Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Melissa Moskov
The most difficult aspect of being an English teacher, for me, is assessing my students’ writing. I can remember, so clearly, the day my cooperating teacher handed me a student’s writing and said, “Read this and give it a grade.” After reading it, I felt an overwhelming and uncomfortable power shadow over me. I didn’t know the rules of assessment. What was I supposed to be looking for anyway? I was able to realize immediately that there is a definite difference between knowing how to write an essay and knowing how to assess one.
When I was asked what I finally came up with as a grade, I told her the student earned a “B.” She agreed and I remember thinking to myself that maybe my task wasn’t as difficult as I had thought moments before. Then, just when I thought the hard part was over, she asked me why I gave it a “B.” After giving her my reasons, she stated she was in agreement with me. At this point, I asked her what grade she had given it. She replied, “B-.” Now I was completely baffled. How could she agree with everything that I said and then give it a different grade?
Whether or not teachers like to admit it, assessing writing is, in fact, a fragile issue as well as a partly subjective one. For instance, while my cooperating teacher agreed with my insight, she also thought that particular student should have applied more effort to the essay. After teaching this student for eight months already, she was aware of his capabilities as a writer and expected more. Her reasoning was one that I would never have been able to develop since I was not as familiar with the student.
Can the assessment of writing be accomplished in a fair manner? There is no doubt that readers are subjective viewers. It is an issue that we are unable to escape. Unlike math teachers, we, as English teachers, are not able to produce the “correct” answer for how to write or even how to assess writing. As teachers, we rely on our learned knowledge, our experience in the subject area and on rubrics to serve as our guides in this process. With the help of these guides, however, it is possible to assess writing fairly.
Some may ask, “Why do we have to assess writing at all? Since there is no correct or right answer, then what is the purpose of it?” These loaded questions are surrounded by much controversy among teachers. Our educational system has standards that exist for necessary reasons. The standards that are established for our students extend far beyond the classroom walls. Throughout our lives, they constantly guide us. For example, people have to live up to certain standards everyday in order to hold a career and be successful in that field. Furthermore, in sports, for instance, athletes are continually held to high standards in order to be the best at what they do. Assessment is everywhere.
There are standards in education, as well as in other aspects of life, that have a purpose for existing. We live in a competitive world all around. It is the students with the highest grades who are accepted into top-notch universities. Is this wrong or unfair? Likewise, it is the strongest and most consistent athletes that will move on to the professional arena. Although some may find this an unfair practice, we can not deny our students the fact that this is the process that makes our world go round.
Should the standards be lowered in our educational system in order to focus on those students who have difficulty in writing? Lowering the standards is only an easy way out for those teachers who feel assessment is unnecessary, unfair, cruel, etc. This would only create a continual downfall in educational development. If we, the teachers, begin to give “A’s” to work such as John’s in the basic writing classroom, (the essay form last week’s class) then we are clearly lowering the standards of education. We would be teaching our students that there is no need to strive to improve a piece of writing. Accepting writing as it first appears on paper will only limit the student’s motivation for becoming a better writer. In other words, our jobs as teachers would be pointless. Instead, we should be teaching our students how to reach the standards of excellence.
Let us look for a moment at what would happen if the standards of excellence were lowered in the athletic realm? Only a few athletes are chosen to play at the professional level in any sport. Take, for instance, the NFL where only the strongest, fastest and most athletic are chosen to compete against each other. Now, would it make any sense to place a slower, weaker and more un-athletic individual against athletes of such caliber? I am not arguing, however, that the weaker individual will never be able to compete at this level. By rising to the standards of excellence, the individual will have the opportunity to return stronger, faster and more able to compete.
Furthermore, assessment plays an important role because writing is a form of communication. Without communication, the world would crumble. Knowing how to use written and verbal communication is critical. In legal cases, for example, written documents and oral confessions are used for an individual’s defense. By assessing writing in the classroom, we are teaching our students the importance communication can serve through writing.
Last week, while many found John’s piece to be well written and gave it an “A,” I once again struggled in determining a grade. Reading John’s essay reminded me of watching the television or listening to the radio when they are between stations. There is no doubt that something is being said, but the static makes the words a fuzzy and unclear source of communication. By adjusting the antenna, the voice can communicate to the listeners more clearly. In the same way, John’s essay needs to be adjusted so his readers can locate or define his clear voice.
As I have done before, I compared this instance with one to which I can relate personally. As a competitive gymnast for thirteen years, I have learned that it is impossible to receive a perfect score on an apparatus once a gymnast has fallen from it. Even though great effort may be displayed, the fall creates a brake in the rhythm and flow of the routine. The attention of the audience, including the judge, is interrupted in the process. The judge’s job is then to assess the form and content for what was performed on the balance beam, then deduct for any falls or wobbles. The assessment of writing in the English classroom is much the same. When there are so many mistakes that the flow and rhythm of the piece are interrupted, it should receive a lower score. Assessment, in this way, is important because it is through noticing where and why these “wobbles” exist that students can learn to become better writers.
A dilemma will occur, however, when a student in the same class (such as John’s) writes an essay that is informative, intriguing, grammatically error-free and enjoyable for the reader. Should this student receive the same grade as the student who has written an essay such as John’s? Clearly, this would be unethical for many reasons. First, the student with the well-written essay would eventually lose motivation. Also, the teachers who would grade the two essays the same are undermining the credibility of the learning institution. Furthermore, they are doing a disservice to the student who will eventually be in the work force. By doing so, they are sending out mixed messages of what is accepted in the English classroom as well as in life outside the classroom walls. These students will suffer in the long run. They will be limited in sharing and incorporating their learned knowledge into their communities.
Although only a few individuals are able to reach such high standards in the athletic realm, all students deserve a chance to succeed in reaching the standards in education. What is the definition for success in education? Success can be different for each student and is measured on a wide-scale. It can be acknowledged at many points during this upward. It is not only found at the top. It must be recognized, even if it exists in small amounts and can be done through assessment.
Assessment in writing should not be viewed as a negative but rather as a positive and necessary tool for aiding students in becoming successful communicators. It is, in fact, a fragile task and like writing, it requires practice on the part of the teachers. Our job, as teachers, is to encourage our students to write, regardless of how undeveloped their writing may be and accompany them as they continue their climb towards success.
We must be aware, during this journey, that all students learn at different paces. Students with weak writing skills should not be discouraged for their weaknesses. We have to realize that assessing a piece of writing as a “C” for example is not a punishment and should not be discouraging as long as the student understands why they have received this grade and knows what to do in order to make it better. Communication between the student and teacher here is crucial. Without any explanation for the grades given, students will become confused and frustrated. Assessment that is supported by explanation can provide students with a source of direction. In this way, the students will earn higher grades and become better writers in the process. This direction through assessment will help lead students to success.
The use of assessment in writing remains a delicate topic for many teachers. However, with our help, it can grow to be a positive force in our students’ lives. Berlin once said, “To teach writing is to teach a version of reality.” The importance of communication and success in our world is, indeed, a reality. Isn’t the assessment of writing, after all, a version of reality as well? Aren’t we supposed to be preparing our students for their futures? Although assessing writing is not a simple task, it should not be viewed as unfair or unnecessary. Instead, we must consider it unfair and unjust to hide this reality from the students who will continually encounter it once they exit our classroom doors.
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