- How do we know when writers are growing?
- What is it that writers need to know about their own skills, processes, and learning behaviors in order to grow?
- How can we bring writers into assessment alongside us, writer to writer, so we know they are just as invested in their growth as we are?
In Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading, author Sarah M. Zerwin tackles these essential questions. At its center, this is a book about ensuring that our instructional practices align with our beliefs. As teachers of writers, do we believe that growth in writing can be measured by a letter grade or some number of points, or does the complexity of writing deserve a more nuanced approach? How do our grading practices (and the ways we offer feedback) support writers in setting goals and working with agency to achieve them?
According to Zerwin, “Students should be the single most important users of classroom data about their learning. They should know for themselves what they know, what they need to learn, and how they are progressing” (Stenhouse, 2020, p. 9). To illustrate this idea, each chapter of Point-Less includes semester grade letters, crafted by students telling the stories of their learning. Each letter is so different, and yet there is a common thread—a clarity of thinking, evidence of deep learning, high levels of ownership and self-awareness.
It is stunning, and oh-so-persuasive.
Before you ask, “Hey, isn’t Sarah Zerwin a high school teacher? I teach [insert something other than high school teacher here],” please know that this book is relevant for teachers of writers of all ages. And I say this as an elementary school teacher who specializes in the primary grades.
This book has changed the way that I plan for, teach, and assess learners of all ages in a workshop setting (including adults).
I would recommend this book for any writing teacher who is feeling like they are spending way too much time (both in and out of the classroom) on the wrong things.
- Spending hours on feedback only to have writers ignore it?
- Noticing writers who value getting finished over improving their craft?
- Getting tangled in conversations with students, families, and colleagues about points and grading instead of ways we get to know our writers deeply (and help them to know themselves)?
Point-Less will help you to think through your beliefs and priorities around student learning, as well as offer strategies for how to move your instructional and assessment practices into alignment with those goals.
Over the course of the book, Sarah details her learning goals for two different classes she teaches, describes what it looks and sounds like when learners meet those goals, and clarifies how she designs her daily/weekly schedule to prioritize the work learners need to do to grow. In this way, Sarah is strategic about carving out consistent time for the most essential work—that work that will provide both teacher and learner with evidence of growth—while she (and the writing community) are there to coach and offer feedback.
The chapter on “Creating a Culture of Feedback” details practical strategies for launching the year with clear messaging as well as specific teaching, so that all writers learn to give impactful feedback connected to shared and personalized learning goals. In addition, there are tips for being intentional about when/how/what to consider when offering teacher feedback.
Sarah Zerwin has innovative ideas for hacking the online grade book, so that it becomes a useful and efficient tool to capture the evidence of growth that learners seek. There are so many strategies in this book that streamline both what we’re looking for as teachers in the student work as well as how we document it—and make it visible to learners. With clarity of purpose established, Sarah proves that it is possible to be more efficient AND to gather more impactful data about writers.
Throughout the book, Zerwin anticipates the challenges for making these proposed changes, supporting the reader in reflecting and generating potential solutions. Because she’s blazed this trail, Sarah knows which entrenched policies are standing in the way, and she has great empathy for how hard it can be to push back on established practices that do not serve the needs of kids.
This would be the perfect book to read with a grade level or department team. It’s an opportunity to surface everyone’s beliefs, to talk in detail about current practices, and to bravely try something new together.
Point-Less will challenge readers to reflect and inspire them to advocate for change.
Giveaway Info (currently closed):
- Congratulations to Karole Evans and Nicole Thomas! They have each won a copy of Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading by Sarah M. Zerwin. Thank you to Heinemann for donating two copies!