During his discussion of why ranking is bad, I got to thinking about how my former students’ writing was graded on the NJ Ask by “trained evaluators,” whose job it was to (basically) come up with the same score that any other NJ Ask certified scorer would give. I was struck by the mention of a book by Barbara Hernstein Smith in which it was said she “argues that whenever we have widespread inter-reader reliability, we have reason to suspect that difference has been suppressed and homogeneity imposed-almost always at the expense of certain groups.” YIKES!! Yes, grading writing is (unfortunately for students) a subjective practice. You like chocolate, I like vanilla. This part, I agreed with. Which leads me to the topic of rubrics….
As I read the article, I kept waiting for Elbow to talk about rubrics. I was disappointed by how little attention was given to this facet of grading (ranking). I mean, what are the teachers using to come up with their grade, if not a rubric? This is the only mention of rubrics I could find in the entire article (and it was a parenthetical aside): “Holistic scoring sessions sometimes use rubrics that explain the criteria-though these are rarely passed along to students-and even in these situations, the rubrics fail to fit many papers.” Really? I find that hard to believe. Every teacher I know uses rubrics to determine and convey a (writing) grade to their students. I don’t think he gave rubrics the credit they deserve in terms of being a viable option for giving students quality feedback (but then again, maybe I’m biased).
When bolstering his point about the uncommunicativeness of grades, he states that if they gave “good diagnostic feedback,” they would be a better tool--or something like that. I happen to think my rubric is a pretty good diagnostic tool. It’s very specific at 3 pages long. Elbow says that grading “doesn’t give a fair or reliable measure of skills or knowledge.” It doesn’t? I think it’s pretty fair. However, this is where it gets complicated. Fair, in the sense that students know what is expected of them and how to achieve it (I cringed as I wrote that last part). I get it, I get it. We don’t want students simply checking off tasks in the rubric boxes trying to achieve what the teacher wants-especially in writing. Believe me, I get it!!! I do not want that for my budding authors. However, when you TEACH something, you are looking for proof of that skill/knowledge. Now, in light of our recent discussions about how do we teach?, what do we teach?, can we even teach?, this gets complicated. But, the bottom line is, if you are teaching a WRITING CLASS, you are assessing what you have taught them, no? If not, are you just assessing how good of a writer they were before they walked in your class??? We need to be OK with telling students what’s good. In fact, I always say this: They WANT to know what makes writing good. If a highly-skilled writer happened to appear in your class, I would venture to say that the instructional practices and resulting product(s) from your instruction would not likely hinder his/her overall aptitude for writing in the future. I would guess that the student would be able to apply the said skills quite readily and then be able to use or dispose of them at will in the future. They might even learn a thing or two. That’s the point, right? However, those students lacking any innate ability to compose, I presume, would only benefit greatly from such described direct instruction. Win-Win? So, I conclude that grading (using a rubric) should be used on students. Not on authors, perhaps (although even editors work to make their writing better)?
Ranking is engrained in the fabric of our culture. The article notes that psychologists associate the use of ranking with the “authoritarian personality.” This idea can be seen throughout our society. This got me to thinking about something that’s been talked about in the news lately. The whole “Are we all “going soft?” debate…..every kid on the soccer team gets an award, etc. My daughter has a wall full of “participation” medals for soccer because someone decided we shouldn’t give awards to only the best. (this may be another discussion altogether and one that is highly charged, I’m sure) Why shouldn’t the best story get an A? What’s wrong with saying something is good. It’s ok in math or science, but not in writing. Even art and music students get graded. I will admit that I like to get a grade. I always have. I feel ashamed to say so in light of this article, but I do. And, I value the grade as a reflection of my learning. I trust in the teachers. I have always trusted my teachers as “the authorities.” Have I done this to a fault? Or, do we not do this enough today?
Elbow goes on to claim that the elimination of grading is likely to lead to an increased interest in genuine “learning” on the part of the student. Hmmmm? I like the optimistic view he holds of students, but I find the opposite likely to be true. I’m going to sound like a huge slacker here, but when I was an undergrad, I studied abroad in London and was told I would only receive Pass/Fail grades on the courses I took while there. I, unfortunately, did not work harder because I was interested in my learning. I was 19!! (One was a screenwriting class that up until now I had nearly forgotten I had taken.) I find it hard to believe I am the exception to the rule in this situation. Do you really think high school and college students, particularly those who are not interesting in writing as a major, will work harder if they know it doesn’t affect their grade? I realize this is a dismal portrait of students that I am painting, but I can’t help but think it to be true. It’s a beautiful thing to think everyone would be taking classes just “to learn” if a degree wasn’t to be obtained. I regret to say that many students are taking these classes simply because they are required and they want to get a good grade, or maybe even just get by, depending on the student.
Ok, so around this point in the article, my whole thinking started to shift. Up until now, I was feeling like rubrics are great. But then, something made me want to throw my hands up and say “SCREW the rubric!” I was thinking that maybe grading writing should be a more visceral reaction rather than calculated formula. UGH! I’m still a little confused…...Either way, I still like the idea of ranking. (sorry, Elbow)
I was also perplexed by the following from the article, “Face it: if our goal is to get students to exercise their own judgment, that means exercising an immature and undeveloped judgment and making choices that are obviously wrong to us” (197). Maybe someone can explain it to me. He was talking about allowing students to take risks and not over-evaluate them...I am wondering if he is implying that students do not have the capacity to have well-developed judgement, or that our choices will never match those of the students???
Elbow’s description of his evaluation-free zones sounded a lot like reflective writing. I loved, loved, loved this section and his passion for what he is doing in the classroom. The fact that he would like to one day run an entire course this way had me jumping out of my seat. I could totally see the value in that and think it would produce amazing results! This is kind of the opposite of what I saying about using rubrics being cool and useful but,here, I honestly understood how effective the free-writing classroom could be. Very powerful. In addition to the reflective journals I spoke about last week, I had each of my students set up a blog as a free-writing space to use during computer time and I was moved by some of the content. They knew there was no risk-just a place to tell their classmates about them and I got to know a side of them I hadn’t seen before.
The section on liking was my favorite. I found all of it to be true. I felt a little bad that Elbow had to qualify his use of the activities described out of an obvious awkward feeling of being judged by his peers. I was moved by his sentiments about liking both your students and their writing. I am a forever optimist, deep down, and love all of my students and their wonderfully awful writing. We use post-it notes to write positive comments on each others’ writing and the students display them with pride on their lockers. There is nothing wrong with giving students a moral boost. Again, this is a contradiction to my aforementioned thoughts on giving everyone a participation ribbon, but so be it. I hold that the two views can coexist.
“The way a writer learns to like their writing is by the grace is by having a reader or two who like it.”
Is that not, too, true of learning to like ourselves? I love grammar like I love cursive writing: a little bit of nostalgia, a little bit of “what’s the use anymore?” Partick Hartwell, like many others, believes we should eliminate grammar instruction. In his article, “Grammar, Grammars, and The Teaching of Grammar”, he acknowledges there is much debate surrounding this topic. I was surprised to learn that the article was written in 1985, when grammar was still very much a part of formal writing instruction. Hartwell works, at length, to define grammar and debunk the opposing theories/studies surrounding grammar instruction. This was a tough article for me to get through, on a purely ease-of-reading level. It may very well be that I was rather tired, at the time, but I struggled with navigating the text. I will spare myself (and my colleagues) a long-winded post about this article.
HERE IS SOME INTERESTING REFLECTIVE JOURNAL "RESEARCH" FROM MY CLASS.......