As I sat at my desk one evening grading papers, I got stuck on a poem. It was the final paper in a stack I’d been working on for nine hours. I stared and stared at it. I read it aloud once, twice, three times. I counted the syllables in each line. I wrote out the rhyme scheme. I walked away and came back. I read it aloud again. And I just could not tell what it was saying.
Part of the reason, I decided, was the overwhelming number of metaphors the poet used. I counted five in the first four lines alone. Whenever my eyes began to adjust to an image, the poet turned me to look at something else. She spun me so quickly I couldn’t see anything distinctly. I felt dizzy. But I knew this student. I knew she did good work. I wondered therefore whether there might be something going on in the poem that I wasn’t getting. Maybe there is an elaborate system of symbols going over my head – it would not be the first time. But I also wondered whether this was just a bad poem. Maybe she rushed it, and there was nothing there for me to see. How was I to know?
But grading the poem was worse than reading it. How could I quantify how good (or bad) this poem was? Should I count something: maybe how many lines out of 14 carry a consistent meter, or how moved I felt by it on a 1-10 scale? As I thought about this, it started to feel like a silly question. What would it mean to say this poem earned a B? Or a C? Should I just give her a “Pass”? Should I not accept the poem at all, and make her redo it instead? How does one quantify the value of a poem?
I paused. “Why do I have to grade this at all?” I thought. I like to write tons of comments on student papers. What if I just told her my problem directly in a comment – “I feel dizzy and I can’t tell what’s going on here” – and left it at that? How would quantifying the poem with a letter or number help her become a better writer? Isn’t the best assessment simply this: “I can’t tell what’s happening here, and here’s why”?
I thought about writing some comments with no grade attached. It’s the rare student who bothers to read the comments when there’s a convenient grade to look at, and I really wanted her to read my comments. It really might be best to give her no grade at all. But I imagined someone objecting to this idea: “If you don’t grade her, how will she know how she did?” The answer to that does not feel as obvious as it should: She could tell how she did because I’d be telling her in my comments how she did. “I am confused and I have no idea what’s happening here” – That is how she did. That is the assessment. What good would a grade do her?
A poem, a painting, a steak dinner, a dance, a kiss, a song – these are all things we assess by commenting on them. Ask someone what it was like to kiss their spouse for the first time: “I could feel my heartbeat in my ears;” “I had no idea what I was doing;” Such comments are assessments. They are the best kind of assessment for that kind of thing. Excellence is not something you can count there. To call a kiss a “B+” means far less than calling it “lovely” or “awkward,” if indeed a “B+” would mean anything at all.
Yet for some reason, when it comes to assessment, teachers and students alike become illiterate. Suddenly an ordinary phrase like “This is confusing and I can’t tell whether it’s even a poem” becomes an utter mystery. We ask, with baffled expressions, “Is that good? Is that bad?” But obviously, that is bad. If a skilled reader says what you wrote is barely readable, then what you wrote is bad. The unrelenting, ubiquitous expectation that everything in education be numbered turns us into uncomprehending machines instead of human beings. Our inescapable need to quantify everything is a practice in illiteracy: the way we assess writing makes us unable to understand writing about writing.
I looked back at the poem. I wrote to the student, “I can’t tell what’s happening here, and here’s why.” I added three or four points. But I couldn’t leave it at that, because all things must be put in the grade book. All things must be numbered. I sighed, added a checkmark, and quietly resolved: “I am going to find a way to stop grading papers. The comments should be the whole assessment.”