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
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.