Friday, November 14, 2014

Confessions of a Strict Essay Grader

"You know, Mr. Gibson, you really were a strict essay grader."
These were words I never thought I would hear.  There are many adjectives that one might attach to my teaching, but strict is not and has never been among them... at least I had not thought so.
Yet, when one of my top students from last year approached me earlier this month with this statement, he was being completely serious.  He went on to cite a specific time that he'd worked very hard to get a B+ on a DBQ, and how this challenge had helped prepare him for the rigor of his Senior English class.  Though it had frustrated him at the time, he now thanked me.

After this conversation, I began to reflect in earnest on my grading practices, and found that they have indeed changed over the past six years.  I certainly was not a strict grader in my first few years of teaching: I was far too generous in giving out 5s (the top score) on the rubric.

Since I arrived at CAJ, every year in May, I have been involved in the grading of the Senior Comprehensives essays, which synthesize the students' research with a Biblical perspective and an action plan.  These essays are graded by two teachers each, who fill out their own rubrics and then talk together to fill out a final rubric.  After I'd been here for a few years, I began to observe that many students who had achieved perfect or near-perfect writing scores in my 11th grade class were scoring 4s or 3s on their Senior Comps essays.  I realized, to my dismay, that I'd really done them a disservice in giving them such high scores while they were in my class.

Shortly after I started my Master's coursework (and in particular, a course on assessment practices), I also took a step back to look at the writing rubric.  By our school's definition, '3' is "Meets Standard", and serves as the basic target: if a student achieves a '3', they have sufficiently demonstrated the skills and understandings that we as a staff hoped all students would have by the time they graduate.  A '4' is "Above Standard": the student has gone above and beyond expectations and has produced fine work.  A '5' is exemplary, and demonstrates not only a technical accuracy, but a high degree of sophistication and innovation.  I don't know that I was fully aware of the change in my grading--it certainly was not something I set out to modify intentionally.  Yet the change is undeniable: my students this year know that an 'A' on an essay in my class is really something special.

Just this week, I finished grading my 4th set of essays so far this year.  I have never been so pleased with a class' performance (though the average score is lower than it would've been a few years ago, before my philosophy of grading shifted).  I am thrilled when a student who has been scoring '2's nabs a '3', when a '3' student finally reaches a '4', or when a '4' student just "clicks" and takes home a '5'.  I don't see it as As, Bs or Cs, with all the stigma that those letters carry: I see it as a quest to meet the standard and then having met it, to master, to grow beyond.

Unfortunately, many students are not operating in that frame of mind.  For them, the pressures of transcripts, GPA, and college admissions loom large, and stand in the way of them appreciating the journey; of learning to embrace a '3' as evidence that they've adequately demonstrated a new skill or understanding (a foundation upon which they can build in future essays and rewrites).  I tell the students that writing is a process and that no amount of revisions will ever make an essay truly perfect, but that I want to reward them for the growth that they demonstrate.  To this end, I give each successive essay more weight in my grade-book.

All the same, I understand that students tend to be "in the moment", and responding in real-time to the demands of classes, friends, family, extracurriculars... the big picture in my course is not terribly high on their list of priorities.  So moving forward, I wonder how I can "sell" my vision to my students so that they do not become discouraged when they see a '3' on their writing rubric; so that they can move beyond the instinct to dwell on the number crunch ("let's see... a '3' is a 73.5%, which is a 'C' and oh my goodness, that's terrible!"), celebrate in what they have achieved, and begin to plan ahead to make improvements for the next essay.

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