“Creative work comes from your soul,” I tell the kids, channeling my best sage-like energy. “From deep inside there, from your feelings and your own life experiences and revelations. You own your writing. You, and your audience will decide on the merit of anything you create–a poem, a song, a story. I can’t grade that. I can’t grade your soul. And I won’t. So how will I decide upon your grade in this class? Let’s talk about that…”

This year, for the first time in a long time, I’ve had one of my greatest content area loves intersect with my assigned classes–Creative Writing! I am enjoying the work of building a course that is both rigorous and accessible for my many different levels of student writers.

One of the things I’ve considered carefully in creating the course is assessment. My school, like many others in our area, is moving to a standards-based (also called target-based) grading model. If you’re new to this idea, one of the main parts of this philosophy is that rather than being awarded a number of points per task–like writing a paper that is worth 20 points, for instance–students are directly assessed and re-assessed on specific learning targets throughout the semester, according to a proficiency scale. So the focus isn’t really on “How many points did I get on my paper?” but rather something more like “How am I doing on my grammar skills?” and “How am I doing on being able to organize my writing? Am I growing in this skill? Have I mastered it?”

At first I was a little bit leery about how this kind of grading would go in a class that focuses on creative work, but as I drafted the syllabus, I started to realize that the arts work perfectly in a standards-based setting. Think about it… all artists work tirelessly on their fundamentals. Whether it’s a musician running scales, a ballet dancer working on arm placement and turns, or a writer finessing the way they use punctuation, all goals with a level of craft to them depend on this idea of mastering the essential elements of one’s art.

As a writer myself, I always feel like I am returning to the basics to try to get better. When I write a poem, it’s not like I say, “Okay, I wrote a poem. That’s done. No need to ever do that again.” Rather, I look at myself evolving as a poet–how is my style shifting? What could I try next time? How do I push myself to get better?” That’s the same mentality I want my students to have. Learning in the arts, and everywhere, is not about checking off boxes and then forgetting about them. It’s about constantly pushing ourselves to be better, to truly master the fundamentals of our discipline.

So, what does this actually look like for me? I took some time to reflect on the aspects of writing that all authors, whether beginners or professionals, always need to work on. These are standards that I set for myself as well as for my students. In a semester-long course, I decided to go with ten of them. Not all of them appear in every assignment, but all of them reappear over the semester in different ways as the students try their hands at different types of open-ended assignments.

So, on any given assessment, I might assess one to four of these standards. My instruction is all built around strengthening these skills in a wide variety of contexts. The beauty of this is that it allows me to be very open-ended in my assignment choices–as long as the standards that we’ve been working on are evident, student writers can follow their own creative instincts. What I’m ultimately looking for is a consistent mastery of these skills–if I can say that a student has mastered these ten things by the end of the class, I’m confident in their ability as a writer. What they do with that ability, ultimately, remains up to them.

For example, here’s the assignment description for my first assessment of the semester. (The instruction prior to this assignment focuses on building creative community, requesting and giving effective peer feedback, responding to feedback, revision practices, figurative language, metaphorical thinking, mining life experience and memory for creative purposes, and recognizing/avoiding cliche.)

“I can’t grade a poem, “ I tell them. “Poems don’t get grades and all poems deserve to be in the world. But I can tell you if you are using structure well. I can tell you if your revision is aggressive enough. I can tell you if you’re using a symbol or not. That’s how we’ll do this–everything I teach you is meant to make you a better writer, so that you can make the best version of what you want to make.”

I’m happy to chat more about grading practices in a creative writing context with any readers about there who may be experimenting with similar things–leave a comment below!