Re: (LONG) Re: grades & school reform (Not quite so long)

Nick Carbone (nickc@MARLBORO.EDU)
Thu, 5 Sep 1996 00:06:42 -0400

On Wed, 4 Sep 1996, Jeffrey R Galin wrote:

> But, as soon as we pretend to empower by
> decentering, or booting grades, or doing whatever else we might decide,
> we have offered false hope to our students and to ourselves. I'm saying,
> lets be realistic about what we can accomplish and not set ourselves or
> students up for failure elsewhere. Calling attention to these relations
> and how to massage them seems like an awfully good place to start. If
> that means experimenting with no grades had having students study the
> implications of that gesture, then the act has meaning. If we are the
> ones deciding that grades are limiting, and we take it upon ourseles to
> dispense with them wihtout inviting students to explore the implications,
> then we are playing the same old game again. We know what is best for our
> students and we feel good about it. It is a matter of control.

I wouldn't claim that forestalling grades as long as possible, or
allowing students to grades under conditions we necessarily set forth is
empowerment. You're absolutely right that we have control. At this
point, and in this time and place, these institutions, we have no choice
but to have control. So the question becomes how to use that control

One, I think we have to remind students of the context of our choices, to
practice open pedagogy. By that I mean, tell them why we make certain
choices as teachers, how those differ, and what the consequences might
be. This can happen on many levels, not just grading. But let's do
grading. Students konw, and expect, that we must report their grades to
our administrators and the registrar's office. The know, then, that we
have absolute control over their grade, except and in so far as we
outlien in our syllabie and class policies. Those policies can, and in
some places and times, have, serve as the basis for a challenge to grades
given. But students know teachers have nearly unlimited power in
grading. So anytime we deviate from that expectation--whether we switch
to portfolios that only get graded at year's end, whether we let students
grade themselves--they look at us kind of funny.

That's why we have to be honest about our goals, reasons, contexts, and
expectations. But I also think it's a mistake to talk about power in our
classrooms as if it there were a fixed amount and a fixed kind. Clasroom
dynamics are not that simple. True there are degrees of power, some of
it institutionally driven, some of experiential, some of it from skill,
some of it from force of personality, but all of it variable. If I
decide on a way to teach students how to assess writing, and that way
includes wave upon wave of them evaluating writing, setting goals,
choosing measurements of their own success, accepting and adapting some
of mine, and finding ways to articulate all that, they do move into a
position which allows them to critique writing and to make judgments as
writers in many situations. My belief, my hope, is that ability, and
confidence supports whatever moves to power they choose to make. It is
ludicrous to think that by creating a vaccuum students will fill it.

What's interesting to me is to hear how Marcy and Eric have tried to
work around this. For clearly they are not ludicrous. I've been
fortunate enough to have read an early draft of Marcy's essay on how she
grades in her classroom; I've also read arguments for grades that Wayne
Butler's students have written, and Becky's, and my own. When I ask
students to write grades, arguments for grades, one of the concerns they
need to address is the grade's audience. Look, I say, if you are going
to argue for an A, but you know you have errors which still occur in your
writing, things like say misusing semi-colons or trouble with verb tenses
or a tendency to go off on accidental tangents, you know that someone who
sees that you received an A in writing will not expect to find that in
your writing. You know that people who read A, assume it means some form
of perfection. So how do you address that?

That is, if students are going to argue for a grade, present a case for a
grade, lay the criteria for the grade they receive they need to do so
responsibly, with an eye toward forces that would thwart their claims. I
don't think that empowers them, but it makes them aware of the complexity
of the enterprize. The degree to which they can understand and present a
case for themselves, the degree to which they can do that, I think is
important in the long run. Where it leads and how they use it, I may
never know. But there needs to be a consistency between how we teach
writing, what we claim it is and can do (which varies immensely, I know,
so we have to make choices for the 13 or so weeks that we have to work
with), what we belive students have to know about it and why, and how all
that is assessed. Critical to me in all this is that students learn to
answer all those questions without the need of a teacher. But I think
they need a teacher to get to that point. So they need to learn to swim,
and I only know so many strokes and can only do so much about the water

So here's the rub in this massage, the method I've adopted is full of
hope, but I wouldn't see it as false hope. It ain't no stinkin' life
boat neither. I'm in no position to save --I don't swim so well myself.
Students have to, ultimately, make their own way; the best we can do,
short of maybe applying to places like Evergreen (where my cousin,
Christine Riccardi just happily graduated from), is teach them about the
waters, show them what we know and how it's worked, and let them swim.

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344