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Point-Less by Sarah M. Zerwin: A Review and Giveaway

  • 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):

Amy Ellerman View All

Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.

35 thoughts on “Point-Less by Sarah M. Zerwin: A Review and Giveaway Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for this book review! It sounds like I am not the only one seeking effective strategies to give meaningful writing feedback to my students.

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  2. Yes! This is an ongoing discussion and debate my middle and high school teachers have – can’t wait to read this book and gather more insights to share!

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  3. After the most profound session of last year’s NCTE Convention in Baltimore, “Encouraging Inquiry and Meaningful Assessment in Secondary and Post-Secondary Writing…,” I decided that this topic was most central to social justice, equity, and democracy in the classroom. I will be buying this book, winner or not. I have peers who need to read it, too! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. This book sounds like the perfect way to address the tension between giving grades and providing feedback that helps writers grow. Can’t wait to read it!

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  5. You made me think of the new writing assesements tht schools have.They are boring . Kids would be better writiers if they are allowed to explore their own interets. I say the best way to teach a child to write is to read poetry, mythology… read where they can imagine. Trusitng in one’s ideas and just freely writing is hard for us too. Then comes the mechanics.

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  6. I found myself answering YES to so many of these questions. I am struggling to convert my traditional writing courses to virtual workshops with limited funds. I need this book in my life. Fingers crossed.

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  7. My clue that this might be a good book for me is how hard it was for me to get through your review. I kept stopping to think of my classroom and what I might be able to work on with my writers. A “culture of feedback” – yes, how can I get that message across from day one? Hack the grade book for both efficiency and efficacy – yes – I might have more students than ever in our hybrid, some-kids-in-school-some-remote model for this year. I’ll need to continue to improve the quality of my feedback while working with a large online class.
    Now the only question: Do I order the book today or wait with fingers crossed for the lottery?

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  8. I would love to read this book and get all the suggestions from Sarah . I do find myself in too many conversations about grades and grading assignments.

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  9. This sounds great! I am always up for strategies especially in regards to writing. I teach sped English and my kids struggle with writing. Can’t wait to dig into this book.

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  10. Thinking of assessment currently in the remote teaching of writing for this year. This looks like some great thinking towards these goals. Thank you!

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  11. I would love to learn ways to enhance the culture of growth in my classroom. Eighth graders desperately need to become more self-aware and reflective. I truly believe this book could help me to help them.

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  12. I am eager to learn ANY STRATEGIES – especially ones that surround grading – that will build my writers’ skills and their independence. Thank you for introducing this book!

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  13. I just got my copy of this book yesterday. My district is reading it together. It was to be read earlier this summer so we could have the discussions necessary for planning for a new school year. Unfortunately, it did not arrive in time. Luckily, we are still going to read it, discuss it and use it as a planning guide as we encounter a year like no other year. Your review has me excited to read and learn from it.

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  14. We switched to writer’s workshop a few years ago, and assessment is an area that I am still trying to tweak. I’d love to learn more about how to provide feedback that helps students move THEMSELVES forward as writers. Thanks for sharing the book and for organizing the giveaway.
    Jan

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  15. The final grade on a paper has always seemed anticlimactic to me. Feedback throughout the writing process is so useful. I am curious about involving students more in the final feedback (and throughout). Thank you for sharing this thinking.

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