Assessing Creative Writing Is Hard, So Here Are Three Ways To Avoid It

Professional Development

Assessing Creative Writing Is Hard, So Here Are Three Ways To Avoid It

By Aneesa Davenport     Oct 2, 2017

Assessing Creative Writing Is Hard, So Here Are Three Ways To Avoid It

This article is part of the guide: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

Everyone knows that outside of the school building, creative writing workshops aren’t graded. Whether it’s a group of retirees who cluster in the back of your corner coffee shop or the so-called Ponzi schemes of MFA programs like the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, assessment comes in the form of peer feedback—marginalia and discussion.

But if you’re teaching creative writing in a K–12 classroom or a community college, at the end of the day you’re most likely required to stamp a letter grade—or at least a percentage score—on your students’ work. As the educators I spoke with lamented, “the product is so hard to assess.”

That’s why I’ve gathered three brilliant ways for you to get out of it.

1. Assess the assessment

Kevin Allardice is an English teacher at Mercy High School in Burlingame, CA and the author of the novels Any Resemblance to Actual Persons and Family, Genus, Species. He avoids assessing creative writing altogether by assigning his students to write critical essays about their own short stories.

He originally developed this method as a way to engage his students in academic writing about literature. Since students were excited about the stories they wrote—and presumably confident that they understood the author’s intentions—they were more inclined to deeply investigate and support their claims with textual evidence. Writing about their own work in the third person helps students differentiate between different genres and modes of writing. It also helps break down the barrier between critical and creative thinking.

Kevin grades both the explicative essay his students write about their fiction or creative nonfiction as well as the feedback they give their peers (a short response due before each workshop). In his words, “both have more explicit formal expectations,” letting him avoid making a judgment call about the art itself. “I tend to grade all the materials that surround the creative part, rather than the actual creative work,” he says.

The structure of the peer responses mirrors that of the class’s workshop discussion, enabling students to prepare for and then fully engage in the discussion. For example:

  1. Describe in neutral language what the story is trying to accomplish.
  2. What details help it meet that goal (citing specific passages)?
  3. What specifics could be revised to help it achieve the established goal?

This format ensures the students focus on helping the story “become the story it wants to become, not deciding whether or not they like the story.” Bonus: having a specific format for written feedback makes it easier to grade, because the requirements are clear: once you determine the aims of the story, all your notes—positive or negative—must be focused on supporting that goal.

2. Assess the process

When James Wilson teaches creative writing, he grades 50 percent on process. Now an Assistant Professor of English at Diablo Valley College, a community college in Pleasant Hill, CA, he first incorporated this practice into his assessment repertoire when teaching performance to theater students—an art that is perhaps even more elusive to grading than creative writing!

Grading on process isn’t just a participation score. Participation requirements might include giving adequate feedback to classmates or engaging in class discussion, and be graded separately or as part of the student’s overall course grade.

Grading on process is much more than that. It’s all about following the trail of revisions. These are the questions James wants to get to the bottom of:

  • How invested are students in making their work better?
  • Are they engaging in every step of the revision process? Or did they just stop working on their piece at some point?
  • Are they responding to criticism from their peers and instructor, even if they don’t accept the changes?
  • How good are they at integrating feedback?

This approach is predicated on having a clear set of steps that are part of the writing process in your class. Landmarks on the writing journey must include occasions for the instructor to be a party to the work—either the student turning in a rough draft or a workshop moderated by or observed by the teacher. These steps might be:

  1. Here’s what you write for a starter exercise
  2. Here’s what you revise and bring in for workshop
  3. Here’s how you respond to and integrate feedback
  4. Here’s what you turn in as a final product

When you’re grading on process you’re also grading on persistence. A student who says their work is “perfect the first time” does not exhibit grit.

3. Make your students write the rubric

A theme that emerged in these conversations was a focus on audience, intention, and the goal of the piece of writing. Unlike most of the writing that students do—for which the teacher sets the goal—when writing creatively students get to choose what they’re trying to accomplish. Whether or not they do it well is up to the audience to decide. “Put the audience first,” says Janet Files, whether that means your teacher, your classmates, your family, or the public.

An educator of 41 years, Janet Files is a Literacy Specialist with the South Carolina Department of Education. She trains coaches who work with the state’s elementary school teachers to improve reading and writing instruction. Formerly, Janet was the Director of the Coastal Area Writing Project, a national program with regional centers known for its model of improving the teaching of writing by developing teachers’ confidence in their own writing skills.

Janet suggests assigning the class to create the rubric. Designing a rubric together intrinsically motivates students and engages them in a crucial aspect of developing them into writers: reading like a writer. That means steeping yourself in a genre, noticing what other writers are doing—or trying to do—then mimicking, stealing and making their techniques your own. These techniques become the requirements of the rubric.

Questions in a self- or class-created rubric might be:

  • I’m trying to be funny: did it make you laugh?
  • I want my writing to be engaging: at what point did you lose interest?
  • I like scary stories: how close did I come to writing like Stephen King?

Obviously, once your students have created the rubric it’s up to them to fill it out!

Some additional resources for getting started with student-generated rubrics can be found from Diane Gallucci, McKayla Stoyko, United Federation of Teachers, TeacherVision and TeachersFirst.

Use technology?

Aside from using a word processor to review student or parent comments on drafts, or Google Classroom to project student work to the class in order to offer encouragement and criticism in real time, none of the educators I spoke with currently use technology in teaching writing. So I asked them: Can you imagine an edtech product that helps you assess creative writing? What would it look like?

The answer was something more robust than Microsoft Word’s tracked changes or Google Docs’ version history, but along those lines.

Kevin said, “Last year, when my sophomores were writing analytical essays about their own creative work—citing it, et cetera—I found myself toggling back and forth between two Google Docs. I wished there were a simpler way—like, if I could read the essay on one side of my screen, have the story on the other side, and have each citation in the essay highlight the corresponding passage in the story. Just a fantasy. Maybe something like that is already out there. I don't really know enough to know.”

Likewise, James wanted a versioning tool that would keep multiple drafts of a piece together in one place, so he could track its development and see what changes the student makes. However, he said, “I feel a little creepy about this—big-brotherish.”

Janet’s idea had more to do with technology that could help students move through the peer review process, for instance by facilitating writing groups online. She envisioned a program that would ask guiding questions like: What stood out? Where did you feel tense? Where did you want to hear more?

I have an inkling some of these technologies already exist, or soon will.

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