“Marcus is out here telling people you give everyone an A,” my colleague said to me in the hallway outside my classroom. “I figured you’d want to know what these kids are saying about you. Because you know if he’s saying it in my class, then he’s saying it in others, too.”
As I listened, I tried to figure out what to do with my face. Was I supposed to look upset? Shocked? What was the appropriate level of consternation? What was I feeling? I mean, Marcus wasn’t wrong. My class IS easy. The majority of students in my class have A’s. To get an A, all a kid had to do was meet the labor requirement I set for each task. Since I teach language arts to middle schoolers, this means hitting whatever word count I determine in advance. Want an A on this free-verse poem? Write at least fifty lines with at least four defensible stanza breaks. Trying to ace the text analysis? Just make sure you give me at least 300 words with three strong pieces of text evidence and you’re set. I also give sentence starters for each assignment, giving students a number of ‘academic’ ways to frame their writing.
My goal for each word count is the same: set a number that the majority of students can reach in a single class. I use word counts because, in my opinion, it’s the easiest way to minimize the amount of energy students and I spend worrying over grades, report cards, and the various rewards and punishments that go along with them. Set it, forget it, and move on to the good stuff: teaching, learning, and narrative feedback.
I haven’t always graded this way. Like most teachers, my assessment philosophy has evolved over the years. I’ve gone “gradeless.” I’ve co-created rubrics with students. I’ve done portfolios and self-assessment. While some things I tried over the years worked better than others, I remained unsatisfied. So when the pandemic hit, I decided to try something new: labor-based grading contracts. This form of assessment relies on quantitative metrics instead of qualitative measures of teacher judgment.
Teacher judgment can be problematic because we live in a racially stratified society. Schools have long played a role in upholding the tenets of white supremacy culture, especially with regards to language (the discipline I teach). Considering the fact that the majority of teachers are white while the majority of students are not, guarding against teacher implicit or explicit bias seems a worthwhile goal. With labor-based grading, a student’s grade is a result of how much they work instead of their proximity to the white racial norms that inform much of what teachers value in their classrooms.
In my class, I set up three categories: an A for hitting the word count, a C for not reaching it, or an E for doing literally nothing (not turning it in, being absent, etc.) I don’t consult the students when coming up with the word count for their assessments; I pick a number that I think most students can reach if they work adequately during the period. And, for the most part, I think it works. Students produce quality work that is at least on par with what I think they would produce under harsher assessment circumstances. (But maybe that’s just confirmation bias telling me what I want to hear?)
This system isn’t without its flaws or challenges. For instance, a word count rests on the premise that all students work at more or less the same speed and with roughly the same level of cognition. This is of course not true. The students in my room bring with them a variety of (dis)abilities, (dis)positions, and behaviors. Each time I set a word count for an assignment, I’m ignoring the webs of contingent variables each student labors within. This is the main reason why I try to keep my word count requirements to what I think is a reasonable level.
Putting up safeguards against my biases isn’t the only reason I use reachable word counts. I also think that school is often too rigid and punishing and stressful. In my opinion, by the time my students get home, they need a break. I see no rush to inculcate in my students our capitalist society’s obsession with productivity. I just want them to come in, learn some language arts, and grow as readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers (and humans). As of right now, making my class an easy A is the best way to make this happen.
Don’t get me wrong; I want my students to engage in challenging and complex activities. I want them to stretch and fail and evolve, and I try to be with them every step of the way. I push them as much as I can; I just remove all qualitative judgements from the grade. That’s the difference.
Every year I ask my students to reflect on my grading practices. And every year they say roughly the same thing. Most kids report feeling less stressed out in my class compared to their other courses. They appreciate not having to worry about getting things done outside of class. They also like how I don’t give quizzes or tests. There are always a few kids who think it should be harder to get an A. These are typically hyper-students who learned how to play the game of school at a young age. I understand where they’re coming from. Since we typically see grades through the lens of scarcity, it can be jarring to students when the majority of the class has an A. It can produce some cognitive dissonance, for sure.
If most of my students feel good about my assessment philosophy, then what’s the problem? Part of me feels …weak? Like, how can I be a warm demander if I’m not being… demanding? And stress isn’t inherently a bad thing, so am I doing my students a disservice by trying to decrease the typical anxiety that accompanies school? Will students leave my class at the end of the year somehow less prepared for the “rigor” and work demands of high school and beyond? Am I somehow abdicating my professional responsibilities to grow these children to the best of my (and their) ability?
Do some teachers look down on me for being an easy A? Probably.
When I returned to the classroom that morning after hearing about Marcus, I felt a nasty desire to bring the hammer down on my students. To fall into some power fantasy where I broke my students down in order to build them back up. I’m sure some teachers can pull that off. I can’t.