Replacing Grading with Conversations

My Twitter page shows that I've been spending a lot of time commenting on student work in our grade eight blogosphere. Perhaps "commenting" is not the best word to describe what I'm doing. I'm trying to engage students in conversations about the topics they're researching. This is not just about giving feedback. That would only reinforce in my students the notion that their blog entries are final pronouncements on a given topic, that each entry is conclusive and definitive, written to be commented upon and evaluated by the teacher. I want them to understand that every entry that they post is only one of many steps in their journey as researchers. In other words, I want them to see their blogs and their entries as organic entities, as attempts to engage with ideas, as evidence of growth and development. It's about maintaining conversations, not ending them by saying "Well done!" or "Good job!" So, while I do post comments, I want them to show that I see the students as independent researchers, as individuals who need to know that their work has value not because it will generate a grade but because it keeps me glued to my laptop screen at 10:30pm on a Tuesday night. I read because I'm learning, not because I have a gradebook to fill.

Needless to say, in order to have these conversations, I needed to abandon my teacherly voice in favour of a more conversational, expressive, and readerly voice of a participant. I think I succeed most of the time but I'm still at a point where I have to carefully analyze my responses to student work before I press that "post comment" button. They still tend to be evaluative, of the "teacher knows best" variety. They still tend to end student engagement. "This deserves a B+," they seem to say, "now let's move on to another assignment."

Recently, I've been commenting on the work that my students are doing on human rights. I gave them the freedom to pick any topic within this context and encouraged to find some aspect of it that they want to engage with as researchers. Some are still looking for that perfect fit, but some have already posted a number of entries. I've been trying to nurture the voices that I see around me in the class blogosphere by starting and maintaining conversations about student research. Here are some of my attempts:

Dawn, I am really looking forward to learning more about child soldiers from your research. I've always been interested in this topic but never really had the time or the opportunity to do serious research.

The video is excellent - I'm glad that we got YouTube unblocked and that it is possible to post videos on this blog.

What a great way to start your project - with a poem! I think the repetition of this line - "Lies and hatred obscure all truth" - is very effective. This is what the whole problem of child soldiers really boils down to - brainwashing. I'll be visiting your blog regularly - inspiring stuff!

Then, in response to Dawn's subsequent entry:

In my comment to your previous entry, I wrote that I was really looking forward to learning more about child soldiers from your research. I feel that I am learning. You are very good at combining facts and statistics with your own personal thoughts. Your writing is personal and informative, thoughtful and engaging.

I find this topic very sad but I am glad that you chose to research this issue. Forcing children to fight in a war and to kill is a reprehensible act. It is wrong on so many levels. Is anything being done to stop it? Have there been any attempts, either in Sierra Leone or other African countries and Western nations, to introduce laws to protect children and punish those who recruit and use them as soldiers? Perhaps the region where this is happening is too unstable to do anything about it. Are any other countries doing anything to stop this?

Also, you should probably take a look at this: Declaration of the Rights of the Child It might be helpful to you in your research.

This probably does not read like anything out of the ordinary but, to me, it represents a long period of learning to engage with students as a learner and a participant and not a teacher who has read it all and knows everything the students can possibly come up with. I've had to learn this and it is still a challenge.

It's a challenge because becoming a participant and divesting myself of that teacherly voice means that I need to gradually move away from formal evaluation. I want to. I am interested in reading my students' work, sitting down with them individually and talking about their progress. I don't want to be the only arbiter of their progress. They need to be part of the process too. In fact, since it is their work, they should be given a chance to talk about it, not as an artifact to be evaluated but as evidence of engagement. I want them to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What is my goal?
  • What have I learned?
  • Where do I want to go next?
  • Are there any gaps in my knowledge?

Assigning a grade is not going to help them in this process, primarily because grades are final and tend to stop progress. Once we attach them to student work, they indicate what has been accomplished, not what can still be done. They do not measure potential.

So, instead of assigning grades, even progress grades, I want to experiment with my own take on instructional conversations (and here). I've devised a Personal Progress Chart (work in progress) that I'll be testing over the next few weeks.

Personal Progress Chart

I want my students to realize that learning is not about making your work conform to some standard imposed by the teacher. Learning is about creating your own standards and adjusting them based on your goals. Learning is about setting your own goals and monitoring your own progress. It is about having conversations with yourself and others. So, instead of imposing, I want to ask: What do you want to accomplish? What do you think is good? What would make you feel proud? I want to promote a process of questioning and I want to do it through dialogue.

If I give my students a list of my own criteria or a rubric then I'm essentially asking them to listen and conform. They may have the freedom to do their own research but if all their work is expected to conform to a rubric imposed by the teacher then they are still just trying to reach some goal that may have very little to do with who they are and what they're interested in. So, instead of giving my students a list of criteria, I want to talk with them individually and get them to develop their own. I want them to use the progress chart to think about where they are, where they see themselves going, and how they think they can get there. I want them to use this chart to ask themselves questions about their own work and their own work habits. I want to use the chart as an opportunity to talk about their work, one-on-one. I'm tired of having conversations about grades. I want to start talking about ideas that they care about. I'm hoping that this guide will help.

This is, of course, work in progress. Any thoughts and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.