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Grading Fiction the Smart Way, Not the Easy Way

By Tineke Bryson, Staff Writer

How big a part should grading play in your One Year Adventure Novel journey? How do you grade a teenager’s novel? The grading rubric for The One Year Adventure Novel—or “OYAN” for short—is disarmingly simple. But in my years of interacting with parents, I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, this disarming quality can mask some of the complexities of nurturing a young writer.

Setting grading philosophies aside, my experience is that most parents worry about grading, whether by conviction or necessity; and all the parents I have talked to care deeply about how their young writer experiences the curriculum. OYAN is one of those courses families choose because they sense a need in their student—whether that’s a need to express creativity, a need for breakthrough in an otherwise tense relationship with writing, or a need for training.

Home educators are very busy people. And we know that the idea of evaluating something as “subjective” as fiction is daunting. Enjoying writing is not the same thing as being able to teach writing. And many parents don’t like to write at all. Or even like to read. That’s why we devised a simple point system for appropriate and thoughtful completion; it’s why our quizzes are automated; and it’s why Daniel Schwabauer does all the teaching for you, on video. When it comes to evaluating the student’s novel, we only require “reader feedback.” No corrections. No suggestions. Just one or two words in the margin of each page, to indicate to the student what your reaction is as a reader. Which means that as long as you can read, you are qualified.

But does that mean you should shelve the Teacher’s Guide and leave your student to their adventure? As you might guess, I don’t think so. I want to candidly share some problem ways I have seen grading play out, and offer some tips on how to change course if you find yourself in one of these situations. Grading fiction can be easy—we don’t advertise an impossibility!— but our goal is smart easy grading.

Blissful or Exhausted Parent. Naively-optimistic Student.

OYAN can be a dream come true—especially if you champion self-directed learning. All you have to do is sit your student down in front of the first video, and you may never have to check in again. It can even be hard to drag the student away. That may cause its own problems, but what a relief! Particularly if you are busy teaching other children.

If this is you, I’m sorry for what I am about to say. You have enough on your mind. Perhaps you picked OYAN precisely because you couldn’t face another high school writing course that required something from you. This sounds like a huge win, but out of respect for you, I need to alert you to a potential casualty: your student’s receptivity to constructive criticism. Young writers are susceptible to the delusion that if they just get the tools—or the time—to unlock their creative genius, they will stun the reading public. (Curiously, this delusion is frequently paired with insecurity.)

As a parent, you are in a unique position to help. Please don’t reinforce—if only through emotional absence—the idea that, if they apply themselves to OYAN, their successful writing career is a foregone conclusion. Why? Because it isn’t. OYAN is fantastic training, but it’s just the beginning.

If you’ve spent time on this website, you know that we take seriously a young writer’s need for support and feedback. Through our support resources, we help young writers bring other people into their creative process. We are passionate about this because we know students need encouragement, but also because writers who are not teachable, and writers who don’t persevere through rounds of constructive feedback, don’t get very far.

We’re counting on you to dialogue with your student about their creative journey. Without you (or another trusted adult), your young writer is a ticking time bomb. One day they will realize their limitations, and if you haven’t been helping them “defuse” the mine, through conversation, they will probably blow.

Blissful or Exhausted Parent. Secretive or Scared Student.

Does your writer fight you? Maybe you originally intended to track with the student through the workbook and read the novel draft, but your son or daughter refused to give you the chapters to read.

Sometimes parents withdraw because they just don’t know what to do to engage their writer. This may stem from tension in the parent–teen relationship. Then again, some teens are just incredibly shy and protective of their writing. Whether they struggle with self-doubt or fear being misunderstood, they put you off with vague promises that they will let you see it someday . . . when it’s perfect, or when they’re brave enough to talk about why they are telling this story.

These students need assessment—call it grading—because they clearly need encouragement. But it can sometimes be a good compromise to agree on someone besides you to be the reader. If the student is willing to let a different adult read the chapter drafts, that can work out well, if not better. The important thing is that they let someone besides peers read it. They need practice coping with evaluation and what is sometimes called “sharer’s regret.”

Incidentally, I’ve noticed that this scenario is common where the parent does not share the teen writer’s interests—reading, viewing, gaming, etc.—especially where there is friction about these interests. Since writing a novel draws on a person’s passions, it naturally follows that young writers are reluctant to share their work with anyone who would misunderstand what they love. If this sounds like your student, it’s not my place to tell you what to do about it. You are the parent, and I don’t know what your student’s interests are. But perhaps this observation may help. Students often resist when they feel vulnerable or misunderstood.

Capsizing Student. Surprised Parent.

I can’t say which result is more common in students when parents don’t assess their work: overconfidence followed by an eventual breakdown, or a shipwreck just out of harbor. I am discussing the shipwreck separately because the parent reaction—bewilderment—is a critical point in the young writer’s development.

I have seen too many students abandon OYAN in the early stage of planning their novel because they capsized under the weight of worry. Unfortunately, the decision to quit is often encouraged by the panicked parent. Sometimes families assume that since OYAN is self- directed, and the grading style is relaxed, the coursework must be easy, or will put such a wind in the sails that the novel will be done before the student knows it.

What to do if your student capsizes?

  1. Familiarize yourself with the program, if you haven’t. Read the Teacher’s Guide. It’s short. Watch the first couple videos.
  2. Model resilience by chatting calmly with the student about different directions their story could take. Your student just made a reactionary decision about their story ideas or about the course. They need to see an alternative response.
  3. Check out these articles on our blog: Is Your Student’s Storytelling Engine Stalling? and Hearing the Questions Beneath Your Writer’s Frustration.
  4. Give us a call or send us an email. We would love to help you identify what’s going on!

Overly-Worried Parent. Distracted Student.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t cover an “opposite” grading problem: trying way too hard. If you’re overwhelmed by assessing your student’s answers in the workbook or reading the chapter drafts, you are probably doing it wrong. That sounds abrasive, but I want to save you from stress. If you are stressed, your young writer will also be stressed, and therefore distracted from the creative process. There is a wrong way to grade fiction at the first draft stage.

Ask yourself:

Am I correcting spelling and grammar?
Am I rewording sentences and paragraphs?
Am I not only commenting on story problems but also trying to figure out how my student could fix them?

OYAN is a course for learning how story works. It’s a course for planning and finishing a first draft. That means any story problems you point out are the writer’s responsibility to figure out, using the tools in the course. It also means this is not the stage at which to tackle grammar and spelling. You are not the writer or the editor. You are the supportive parent making sure your student is progressing through the course. I think you’ll find that if you switch tactics to concentrate on reader feedback instead of on corrections, your student will become more focused.

If grading OYAN continues to stress you out, please call. We would be happy to clarify anything you find confusing or overwhelming. All of us at OYAN want to see your student enjoy writing—and we want to see families enjoy the journey, too.

What have I missed? Please let me know in the comments.

Tineke Bio Photo 2About Tineke

Tineke Bryson (Honors in Writing, Houghton College) lives in the very center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. Tineke grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, she worked as an editor.

She and her husband live in Lawrence, Kansas. She loves British and African history, reading middle-grade fiction and YA fantasy, and collecting moths.

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