The Nearly Impossible: Teaching Writing in a Culture of Grades, Averages

A former student and second-year English teacher and I (having taught high school English 18 years and then in higher education another on-going 16 years) have something in common when teaching students to write: A nearly paralyzing frustration with students’ resistance to draft and revise their essays.

While discussing this problem with the early-career teacher, I was once again reminded of how the traditional culture of grades and averaging makes the teaching of writing nearly impossible, especially for beginning teachers.

I have wrestled with the problems with grades and averaging before (here and here) and co-edited a volume on de-testing and de-grading education. But the essential problem remains: When teachers of writing are denied professional autonomy in their assessment and feedback practices, their writing pedagogy and the learning of their students are inevitably eroded.

As long as students are allowed to play the averaging game (completing assignments rendered irrelevant as long as the math produces a passing grade in the end), authentic learning and holistic outcomes are moot.

To offer an example outside of literacy and the teaching of writing, I noticed while teaching high school that many students in math courses never passed a single math test, but passed the course because they accumulated enough extra credit to have a passing final grade (through averaging) for the course.

I also had students tell me directly that they had simply taken zeroes for all their essay assignments the year before my class, but passed by making high enough grades on vocabulary, grammar, and literature tests.

This second-year teacher—as many of my former students have done once they entered the classroom—has implemented many of my strategies for encouraging students to draft: setting deadlines for drafts, linking participating in drafting to possible final grades on essays, etc.

Still, she admitted that students could skip the drafting, or even completing essays at all, and still because of school and district policies pass the course—without ever really engaging in the learning processes that the course was intended to address.

As is common with young and excellent teachers, she has taken on the bulk of the blame for this problem. “What can I do?” has become her refrain.

First, I want to stress that if and when I have been an effective teacher of writing, much of that success has been grounded in my assessment autonomy at both the secondary and university levels. While teaching high school and as a college professor, I have been afforded the professional support to require that students complete all essays and fulfill the obligation of drafting and revising those essays; if and when students do not meet those minimum requirements, they have failed.

I have always made the analogy that a sick patient must follow a doctor’s orders, including taking prescribed medicines, in order to heal. If that patient refuses to follow orders, the doctor is not responsible. (The doctor, of course, is responsible for a valid diagnosis.)

Since I cannot magically afford most teachers the sort of autonomy I have enjoyed, I want to consider below some real-world strategies for making the teaching of writing more authentic in the counter-productive culture of grades and averaging:

  • Seek colleague (and department) support for assessment and feedback policies that model the importance of drafting and writing essays. One aspect of the negative impact of grades and averaging is that students receive a powerful and consistent message across all their teachers and courses that playing the average game is not only all right, but what education is. Good writing pedagogy among teachers and within a department is more powerful than when any teacher works on an island.
  • Identify clearly for students, parents, and administrators that drafting is a primary instructional goal within the larger writing unit. This is a Sisyphean battle, but teachers of writing must create a culture in which drafting is embraced as an essential part of writing—not that drafting is some sort of option or busy work assigned by the teacher.
  • Design grading scales, assessment weights, rubrics, and assignments so that they all accurately reflect the primary importance of essay writing and drafting in the course. Yes, I abhor all of those traditional structures, but I also recognize they are often not negotiable for most teachers; and thus, we must manage traditional grading in a way that is least corrosive. The number of grades and the weight of grades in averaging can and should be shifted so that drafting and completing essays is essential for students to pass, or to do well.
  • Resist evaluating good assessment and writing practices by the “100% compliance or failure” formula. Throughout my career, I have routinely been confronted with the teacher who rejects my proposals for teaching with “Not all of my students will….” No practice need be 100% effective to be the right practice, but what is also puzzling with this argument is that traditional approaches can be dismissed with the same argument.
  • Periodically review teaching and assessment practices against specific writing goals. Here is a common question I pose to teachers struggling: What is your main instructional goal? Then I ask them to evaluate what they are doing against that goal—and to determine what their threshold is for standing firm on those practices and goals. If drafting is an essential student practice and instructional goal, lessons and assessment practices and policies must reflect that fact.
  • Ultimately all educators must have reasonable expectations for themselves, their students, and their instructional goals. It is not ours to do everything for every student, and it profits no one for any teacher to be a martyr. While I recognize the power of holistic behaviors and artifacts of learning (and am skeptical of the analysis bias of traditional schooling), I do urge a baby-steps approach to teaching and learning. Patience for the teacher and the student. Literacy broadly and writing more narrowly are journeys, not to be fixed with inoculations.
  • Spend as little psychological energy as possible on policies that are not negotiable. District and school policies for grading—usually entrenched traditional approaches to testing, assessment, averaging, and grades—certainly deserve critique by teachers of conscience. But that advocacy for change cannot become a constant source of fretting and self-flagellation. I wish more educators would advocate for de-testing and degrading the classroom, for rejecting averaging grades in favor of portfolios, revision, and effective teacher feedback. But day-to-day teaching must focus on the autonomy that teachers have, not what they are denied. Teaching is necessarily a tremendous psychological drain; we need not spend our energy on that over which we have no immediate control.

While teaching English and seeking to foster our students as writers, we must be concerned when students can pass or make Bs/ Cs in our courses while avoiding or refusing to draft or submit essays.

But when faced with that dilemma, we must first carefully identify the source of that possibility. A culture of grades and averaging works against us in many schools, and thus, we must then work within the autonomy we do have to make our writing pedagogy and assessment practices more closely aligned—even when we cannot achieve perfect.


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