One Tuesday not long ago, I glanced up in between one-on-one student conferences to see my 10th graders hunched over school laptops, typing furiously. I had just left David in the process of fixing his verb-endings, after giving him enough examples that he started to find the errors in his own writing. My next stop was Caroline. I was going to read sections of her writing out loud to her, and then have her read them back, in order to help her find the natural ending to her sentences so that she could avoid run-ons. As I walked across the room I saw Ana and Keith reading over one anothers’ papers, and pointing out where they had questions. Later on I learned that, in the process of revising their essays on Othello, they also revisited the text and re-read a monologue to discover what Othello was suggesting about Desdemona when he compares her to a “young and rose-lipped cherubin.”
That week there were few moments of whole-class instruction. Instead, for three days, students worked independently to revise and edit their writing. It was the type of class I had been striving toward for years. I have used editing circles, grammar mini-lessons, one-on-one conferences, and a host of other tools to cajole my students to actually edit their own work effectively. But what I finally figured out was that I needed a system in place that gave them the motivation to edit as well as the time, feedback, and instruction needed to do so. Within a system like that all my tools for teaching students about conventions in writing could truly be effective.
So a lot had happened beforehand to create that magical Tuesday. Two weeks earlier my students spent four days revising their work from the past term into one coherent document, complete with reflective writing about their learning and growth. My co-teacher and I then spent a weekend scoring all the student portfolios. Many students met expectations in terms of the content of their writing, but their pieces (both long and short) were still riddled with those errors that are the bane of teachers everywhere: misspellings, incomplete and incoherent sentences, proper nouns not capitalized, and other errors that actually interfere with fully understanding the meaning of the student’s writing.
‘Revise and Resubmit’
In the past, these students might have received a lower grade right off the bat: a C instead of a B, a D+ instead of a C, and then moved on to the next thing. In the past, I might have corrected all the errors, scored the student lower on the “conventions” section of the rubric, and then hoped fervently that they would somehow internalize this lesson for the next paper. In the past, I would have looked at these stacks and stacks of papers and dreaded grading them for all these reasons. But not this time, because I knew that, on Tuesday, I would give the students their portfolios back, and if they had more than two basic spelling, grammar, or sentence structure errors, they received no score. Instead, they were expected to revise and resubmit their work, and they were given time, personal feedback, and support to do it.
These days of “revise and resubmit” work are busy and sometimes frenetic as I spend days in constant one-on-one conferences in order to help students gain the skills to edit their own work instead of waiting for their teacher to do it. However, when I step back and look at the portfolio revision and resubmission process, I find that students are learning and improving their ability to write coherently far more than when I used to pass back marked up papers with low grades on them.
While there are several logistical features of this system that allow it to work (scoring all portfolios in a weekend, giving students low-stakes writing with many comments throughout the term, etc.), at its core this system is based on the premise that students improve their editing ability through the act of revising and editing their own work with individualized support and with motivation. The revise-and-resubmit score does not threaten students with a low grade for poor conventions in their writing. It communicates to them that conventions and coherence matter in writing and are worthy of attention. They matter enough that their teacher expects them to do more if they don’t meet the standards. They matter enough to spend four days revising work initially, and two or three more days on additional revising and editing more, if needed. They matter enough for their teacher or their peers to sit with them and guide them through the editing process.
Making Grades Meaningful
Adopting this portfolio system has taught me that giving students a grade should not just make them feel good or bad about themselves; their grade should communicate what skills they have and what skills they need to improve. But without the chance to actively improve those skills in real time, what is the point? I struggle to define what grades mean, or should mean in schools as we know them. However, grades can be a motivating factor for my students, making them more vested in editing work that doesn’t always have an authentic audience beyond the teacher but is nonetheless important. And, in the act of learning how to do that editing, they have then been able to more independently correct the assignments that do have an authentic audience, like the articles we send off to the local teen newspaper or the story they write for the student writing contest.
Rather than grading being something I dread and that simply makes students feel good, bad, or otherwise, my portfolio system has allowed grading to be a tool that helps students learn, and communicates to them that they must edit their work in order to fully meet my standards—and that I value that work enough to give them time and support to do it.