As I wrap up my third semester of conference grading (which included a half semester of pandemic teaching), I am so grateful that I have made this shift and so thankful to my extensive PLN for informing this journey with your experience and your questions which have shaped my practice as much as my students’ thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections and interactions. Conference grading has been all that I could wish as a writing teacher – and more. Conference grading has changed the relationships I have with my students and their writing. Conference grading has changed the ways my students talk to me about their writing. Conference grading has changed the rhetorical situation in my writing classroom. One thing I have learned is that conference grading is not a one-size-fits-all proposition and every teacher can discover/hack a version that works for their unique context. I have built this system on the fly and adapted it with the support of my students so the system is very alive and organic. I hope that my conference grading journey and experience can inform your own journey and encourage you to experiment in your own classroom.
My journey with conference grading began in 2018 as I started researching and seriously thinking about how I could make this work for my classes, but my first blog post about conference grading was written in the nail-biting hours before my first round of grade conferences in February 2019. As I note in that blog post, my journey began long before that when I started implementing badges and collaborative standards. From the beginning, the grade conferencing process turned out better than I feared although the process was by no means a smooth operation. That entire first semester was a learning experience for me as well as my students, but I found the journey well worth taking as I learned so much about my students and their writing as well as my own teaching. All that learning meant that I started classes in the fall with a new plan, but a firm commitment to continuing the experiment.
In Conference Grading 2.0 I reflect on the first two semesters of conference grading, both the process I used in each semester and the lessons I learned from the experience. Changing the student preparation for our grade conferences still left me feeling that something was missing in the overall writing workshop cycle and/or final material preparation. I knew I was on the right path for my students and myself, but the process could certainly be smoother. This inspired further changes to the introduction of conference grading and preparation for my students and myself.
This semester, even in the midst of a pandemic, I feel that I have finally found the sweet spot for my grade conferences and preparation. We engage in more reflection and study of student writing early in the process. This is made possible because I use HyperDocs and teach either online or hybrid classes which gives students more time to reflect and study their work as well as participate in feedback loops as they think about and write their current deliverable. But the biggest change was shifting from a “form” to a document and using that document to guide students through a reflection on their work throughout the unit (see example at the bottom of post). Finally, I see almost universal reflection about their process and their writing from my students.
I call my new reflection document the 3Rs and lead students through a reading, writing, and arithmetic exercise. Many students quickly catch on to the fact that I do not build disposable assignments into our coursework, but not everyone understands how their work on the unit deliverable begins long before they start their draft for workshop. I remind students of this journey and direct their attention to the work they completed on the way to final draft so they can remember their own evolution as they tell me about that process.
Next students are directed to think specifically about their journey as a writer. What strengths as a writer did they bring to this unit? What challenges did this unit present to them as an individual writer? What gave them pride about their development as a writer during this unit? I also ask them to look at the specific standards that are related to writing and consider how they performed as a writer on those standards. For our next step they will consider how their final deliverable turned out, but for this step it is about thinking about their successes and challenges in terms of their specific rhetorical context.
Students then focus on their final deliverable’s component parts using the standards that we developed as a class. I ask them to consider each standard in turn and to rate it on a scale of 1 to 4 (1 = no evidence and 4 = overwhelming evidence) then to reflect on the evidence that they used to support that number. Note: There are always two standards for each unit that do not relate specifically to the deliverable. These are Self-Regulation and Community Support which pay attention to the student’s efforts and attention throughout the unit as well as the ways they supported their classmates. Then students are directed to use math to calculate a numeric representation of their success on that deliverable and then supply evidence to support their position.
I love that the 3Rs prompt guides students to think through the work necessary to create the deliverable for that unit. I want students to associate all the thinking, reading, planning, and writing with their final achievement. I want students to recognize that attending to the process is as important as the final deliverable. I want students to reward themselves for taking risks and embracing new challenges. I want students to understand how the grade they eventually receive for that unit was determined and to offer their evidence for the grade they believe they earned.
Back in the before times, my first year students met with me individually to discuss their grade for the unit after preparing their 3Rs reflection. I fully acknowledge my privilege as a college writing instructor to set aside a full week for these conversations. Even so it was a grueling schedule. Almost every conversation was meaningful and important, but even outsourcing the preparation in this way left me with a lot of heavy lifting with developing writers unaccustomed to thinking about their writing and doing much of the rhetorical work we were undertaking. However, now in the pandemic, I am so grateful for the groundwork that we had laid with this work on two previous units. It makes our work (conducted via Google doc and Blackboard) so much easier and I can watch the evolution of their thinking about writing as well as their writing.
I wish I taught in a universe where grades were not necessary, but I am much more content with this version of grading than any other during my career. What part of my conference grading journey sparks your interest? Could you re-vision conference grading to fit your teaching context?