In which I finally realize I’ve been #ungrading for a while
During the first half of the Spring 2020 semester I thought I had conference grading all figured out. That semester was my third iteration of using conference grading to work with undergraduate writing classes and I had developed a process to help my students prepare for our conferences that really supported the conversations I wanted to have with my developing writers. Then the pandemic happened, but it was OK. We were able to shift those conversations online and I felt a certain smugness about the robustness of my plan.
In fact, I was still so enthusiastic about this work that I convinced my friend Leslie Workman, who would be leading the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute with me in June, that we should adapt my 3Rs conference grading reflection process with the educators participating in the OSI. Then a funny thing happened — we made my plan better. I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this is one of the reasons I say that teachers need a PLN and Leslie has been inspiring me for all the years I have known her (and in fact she was one of the people who first sparked the process I use to collaboratively design standards with my students). Plus, this is exactly one of the superpowers sparked by the National Writing Project.
Ungrading Professional Development
During the OSI, which spans four weeks of intense activity, we asked the participating educators to wrap up each week with a reflection about the community’s activity and their own work as well as the lessons they learned as writers and educators. We created a master reflection HyperDoc to guide this process and the participants updated their personal version of that document each week.
We began with my 3Rs plan and asked participants to READ over the week’s activity (something you can easily do when you are asynchronous) to make note of the key takeaways, surprises, and lessons that can benefit them personally and professionally; examine their progress as a WRITER; and use a little ARITHMETIC to guide their self-assessment of their work and progress. We then asked our participating educators to set their own goals for their work – keeping in mind the stated goals that the National Writing Project has for Summer Institute Work (Teacher as Writer, Reflective Practitioner, Leader, and Researcher) as well as the implicit goal of active Community member. These are the five achievements our OSI is designed to foster.
We used the comment tool to extend the conversation by celebrating, commiserating, elaborating, or teaching as the situation required. This process made it easy for us to see their progress over the course of the OSI, but even more important, it allowed the participant to see their progress. However, perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the reflection conversation centered on the goals that the educators set for themselves. These goals gave us such insight into the participants’ priorities, strengths, and opportunities for growth. We have long used the weekly reflection as a part of our process, but this new process was intended to help participants keep track of the important events and information that shaped their development and learning. A NWP Summer Institute is an intense experience and it is easy to lose track of lessons and ideas along the way and even easier to lose track of your own growth and development.
And so, my summer teaching experience led me to once again revamp the reflection process of my undergraduates. This fall I am requiring my undergraduates to complete weekly reflections as well. Each week they update a Google doc (with instructions to guide them through their reflection) asking them to read over the community work of the week to ask what they learned, to reflect on their writing experience that week, conduct a brief self evaluation based on the goals set by our institution and myself, and then to set some personal goals for their work in the class.
I don’t expect that all my first-year writing students will find this self-examination process as fruitful and fulfilling as the educators we worked with during the OSI, but I am already very impressed with the reflections of my students and often blown away by the thoughtful goals they are setting for themselves. I hoped that these weekly reflections would offer me the opportunity to stay in touch with their progress, their struggles, and their successes during this time of pandemic teaching. I know after this spring that we need to employ new tools to maintain the student relationships we could easily develop in a more traditional classroom. It is early days of the semester and I am only just now reading reflections on our second week, but the process has helped me connect with my students. Sometimes I cry because their reflections make me so happy.
I am sure that this ungrading reflection process will help my developing writers become more reflective and self-regulating writers as well as better rhetoricians–and that is my goal. What remains to be seen is if this work is sustainable on my part. However, it only takes a few minutes to read and comment. This is not intensive labor because I am not grading anything. I am simply responding to their experiences and questions and I am free to note that I loved their anthem or commiserate over a goal. Also, so far, student reflections are not arriving in big waves, but rather small clumps. Honestly, reading reflections is a reward for working through much more onerous duties. Finally, I strongly suspect that the weekly reflection process will make our final unit grade conference much less stressful for students – especially the first time around. I hope by then they will trust the process and be familiar with me and my ways so we can have an honest and productive conversation about the big picture of the unit. I hope that big picture conversation will be faster and easier because we will have done so much groundwork.
And so, I find myself officially joining ranks with many other ungrading educators in my PLN (instead of hanging around the edges) including Jesse Stommel, Laura Gibbs, Maha Bali, and Heather Mitchell-Buck. Thanks folks for continuing to inspire and educate me! It is also worth noting that ungrading is having a bit of a moment thanks to the pandemic. We can only hope that one of the good things that comes out of this devastating global tragedy is that destructive systems are dismantled and replaced. What are your experiences with ungrading? What questions do you have about ungrading? Do you think there is hope for an ungraded future?
Note: If you want to follow my journey from conference grading to ungrading read: Conference Grading 3.0 and the 3Rs. Also, some notes that guided a conversation I had with colleagues at my institution.