Our grading should match our pedagogy. In my classroom I attempt to prefigure aspects of the kind of society I want my students to live in: a society where the work is meaningful and intrinsically rewarding, where people grapple with big ideas that they care about in an environment where they can talk, read, write, and think without worrying about failure or ridicule.
Students need to feel that their work is important, relevant, and meaningful. If not, why should they spend time working on it? I was reminded of this recently when I demonstrated a narrative lesson in a classroom at Madison High School in Portland, Ore. Madison's student body comes from diverse cultural, racial, linguistic, and economic backgrounds. Students had just read Breaking Through, a short memoir by Francisco Jiménez, about growing up in a migrant family and trying to fit in as a teenager. The students and I examined a point in the memoir where Jiménez describes going to graduation wearing a white t-shirt because his family couldn't afford to buy him the required white shirt. We also read Gary Soto's story "The Jacket," as well as a number of stories written by my former students. [See "Pro Wings," page 37.]
We talked about buying clothes to fit in, desiring clothes we can't afford, receiving clothes that we don't want from people we love. The topic fits my criteria. It's about big ideas: poverty and acceptance. Students struggle with finding a place to belong, but they also want to avoid being a target of other students' ridicule for wearing the "wrong" clothes or shoes. Many are desperate to fit in—even when "fitting in" means joining a group that rejects the standard teen scene of tight low-riding jeans and shrink-wrap tops.
As we started the writing, I told the students, "Find your passion. Write your way into a story that you want to tell." Damon didn't write about clothes. He wrote about getting a gift he didn't want from his foster parents. He wrote about living in foster homes, about learning how to lie about gifts he didn't want. He also wrote a list of questions about his next home and his next school—he was headed into his 12th home the week after I gave the assignment. He wondered if his new "family" would like him. He wondered if he would make friends at his new school. Fitting in meant a lot more to Damon than wearing the right clothes.
Because the assignment was open enough for Damon to write about what was important to him and what was on his mind, he did. Because I want Damon to keep writing, I didn't put a grade on it. Instead we had a conversation at the end of the period where I talked to him about what I loved about the piece, and I told him the truth: Many adults and students need to read his piece. I gave him a few suggestions for revision.