This reflection on teaching in the pandemic by Bard Microcollege Holyoke faculty Susanna Kohn is part of the Community Voices op-ed series. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, BPI alumni, staff, and faculty and Bard Microcollege students will be posting reflections about their work, studies, and response to the virus here on the BPI Blog.
Grading, at best, is a blunt tool. It’s like drawing a portrait with crayons. Likeness can be achieved, but it is not possible to get the level of detail, shadow and light one can capture with proper art pencils.
I teach a first-year writing class called Grammar, Rhetoric, and Style at the Bard Microcollege, a program that resides under the umbrella of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). Launched in 2018, the Microcollege at the Brooklyn Public Library offers full-scholarship, academically rigorous liberal arts college to qualifying students. Until we switched to remote learning in mid-March, my classes took place in the library’s main branch.
The goal of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Style is to deepen and strengthen the students’ writing and grammar skills. In class we contemplate how grammar relates to content (can the two be separated?) and reflect on who gets to make the rules, as well as what it means to break them. It is a class in developing thinking strategies, and a way for students to find their voices.
My cohort of twelve students come from a variety of backgrounds and span a range of ages (20-50); they include individuals who are immigrants, undocumented, formerly incarcerated, LGBTQ+, gender non-binary, and from the foster care system. For at least a quarter of my students, English is not their first language. Many of them write about their painful experiences in school, noting how they were treated as unintelligent. They often come into my class with negative emotions about themselves as writers. I aim to help them overcome this insecurity. We spend a lot of time building a community of trust. Our class becomes an intimate space.
I feel for my students. Even during a good year, I hate grading. I do not like placing a letter value on a fellow human with a story to tell. After all, we spend much of our time in class together reading and discussing essays that tell stories. Words are ideas that express the person behind them. How can I slap a grade on that?
For their first essay assignment, I ask my students to examine a personal dilemma and see how it fits into a larger societal or moral issue. All of them reflect on specific moments in their lives that have somehow shaped their point of view. My hope is that in addition to developing their rhetorical skills, they come to appreciate the complexity of what they are exploring and see themselves as part of a larger conversation, one in which their voices matter.
The fact that their essays are on subjects they choose and always include a personal element makes grading even more difficult. It can be hard for students not to conflate a grade with some deeper worth. Knowing this, I try to be as clear as possible. On the first day of class, I lay out my expectations, breaking down each element of their performance (class participation, homework, essays and other projects) into a percentage. We come up with our own class definition of a critical essay, and for each big assignment, I provide them with a rubric that lists the required elements. I also acknowledge that life can get in the way. Most importantly, I urge them to communicate with me. Knowing when they need more time or more help allows me to be flexible. If all goes well there are no surprises for anyone when it comes to grades.
I am not against measuring and giving feedback. Students need to do their work and try their best; some work harder than others. But grading is always more than the sum of its parts. It’s an imperfect science. Perhaps it’s even an art. Throw in a pandemic and discernment becomes even more challenging.
I did shift my expectations because of the pandemic. I scaled back on the amount of reading my students had to do. I moved deadlines. We spent time in class checking in with one another. I added rituals at the beginning and end of each class, music and movement to begin, bells and meditation to end. This did not have to do with grammar and writing per se, but it did have to do with life. And when it came to grading, I did take into account the extracurricular circumstances of my students.
I could feel that anxiety was running extra high. People were having a hard time focusing. (I was too.) And yet, they showed up. They allowed their classmates and me to see into their private spaces. They persevered. One of my students lives in Brooklyn but works in Westchester with disabled children and sometimes has to stay the night if the person on the next shift doesn’t show up. Oh, and she also had the virus, or so it seems—she couldn’t get a hold of her doctor to get her test results. But what I do know is that for weeks after her fever and cough subsided, her body ached. And she still logged onto Google Meet for class and caught up on her work. I don’t want to sensationalize the hardships my students face, but I do want to shine light on them in order to celebrate their strength, resilience, and commitment to their education.
I catch myself here—it seems that I am writing about grading only in the negative, but it can also be a positive reinforcement. For those who are struggling, a passing grade can be a vote of confidence, and for those who excel, confirmation of hard work and marked improvement. It is those middle grades that are the hardest. How do I convey to those who worked hard but still didn’t quite make the mark they hoped, that their efforts deserve celebrating?
Thankfully, Bard College uses Criteria Sheets (“crites”) in addition to letter grades. Midway through the term, as well as at the end, we are required to write to each student with feedback on strengths and areas that need improvement. It is an opportunity to reflect in a meaningful way and offer support and motivation. Comments are my art pencils. I will spend hours writing short paragraphs about and to each of them. I will agonize over what letter to assign. I want to give all of them A’s. I know I cannot do this—it would not serve them or me. I just hope that my communication to them will balance the letter grade and express how much I value their bright minds.
Susanna Kohn is a freelance writer and has been teaching with the Bard Prison Initiative since 2010. She has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University School of the Arts and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three children, and puppy.