Let’s be honest: I hate grades. I hate the way they make me feel as though I’m assigning value to a student’s thoughts and dreams and words. I hate they way they make me feel like a strict judge, passing a verdict upon some fool who forgot to pay his parking tickets. The penalties are harsh, the guilt, well, harsh also. I know I cannot always be easy on my students, because some students will take advantage of that, but goodness me: do the penalties have to be so hurtful?
Picture a student, a girl with a flair for creative writing, pouring her heart and soul into a piece of work. She works on it for hours at a time, crafting turns of phrase that make her feel as though she is playing God. She builds settings, moods, characters, each detail a piece of her scratched out onto the page. She turns in the assignment, so proud of her work, so excited that she can taste the A that is sure to come. A week later the day arrives as papers are handed back to their origins. At the top of the page, in ink the color of the blood she felt drain from her face, a C is emblazoned. The C for Confusion, for Could-Be-Better, for Crappy work stares up at her. She takes a peek at the comments at the back of the assignment and finds only criticism of grammatical errors, sentence fragments and such. Her brainchild, her baby, was only worthy of a C.
Can you imagine how that student felt about that grade? I know because that’s something that happened all too often for me. I feel as though grading in that manner is demoralizing, that it squashes the creativity that we as teachers claim to admire.
I’m a bigger fan of assessment, leaving behind helpful notes like so many crumbs leading the way home. I prefer helping to shape a student’s thought process. I enjoy offering my opinion on subjects for certain students to work on a bit more, giving my thoughts a place on the page alongside theirs.
I know in the American education system grades are a must-have, at least in the eyes of the powers that be. Are they really necessary? I feel that in an ideal world I could offer guidance without penalty, that I could teach without dousing the flames of inspiration. I would like my students to feel comfortable bringing their work to me for help or even just to have me as a sounding board without fearing that I am mentally giving them a grade. I know how hurtful it is to receive a grade that is lower than what I expected, how useless I felt as a student and wish to spare my future students that heartache (and that sense of panic when they realize their GPA will reflect the grade).
So where do these intersect? How can I possibly grade a paper when all I really want to do is offer help and guide the student along the path to becoming a better writer? Can grades be an incentive for students?