Degrading the Grade

I wrote this essay for an anthology about teaching being prepared by my pal, Jeanine Dell’Olio, at Hope College. My students already know about my approach to grading, of course. Julie thought this would be a good place to keep this essay, with hopes these ideas can continue to stir up trouble.


Degrading the Grade

Jack Ridl

I have spent my classroom life teaching in the arts, specifically poetry writing. Among the questions I am most asked is “How do you grade a poem? Isn’t it completely subjective? Isn’t it impossible to grade any art?”

Well, of course you can grade a work of art. You can decide to award an A for accomplishing effective use of various artistic elements or a grade based on improvement. You can grade based on a determination of quality. You can determine the criteria. I had a writing teacher whose grading system was A if you wrote as well as Shakespeare, B if  you wrote as well as Hemingway, C for “most of you, likely.” Another teacher offered this system: “C if your work makes me think. B if it makes me feel. A if it makes me laugh.” So, yes, you can grade an artwork.

But how to grade was not the issue for me. Why grade, and what are the consequences of grading, and does the grade help a student develop? These were the questions that would not leave my mind alone when I took a walk. Then one day came the epiphany. It was rather simple as epiphanies go: Grading was preventing my students from being artists, poets.

Grading interfered with the value of constructive critique. The grade was not an assessment, not even a reward or a punishment. It was a consequence. As soon as I would suggest to students that they could do something else with an ending or a line break or change the tone, all they heard was a grade plummeting. Defenses rose. They refused to see any alternative to the way they had composed the work, and stood firmly for the A grade they deserved. The result was stifled growth, inauthentic work, begrudging changes that took little if any effect, a hostile relationship between what should be a coach/mentor and a growing writer.

So I eliminated grading. I eliminated it in order to suggest, respond, criticize. And what happened? The students–ALL of the students–began to welcome suggestions and options and alternatives and even challenges. They were not unlike anyone learning to play the piano or to swim or to build a campfire. They wanted to create an effective work. They had always wanted to, but understandably because of school and its achievement evaluation based on measurement, they had to make their grade not their first priority but their first concern. Eliminating grading of their work enabled them to connect their priority with their concern.

And the reward became, dare I say, spiritual and communal rather than a “seal of approval.” They discovered the real reasons for creating. What became important was not confined to the “product.” Importance and value expanded into the process, not because it led to a product, but because the process itself brought valuable experiences, insights, revelations. The students began offering to one another both their poems and the value embodied in them and stories of what happened in the process, both of which enriched the entire class and created a deepening of community. One time I was challenged in a faculty meeting about what I was doing: “Why will your students do any of the work if it’s not going to be graded? What makes them do the work?”  My response was simply “The right reasons.” That sounds glib. It isn’t.

Something that surprised and liberated the students was that they began to discover real value in everything written, successful or not. We had complex and provocative conversations about the importance of the material. We decided together whether it resulted in an effective poem or not. Any image, moment, insight, any line break, the implications of the impact of the rhythm of lines could lead to conversation and worthwhile realizations. The poem did not need to be successful for us to find remarkable and worthwhile content and artistic attributes, ones well worth discussing. I realized that it was my job not to demand that they write successful poems, but to teach them what it took to write poems. They have the rest of their lives to write successful poems

Emily Dickinson didn’t sit down to write a poem for a grade. David didn’t write the 23rd Psalm and say to himself, “That’ll get me an A.” There were very important reasons for composing poetry. The students deserved to have access to that discovery.

But I was worried. Won’t some students blow this whole thing off? Won’t my reputation go down the tubes? Won’t I become a laughing stock, an “easy grader?” And won’t the students create mostly mediocre work?

That’s when another surprise arrived. Instead of mediocre work, the work improved. Not one student blew off a single assignment. And while many students never became full-fledged poets, more than in the past did. In 15 years since my epiphany, more than 60 students have gone on to the best MFA programs in the country and are publishing. No, there is no data.  But what I do know for sure is that every single one of the students had poetry restored to their lives, and have kept it as an important part of their lives since their graduation.

And as for me? I put away being a tough grader and became a “tough responder.” All that means is that I was no longer hesitant to make suggestions and corrections for fear I might “stifle” a sensitive soul. I no longer had to tell them the lie that they needed to develop a tough hide in order to take criticism. They could maintain their vision and voice and sensitivity. They could welcome critical response because it was in their behalf and their poem’s behalf. Critical response did not lead to a grade which had led them to play it safe and learn little. Critical response led to growth and the intrinsic joy that comes when beginning artists realize what can be done instead of hiding within what they can already do.

14 thoughts on “Degrading the Grade

  1. Google sends me “alerts” for anything that mentions Hope College and it was a pleasure to get and read this. My brother, Paul Timmer, thought so highly of you. This blog gives me a good reason why. I’ve always thought I would go back to teaching since I started my professional life that way; if I do, I hope I bring your vision to the classroom.

  2. Hi Jack–Surprise!!!! I’ve read your “Degrading the Grade.” I sooooo agree with you. I feel sad (and guilty) about the huge number of students of French (…my subject area) that I personally have frightened away by the intimidation of a rating system; however, the public high schools that have employed me, absolutely refuse to hear of anything less than the numerical-and-letter-grading systems, and they demand my accountability by collecting my gradebook at the end of every year for posterity!!! No wonder the “good ol’ USA” trails well behind other nations in the realm of academics!!!!! You know what???? I’m finally “finding” myself….I knew I was somewhere, but the education, I mean “intimidation” system held me back. Now, I write and paint…..Aha!!! I just remembered that Antoine de St. Exupery was expressing the same ideas in THE LITTLE PRINCE!!!!!!–My favorite book. How wonderful a teacher’s world would be if we weren’t required to hold the “sword of Damocles” over our students’ heads!!!! I hope there’s another life after this one!!!! I want to come back and do it right the next time–a la Groundhog Day!!!:)

    One other little point: The textbook industry needs to be revamped, too!!!!!

  3. During my time in Jack’s class, I felt as though the changes I made to my poetry wasn’t a task, it was an exquisite step towards creating a piece of art. I have never worked harder than I did in Jack’s class. Every poem had countless drafts, and I was writing to communicate, to showcase, to express, and not to impress The-Man-with-the-Red-Pen. How liberating! How real! I never felt more free to create. I took risks. Some of them crashed and burned, and some of them soared. I will never forget the time I spent critiquing and being critiqued in that sacred circle of writers… It has had a massive influence on how I have taught my own seventh grade English Language Arts students. So, Jack, you have not only influenced me, but hundreds of my past students (they all know you as the author of the “blue highway”). I have tried to adapt your techniques and practices, and they work! My students all care about their writing. When we talk about where to add a semi-colon in their own writing, they see it as just another stroke of the paintbrush in creating their masterpieces. It’s real and it’s meaningful. So, thank you, thank you, thank you for making this glorious teaching philosophy public so that all can peek into a snippet of the creative world that was (and is) your class!

  4. This, sir, is an affirmation of everything you taught us, and I’m so glad that it’s going into print so there’s some sort of a shade of remembrance of what it was like in the Dungeon.

    Not that it’s any reflection at all. But for one minute, it took me back to a place where it was safe to experiment – and fail – and it didn’t matter a damn, because every failure might have been one step back but brought me two steps forward (and not just with writing, friend).

    So in my own dreadfully inconcise and terribly incompetent way, I’m saying…this is fantastic. And it would be great if life could operate the way the dungeon did. Instead of my boss criticising me, he could critique me?! Astounding concept.

    Anyway. Thanks for taking me to that place for four years, friend, and thanks for taking me back there again and again, through things like this.

  5. Hi Jack!

    I just wanted to say thank you for those hours in the basement– my time in your class meant more to me than I can say. I learned so much about myself and the way I write– WHY I write. I used to be afraid to commit any words to a page. Thank you for giving us this freedom to play, and for creating and facilitating a loving space for us to play in. What a valuable year my last year of college was because of you and your classes. You allowed me to love the poems that gestate inside me simply for what they are, without much fear. What a privilege. I’ve told you this before, but you really did make a place for me to restore poetry to my life and I am beyond grateful.

  6. An intuitive gasp of the truth! I wished my long ago teachers recognized the possibilities of their creative students rather than scratching bold intimidating grade marks that crush the spirit of their youthful imaginations.

    I hope those responsible for requirements and guidelines of education in pubic and private institutions find this post resourceful and inspiring.

    David In Maine

  7. Pingback: Grading and Creative Writing « Introduction to Creative Writing

  8. Jack,
    Received an article from the Grand Rapids newspaper of a few years ago with a note that read, “I think you might be interested in this.” It was from a high school friend. Now I’ve perused the internet to discover that you are quite accomplished in your field. Congratulations, first, but I’m hoping that you are located nearby Holland, MI, as our family is spending a month from August 6 to September 6 vacationing on Lake Michigan. I’d really like to see if we can get together and perhaps go out to dinner and catch up. Any thoughts?


  9. As one of Jack’s former students, and now a teacher of high school English, I can vouch for every assertion in this essay. Jack’s grading “style” had a profound influence on me as a poet and as a learner; now a teacher myself, I grade my students’ poems as Jack graded mine. As Jack found, this “de-grading” works. It takes the emphasis off of the venal G.P.A. and puts it back on the human soul. For this and all that you did for us as students: thank you, thank you, thank you, Jack!

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