Category Archives: Teaching

Making the Grade

This post is written by guest writer Courtney Waugh. 

Recently, a student came to me asking what she could do to get her “B” to an “A,” because she would receive cash from her grandparents if she had an “A.” I chuckled because I remembered doing the same thing as child. If I got the “good grade,” my parents would buy me something. After chuckling, though, a realization hit about what grades truly represent.

As a student, I just went for the “A” and collected my reward, but as a teacher, I question what that “A” really means. Grades are often used in education because that is what we are used to. Grades, as we know them, date back to the nineteenth century. In school, I, like many others, focused on the letter grade because that determined whether I was “smart” or “dumb.” I did not focus on improving or growing as a learner; I focused on the task of getting an “A.” I have realized I need to think about what grades are promoting and measuring in my classroom. More importantly, I need to think about what grades are doing to my students.

As an early career teacher, I have talked with more experienced teachers about my grading woes and many stressed how grades are beneficial for providing feedback to students and parents. However, research has proven that grades are not an effective form of feedback and lower a student’s self-efficacy. Even if teachers provide written/oral feedback along with the grade, students are so consumed with the letter that they cannot focus on the other feedback, resulting in little to no growth on future assignments. I remember getting a graded paper, quickly glancing at comments while flipping to the rubric, focusing on my letter grade, and then telling my parents I had no idea why I received a “C.” The same thing happens in my own classroom. I had a student who struggled with writing, but put everything he had into an argument paper and was excited to turn it in. However, he did not meet the “grade level” expectations and received a low score. I will never forget his face as he saw his grade and crumpled up the paper. Let’s face it, that letter grade isn’t providing valuable information and is taking away from the feedback that actually matters.

I have many responsibilities as a teacher, so it makes sense to want a quick way to evaluate what my students have learned. However, is this what I am actually evaluating with grades? If two students received an “A,” does that mean they both were engaged in the learning process and showed growth throughout the unit? What about when a transfer student comes to my class with a “D” from his /her prior school–does this tell me their strengths, weaknesses, or interests as a writer? Do I know what that teacher included in the grade? No, it tells me that this student is “unsatisfactory” and labels this child as struggling before I even meet him/her. While this method may be “quicker,” I have to ask myself, am I doing what is in the best interest of my students?

I hate to admit it, but I, like many others, have used grades as a motivation tool. Brophy discusses the fact that using extrinsic motivators such as grades can encourage an intensity in effort, but does not encourage thoughtful and quality work. So, what should I value more: using grades to get assignments turned in or receiving work that shows critical and thoughtful thinking? I used to take points off for assignments being late, but students continued to turn assignments in late, and my grade may or may not have been an accurate measurement of their growth in the content. Yet, I continued to use this in hope that it would magically work rather than figure out the true meaning behind why students were not turning work in on time. While students do need to learn responsibility and time management skills, are grades the place for it?

I would love to shout, “Let’s get rid of grades and focus on the enjoyment of learning!” I know it will not be this easy, because grading is a longstanding structure in education, but I believe it is worth a conversation. We can discuss with each other how grades could represent fair and accurate measures of student growth and learning. We could create and encourage individualized feedback for students and parents that focus on growth and a high-expectation curriculum rather than a letter. We can all help take a step in the right direction by creating grades that encourage students to become critical thinkers, productive citizens, and as our standards strongly address, college- and career-ready.

No matter what, one thing is for certain: our students deserve to be more than a letter.

Courtney Waugh teaches 8th grade in Bloomington, Illinois, and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Reading at Illinois State University. She is passionate about providing students with a high-expectation curriculum that encourages them to appreciate learning.

Fostering Dialogue in the Classroom: Lessons Learned While Teaching Cultural Literacy

This post is written by member Ruth Li.

In teaching, I aim to cultivate in students an understanding of literacy as a form of civic participation. Yet in my daily interactions with students, creating a balance between engagement and control has been a constant challenge.

To invite a space for generative, yet genuine intellectual inquiry, it is important to balance guidance and freedom in equilibrium: to offer a foundation for ideas, yet open up multiple possible pathways and positions for students to pursue. In navigating these tensions, I have constructed journal topics based on essential questions that are sufficiently broad to allow a variety of entry points as well as backgrounds and experiences; for example, while teaching Cultural Literacy by E. D. Hirsch: “In what ways do our cultures affect who we are?”

In a similar sense, while experimenting with various formats for discussion prompts and procedures, I have found that planning and posing each question for the class to discuss in turn can be stifling in its structure. On the other hand, providing a few potential issues for exploration can be liberating in enabling learners to delve into unexpected topics and ponder unique perspectives. As a discussion flows organically, the most rewarding moments have arisen when students posed original questions to each other in a dynamic dialogue, blurring the lines between the roles of teacher and student. In opening up opinions and weaving new webs of ideas and insights rather than following a predetermined path, learners are able to attain agency and contribute constructively to the conversation.

Students are, after all, social creatures, agentive and interactive beings, whose combined consciousness coalesces into constellations of complexity. In contrast with a framework of passive reception, in the Freirean sense, learners transform their own experience as much as they are transformed by it. In a process of actively constructing knowledge through collaboration in the Piagetian sense, students navigate the negotiations between the self and the other as pluralities proliferate, ideas intersect, and contentions collide. Dialogue, therefore, liberates the pedagogical praxis.

To engage and empower our own and others’ voices, to welcome a diversity of perspectives within the context of civil discourse, to encourage civic participation in the Ciceronian ideal of democracy for which Hirsch has argued, to resist conclusiveness while opening up to the complexities of experience: these are the aims toward which we as citizens must continue to live and strive in the classroom and in the world.

Ruth Li has taught high school English for the past three years in charter schools in Utah and Florida. She will join the Ph.D. program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the fall.

Entry Points: Moving Students toward Literacy

This post is by member Lauren Nizol.

What do students truly need from us to engage in literacy? As an academic interventionist of students who have difficulty engaging in reading and writing, I am often reflecting on this question.

While unpacking my room this year, I stumbled across senior pictures and notes from students. Reading over the notes of gratitude reminded me of just how important it is to be present as an educator.

By present, I mean our students need us to connect with them. And by connections, I don’t necessarily mean that students and teachers know each other’s deep, dark secrets or even the nuances of our personal lives. Students need to know they are supported and cared for when walking into their teacher’s room. When I consider just how vulnerable and risky it is for some of my students to be readers and writers, this notion of presence is not just good practice—it’s practically nonnegotiable when it comes to literacy instruction.

An Invitation

Being a strong presence with my students has shown me just how far this one simple factor can take a struggling reader or writer. Low skill levels can actually appear as apathy, disruption, and avoidance on the surface, and especially if this relationship is nonexistent. Through building this rapport, I have been able to determine which students need my targeted and intentional support. Furthermore, this rapport has led me to determine what kind of support my students need.

One thing I’ve observed is that many underperforming students do not feel a part of the literacies going on in our classrooms. Literacy is a mammoth exchange of ideas, and we assume that many of our students know how to enter this conversation by the time they reach the secondary level. Yet, many of these students need an invitation to the conversation because reading and writing can be very intimidating for students who feel as if they don’t belong in an English classroom. That is why taking extra efforts at the start of the year to build and nurture positive connections between students and teachers is so vital.

Entry Points

While instruction and curriculum are critical parts of the classroom, establishing a positive classroom environment is ultimately what shapes instruction and curriculum. If the environment is not ideal, it doesn’t matter how competent, well-learned, or experienced a teacher is—students who struggle need to have a connection to their teacher. When students feel connected to their teachers and peers, they are more willing to take risks as readers and writers. The first week is always a rush, but building community in week one is the best way to connect with students who are disengaged with school.

Greeting students by name at the door is a simple entry point. At the start of the year, I took attendance while students entered my room. This prevented any mispronunciation mishaps and gave me a chance to ask them how their day was going. New teachers are often told to “stand firm” the first day. Yet, this can be intimidating for kids who don’t know how to “do school.” A warm welcome is your first entry point toward establishing a positive relationship.

Creating small groups rather than rows also helps students feel comfortable for speaking and listening tasks. Students are more willing to speak and offer ideas to the group when they feel recognized by the group. I often mixed up the seating chart, so it was the norm that students were exposed to many perspectives and voices. During instructional time, this arrangement allowed for strategies like “think-pair-share” to take root. In addition, by the time we reached a class discussion of a text, students were much more ready to share their ideas.

Small-group seating also supported the reading and writing routines that I wanted to establish during workshop time. I found that many students were hesitant to ask for support or clarification after a traditional “sit and get” lecture. Yet, when I shifted away from lectures to mini-lessons, I saw a marked increase in engagement.

After the lesson, we transitioned to workshop time, and I circulated around my classroom checking in with students for understanding and creating a comfortable space to ask questions. For disengaged students, creating such a space is the most important entry point to boost their achievement. In addition, when struggling readers and writers hear their peers asking for support, they are more likely to ask as well. Normalizing support and fostering a classroom environment where students feel comfortable expressing that they need help is an entry point that will move all readers and writers, not just those who are disengaged, struggling, or at risk.


At our opening professional development, students from our district presented data from a student survey about staff-student relationships. Though students expressed how knowing their teachers well was important, many explained that a simple smile or greeting goes a long way. One student even said, “We don’t need you going on about your life for 20 minutes. We just need to know you care about us.”

Working with students who resist reading and writing may be the biggest challenge some teachers will face in their career—I know it was for me. However, by growing a supportive relationship with their students, teachers can invite disengaged readers and writers into the conversation. Creating a comfortable space and environment for learning is the driving factor in student growth and achievement. And it all starts with a smile and warm greeting.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge, and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in history, English, and secondary education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Master’s in English education at Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions. 

A New CCC to Kickstart the New School Year

This post is written by member Jens Lloyd, editorial assistant for College Composition and Communication.

 College Composition and Communication publishes scholarship in rhetoric and composition studies that supports college teachers in reflecting on and improving their practices in teaching writing. Our September 2017 issue, available online and in print, launches volume 69 of the journal. We hope its contents provide you with inspiration for the new school year!

Heather Bastian opens the issue by sharing her research into how students respond to unconventional assignments. Bastian’s article, which is free online even to nonmembers, provides some clear-sighted strategies for accommodating students’ affective responses to assignments that, for one reason or another, don’t conform to their expectations for academic writing. Next, Laurie Grobman reflects on a racially charged controversy that she confronted while supervising a community writing partnership that involved undergraduates conducting archival research. In the face of enduring questions about systemic racism, Grobman’s thoughtful and complicated account of how she responded to the controversy will prove beneficial to teacher-scholars facing similar dilemmas in classrooms, community settings, and elsewhere in their professional lives.

Articles by David M. Grant and Steven Fraiberg probe the boundaries of what we (don’t) know about writing and rhetoric. Displaying tremendous dexterity in moving between indigenous rhetorics and contemporary scholarship on new materialisms, Grant challenges us to more fully and more fundamentally account for nonhumans in our day-to-day communicative interactions. Fraiberg’s article, based on a long-term case study of DaVe, an individual whom Fraiberg began interviewing in the late 2000s, pieces together a constellation of artifacts drawn largely from DaVe’s time in the Israeli military to offer a portrait of how complex transmedia and translingual literacy practices unfold across various modes and genres.

Jim Webber considers recent debates about educational reform, focusing specifically on how literacy professionals respond by invoking the philosophical tradition of pragmatism. Ultimately, in the hopes of expanding rather than shutting down public deliberation about these regimes of reform, Webber advances a version of pragmatism that he dubs, via Dewey, artful critique.

To conclude this issue, Karen Rowan reviews three books about rhetorical education in diverse settings, and 2016 CCCC Exemplar Award winner Sondra Perl reflects on her illustrious career.

We are thrilled that all September authors are featured in our podcast series. Check out these interviews for additional insights into the scholarship published in CCC. We welcome feedback and questions about the journal (and our podcasts series!) at

Jens Lloyd is a PhD candidate at UC Irvine.

The Naylor Workshop in Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies

This post is written by members Joyce Kinkead and Jessie L. Moore.

We believe passionately in the transformative power of meaningful, authentic research for our students. Both of us are aware that students in English often don’t tend to think of themselves as researchers. Rather, they see themselves as rehashing others’ scholarly works. Part of the fault in their perception lies with us. We, as faculty members, may not have articulated to our students the methodology of inquiry in our fields. But we are working to change that. Joyce has written the first textbook for undergraduate students on how to undertake research in writing studies: Researching Writing: An Introduction to Research Methods.  In collaboration with the CCCC Committee on Undergraduate Research, Jessie oversees the annual CCCC Undergraduate Researcher Poster Session, where students have the opportunity to participate in a national, professional conference. Students also can publish in the innovative Young Scholars in Writing, a journal that was created over ten years ago, among other places.

Student Megan Knowles presenting her finished research project poster at CCCC in 2016.

While opportunities for undergraduates to present and, to a lesser degree, publish their work exist, opportunities for undergraduates to gather and share research in process are rare.  That’s where the Naylor Workshop for Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies, initiated at York College in Pennsylvania by Dominic DelliCarpini, comes in. The two of us have served as plenary speakers and mentors for the annual workshop. This weekend boot camp for students is exhilarating, energizing, and exhausting.

About 30 students are selected for the workshop from applications filed in the spring. Many of them are generously funded through the Naylor Endowment. The endowment also funds faculty mentors—like us. The weekend is organized so that participants arrive in time for an opening plenary on Friday evening that outlines the process: finding and narrowing a research question; reviewing the literature; determining appropriate methods and tools; drafting a plan and a timeline; and preparing for an initial report.

Prior to this date, mentors have been assigned a small group of student researchers and have communicated with them long distance about their projects. The intensive workshop experience continues on Saturday with small group sessions in which mentors listen to students’ individual research questions and begin providing feedback. Students write their research questions on whiteboards and revisit them consistently throughout the workshop, as the questions may change considerably as the students re-envision their projects. Yes, research is recursive—just like writing.

As faculty mentors, often collaborating with Naylor alumni, we lead a series of workshops that highlight tools and methods to conduct research and provide information about research processes, beginning with an overview of qualitative and quantitative methods and extending through resources for reviews of literature and advice on dissemination. Let’s face it: English majors can be frightened of numbers. Quantitative methods like coding can be daunting. The undergraduate researchers begin gathering tools needed to undertake research: participant-observation, interviews, surveys, and focus groups as ways to gather information. They learn about the difference between causal and correlational relationships and standard coding scales. By the end of the day, they have drafted a revised research plan.

Student Megan Knowles with her draft poster at the Naylor Workshop in September, 2015.

Sunday morning is, well, exciting. Students present their work. Their posters are printed for a gallery walk, and they deliver elevator pitches about their projects. One student presented on his research on middle school writers, which was so advanced and professional that Joyce told him, frankly, that she could see him as a future president of NCTE. In fact, our crystal ball on these students’ futures is quite clear: they are engaged in meaningful questions about writing. These are our future literacy educators.

Why are we so keen on undergraduate research? It has been deemed one among a small set of “high impact educational practices.” According to George D. Kuh, “The goal is to involve students with actively contested questions, empirical observation, cutting-edge technologies, and the sense of excitement that comes from working to answer important questions.” Another researcher, David Lopatto cited the many benefits of undergraduate research: “Research experiences enhance intellectual skills such as inquiry and analysis, reading and understanding primary literature, communication, and teamwork. . . . Undergraduate researchers learn tolerance for obstacles faced in the research process, how knowledge is constructed, independence, increased self-confidence, and a readiness for more demanding research. These benefits are an advantage in any career path.”

The students we worked with drew their own conclusions about how they grew professionally, suggesting that the Naylor Workshop helped them

  • Learn inquiry strategies
  • Grapple with interesting questions
  • Develop professional relationships
  • Construct knowledge
  • Pursue disciplinary interests
  • Gain self-knowledge
  • Find new questions
  • Challenge themselves
  • Pursue their passions
  • Build self-confidence

The Naylor Workshop provides its scholars with an opportunity to move from intuitive understandings of their work as writing fellows, tutors, and/or writing majors toward a deeper knowledge of the methodologies of our discipline. They are joining the conversation through a supportive and challenging learning environment. We are so pleased to be part of this transformative experience.

About the Authors:

Jessie L. Moore served as the inaugural plenary speaker for the Naylor Workshop in 2014. She is the director for the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University (@CEL_Elon) and Associate Professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric.


Joyce Kinkead, Professor of English, Utah State University, was invited in that role for the 2015 Naylor Workshop. In addition to the leadership of Dominic DelliCarpini, we also acknowledge collaborator Megan Schoettler, who has assisted with the Naylor Workshop, beginning as an undergraduate at York and continuing as a graduate student at Miami University.