A Philosophy for Assessing Writing: Aim for Improvement, not Perfection
Over the past 10+ years of teaching high school, my philosophy for writing instruction has changed greatly. It has been a decade of experimentation and adaptation; a decade dedicated to finding what works and trying out new methodologies. The number one epiphany that I have had regarding writing instruction is that a piece of writing can never fully be viewed as complete. Every draft, including a final draft, is a work in progress.
I can speak to this in my own writing. Whenever I go back to look at something I thought was complete and finished, I always find a way to make a sentence better, a paragraph stronger, and a piece of evidence clearer. The number one issue that I have personally witnessed with writing instruction has been this perception that a final draft is final and that a student should be able to turn in something that is 100% perfect. When it comes to writing, there is no such thing as 100% perfect. This realization has informed how I approach teaching writing as well as how I assess writing.
I'll never forget reading one of Amy Tan’s novels and realizing that she splits infinitives all the time. It's something that I've seen many writers do in both fiction and nonfiction texts. What I realized is that no one is a “perfect writer,” and we should not have an expectation of perfection from our students. Instead, we should expect improvement. We should expect growth. We should expect learning. This philosophy stands in conflict with a grading system that scores writing out of 100 points. Such a scoring system is flawed. Since there is no perfect essay, no student can ever truly make a 100. So… how does a teacher assess writing in a way that is reflective of growth and not reflective of perfection?
As English teachers, we need to keep in mind that we do not bear the sole responsibility of teaching our students every single thing about writing. We are part of a collective of teachers who work to help make students stronger writers. One of the professional development workshops I attended years ago proposed the idea that students need to see 100 models, that’s 100 samples, before they even write one! This is, of course, practically impossible to accomplish in a single school year. BUT—not impossible across grades 9-12. We are each a part of a student’s overall experience and should think in terms of an upward trajectory for each student—that no matter where a student starts his or her writing journey, he or she will come out on the other side as a more effective writer.
As teachers, when we are able to stop stressing about perfection and stop stressing about having to teach every single writing skill to our students, we can begin to allow room for writing. We can begin to allow the writing the time it needs to breathe. And we can begin to focus on targeted writing skills in smaller chunks that are tailored to the needs of each student.
The way this particular writing philosophy informs how I assess writing is that I now only assess one or two writing skills at a time instead of 10 writing skills at a time. I really try to break the skills down into smaller, more manageable chunks.
Over the years, I have been guilty of taking THE RED PEN OF DEATH and destroying a student essay with it. All that did was destroy the student. And nobody learned anything. So now, I use a pencil instead of a THE RED PEN OF DEATH, and I only make marks that pertain specifically to the one or two targeted writing skills that I am checking.
Additionally, I make sure that for every critical remark I make that I also make a positive remark. When we approach students with positivity, it builds their confidence, it keeps them interested, it keeps them motivated, and that's when we can actually teach them something.
Keeping students open to learning is the name of the game, especially in English class, which tends to be a class that not many students like. And why do they not like it? They don't like it because of what has happened to them in their prior experiences with writing essays-- where they have had teachers who have focused on everything they did wrong instead of focusing on what they did right.
Let me give you an example case. One of the best students that I've ever taught in my 10+ years of teaching high school was in New York City. She came from Afghanistan, and English was not her first language. As a result, she really struggled with grammar; however, the ideas that she produced were second to none. She brought a depth to literary analysis and a life experience that no other students could even come close to.
Instead of focusing on everything wrong with her essays, I gave her a lot of positive feedback about the strength of the ideas in her writing. I will never forget that she came to me once and said that she was surprised that I hadn't written all over her essay as prior English teachers had done. And I remember asking her if that had ever done her any good. Her response? NO! She said that when there was so much ink on the page she couldn't even process what it is she was supposed to change in the first place. So when she came to tutoring, we sat down, and we started to take a look at one or two sentences from her essay. That’s it. We didn’t try to correct everything. We tried to learn one or two things at a time. Smaller chunks.
Her senior year, she applied to some local community colleges, but she also applied to Princeton. Princeton was her dream school, and it was going to be a reach. She did not have strong SAT or ACT scores because she did not test well, but her grades were pretty strong, and she was very involved in school. So Princeton waitlisted her and told her to send them one more essay to make their final decision. So she wrote the essay of her life.
I will tell you right now that the essay she ended up sending them was not perfect. It had grammatical errors. But it was what she said that mattered. Her essay was so profound that Princeton ended up not only accepting her. They gave her a FULL-RIDE SCHOLARSHIP and her own private dorm room across the hall from the bathroom! They really wanted her. And to this day, I'm still in touch with her. She is still at Princeton University, and she is THRIVING!
She has since told me that because I believed in her writing and gave her positive feedback, she believed in herself, and she pushed herself farther than she ever thought was possible. I have goose bumps even typing this story.
We have such power to affect change in our students’ lives. We just have to refocus how we approach student writing and focus on the positive. We need to minimize the negative and not be so concerned about 100% perfection. No one teacher is responsible for everything although it may seem that we carry the world on our shoulders-- especially in the light of standardized testing. We are in this together as a group of teachers, and together we will collectively improve our students if we remember to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.
CHECK OUT THIS FREEBIE FROM BESPOKE ELA! IT'S A MENU OF POSITIVE COMMENTS FOR ESSAY FEEDBACK. TRY USING SOME OF THESE COMMENTS ON YOUR NEXT GRADING SESSION TO KEEP YOUR STUDENTS IN THE GAME.
About the Author
Meredith is the founder and creator of teachwriting.org and Bespoke ELA. She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas. Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.