Recently I had a conversation with a colleague where he was lamenting the amount of grading that he had to do for a class that was designed by someone else. Obviously teaching a class designed by another is problematic, but the general assumption that rigor in teaching requires a burdensome amount of work for both students and instructor is an even greater concern to me. Learning is hard work. Teaching is hard work. Why do we need to ratchet up the challenge by generating a lot of homework and grading on top? Why do we need to stop the learning and teaching for accountability? Feedback is essential to learning and growth — especially in the writing classroom — but it does not need to be detour on the journey. I prefer to think about feedback as a way station or a weigh station depending on the situation at hand.
Way Stations or Weigh Stations?
A way station is defined as “an intermediate stopping place” and that is most often the way that I use the work in my classes. Just as you do when on a physical journey, you must occasionally stop to rest and refresh and take stock that you are still on the right path. In contrast, a weigh station is not an optional stop for commercial vehicles, but instead a required detour where the vehicle is weighed (hence the name) but also inspected for other potential violations. I suspect that too often teachers (I know I am guilty too) put too much emphasis on weighing and inspecting and not allowing their students to simply pause for rest, refreshment, and checking their progress on their journey. Obviously there is a need for weigh stations, but I am trying to ensure that there are far more way stations than weigh stations in my classroom and I think that my students and I are all the better for it as we can focus on the journey we are taking rather than the destination.
Don’t weigh all the things
Every teacher has to find the right feedback balance (way station vs. weigh station) for their teaching context. It can often be a challenge as we are accountable to forces beyond our students’ needs. While external reporting (to administrators etc.) will likely never go away, every so often we all need to take stock of the work we assign and grade to determine if some pruning or even a prescribed burn might be in order. I have been working on this myself for the last year (see Less is More) and have managed to reduce my grading load as well as the number of major assignments my students must produce. But long before this I had established methods to support the necessary feedback loop to support learning and foster writer’s development; and this is my regular reminder to all teachers — you do not need to grade all the things that your students produce. Take a lesson from the way that weigh stations operate. You may have noticed when driving on highways that sometimes weigh stations are closed. While weigh stations serve an important purpose for highway and bridge safety, federal and state officials also have work force limitations and practical considerations that restrict operational hours. A weigh station open during peak traffic may cause more problems than it solves and teachers should consider this carefully when deciding where to locate their weigh stations in the course calendar. Will it cause a traffic jam or even a life-threatening collision for students and/or teacher? Will it cause overtime for your workforce? How close together should your weigh stations be located to safeguard but not impede progress?
How do you check in?
However you check in with your students, whether way station or weigh station, feedback is essential to progress. But again I remind teachers: you do not need to grade all the things. I am a firm believer in low-stakes writing of all kinds to jumpstart thinking and writing. Some of this we undertake in class and some of this takes place outside of class. This is work. Students are grappling with new ideas and readjusting their old thinking to make room for the new while also learning about rhetorical strategies to explain these ideas. I repeat this is work. It is important for teachers to follow this process and know enough about the work underway to be able to provide the feedback and support students need, but that check in can be something simple. Three of my favorite methods are six word stories, snaps , and claims (inspired by NWP’s C3WP work) or elevator pitches. My choice depends on the stage of our work and the course. Six word stories are intended to provide a glimpse into students’ current thinking while snaps are more of a process to support students’ exploration of an idea and claims/elevator pitches indicate a students’ plan for the current assignment. The key part of my less-is-more strategy is that most of this work is not assessed — only monitored. Most of this work does receive feedback — just not from me — as part of the way station process is checking in with each other. I do check this work and sometimes provide direct feedback (depending on the stage of the work) to gently redirect if necessary, but often to contribute as a community member with my thoughts and ideas. More often this check in guides my mini-lessons and teaching for the next class. I do not grade this work although it does play a role (as evidence) during my grade conference with the student, but if your administration requires the regular posting of grades this could provide an easy pass-fail-needs work sort of grade.
Thinking about the ways we provide feedback and assess student work is important pedagogical work and should never be taken lightly. How do you think about the role of feedback and assessment in our classroom?
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