The Ungrading Journey Continues

Five years into this ungrading journey I’m still working out some things and right now in the wake of the fall semester, I’m considering how ungrading can solve my last mile problem. Despite the fact my teaching journey began in 1987 and includes an MS, MA, and Ph.D as well as 15 years as National Writing Project teacher leader, I am still working out my teaching praxis. Even as I stare down retirement (countdown clock in the single digits now) I expect I will continue adjusting until that countdown clock hits zero. I hope that uncertainty is a comfort (and not a jump scare) for those new and mid career teachers who think more experienced teachers have it all figured out.

My odyssey with ungrading began in Spring 2019 (a moment of silence for pre-pandemic education) and I have wrestled my way through multiple iterations since then (see 2021’s An #Ungrading Journey and 2022’s Logbooks and #Ungrading: Creating a writing studio for status reports). This fall I wrote a blog post explaining that my current ungrading focus is on students writing reflection about their journey as writers. While that focus has brought so much joy into my classroom, it still leaves me with a great deal of anxiety at the end of the semester.

A recent conversation on teacher ex-twitter comforted me that I am not alone with this last mile problem. As the endemic pandemic continues to leave health problems and disruptions in its wake (and every institution continues to ignore the very real consequences) and while all of us (students, teachers, families, and yes, even soulless administrators) continue to struggle with the trauma of living in an endemic pandemic surrounded by violence, economic uncertainty, and threats against democracy and our social fabric, I’m surprised any of us manage to get out of bed and do anything constructive at all. And yet, despite the endemic pandemic and unstable world, the machinery of higher education continues to grind on no matter what parts of ourselves are lost along the way.

I do not believe in the much-touted learning loss and I do not blame grade inflation or the diminished status of standardized testing in college admissions, but I do know that today’s college students are different from pre-pandemic college students. I also know that the pre-pandemic cohorts of the 2010s were different from those I taught in the early 2000s. There are a lot of forces at play behind the current moment in education (and specifically higher education) and no teacher and no parent and no student can address them all. All we can do is the best we can with our individual capacity and be as gentle as possible with our learning communities. It is challenging to be a learner and teacher when your physical and mental health is compromised.

Paul Thomas’ ex-twitter post about the changes he is making for the spring semester (in response to these problems) is also inspiring me to consider what changes I need to make to protect my sanity and heart while supporting student learning. Like Paul, I am also concerned about lowering student stress. As I note in The Last Mile Problem, I am not worried about student engagement, but I am worried about students who are engaged and writing in class and yet do not take the writing they draft in class to the next stage let alone a polished final draft. I also want to reward the students who engage fully in setting goals for their writing and reflecting deeply on their writing journey over the course of the semester. As I note in Writing Reflection:

I want my students … to live and think as writers, to believe they are writers, to be writers.

Writing Reflection

I think when my next semester begins I will shift my orientation and annotation process to a collaboration on a social contract. I do not want to call it a grading contract because it needs to be about more than grades. It needs to be about the community we want to build together to support individual learning journeys. After reviewing Paul’s post I think I need to make my minimum standards clear from our first class and so that too will need to be part of the contract. While this may seem like a grading contract it is about our community contract. The writing and feedback model of my classes is very collaborative and when too many people opt out or participate at the last minute (or late) then it impacts the writing experience of the whole community.

Minimum requirements for course credit:

  • Consistent and timely good faith completion of the work of the week (including writing starts, developing drafts and polishing deliverables)
  • Consistent and timely good faith community support (including writing and sharing with the community and offering praise, feedback, and guidance as appropriate)
  • Consistent and timely good faith reflection about the writing journey throughout the semester (including weekly, unit, and final reflections)

Grade expectations:

A Standard: Earning an A requires good faith effort throughout most of the unit with minimal late or missed work (you do not need to be perfect, just actively working).

B Standard: Earning a B requires good faith effort through most of the unit with only occasional late or missed work (there are some small gaps in your participation)
C Standard: Earning a C requires good faith effort through units but allows for some late or missed work (you get the work (mostly) done – eventually)

Inspired by Marcus Luther‘s guided reflection process, I’m also planning to shift our weekly reflection process to our community logbook to make that reflection visible and communal and it should also reduce student stress by consolidating all the work of the week into one location. I’m considering what this process will look like but may find a way to incorporate my love affair with the six word story. I’m also considering adapting his Writing Story reflection process for my unit reflections but will likely keep my literacy narrative final reflections.

I am excited about these changes to the creation and work of my community of writers, but there is one final problem I want to solve and this comes back to the last mile problem worrying me (and others). For several semesters now my students have earned points for each unit through a combination of weekly self-assessment quizzes and then a roughly equivalent number of points earned upon submission of a polished piece of final work and a unit reflection. The self-assessment quizzes feature three simple true-false questions about the work, support, and reflection of the week and automatically award the points. I typically give students a two-week window to complete the work, support, and reflection then self-assess (the official work week and then a grace period) before closing out the quiz. The self-assessment quizzes are really where students sort themselves into As, Bs, and Cs and so I want to readjust this self-assessment to help students better understand the implications of their choices. I don’t want to complicate it as neither I nor my students need more complications (stress) in our lives but it is an important touch point for my students’ learning journeys. Currently I’m toying with changing the true-false questions to open-ended questions that should be answered (at a minimum) by a few sentences.

Before reading Paul’s plans for his spring readjustment I was already rethinking the weekly self-assessment quizzes to incorporate the reflection and goal-setting I want to see from my students. He has inspired me to think about make my expectations for As and Bs more explicit as well as establish minimum expectations for As, Bs, and Cs. These expectations would focus on doing the writing work (from start to draft to polished form), supporting our community of writers from sharing their own work in progress to providing feedback to others in time and good faith, and reflecting about their progress on their writing goals. And in the meantime I continue to think about how I can rework the self-assessment/reflection part of my students’ weekly work cycle. I think both changes could both makes things less stressful for my students and better serve my goal for them to think like writers.

Thanks Paul (and Marcus) for inspiring my own spring readjustment. This conversation is one reason I’m still not giving up on ex-twitter even though it gets worse on the daily. Here’s hoping this reflection will allow me to put my work aside until January and take a much-needed break. How do you reflect on your practice? Where are you on your own ungrading journey?

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

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