Every year in early September, I get the same reaction from my 9th-graders. We’re wrapping up our unit on the summer reading text, and as I assign our first major writing assignment of the course, I inform students that they can rewrite any essay in this class.
And then I say it again: They can rewrite any essay in this class.
More than once.
For a whole new grade.
I let it sink in for a minute before telling them that I learned to write not via the 30 or so papers I penned in undergraduate school but by redrafting my 50-page graduate thesis more than 30 times. Once the shock wears off, their faces light up. Some even take the opportunity to thank some divine being or even me (which, alas, are not the same) out loud in front of their peers. I smile at their palpable relief as they realize that they don’t have to get it right the first time. (Even though we’ve been repeating this mantra for decades as educators, students still strive for perfection whenever a grade is involved.) And yet, what many of them don’t necessarily understand in this moment is that rewriting is just as hard, if not harder, than writing. And because it’s so hard, it’s the best way to learn.
None of this is revolutionary for Dana Hall as our English department has encouraged rewrites for years now. The difference is in our decision to codify our system. This fall, we swapped out labels for grades in our rubrics; instead of an A, B, C, or D, a student earns “Above Standards,” “Meets Standards,” “Working Toward Standards,” or “Beginning” in the gradebook. This technique is a win-win for students and teachers alike. Gone are the arbitrary plusses and minuses next to whole letters as well as the stress associated with determining the difference between a C+ and a B- and the demoralization of the student who receives the former instead of the latter. Also gone: the possibility of failure. A student cannot fail if they turn in an on-topic attempt.
Come late September, my Conference Periods (ostensibly my 30-minute daily office hours) are packed. Students who are “Working Toward Standards” in a given area want to review my feedback and suggestions. They aren’t used to reading all of a teacher’s comments and applying them to another draft; as a result, there is a little bit of hand-holding at the 9th-grade level. I also see plenty of students who met standards and want to go above. I provide them ideas and encouragement and note that going “above standards” is less something that I can explicitly teach and more something they must find within themselves and practice. After those conversations, students highlight the major changes in the next draft and explain the differences as annotations. And the more they amend, the greater the likelihood that they now meet or exceed expectations.
This school year at Dana Hall is about fostering not just rigor, but vigor. Sadly, the first-year teacher version of me never would have believed that this grading practice offered either. She may have offered one rewrite opportunity a year and averaged the two grades together, fearing too many A’s in her gradebook. How wrong I would be.
Offering rewrites actually allows me to be more rigorous and my students to be more vigorous.
I can grade more honestly and accurately; I don’t feel “bad” anymore giving a student a B for C-level work when they have the opportunity to actually earn a B. And my students need to stay on top of their work. They aren’t doing themselves any favors if they phone in a first draft—the nightly homework continues whether or not they choose to make major or minor revisions. About three quarters of my students consistently submit revisions, which means that a large portion of the 9th-grade class voluntarily does more work than is mandatory. If that’s not vigorous, what is?
With the trimester coming to a close, my students have one more writing assignment due this coming week. As I write this post, I realize that I will have 43 new essays in my Canvas dropbox in a matter of days and, consequently, 15 hours of grading on the horizon. Oh boy. But I can take a breath since I have a little time on my hands. My students know that those results will go into the final trimester’s grade so that they will have the opportunity to revise, recraft, and rethink their ideas after I return them. This is academic grace, both for me and, most importantly, for them.