Unlike most English teachers, I have never minded grading essays. It’s not like a relish the opportunity to read a stack of papers, some of which are bound to be marginal in quality, but I have always considered it just part of the job and never passed much judgment on it as a task. I’m also not much of a procrastinator and know how to create an environment where I can work effectively (I know some teachers who dread Sundays because of all the grading. I’m that way too. So I don’t grade on Sundays.) At the same time, I never worry about leaving a stack of papers unfinished, trusting that it will get done eventually (it always does). And while I know that teaching some subjects require a lort less grading, I know that I enjoy teaching writing a lot more than I enjoy teaching kids to play sports, which is why I’m not a very good coach. But that’s a story for another time.
Like all teachers, I struggle with whether all of this grading is doing anyone much good. Is it helping anyone to become a better writer? Are they learning anything from the grades and feedback they receive? We all know that grading is an essential part of the educational process; after all, if students always learned what we taught them, we wouldn’t need to test them. We could just record what we taught. But they don’t, so we need some way to measure progress.
That’s what makes writing so elusive to grade: it is part of a larger process that no one ever perfects. We assign writing to make kids better writers and better thinkers as well as to measure what they know. But I struggle often about whether or not the way that I grade accomplishes the growth that I seek. Do students really respond to criticism? Could I respond solely to the things that they do well in order to help them grow? If so, how do I account for skills that they haven’t mastered yet?
Part of my worries come from my own insecurities growing up and into early adulthood. I was never very good at dealing with criticism, not because I grew defensive, but because I internalized it. A bad grade was never about the paper, it was about some shortcoming inside of me. Although I’ve grown a lot in this area, I do tend to get caught in this trap from time to time today, and I wonder how many of my students do as well. Are their grades taken as an attempt to make them better writers, or merely a list of things they didn’t do right?
Hence my goal to approach grading from a more compassionate place.
From my observations of other teachers there’s no question that many teachers grade for themselves. They don’t grade to make their students better. Every comment is designed to justify the grade they’ve given. Thus comments are designed to cover your read end – if I mark every error, then they can’t possibly question the grade that I’ve given. Then the problem becomes that after all that effort when the students get these papers back they don’t pore over those comments and the rubric, thoughtfully considering ways to make their NEXT essay that much better. I know they don’t do that because they’ve never done it in my class. So why bother?
I also know that this nit-picky way to grade papers ensures that students won’t get paper back for weeks, and I’ve come to believe that one of the best way that we can respect our students – and the educational process – is to get papers back to students in a timely manner. To do otherwise is like telling a joke and having someone laugh about it a few weeks later. What’s the point?
While some delay is inevitable if you want to have some semblance of a social life and stay happily married, I believe that our constant need to criticize every mistake that students make not only hinders our ability to get papers back quickly but also isn’t a very compassionate thing to do. I’m glad that no one follows me around on a daily basis pointing out everything that I do wrong (that would be a full time job) and we need to make an effort to understand what’s it’s like to write from their point of view. Writing is by and large a very intimate process, and also a very difficult one. Many students try their best and then get a paper back which has more of the teacher’s writing on it than theirs. They cringe. Those get a good grade don’t read the comments because they got the grade they wanted. Those who received a poor grade don’t read the comments because they don’t want to be told what they did wrong.
So I’ve decided that the better course of action is to be more sympathetic as we grade. Let some mistakes go. Focus on the things that matter. Keep in mind that the goal is to help kids become better at processing the things they read, see, and hear. To do so is not only kind but helps kid get the timely feedback they need to do better on the next paper.
My hope in all these musings is that grading essays can become a Zen experience in some way, something enjoyable in the discipline and thoughtfulness it requires. I think of it like the difference between lifting weights and doing yoga. I always enjoyed being done with lifting weights, but never enjoyed it while I was doing it because it always seems like work. Yoga, on the other hand, is enjoyable as you do it because the process is one of self-discovery and inquiry.
I’m still struggling with a kind way to comment on papers, and that will likely be my next pursuit.