I wrapped up my grade conferences a few days ago, but honestly I am still processing the experience. It was both more rewarding and more challenging than I expected — and like so much of teaching the challenges often took an unexpected turn. I did not need to spend a lot of time and energy on counterarguments as I worried. Although there were some reality checks delivered most of the time they did not impact the letter grade and our discussion helped students understand what their self-assessment did not take into account. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how many students were willing and able to reflect honestly about the strengths and weaknesses of their writing. That discovery makes me realize how much we short-change our writing students when we do not give them the opportunity to self-evaluate. Many of my students noted that they found the process uncomfortable, but I think that just might be a good thing as I suspect that is where learning most often takes place — just outside our comfort zone.
Turns out that my concern about nagging was well warranted. Maybe as many as half of my students did not complete their documentation ahead of time — or they failed to share it with me ahead of time. But this was not as big a deal as I worried it might. Some of those students brought prepared documents while with the others simply worked through the standards with me on the spot and we were able to determine a grade together. Perhaps those students missed out on the opportunity to do as much reflection as their peers, but I also suspect their responses were more honest as they were more of a gut response.
Things turned out so much better than my final worry: Will I enjoy a day celebrating lessons learned and achievements made? Will this week of conferences be full of joy and interesting conversations or have I simply traded in one form of drudgery and misery for another? I spent my conference days celebrating lessons learned and achievements made. My simple question: What did you learn from this unit? Generated some terrific conversations about the content of the student papers as well as critical thinking and writing. My follow-up question about the challenges they faced meant I could deliver advice or reassurance as necessary and make notes for upcoming lessons. There was no drudgery although the days were exhausting (especially the first day as I had two very long sessions of conferences).
A quick run through of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly reflections about my first foray into grade conferences and increasing student agency:
- The Good: The focus of both the preparation and conference was on student writing: the successes and the challenges — so the grade was more of a way station than a terminal on the writer’s journey. Using the standards we developed as a class to guide the conversation meant that the focus was on the student writing and not the grade. The grading conference shifted the burden of evaluation from me to the student and allowed me to frame my response as an opportunity for growth as writer and offer guidance. Too often when students turn in a paper for grading they see it as a full-stop end and they do not think about that assignment again. I hope that our framing our conversation about what can be learned from the assessment will help students see their writing development as a life-long process rather than a series of short-term gigs.
- The Bad: Some students were unable or unwilling to self-assess. I don’t know all of them well enough to be sure which it is. This will take some more coaching and work for both of us. In the end there is still a grade on a piece of writing that sends a message to students that may not be healthy for my intended goal of fostering writers (but I am happier about this grading process than previous versions I have employed). It is exhausting (although it is over and done so there is that).
- The Ugly: Logistics were fraught with problems. Some students didn’t follow directions. Some students prepared documents but didn’t share and others shared prepared documents but did not set proper share settings. Many many students shared their documents too late to be useful for conference preparation. We muddled through but I am sure this added to my stress and exhaustion. I’ll have to decide how I want to handle these situations next time around. I also need to decide how to handle late assignments as my previous policy doesn’t align very well with the current situation.
All in all, I consider the work and anxiety of grading conferences worth the pay off of increased agency for my students and increased understanding for me. I believe shifting the focus of the grading process from a terminal assessment to an important step in the writing process will help my students grow as writers and critical thinkers and will help me become a better teacher. Win-Win.