Grading Practices That Grow Writers

This is a guest post by Arina Bokas. 

Two years ago, I started to question my grading practices and what they communicated to my students. What mattered in my class – the learning process and growth or the outcome and fixed skills?

Like many English teachers, I strove to help my students grow as writers and thinkers. However, this honorable intent, although supported by hours of dedicated effort to focus on the writing process, was inevitably sabotaged by the way I approached grading my students’ work.

My idea of assessing student writing, similar to many current practices, was about grading the output – such as an essay – with some consideration given to revision. This sent my students the message that it was okay to put minimal effort into “how” they wrote as long as “what” they wrote met all of the required criteria. As a result, my students rarely took revising seriously, while peer editing too often turned into a waste of time. Serious work took place a day or two before a paper was due.

 Growth Mindset or Fixed?

Awarding all of the points to the final product perpetuates a fixed mindset that students, especially those who lack confidence and those who excel in writing, develop about their writing abilities. When the focus is on the output, we de-emphasize growth and target existing skills students use to produce their work. Good writers don’t feel the need to push themselves to grow; not-so-good writers settle for what they can get, as “there is nothing they can do about it.”

The truth is that we grow as writers through investing time, thought, and meaningful effort in the process of writing. What if we stopped grading only papers and started assessing a writing project – the entire work that goes into understanding a particular genre and piece of writing?

Assessing the Process

Having realized that how I awarded points for assignments could make a difference in how students approached writing, I made drastic changes to my rubrics, shifting nearly 50 percent of the points toward the process. This meant that students began accumulating points early on, well before their essays were due.

I expected my students to produce a portfolio, not just a paper. They had to show their work by including documentation of thinking, observation notes, revisions, and post-assignment reflections, in addition to their final products. Each component was worth a specific amount of points, and omitting one would mean a lower grade.

bokas-research-surveyThinking/Notes – Depending on a writing unit, students were required to take a slow walk, observe something, interview a person, read an article, or test a product. During this action-based thinking activity, they were expected to record their thoughts, ideas, and observations. These notes made up 10 percent of the overall grade.

First Draft – This initial writing allowed students to put their thoughts on paper without worrying about polishing their prose. A completed first draft with a peer editor’s markings contributed to 10 percent of the overall grade.

bokas-peer-editing-sectionPeer Editing Workshop Work – Only students who had completed their essays prior to the workshop were qualified to participate; if students didn’t have a finished first draft, they worked on it during class and had the option to conduct a peer editing session on their own time. During the workshop, I gave students a peer editing worksheet with tasks and questions, asking them to highlight structural elements, comment on quality, and provide practical suggestions for improvement. This work was reflected in both the text of a reviewed paper and the provided worksheets. It determined 20 percent of the grade.

Final Draft – The final paper had to differ from the first draft and reflect revisions. I downscaled my usual rubrics to count it for 50 percent of the grade.

bokas-student-documentationPost-Assignment Reflections – Students had to reflect on their writing process after completing each writing project: what they found to be easy or difficult; their struggles and discoveries as writers. This not only provided students with an important conclusion to every unit, but it also served as invaluable feedback that allowed me to modify my teaching. Reflections made up 10 percent of the grade.


De-emphasizing the final product and focusing on the project one step at a time helped my students slow down. No longer could high achievers ride on their existing skills and excel in my class; they had to work through stages, think more deeply, and make connections they otherwise wouldn’t have made. Other students first saw this as an opportunity to improve their grades. As they embraced the process, they didn’t worry about the outcome, which helped them focus and better capture their thoughts.

Working on the process seemed to relax the atmosphere in class, brought a flare of humor, and sparked a lot of open thinking. And sure enough, as we took care of the process, outcomes took care of themselves. My students produced some of their best pieces, written with a strong writer’s voice.

Children are different from one another. How they approach their learning and the lessons they learn along the way vary greatly. When we tell them that their journey is just as important as the destination, they take the time to wander, discover, and understand themselves.

The best proof of my students’ growth as writers are their own testimonies that describe a shift in their thinking. One student’s reflection on a commentary project captures the moment of discovery that so many of my students found with this new approach to writing:

Standing there among the trash, I felt that my words had purpose. I wanted them to impact others so that they would never litter. I cared deeply about every possible word I could write on this subject. I went over my paper four or five times, trying to make every letter count. This essay project changed the way I was writing and the way I felt about my work.

 Arina Bokas, PhD, is an educator, author, presenter, and educational consultant . She is the editor of Kids Standard magazine and a faculty member at Mott Community College, Flint, Michigan. Arina is the author of Building Powerful Learning Environments: From Schools to Communities (2017) and dozens of educational publications. Follow her on Twitter @arinabokas.


Using Film as a Tool in the Classroom

1960s-classroomThe first Academy Awards ceremony was held during this week in 1929. To celebrate this milestone, here are some resources for using movies to support the literacy learning in the classroom.

The Language Arts article “Let’s Go to the Movies: Rethinking the Role of Film in the Elementary Classroom” argues that elementary language arts teachers should expand their definition of “text” to include film, a valuable instructional resource. The article notes that today’s elementary students come to class with a great deal of knowledge about films — prior experiences which teachers can tap into — and discusses the application of reader-response theories to film.

Based on the above Language Arts article, the lesson Get the Reel Scoop: Comparing Books to Movies asks students to compare and contrast books with their movie counterparts and then work in groups to design a readers theater response to the film version.

Ask students to play the role of moviemakers with techniques from the Voices from the Middle article “Meeting Readers: Using Visual Literacy Narratives in the Classroom“. The article describes a literacy narrative project — a concise digital video in which students meld still images, motion, print text, and soundtrack in communicating ideas/insights/discoveries about who they are as readers and writers.

Students take on the role of film director in the lesson
You Know the Movie Is Coming — Now What?. After exploring cinematic terms, students read a literary work with a director’s eyes, considering such issues as which scenes require a close-up of the main character and when the camera should zoom out to see the entire set.

The English Journal article “How Movies Work for Secondary School Students with Special Needs” demonstrates how to use scenes from films to help special education students improve their visual and auditory skills, build confidence in their abilities to talk about and analyze the components of a narrative, and feel comfortable engaging in writing and class discussion.

In the lesson Decoding The Matrix: Exploring Dystopian Characteristics through Film, students view and analyze clips from The Matrix and other dystopian films to gain an understanding of the characteristics found in dystopian works, such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984.

Research has shown that contemporary popular films are a valuable resource in the ESL classroom, but what about older films? The Teaching English in the Two-Year College article “Unspoken Content: Silent Film in the ESL Classroom” explores how overlooked silent films can facilitate the development of ESL students’ critical thinking and writing skills.

Teacher educators can challenge students to explore how educators are represented in movies and television shows. Share the English Journal article “Teaching English in the World: All I Need to Know about Teaching I Learned from TV and Movies” with preservice teachers and ask them to film their own revised versions of the real life of teachers in the classroom. Encourage discussion of ways to counter flawed visions of the profession locally and at state and national levels.

How do you use film in your classroom?


What Writers Really Need: A Trifecta of Teaching Moves That Revolutionize Writing Instruction

This post is written by member Patty McGee. 

A few questions for you:

  • Have you noticed that when you correct writing, students often pay little attention to those corrections and their writing does not seem to evolve from those corrections?
  • Do your students seem to approach writing as a task to complete rather than an expression of their voice and ideas?
  • Are your students quick finishers and reluctant to revise their writing?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you may want to employ this trio of teaching moves so writers grow in the light of your feedback.

pattymcgee1stpicture1. Be a Mentor Writer

A mentor writer is one who:

  • gives feedback (outside of grades) throughout the process of writing, not just at the end
  • shares his or her struggles in writing with other writers and ways to work through these struggles
  • brings a tone of support, understanding, and passion for writing
  • sits side by side with writers and names strengths and the next step

Teachers who have made this switch have found profound changes in their writers both immediately and over time.

When writers are mentored, they are more likely to take risks, ask for feedback, and make writerly choices.

Because writers expect not to be judged (or graded), the writing flows and struggle is normalized.

A few tips on being a mentor writer:

  • If you are in a classroom that must give grades, let the writers know that you will be taking the grading hat off and putting on your mentor hat. Explain to them the difference and what to expect from you.
  • Ask writers what they would like feedback on and give feedback on only those parts. It is not necessary to mentor a writer’s entire piece in one meeting.
  • Bring a notebook and pen to model writing strategies in your own writing.

This last tip brings us to the other two instructional moves to complete the trifecta: strategies and modeling.

2. Teach Strategies (with Soul)

Knowing writing strategies is a great challenge for many students. They may know that they need to elaborate (which is a skill), but how to elaborate is the challenge. By definition, a strategy is a how-to, a way to access a skill. Where can you find these strategies? The most meaningful strategies are found within your head and heart. This is teaching strategy with soul. Here’s how it might go.

  1. Notice the skill the writer is ready for or has asked to learn.
  2. Think to yourself, “If I were the writer of this piece, with the skills that this writer has, what would I do?”
  3. Then share that step-by-step with the student.

Let’s try it with this sample:


This writer looked at this page in her informational book on soccer and wanted to add detail. I asked myself, with what I can see this writer can already do, what can be her next step? While there are many possibilities, let’s say she’s ready to add boldfaced words with definitions. A strategy could be:

Writers of informational text often add important words and their definitions. Here’s one way:

  1. Take a look at your diagram and find the keywords a reader should know.
  2. Write them in bold.
  3. Write a definition or description next to the bolded word.

While this may be enough for some kids, the final, knock-writing-instruction-out-of-the-park move is to add a model.

pattymcgee2ndpicture3. Model

As a mentor writer who shares writing strategies, you may find that writers often need to see the strategy in action. We naturally do this all the time—I certainly do! When trying a new dish, I am more likely to choose the recipe that has a video paired with it. My mentor and friend Gravity Goldberg compares the modeling we do in the classroom to that of a cooking show host. Cooking show hosts:

  • Show a step-by-step
  • Have ingredients ready
  • Offer advice on the tricky parts
  • Narrate the strategy as they model
  • Don’t ask questions (How much ground beef should I use for this meatloaf?)

To model this strategy, you might use a separate piece of paper and say, “Watch me as I . . .” and then model step-by-step, going from the diagram, picking out a keyword, bolding it, and writing a definition. For you to model strategy as a mentor writer, you simply need pencil and paper to show and advice to add.

I invite you to build this into your writing classrooms. Take off the correcting hat and be the mentor writer who models strategies. I know you will experience what so many other teachers have—joyful, connected writing instruction and writers who grow exponentially.

Patty McGee is a literacy consultant whose passion and vision is to create learning environments in which teachers and students discover their true potential and power. She is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing (Corwin 2017). Patty’s favorite moments are when groups of teachers are working with students collaboratively in the classroom. She tweets at @pmgmcgee.


Advocating for Newcomer Students by Seeing Their Strengths

This post is written by member Mary Amanda “Mandy” Stewart. 

Newcomers represent one of the fastest growing populations in US secondary schools. Coming from other countries, they join us in the ELA classroom with the obvious need to learn English.

English instruction is what they need the most, right?

When I began my career at a newcomer center, that’s exactly what I thought. However, after learning with and from these students for many years, I’ve determined that what they need most is for me to change my view of them. I can become so focused on their need to learn English, and my job to teach it, that I completely overlook their strengths.

How did I change my perspective? I began to understand their lives through their own voices by asking questions, listening, and then listening even more. Now I view the English classroom as an optimal environment where we can name and leverage the many strengths of students learning English for their academic success. I’ve identified five main areas of these hidden strengths that might allow us to be their advocates by seeing them as more than students learning English.

Students in the G.O.A.L. program (Guys and girls Operating As Leaders)

Multiple Languages: Students learning English will already have oral literacy skills in at least one other language. They might also possess reading and writing abilities in their other language(s). Many newcomers engage in language brokering, or translating, for their families, adding to their growing linguistic toolkit. Learn about their multiple language abilities and ask them to use their oral or writing skills in all of their languages for a class project. Choose to see them as multilinguals in all facets of the ELA curriculum.

G.O.A.L students

Desire to Learn & Dream: Sometimes it is a lack of previous opportunity and other times it’s simply a determined spirit, but most newcomers are hungry to learn, particularly English. Yet many of these students do not know how to check books out from their school library. Some assume there is nothing there they can read. Make sure you provide them access to large quantities of engaging and comprehensible literature in English and their first language that they can take home regularly. Ask them about their dreams and help them understand the practical steps they can take to achieve those dreams. You might be surprised by what you hear!

G.O.A.L students


Character: Many of these young people possess remarkable character. In Spanish this can be referred to as educación and manifests itself in the respect they show their teachers, others, and themselves. It is also evident in their work ethic, which extends beyond the classroom. Because their parents are usually working, many of the newcomers I’ve interviewed take care of younger siblings after school, frequently while completing household chores such as cooking dinner. I’m also surprised at how many students maintain part-time and sometimes even full-time jobs. They are eager to earn money to support themselves in the United States and often send some of that money to family in their home countries. We can learn about their lives outside of school, acknowledge their hard work, and look for ways to bring these experiences into our classroom.

G.O.A.L students

Transnationalism: Newcomer students will have lived in at least two countries—sometimes more. They maintain ties to their country in various ways—through actual visits, online social networking, talking to friends via apps, and viewing media from their home country. They regularly cross borders, whether physically, digitally, or culturally, on a daily basis, nurturing skills needed for an interconnected world. Their unique perspectives and international sources of information can greatly enrich your English classes. As you invite their transnational skills into your classroom, it can become a place of global learning for all your students.

G.O.A.L. students

Commitment to a Community: The newcomer students I’ve worked with are usually very committed to others in their various communities—fellow newcomers, friends, or family members. I often observe them helping one another in class, and they are eager to offer something to other students, such as world language tutoring. They regularly sacrifice their own free time to contribute to their family unit or to other students in the class. This can lend itself to excellent collaborative groups in the classroom and will work toward fostering a true literacy learning community. This trait will also go a long way in developing newcomers’ roles as productive citizens in their schools, communities, and society.

 These are the five primary hidden strengths I’ve seen in the lives of newcomer students. Yes, they need to learn English, and it is our job to facilitate that growth, yet our greatest tool could be acknowledging and leveraging the many notable traits and skills they already possess. If you want to be your immigrant students’ advocate in a culture of growing xenophobia, dare to make visible their strengths in the ELA classroom and beyond.

Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart (@drmandystewart) is a faculty member in the Department of Reading at Texas Woman’s University, and her work with newcomers appears in Research in the Teaching of English and English Journal. She loves learning with multilingual/multicultural students and is the author of Understanding Adolescent Immigrants: Moving toward an Extraordinary Discourse for Extraordinary Youth (Lexington Books).


Appreciating Teachers in Under-Privileged Schools

This post is written by member Sharonica Nelson. 

Teaching is a job that comes with very little thanks and accolades. In fact, teachers are some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated professionals. Teaching does not come with hefty compensation, nor does it come with many pats on the back. Truthfully, it is not for the faint at heart, and those who choose to teach are special people with special gifts. Therefore, national teacher appreciation week is fitting. Teachers deserve a time set aside just for them to be acknowledged and appreciated because of the hard work they do in classrooms daily. All teachers deserve this, but especially those who teach in under-privileged schools.

Teaching in less-affluent schools has its own set of challenges, issues, and concerns. Although all teachers are subject to changes in the form of new curriculum due to new pedagogical techniques, many times these changes do not reflect the impact on disadvantaged students.  These new initiatives stem from policy changes and legislative actions imposed by those who have no teaching experience. Often, students and teachers in under-privileged schools are the first to feel the brunt of educational disruptions and changes and the last to recover, particularly from new leaders who are eager to “turn the school around” and a high yearly turnover of new co-workers.

Many teachers in less-affluent schools have class sizes that are far larger than the average. Within these classes are double the number of students with behavioral inconsistencies, learning deficiencies, and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet, these teachers keep on teaching and making magic in the classroom by raising test scores, building relationships, and encouraging students to rise above their circumstances.

Just as they keep on teaching and making magic, teachers in under-privileged schools are also some of the most forgotten during teacher appreciation week. Many of their students do not have the financial resources to appreciate their teachers through gift giving and may not set aside time to make a gift or say a kind word. There are years when the administrative staff “forgot” to plan a gesture of appreciation for these teachers. Therefore, teachers must appreciate themselves:

  1. Be proud. Teachers must realize that they are not alone in the trenches and that together all teachers are making a difference. Continue meeting students at their point of need, and know that even if no one else recognizes it, you are making a difference in the lives of students that need it the most. Also, realize that you are doing a job that many would not think twice about doing, and with that comes honor.
  2. Show self-appreciation. If you do not appreciate yourself, who will? All teachers are valuable, needed, and special. The trip that you have put off, plan it. Have not been to dinner or lunch in a while? Plan it. If it is time for a haircut and/or color, make it extra special this time. The students will notice and will give compliments to no end. Massages are great. Find those discount websites that promote deals on massages and go have a day of relaxation.
  3. Show appreciation for a fellow teacher. No one knows the dynamics of teaching in an under-privileged setting like a fellow teacher. Giving to others brings the giver great joy. Therefore, show appreciation by giving to others who share a similar situation. It could be something as simple as lunch, flowers, a gift card, or even a hand-written note. The possibilities are endless, but the receiver will be surprised and thankful.

Teachers of students in less-affluent schools deserve to be acknowledged, patted on the back, and thanked several times over for the work done daily. These teachers show and prove every day that they are the epitome of special people with special gifts, and that they are not faint at heart. For these reasons, teachers in disadvantaged schools cannot be forgotten and should be shown much appreciation!

Dr. S. Nelson is a mommy, wife, and 7th grade Language Arts teacher in an urban middle school in Alabama. She works heavily with Red Mountain Writing Project at UAB in different aspects, and is the founder of College, Career & Beyond, a nonprofit whose mission is to educate all on the importance of education. She is also an author, presenter, and teacher consultant.