that students are not comfortable with harsh feedback on their papers. Instead, they prefer comments that focus on the positive elements as well, leaving room for criticism and encouragement. This preference from students can be confirmed by studies on the brain that suggest that learning depends on the emotional state of the learner, and thus encouragement is shown to be crucial. The author recommends that teachers must remember their purpose when commenting on their students’ essays: their function is not merely to point out mistakes but enhancing their students’ chances of improving.

            The text suggests that the point of revisions is not merely to edit a text multiple times, its purpose is to rethink the text. Through the hard work of seeing the same text multiple times, experienced writers are able to compose their texts. While allowing many revisions, teachers must be sure that the composition process will stimulate their learners. The text claims that a good strategy is commenting on late-stage drafts, since the students would have experienced the benefits of peer review. Another strategy discussed is allowing rewrites even after the “finished” paper has been submitted. By allowing rewrites, teachers can be more rigorous in their grading, since students will have the opportunity of improving their papers. This strategy can reshape teachers’ orientation, as the drafts become elements to discuss instead of just correct.

            While the teacher responds to the student’s drafts, she or he must address only a limited amount of questions. The teacher can begin by encouraging improvement on higher-order issues, such as the overall clarity of the text, only focusing on lower-order issues, such as spelling, when the student successfully handles the structural ones. The text, therefore, argues that the teacher must tell the student that he or she is on the wrong track if their draft does not follow the assignment, which is a higher-order issue. Rather than grading this draft, the teacher could just recommend that the student reread the assignment instructions carefully. Another higher-order issue is the thesis of the paper. Some papers hide their thesis until their end, leaving the reader unable to tell what are the writer’s main points, which suggests that the writer followed his or her way of discussing their ideas without much consideration to the reader. Instead, a reader-based approach will introduce the problems to be discussed, clearly stating the thesis, briefly presenting the whole argument of the essay.

            Once the thesis and arguments are adequately exposed, the paper must be discussed when it comes to the supporting ideas and evidence that its author employs. Attention to the complexity of the ideas presented is also important, as well as finding whether the writer left room for opposing views. When the essay finally presents complexity in its ideas, showing a dialogue between evidence and arguments, it also needs to be well organized. This means thinking about main elements of the text, such as the title and paragraphs. The text presents some questions to be asked: is it easy to point the purpose of each paragraph and whether they are coherent? The key point is that each section of the paper has a important function: even a good title can facilitate comprehension, as it can show the reader the writer’s purpose. The same applies to a good introduction. The paper must orient the reader. Therefore, teachers must comment on titles and introductions, as this strategy can show them the importance of these sections to the overall clarification of the essay.

            Topic sentences are also important tools to orient the reader. The sentence that starts a new paragraph must expose the writer’s specific view. They are crucial elements, which often makes necessary to change a whole paragraph once they are modified. Paragraphs also need to employ transition words, such as “therefore” and “on the other hand,” in order to connect or contrast different points. Information, another higher-order issue, must be presented carefully. Old information must be addressed in the beginning of the sentence, whereas new information is presented later. This mechanism also orients the reader, since it connects new ideas to the ones already read in the same text. The author calls this method the old/new contract, a strategy that helps the reader to make sense of new information by relating it to what they already know. Therefore, the thesis usually comes at the end of the introduction, because the thesis presents new information, whereas the rest of the introduction focuses on old information.

            Once those higher-order issues are adequately addressed, the lower-order issues must be verified. Calling them lower-order concerns does not mean that they are not relevant to the reader. Errors concerning grammar and spelling can be difficult to revise, and the author claims that it is a good strategy to instruct students to be responsible for correcting those types of errors, which saves the teacher from becoming a proofreader. Finally, the text points to the necessity of end comments to encourage revision instead of justifying a grade. In the author’s own words, the mission is to move the draft toward excellence.

Elbow, Bean: A Recipe for Success.

Theory Blog 10/5/2020

Both of the week’s readings had me thinking about my early years of teaching.  My first supervisor told me that I was not allowed to write comments of student’s papers in red ink.  I could use any other color I wanted by not red.  “The kids in this district have come to learn that red means anger.”  Then, I was told by yet another supervisor that my comments on students’ papers should be brief.  “Heaven forbid this kid ever comes back and tries to sue the school … at least vague comments can be argued a million different ways,” as one administrator put it.

John Bean address the notion of this and many other ideas in his essay. Mr. Elbow takes it a step further.  Writing comments on a student’s paper is one thing, but to have to rank students based on grades is quite another.  Mr. Bean delves into the idea that some teachers take out their frustrations on students with comments.  In my early years I may have been guilty of that a few times.  I believe it stems from a teacher’s belief that a student can do better than what was submitted. I hate to be the one to admit it, but I have truly encountered kids that want to fail.  What is equally astonishing is that these kids who do not take their schoolwork seriously come from all walks of life.  I had one student, Carmen D., white, parents own a very successful business. Smart kid.  He just didn’t care, “My parents are rich, what do I need this class for.” He would tell me.  So why waste the energy even providing feedback.  Then of course if a teacher writes too many comments, the teacher is accused of being hyper critical. 

Mitigated Criticism sounds too close to passive aggressive.  On this idea I always refer to a video I watched early in my teaching career.  “When the Chips are Down with Richard Lavoie” (On YouTube) talks about positive and negative feedback.  The first thing Richard Lavoie suggests is learning about your students and the types of learners they are.  Then educators can construct a form of criticism that leaves the student feeling enriched and empowered.  Mitigated Criticism will not work in a vocational school setting from which I come. Students in many of my programs would see the suggested criticisms laid out by Bean as additionally frustrating, further complicating matters.  “Just tell me what I have to do.”  Is what works best in a vocational environment.

Bean’s comments regarding questions posed to students: “Does the draft follow …?; Does the draft have a thesis or ending?” These questions fall squarely on the responsibility of the teacher to have a rubric that is understood by everyone.  Sure you can hand out a rubric, but if anyone lacks an understanding of it, it serves little purpose.  This is where Elbow’s ideas of ranking come in.  If the student follows Bean’s ideas to the letter than that person would be ranked near the top.  If a student fails to address the questions Bean presents or doesn’t have the ability to perform to the basics of the questions then that student ranks low as per Elbow’s ideas.  It is this dilemma that gave rise to the methods outlined in differentiated learning, of which I am a huge fan and have had great success with getting students to express themselves and be evaluated and ranked appropriately.  And all I did was focus on what Richard Lavoie said involving positive comments that have a call to action.  I even use actual poker chips in some of my classroom exercises. However, using poker chips as a form of evaluation (Answer incorrectly lose chips – until you have answered all questions or run out of chips.) Those students who have the most chips remaining, are still ranked, as Peter Elbow might describe it. After my poker chips assignments, students rank themselves, “Hey, anyone else lose all their chips?”  Then I usually and explain and emphasize that losing all of one’s chip isn’t necessarily a bad thing, within the scope of the learning.  Yes, your grade is impacted but what you learned is invaluable. 

The first thing about Elbow’s article was his emphasis on explaining the meaning of the word “evaluating”.  The English language is the only language to have so many meanings for individual words.  Yes, other languages do possess words that have multiple meanings – but not to the extent of English.  My piece of our E Lit class, “The Hunt for the Gay Planet,” explores the meaning of the word “gay”.  Today’s culture, a word like “gay” can have quite an impact depending upon its use.  Elbow clarifies his use of the word “evaluating,” much to the same way a person would be defending their use of the word “gay” within the context of the thought. However, his focus on the evaluation process exposes why he hates the ranking process.

America has always been a society established on rank.  Today’s headlines show how apparent that remains.  Everyone is “evaluated” to one degree or another during one or more occurrences daily.  The colored belt system in most martial art systems was established because Americans like to see achievement and have rank over others. 

Elbow’s ideas that ranking systems are unreliable is sound.  Just because my plumber can’t interpret Shakespeare the way I can doesn’t make him or her any less of a person.  However, in the literary world it would matter a great deal.  In general education it would matter a great deal.  That is until the pipes burst and salvation is needed – from the person who was ranked and evaluated to be ….

Holistic scoring was based on the idea that no two people can be evaluated equally for or against one another.  As an adolescent, conversations on the school bus often went, “You might be able to kick my ass, but I can certainly outrun you.” We evaluate and rank ourselves from early on from fastest to slowest; coolest to meanest.   Referring back to Bean: a comment a student might receive from him could go, “It’s a good thing your speed rivals the Gods in which you wrote about because with writing so lacking in detail and structure …” A fitting example of Mitigated Criticism. 

Bean and Elbow both have an underlining tone that is directly expressed by Elbow.  In his article, Elbow speaks of the potential of a student, who was ranked and evaluated below his or her expectations, filing litigation against said district because the school’s rankings and evaluation prevented that person from gaining entrance to higher learning or prevented that person from gaining employment.  I have witnessed this first-hand.  It is a real concern and one that makes me sick.  I had to issue a verbal exam because all of this student’s previous teachers allowed him to coast – at the honor’s level.  It was because the student was supposed to be some great acting prodigy and if it were found out that his academics weren’t as strong as they should be, he wouldn’t get into the university of his choice.  The student’s father threatened just such litigation against the school district should his grades (rankings and evaluations) lead to being turned away from his school of choice.  To be ordered by administration to bow to this was appalling. And yet I administered the oral exam in the pressence of his father, who helped a bit.  The biggest take-aways I have from both of these pieces is that how you evaluate and rank a student should be determined by a mutually recognized and fully understood rubric.  I believe both Bean and Elbow were making the very same point.  Comments have to be meaningful as does ranking.  If anyone could climb Mount Everest, everyone would be up there right now.  Those who can climb that high are held at a high esteem.  We as educators need to make the ranking meaningful.  And giving students the right comments is the first step.

Too Much Theory, Not Enough Practice: Evaluating John Bean and Peter Elbow

College professors must have a lot more free time than high school teachers. At least, that’s the impression I get after reading “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers” by John Bean and “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment” by Peter Elbow. Both articles give teachers sound advice on the best ways to evaluate students’ papers, but they also gloss over some of the practical implications of evaluation, especially the obstacles that high school teachers face. 

 “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers” by John Bean

Bean discusses the importance of leaving specific, constructive feedback focusing on higher order issues that can lead to successful revision of a paper rather than leaving short, vague comments and editing papers line by line. In theory, I agree with most of what he writes; students’ writing is so unique and personal that it needs individual commentary in order for it to improve. In practice, though, I can’t imagine finding the time to leave lengthy comments like the ones in Bean’s article. 

I admit, I’m guilty of typing the dreaded phrase “Be more specific” on students’ work—or, more accurately, I’m guilty of selecting it from my extensive comment bank of pre-written responses. When you teach anywhere from 50-150 students, and you have a quota of grades to meet, and you need to take care of all your other responsibilities (both in and out of the classroom), it’s impossible to find time to write detailed feedback that is positive, specific, and constructive for every single student. 

Some feedback from the comment bank I use while grading. I imagine it’s a bit vague for Bean’s tastes.

Despite my reservations as a high school teacher, I can see how Bean’s ideas could be more useful if they were implemented at the college level. For example, the practice of “minimal marking,” in which students are expected to find and correct their own grammatical errors, sounds like it would save time for the professor while teaching students to have more personal responsibility over their work. Unfortunately, this practice wouldn’t work at the secondary level, as many middle and high school students are still learning proper grammar as part of the curriculum. 

One method that would work for both high school and college teachers is limiting feedback on work in order to focus specifically on higher-order issues, such as organization and structure, instead of lower-order issues like spelling and grammar. This technique sounds similar to the Collins Writing Program, which I used while student teaching. One aspect of the program involves asking students to write a single draft that focuses on meeting three specific standards, such as organization, development of ideas, use of transitions, etc. This type of writing is beneficial for students, as it allows them to develop specific writing skills, and it’s a major time saver for overworked teachers since instead of editing line by line, they only need to determine if students adequately met three requirements. 

“Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment” by Peter Elbow

Elbow describes the problems with ranking, or assigning a “holistic number or score” to a student’s work (187). He points out that ranking writing is unreliable, uncommunicative, and a poor motivator for student growth and learning. Instead, Elbow advocates for evaluating, or “pointing out the strengths and weaknesses” of writing, a process made easier when the teacher learns to like students’ work (188). He suggests using less ranking and more evaluating, but he also points out the importance of using evaluation-free zones to encourage students to experiment and improve their writing skills independently. 

Elbow seems more aware than Bean of the practical issues that arise when teachers try to evaluate student papers. He points out that there are many structural and systemic flaws in education that prevent teachers from liking and effectively evaluating their students’ work, especially for high school teachers. He also offers concrete suggestions for focusing on evaluation in the classroom without completely eliminating holistic numerical scores.  

Many of these suggestions are useful for both high school teachers and college professors. For example, free writing is important because it allows students to express their thoughts and ideas without feeling anxiety over whether their writing is good enough. I also like the idea of quickwrites, or writing that doesn’t require revision. (This low stakes approach to writing reminds me of the Collins Writing Program I mentioned above.) Elbow’s analytic grid is another useful tool that will save time and effort for teachers at any level while still providing constructive feedback to students. 

Although Elbow gives solid advice for how to evaluate in the classroom, I still have questions about his methods. How can we motivate students, especially high schoolers, without using numerical grades? Elbow mentions that many students “care more about scores than about learning” (190). I completely agree; “Is this graded?” is usually the first question students ask when I give them a new assignment. I always say yes because otherwise, they won’t put forth their best effort. I sincerely wish students cared more about learning than about their grades, but unfortunately, grades are often students’ main motivators, especially within a system that places so much importance on ranking as a way to determine scholarships or admission into colleges.

I also question how teachers can force themselves to like students and their work. To be fair, Elbow does list some strategies (such as getting to know students as people, assigning shared and private writing, and learning to recognize potential). I also agree that liking students and their writing makes it easier to leave constructive feedback. I can recall grading the writing of students whose grammar and spelling were atrocious, but who put so much effort into their writing that I still enjoyed grading their papers and leaving feedback to help them improve. But it’s impossible (for me, at least) to like all of my students’ work. 

Ultimately, both Elbow and Bean provide decent advice for effectively responding to student writing, but much of what they say works better in theory than in practice, especially for teachers at the secondary level.