Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Feedback is a conversation. Grading is a hierarchy."

Four times a year I became giddy. I marked the date on my calendar and jabbered to my parents about my excitement. I envisioned gently opening the flap of the envelope, careful not to ruin the precious paper inside.

My report card.

I always did “well” in school. Report Card Day confirmed to me that I was a “good” person because I could pass any test, write any essay, and make any poster I needed to. I could figure out what a teacher wanted and go one step further. Write a newspaper article? Well, how about creating an entire newspaper, complete with several articles, pictures with captions, and even a spot for the weather? Recite a monologue from Hamlet? How about reciting a monologue in the deepest voice I can muster, taping a construction paper beard to my face, and wearing an outfit to imitate Polonius’s entire character? I enjoyed learning new things, but was even more satisfied when I had the grade to “prove” it. I knew that I worked hard and I felt that my grades accurately reflected my performance as a student. Because I was good at “doing” school and the system worked to my advantage, I didn’t question the grading process.

In preparing to become a teacher, however, I have been surrounded by people, conversations, and texts that push my thinking. Early in SED 406, I remember a light bulb turning on when I learned about formative and summative assessment. I began questioning what these types of assessments might look like in a middle or high school English class.  As I moved through more classes, my questions multiplied. Reading Alfie Kohn made me wonder about the relationship between grades and students’ motivation. Learning about backward design made me wonder about the relationship between grades and students’ understanding. Listening to Rick Wormeli and reading Kelly Gallagher made me wonder about why grades seem to supersede feedback and opportunities for revision. Throughout this process I have been building my identity as a teacher, thinking about who I am and who I want to be with my students and colleagues. Rubrics? Letter grades? Point systems? What will I do to make sure my actions fit with my beliefs? How can I maintain my beliefs in an education system that seems to be obsessed with crunching numbers?

 As an English/Ed major, I think I have been trained to see the gray, both in my students’ worlds and my own . A text isn’t just words written on a page. Nearly anything can be read as a text and analyzed through critical lenses. As I “read” and “re-read” my first experience of grading this week, I realize it’s been a battle between head and heart. If I use my Marxist lens (as we have been working on at NPHS all week), then this experience represents my resistance to the power inherent in role of teacher. On October 8th I even re-tweeted: “Feedback is a conversation. Grading is a hierarchy.” This power makes me uncomfortable. Who am I to decide whether a student receives a 2 or a 3? Will this grade ruin a student’s confidence? Will the student even care? Were my directions clear enough? Should I have given them more time? How can I frame my feedback so that students feel motivated to move forward rather than embarrassed or incompetent? Right now, these questions are all part of the conversation I have with myself (and Ms. M) as I shuffle through papers, put grades in the corners, and comments alongside…
So, one week into my semester of student teaching, I am thankful to be able to write through this experience and get feedback from my classmates, my professors, and especially my cooperating teacher. I appreciate  her patience and guidance as I work my way through this messy process of becoming a teacher. High school Me might have asked what grade I got for the week, but I am learning so much so fast, and talking together about my progress makes a lot more sense.