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grading contracts, gastropods, and the occasional breakthrough

So, the semester is winding down and despite my best efforts to create a positive learning environment for all the participants in my class, I am still feeling a decent amount of animosity and negativity coming from my students. Such is the pattern, it seems, each semester. But still, I thought this semester would be different. This is the first full semester that I used a grading contract in my Composition I class, and I had very high hopes for it. [singlepic=834,300,300] Are my students slugs? I based my approach largely on a concept by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow as published in CCC 61.2 in December of 2009. For some time, I had been looking for a way to deemphasize grading in my class (that proverbial carrot and stick I so despise) and boost students’ intrinsic motivation for their own learning. I’ve tried many combinations of things including student-centered, student-directed learning initiatives, problem-based learning, various forms of “learning contracts,” all varieties of portfolio assessment, and the like. I’ve had mixed results. When I read the Danielewicz and Elbow piece, I felt empowered to take one more giant step forward in my effort to weed traditional grading out of the way I teach college writing. I was eager to give it a try.

contract grading in the professional literature

For those interested in Elbow and Danielewicz’s approach to contract grading, I’ve embedded the CCC article below.

my grading contract

So, I took my cues from the pros and developed a grading contract of my own to use in my writing courses. I’ve always been of the belief that we can learn writing best simply by doing it–and a lot of it. Also, as far as the school setting goes, writing can be best developed when we use the classroom as a community of learners in conversation with one another.

Conversation, community, and writing process are emphasized foremost over product.

The contract I developed emphasizes, therefore, full engagement in the process of our course over anything else. If students satisfy a small set of “terms” on the contract–all of which pertain to the process of engagement in the course, then they are guaranteed at least a B for the semester. Again, none of these terms has anything to do with the quality of the written product, only the degree of participation in the process of the class. Essentially, it rewards work ethic. This deemphasis on quality of the written product may raise some controversy, but my bet is that if students just do the work of the class (I mean really do it) and do it consistently, their writing will improve and reach at least the quality of B level writing (as defined in the “official” grading criteria of our department). Could students do the work and still be crappy writers? Sure, it is possible, but this is a chance I’m willing to take. And you know what else? It’s also possible for “naturally talented” writers to do poorly in the class if they don’t engage fully in the process of the class. Churning out a strong written product in my course is not enough. It’s all about participating in the course experience. Check out the details of my grading contract from my course syllabus. Clicking the image below will take you there.
A Grading Contract
   Click to see my grading contract.

You can see that the contract focuses mostly on the B, implying this grade is attainable by everyone. In fact, students start with this grade and only have to worry about keeping it by doing the work of the course. If the B contract is broken, a student can earn a C, D, or F at my professional discretion. If a student keeps all the terms of the B contract and demonstrates exemplary work (clearly defined) on his or her final portfolio, then the student earns an A for the course. It’s all pretty cut and dry, or at least it seems so to me.

My hope in implementing a contract like this one was to liberate students from fear of grades and to pull the rug from beneath the feet of those who are quick to profess, “I am not a writer.” In this class, you don’t have to be some kind of natural born writer to succeed. You just have to do the work, consistently, fully, honestly–but therein lies the rub. As things are turning out, I think many of my students just don’t want to do the work. What I thought was a gift to students has turned out to be quite a brutal challenge for most of them.

results so far

This whole contract grading thing has students taking responsibility for their own successes and their own failures.

Well, at this 15th week of the 16-week semester, my attrition rate is pretty high, and the grade distribution is comparable to what it’s been with other approaches. I’d say the majority of students did not keep the terms of the grading contact pushing them to the sub-B grade range. Those who have kept the contract are clearly the strongest, most conscientious students (and writers), many of whom are on track for an A in the course. Those who broke the terms of the B contract seemed to have gone one of two directions: they either disengaged completely upon learning they could no longer earn anything higher than a C in the course (and as a result of disengaging will likely earn a D and in some cases an F for the course), or they kept at it and will, in fact, retain the C. This latter half was the smaller group. So what can I conclude from this? Is the grading contract demoralizing to those who could not keep on top of the work? Is the work too much? Are these students just lazy slugs (no offense to my gastropod friends)? I don’t know, but I’m not ready yet to give up on the contract.

The positive thing in this approach seems to be with regard to student accountability. While the distribution of grades has changed little from other approaches, I now have very few students blaming me for how things are turning out for them. They seem to be owning the results of their own actions in the course. The terms of the grading contract are mostly quite objective. Students can practically grade themselves against the contract; they either did the work as explicitly described on the contract, or they did not. It seems that, if nothing else, this whole contract thing has students being more accountable for their own successes and shortcomings. To me, that’s a good thing.

In my class, every student can choose to be a writer–and earn at least a B for making that choice.

And there have been some successes. A student the other day came up to me after class and expressed how accomplished she feels as a writer–after just finishing her course portfolio. She told me that at the start of the course, she didn’t want to do it. She knew how much work it would be, and she doubted her ability. She didn’t think she had anything worth saying. After turning in her portfolio, she told me she feels for the first time in her life like a writer–not a professional writer or anything like that–but simply someone who can and does write, like someone who has something worth saying. She mentioned that in high school she was told she was a bad writer and couldn’t do it. This silenced her. In my class, she did do it, and she did it well. On the brink of tears, she told me how proud she was of herself. And I was proud of her too.

In my class, every student is invited to be a writer–and earn at least a B for being that writer–that is, by being someone who writes regularly at least for the 16 weeks they spend with me. Anyone can do it. It’s a choice, not a talent.

confessions of an unschooling college professor

I am an unschooling dad–a life learner. This is the life my wife Chris, my six-year-old son Aidan, and I embrace quite fully. I am also a college professor–part of a state-run institution of higher learning. How can I reconcile these contradictions? How can I on one hand eschew “teaching” as a somewhat rude imposition when it comes to my son–allowing him instead to pursue his own interests, to figure out who he is and who he wants to be at his own pace, to learn naturally with only gentle guidance from his parents, to embrace the joy of life and learning without being continuously tested, evaluated, and judged–but then on the other hand participate as an agent of institutionalized schooling and get paid for it? This is something I wrestle with on a daily basis.

I find a good deal of comfort in that theoretically by the time people find their way to my college classroom, they are choosing to be there. It’s not mandated by law that they go to college. While on the surface, this gives me comfort, I know full well that in reality many if not most of the students are not their of their own free will but, instead, are being pressured by their parents or others to attend. Even if the students have freely chosen to pursue college, I’m quite certain that most would choose to opt-out of the required freshman composition course if the institution and state would allow this. The fact of the matter is I have a captive audience–quite literally–as my course is the price of entry to opportunities that lay beyond it.

I’m already a bit of a guerrilla teacher in that I bring into the class a good deal of criticism of traditional schooling experiences to get the students to begin questioning their own views and values on this matter. I try to use my own moral dilemma to deepen the discussion and to invite students to help me solve this problem. It works pretty well, but in the end I still feel like an agent of the state as I pass judgment on student work, assign grades, and decide who is worthy to benefit from the opportunities of passing my class and who is not. On some level, this just does not sit well with the “free-range” approach I find myself taking with the education of my own son. I feel somewhat hypocritical as my values clash at times with the procedural mechanisms of state-run schooling.

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in education (in all forms), but also in the fundamental right for one to pursue their own brand of education–to pursue their passions freely and not to be forced into certain educational experiences before one can gain access to a better life. I believe that all people should have the chance to learn freely, at their own pace, setting their own course, and without fear of judgment.

As I work to negotiate the tricky middle ground between state-run higher education and authentic learning, I am trying to develop a personal code of ethics to guide me. Below is what I’ve got so far.

In my interactions with students, I will strive to uphold the following:

  • I will make explicit my views on learning and education, attempt to make clear my struggle to avoid duplicity in what I say and do, and try to raise critical awareness in others regarding personal freedom and responsiblity in learning, education, and life.
  • I will offer choice as much as possible to allow students to explore personal interests in their writing, while encouraging them to try new things and venture down unfamiliar paths with a spirit of adventure and curiosity.
  • I will make use of “contract grading” focused largely on the degree of engagement in the course rather than on the judged quality of the writing itself. This will allow me to more authentically and honestly respond to the writing of students as a fellow reader in the class. The “terms” of the contract will be as clear-cut as possible and will be agreed upon at the outset of the course to allow fully informed students to opt-out before they begin if they choose.
  • I will treat students with respect and work hard not to hold myself above them. I will encourage them to do the same.
  • I will work to cultivate honest conversation, community, creativity, and service in and out of the classroom.
  • I’ll will work with students to design learning experiences that have relevance beyond the “exercise” of the classroom and that can positively affect the lives of others. I’ll support students in their writing and learning efforts.
  • I will be kind and empathic and ask others to reciprocate.
  • I will not obsess over arbitrary rules but work hard to ensure fairness for everyone.
  • I’ll work to foster positive relationships with students as fellow human beings and to avoid the traditional adversarial trappings in the way teachers and students interact.
  • I’ll seek to communicate honestly with students and avoid combative stances–whether defensive or offensive.
  • I’ll enjoy what I do.

All right, so it’s a work in progress. Perhaps I spend far too much time agonizing philosophically over my job and my interactions with others. I suppose it’s all in the spirit of trying to be a better person…. Like I said, it’s a work in progress.

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