I have communicated far and wide my excitement about my transition to grade conferences this past semester. Despite the fact that I have blogged a lot about my plans and experiences, I can tell that a number of people are still skeptical that grade conferences are as awesome as I say or they don’t quite understand how they could work in their specific classrooms. Obviously mileage may vary for different teachers in different settings. I also fully realize that some teachers work in a context designed to prevent such classroom innovations. I would never say anything else. What I want to address in this post is the three key practices already in place that helped me make my transition to grade conferences (which was far from smooth so I apologize if I sent that message). In an effort to help other teachers plan their own transition to grade conferences or design their own plan for their unique context, I will discuss those three key practices and how they contributed to my happiness with grade conferences.
First and foremost, creating a strong class community is essential for any writing workshop. This means supporting each other, sharing our journeys (both challenges and successes), and communicating about our goals. Most of our class time is spent either planning/drafting or collaborating (usually in pairs or small groups) so there is a lot of time and attention given to each individual student project. As a result all (or at least most) of the class understands the big picture goal and how the smaller goals we tackle each week contribute to that larger goal as well as how their individual project works within that framework. We are implicitly and explicitly attending to process.
Don’t Grade The Small Stuff
Because my classes operate as a writing workshop we don’t sweat the small stuff and I don’t grade the building block assignments. Students learn early on that those assignments are not disposable. Whether they are crafting claims or researching evidence or responding to a reading – each class activity is designed to help them plan/draft/revise their deliverable. This work is often collaborative and almost always visible to the class (because I believe open sharing of ideas inspires all our thinking) so the community knows who is a good community member and who is not. The community is given the opportunity to recognize and reward good community members by awarding badges. I do not spend a lot of time tracking or checking completion of these tasks. I do a lot of spot checking and use notes from those to plan mini-lessons and other interventions. The combination of community monitoring and regular instructor interaction keeps most students on task, but also allows students to make their own choices about their work. Savvy students use our class activities to not only improve their projects but also as evidence of their community support and self-regulation. Because I don’t grade the small stuff but link it to their work in the unit and on the unit’s deliverable they develop a self-regulating mindset and it sets me up as a mentor rather than an enforcer.
Collaborative Assessment Standards
The week before we peer review unit deliverables we spent some time (as a class) crafting the standards which we will use to assess that unit. We examine the goals for the English Department as well as our Institution and consider my goals which have usually evolved into our goals by this point in the unit. We spend some time thinking, writing, and talking about these goals and then students will break into groups to develop a list of standards. I then provide a model developed by a previous class and we discuss the pros and cons of the model and how that model may have been developed for a different context. Sometimes we borrow or revise some standards from the previous model and sometimes we strike out on our own. Some classes really like a minimal list of standards while others go long. Sometimes there is intense debate and negotiation and other occasions very little discussion, but at the end we have all spent time really thinking about how the unit and the deliverable in question will be assessed and those standards are then used to guide feedback during peer review.
The Google form I created to help students prepare for our grade conference using the standards developed collaboratively by two Writing II classes Spring 2019.
Each of these practices supports the other practices. Without a strong community our collaborative work on the building blocks of each unit would be less productive and useful. Without our work on those building blocks our conversations about the expectations for each unit and deliverable would be less meaningful. Without our conversations about expectation and standards for our specific context then our grade conferences would be less fruitful and more fraught. I love that grade conferences have shifted my role in the classroom to coach and mentor rather than enforcer and dream crusher. I love that grade conferences encourage students to think more thoughtfully about their writing process and self-regulation. I love that grade conferences center our conversations on the work and not the grade. What questions do you have about grade conferences?