Eats, Shoots & Leaves: How Grades and Learning Interact

by / 0 Comments / 208 View / July 12, 2014

There’s been a lot of debate recently about education, including the value of grades and test scores, especially with the introduction of new programs such as the Common Core in states across the country. Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind HONY (Humans of New York) recently posted a photo on his official Facebook page of a woman who used to be an English teacher. She told Brandon (and through him, everyone who “follows” his page), “The demands of the system required that I give out grades, but I never felt good about it. How do you grade someone’s writing? Writing is about revision. It’s about access to self. If a student writes a poem, and it’s the best they can do at the moment, how are you supposed to compare that to the student sitting next to them? How are you supposed to give one a 90, and one an 85?”

So I did some research. First, I checked out some of the comments left on this post. As with anything controversial, I found criticism as well as approval, accusation as well as support. There was contempt, anger, happiness, and praise. But most of all, I found a community of people that felt they had something to say about an issue that is so important to us today. Just because you don’t agree with someone does not mean their opinion does not matter, for it does. Sometimes, you have to question and challenge your beliefs before you can find clarity.

Unfortunately, not everyone realizes this. As I was perusing the comments, I found many people who were so blinded by their beliefs that they were unwilling to listen to what the people around them had to say. Regardless, the abundance of opinions makes for an interesting and informative read (which you will find on almost any HONY post). Most people agree that the grading system is flawed, one way or another. What people don’t agree with is how much we need to value grades, or how much teachers should support and actively try to help individual students.

Some believe that teachers should be able to confidently assign grades to students. An inability to do so, one man argues, means an inability to teach. When it comes to the necessarily more objective subjects like math, where an answer (at least in most cases) is either right or wrong, assigning grades is not an issue, and often it is closely tied with how well a teacher is teaching his/her students. However, when it comes to a scenario as the one described by this English teacher, assigning a grade to a poem, there is no right or wrong answer. At that point, grading no longer seems black and white, rather it becomes a confusing image full of color and always changing.

One commenter points out that grading a poem can be a black-and-white process. There are certain expectations that need to be met when writing a poem, she says, and whether or not a student meets those expectations (Did she utilize the correct meter? Does the haiku have 3 lines, for a total of 17 syllables?) is reflected in the grade. I do not doubt that this is possible. You can always take an abnormal shape and try to make it fit into a box. The reality is, however, that by doing so we often forget about meaning, creativity, exploration, and true learning, the parts that make the shape seem so abnormal, the parts that are so difficult to grade. A student might be inspired to write a poem that is several lines too long or too short, and yet the poem is brimming with meaning. Does that mean the poem is wrong? Does that mean the student deserves a lower grade? Or perhaps a student is uninspired and writes a poem that conforms to the standards, yet lacks in meaning. Should the student still deserve a good grade?

Language is power, or, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” It wasn’t until my Junior year of high school when I truly learned how powerful words can be. My English teacher at the time, Ms. Lilly, is rather similar to the lady in the HONY post. Her least favorite part about teaching is assigning grades to students’ works. Like most teachers, she cares about her students and wants to help them grow, but does not want grades to interfere or “squash” potential. I decided to send her an email regarding this article and the HONY post, and her response was more than I could have hoped for. “I never think my own writing is perfect, so how can I expect perfection from my students? What I want my students to do is to grow through practice. I hope to honor that practice while creating an environment where students meet particular goals, achieve per given expectations, and work according to specific criteria.” She admits that grades can offer valuable feedback, so long as the student knows how they are being graded. That is why, on any given assignment, she invites her students into the grading process. What I mean is that she gives them a chance to decide what kind of grade they should deserve. It was my favorite classroom/grading environment by far, because it was so obvious that she cared, and it motivated me to focus on my learning rather than the immediate results.

I began to then look back at my own background, especially on my experience with English. I’ve come to believe that writing is an art of its own, and should not be subdued and made to conform to boxed standards. This does not mean that I do not think we need certain standards. In fact, if we didn’t, how would you be able to understand what I am writing right now? These standards (grammar, spelling, and vocabulary, mainly) are like Lego blocks: they build the foundation for whatever we want to make. Without certain rules, there would be no set way of communicating meaning.


Stanton, Brandon. Humans of New York. Facebook, 04 July 2014. Web. 04 July 2014.<>.
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