More Than a Grade: Cultivating Intellectual Play in Students

This post is written by student member Danah Hashem.

Educators know the dreaded question well: Will this be graded? Subtext: As a student in your class, the impact this assignment has on my report card matters more to me than the potential learning experience it offers; how much should I care about my performance on this?

This simple but familiar and frequent question encapsulates a larger issue impacting classrooms around the globe. It is not a new phenomenon for students to give in to the temptation to trade mindsets of intellectual play, exploration, and growth for the reductionist, quantifiable goal of high grades. However, in the face of increased standardized testing and global competition, today’s students are chasing the grade more than ever before. And who are we to blame them? Increasingly, the systems in which they are asked to operate measure and assess them based on these numbers, awarding opportunities, status, and identities accordingly. More and more our students are viewing grades as the reason and the reward for their learning, and it’s not always difficult to understand why.

This leaves us as educators with some difficult questions of our own. What are we doing that is communicating to our students that grades are the final goal and ultimate achievement of learning? And how do we stop? What can we do to shift the culture, reframe the goals, and revive the elusive spirit of intellectual curiosity in our classrooms?

While the answers to those questions are complex, systemic, and extend well outside the walls of our own classrooms, I believe there are some concrete, achievable steps we can take to support, encourage, and mentor our students in their very real struggle to understand the importance of personal education in a grade-driven culture.

  1. Value process along with—and perhaps even over—product. A strong summative writing assignment requires work that is completed in stages, a few of which should include brainstorming, exploration, experimentation, drafting, and revision. We can communicate the importance of these stages to students by dedicating class time to them, giving detailed feedback on them, holding reflective conversations regarding them, and potentially weighting those stages more heavily than the finished product when grading. This tells students that you care more about the journey they went through to create and understand their final product than the final product itself.
  2. Allow revision. Particularly on larger assignments, I always allow my students to resubmit their work for a higher grade, deducting no penalty points for wanting another try. This shows students that my primary concern is their personal struggles as scholars wrestling with challenging tasks and concepts.
  3. Integrate single-point rubrics. As helpful as a well-crafted holistic or analytic rubric can be, the goal of these rubrics is essentially to standardize and quantify intellectual creation, which can encourage ranking, comparison, and fixation on teacher-direction in order to target a specific grade. The single-point rubric is a grading option that describes what proficiency should look like in each of the outlined categories, making no attempt to anticipate where and how students will succeed or fall short. Structuring rubrics in this way allows more subjectivity and invites educators to reflect on both strengths and weaknesses in each category. Grades can still be assigned with clear explanation; however, there are no predefined levels, limits, or categories for success. This rubric stresses descriptive, personalized feedback over the numerical grade.
  4. Encourage self-reflection. In order to actively demonstrate that the grade is not the capstone of intellectual pursuit, spend time reflecting on assignments before, during, and after the grading process. These reflections can be structured as journal entries, large-group discussions, or partner conversations. Guiding questions can encourage students to think deeply about what they gained from the process. Questions that encourage this kind of thinking include
  • What was the most difficult portion of this assignment for you?
  • How did you overcome those difficulties?
  • What do you think was the strongest aspect of your project and why?
  1. Highlight intellectual courage. Educators can encourage student identities that operate outside of the grading system by highlighting exemplary work that does not necessarily reinforce the culture of grade-based status. Taking class time to promote a student’s work as innovative, courageous, or explorative can subvert the grade-based status system while also gently fostering the confidence students need to engage in intellectual play.

Ultimately, if we must grade, our grades should support, complement, and encourage real learning. This makes the job of an educator more nuanced and admittedly more difficult; there are no effective ways to standardize and quantify the authentic intellectual pursuits of individuals. However, before we can ask our students to internalize this reality, we ourselves must be willing to take clear and definitive steps to make that reality evident in our classroom culture. It can be difficult in our grade-saturated culture, but change always begins with initial steps.

Danah Hashem teaches tenth-grade world literature at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, MA, where she pursues her passions for and scholarship in digital literacies, Middle Eastern literature, and student-centered learning. Follow her on Twitter at @DanahRHashem or via her blog,

Note: NCTE has a variety of resources to support teachers looking to approach grading intentionally and generatively in their classrooms. For additional information on assessments and grading, visit the following position statements: Resolution on Grading Student WritingFormative Assessment That Truly Informs InstructionWriting Assessment: A Position Statement

What a Day to Celebrate Student Voice and Choice!

This Sunday, September 17, is Constitution Day, the commemoration of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787.

What a day to celebrate the privileges of the First Amendment, including student voice and choice!

The #Bowtie Boys with Jason Augustowski give voice on on the importance of middle school in this Voices from the Middle article  (pp. 14-16; 5-7 .pdf pages).

Listen as the #BowtieBoys give voice to their understandings of Dead Poets Society.

Research says [about student choice]:

Engaged adolescents demonstrate internal motivation, self efficacy, and a desire for mastery. Providing student choice and responsive classroom environments with connections to “real life” experiences helps adolescents build confidence and stay engaged. (Guthrie, J. T. (2001). Contexts for engagement and motivation in reading. Reading Online. International Reading Association. Retrieved June 23, 2007, from index.html and Guthrie, J.T., & Humenick, N.M. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase reading motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle and V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research.Baltimore, MD: Brookes, 329-54.)…

• Self-selection and variety engage students by enabling ownership in literacy activities.
• In adolescence, book selection options increase dramatically, and successful readers need to learn to choose texts they enjoy. If they can’t identify pleasurable books, adolescents often lose interest in reading.
• Allowing student choice in writing tasks and genres can improve motivation. At the same time, writing choice must be balanced with a recognition that adolescents also need to learn the literacy practices that will support academic success.
• Choice should be meaningful. Reading materials should be appropriate and should speak to adolescents’ diverse interests and varying abilities.
• Student-chosen tasks must be supported with appropriate instructional support or scaffolding. (Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. (2004). Reading next: A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy. Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. Retrieved June 25, 2007 from ReadingNext/ReadingNext.pdf and Guthrie, J. T. (2001). Oldfather, P. (1994). When students do not feel motivated for literacy learning: How a responsive classroom culture helps. College Park, MD: University of Maryland, National Reading Research Center. Retrieved June 25, 2007, from rspon_r8.html; NCREL (2005).)

Two NCTE members demonstrate what support and scaffolding look like and why choice and voice are so important.

Katie Dredger notes, “Students can succeed when we allow them to choose the courses they take, the texts they read, the processes of their growth, and the products of their achievements.”

Tom Romano deftly explains student voice in the context of writing, the vital importance context when considering words used in writing and reading.

Broadening Perspectives with Multicultural & Multivoiced Stories for Adolescents

This post is written by members Kelly Byrne Bull and Jacqueline Bach, guest editors of the September issue of English Journal. 

In this issue, we explore how multicultural and multivoiced young adult literature engages classroom communities in meaningful discourse and broadens adolescents’ perspectives. Our cover artwork, Iris-Between-Worlds by Colleen Helie, embodies the poignancy of adolescence and the fluidity of conversations that encourage growth. Contributors to our themed issue bring to light stories that connect students with the personal and the global. As a result of our Call for Manuscripts, we noted that three categories emerged: bias and empathy; power and equity; and gender and sexuality.

Alluding to Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of mirrors and windows, several contributors carefully illustrate how empathy can break down biases. We appreciate Grice, Rebellino, and Stamper’s celebration of challenging the narrative status quo. In their article, they showcase lived experiences that have historically been overlooked but are explored through recent award-winning verse novels and graphic narratives. Building on this idea of diverse representation, Gilmore’s “Saying What We Don’t Mean” argues that teachers are responsible for offering students a variety of characters and situations so that students can grow and learn to recognize implicit bias. Similarly, Van Vaerenewyck’s “Aesthetic Readings of Diverse Literary Narratives for Social Justice” asserts that cultivating empathetic global citizens relies on all of us becoming better readers of diverse stories.

We noted how this call prompted contributors to explore issues of power and equity that are developed in YA texts. Malo-Juvera’s “A Postcolonial Primer with Multicultural YA Literature” illustrates how he introduces postcolonialism so that students can hone their abilities to interrogate normalized oppression and begin to read the world critically. Ginsberg, Glenn, and Moye also examine issues of power and equity in their article, “Opportunities for Advocacy.” The YA texts they feature center on identity denial and afford rich discussions about which identities are privileged or denied, affirmed or suppressed. Such exploration of power and equity is also central to Lillge and Dominguez’s thoughtful article, “Launching Lessons.” In it, they address incorporating divergent points of view in the English classroom and offer readers ideas for projects addressing social inequity and injustice.

Our contributors also challenge readers to include global and multivoiced expressions of gender and sexuality (if they are not already doing so) with contemporary texts. Hayne, Clemmons, and Olvey’s “Using Moon at Nine to Broaden Multicultural Perspectives” analyzes their experiences reading this love story between two young women in post-Shah Iran with their university students, while in “‘I Don’t Really Know What a Fair Portrayal Is and What a Stereotype Is’” Boyd and Bereiter remind readers of the importance of listening and learning from their students and trying new pedagogical approaches based on those relationships. Finally, Kedley and Spiering look at how voices and form convey multiple experiences of gender and sexuality in ELA classrooms.

Articles such as these are conversation-starters. We invite you to continue these conversations with your colleagues and students. Send us your ideas so that we may continue to broaden and deepen the conversation: Kelly Byrne Bull (, Jacqueline Bach (

Works Cited

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

 Kelly Byrne Bull is an associate professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University, chair of NCTE’s Commission on the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature, and Maryland state representative for the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents.


Jacqueline Bach is the Elena and Albert LeBlanc Professor of English Education at Louisiana State University, a former editor of The ALAN Review (2009–2014), and a former high school English teacher.

What I’ve Learned about Being a Mentor

This post is written by member Karla Hilliard.

The breadth of a great mentor’s influence is immeasurable.

First there was Chuck Malone, our lead teacher and Obi-Wan. Chuck’s wisdom, wit, and intellect made him a mentor for the ages. Once during my first year of teaching, I tearfully entered Chuck’s office to say, “Ok, I taught my first novel. Now what?” Chuck was the calm blue sea in the turbulent waves of my first year in the classroom. His patience with a panicked first-year teacher deserves an award.

Then, there was Mr. Mooney, an intellectual, in-the-trenches teacher, who walked me under many, many conversational anvils. He questioned me, challenged me, and prodded me to explain my lessons, my reasoning, and my points of view. It was enlightening and it was annoying, and I couldn’t help but to become deeply reflective. Mooney was the best teacher I knew, so I emulated him, and I became an infinitely stronger, more intentional teacher because of him.

Later, there was Liz, a friend and colleague, someone I learned with and from. In our years of teaching together, it was our job to make meaning out of the reds, yellows, and greens of state assessments. We kept one another sane in the sea of spreadsheets and mandated “data driven instruction,” and we reminded one another that our students were not graphs and numbers, but the kids we loved.

And a few years ago, I met Jess, an amalgam of the best teacher mentors along the way. When we began teaching together, my own children were 4 and 2, and juggling my tiny tots and a demanding career was wearing me down. She said something I’ll never forget: “Our children watch us. We are showing them that we can make the world a better place.” Four years later, Jess and I have re-established the state affiliate for West Virginia, WVCTE, and my now 8-year-old says she wants to be just like me when she grows up. Jess was right. Cue the water works.

But now, going into Year 13 of teaching, I find myself with the shoe on the other foot. I teach in our school’s new STEAM Academy, and last summer three other teachers and I were tasked with building and implementing this academy by taking 80 students, our 4 classes of English, math, biology, and social studies, and preparing students for careers or education in STEAM fields.

I admit that when I realized that I’d been teaching for more years than my three colleagues combined, I was nervous. And it wasn’t because they lacked intelligence or charisma or empathy. They don’t—they’re awesome. I was nervous because I was suddenly in a new role—one that I hadn’t expected—that of the mentor, the sensei, the Obi-Wan.

We four STEAM Academy teachers were practically strangers, but I knew that if we were going to build this thing and build it right, we also needed to build a strong collaborative team and mindset.

But true collaboration doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience and time, deep reflection, and consideration. It takes building something important together and sharing our lives with one another. It takes dealing with our problems and issues by being open, honest, and transparent. It requires commitment and purpose, and most importantly, it requires strong relationships with one another. To do all of this, I knew, would require mentoring. And what I learned last year as we worked together to build this academy is that to be a mentor I had to …

Be a friend. Just like in our classrooms, we must grow authentic relationships built upon trust and mutual respect. I needed to listen, to share, to laugh, and to be open with my colleagues.

Ask questions. We ask our students deep, probing questions to lead them to their own insights and understandings. When my colleagues sought out my help or opinion, I tried to do what was done for me—to ask questions like, “Why did you select this [text/activity/assessment]? What do you want your students to learn from this? How do you imagine this playing out? Why is this lesson important?” Asking questions helped my colleagues and I have a conversation instead of a “class.”

Model and share. Sometimes our students need to see us think through a task or hear how we might approach a tricky piece of poetry. Colleagues who turn to us for guidance need to see effective teacher habits modeled and learn how we approach a difficult student, design a lesson or activity, put up with the paperwork, or create community and inspire ownership in our classrooms. By modeling and sharing openly with our colleagues, we can all learn a little something.

Every great teacher I know learned the tricks of the teacher trade from a great mentor. Those of us lucky enough to have been mentored have had the opportunity to listen, reflect, and refine—to transform our practice and improve our craft. I owe it to my colleagues who are looking for guidance to pass along what wisdom I’ve collected over the years, and I owe it to myself and my students to continue to be mentored by the great teachers around me.

Karla Hilliard teaches STEAM Academy Honors English 10 and AP Literature and Composition in Berkeley County, West Virginia. She is the executive vice president of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Connect with me on Twitter at @karlahilliard!