Like many English teachers, grading essays remains the part of my job that I enjoy the least. It isn’t just because of the time it consumes or the drudgery it involves. It’s because I’m afraid I’m going to do harm to a student writer under my care.
Years ago, my oldest son was in my sophomore honors English class filled with many of his friends. These were kids I had watched grow up since the second grade, kids who spent time at my house, played in my backyard, making crazy zombie movies that disturbed the neighbors, and now traveled with us to debate tournaments early on Saturday mornings. Perhaps because of my long connection to this group of kids, I put extra effort into grading these students’ essays, spending many Saturdays marking errors and giving copious feedback while I waited to judge rounds at debate tournaments. I knocked myself out for these kids.
I’ll never forget one evening, as I drove home with a hoard of sophomores in our SUV. I asked my son’s friend Krista what her reaction was after reading my feedback on her last essay. It was our first synthesis essay of the year; Krista had struggled to connect her sources, and much of her commentary had strayed from her point. I wrote comments probing her thinking, trying to help her redirect if she chose to revise. I faithfully marked each and every error, editing her paper thoroughly. I hadn’t talked to her about it yet, but I remember feeling like I had really done my best as I responded to her essay.
The truth is, I was showing off.
“What did I think?” Krista echoed, her voice hesitant in the cavernous SUV, where three exhausted teens wearing blazers, bow ties, or dresses slept in the back row. “I think I should never write again.”
Knife. To. My. Heart.
That moment has haunted me ever since. During the long drive home, I was able to talk her away from the edge, but I knew that I had, completely without malice and with the best of intentions, done serious damage to a sensitive young writer. I wondered how many times I had done this to other young writers too.
Since that day, every piece of writing seems like a field of potential landmines, as much a chance to destroy a student’s soul as it is to coach them to better writing. And yet, helping students become better writers is my job, and that means reading and responding to student writing. And also, unfortunately, grading them—an assumption I am starting to challenge.
Where did I go wrong? That question has driven my quest to improve my writing feedback ever since.
It’s March 21, and I’m sitting in Panera, earbuds in place, listening to the Lumineers and grading my seniors’ culminating essay for the Value of Life module in the Expository Reading and Writing course I teach. Students were asked to explain Steve Jobs’ argument regarding the value of life in his 2005 Stanford University commencement address and then explain the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with his argument, supporting their positions using readings from the module as well as personal experiences or observations.
I’ve graded sixteen of the thirty-one essays from my fifth-period class so far. Next up is Vino’s essay. Vino is a hardworking student athlete, mild, serious, well-liked. Despite a significant hearing loss, he resists wearing his hearing aids. Perhaps for this reason, he’s one of the best listeners in the class, giving his group members his full attention, leaning over his desk toward them and always tracking the conversation with his eyes. A strong student, he has already been accepted into several universities.
I pick up his essay and start to read. “Life and death are complicated,” he begins. Yes, indeed, I think. As I read, I’m holding a lot in my mind: Vino’s thin and open face, our last writing conference, my foggy memory of his earlier draft and the comments I made on it, as well as the CSU English Placement Test rubric that I’ve had each student use to assess themselves, and on which I will grade.
I resist marking his paper, trying instead to focus on his message. He’s made this easy for me. The writing flows smoothly and coherently. At the end of the second page, I circle a sentence boundary issue. A few years ago, I would have written “frag” on his paper, but my colleague Marty Brandt has persuaded me to now celebrate these errors that happen when kids start writing rich, complex sentences. All that is really wrong here is a period where there should be a comma.
When I had graded Krista’s paper years ago, I still operated under the belief that it was my job to copy edit students’ papers. While the pointlessness of doing this on a final draft didn’t escape me, I worried that if I didn’t do so, either the student wouldn’t notice her weaknesses and magically learn from them, or another teacher looking at the paper would think I didn’t notice it or was lazy. Was I simply showing off? Was I trying to demonstrate my own mastery while pointing out all of my students’ weaknesses?
Beside the copious research that shows marking grammar errors and explicit grammar instruction provides little benefit to students, the other reason I resist marking every error is that it takes me out of the mindset I want to be in when I respond to writers. I want to respond to their thinking, to approach their writing like a reader—or perhaps more accurately as an appreciative teacher—and not from a deficit mindset. This shift has been a difficult one for me to make but has been key to becoming a better coach of student writers.
In the next paragraph, I can’t help but write “great question” when Vino uses a rhetorical question to pivot the discussion. He writes, “However, how much suffering is too much suffering?” He uses this question to show where he is pushing his early thinking. On the next page, I draw a squiggly line under part of an awkwardly worded sentence.
As I finish my first read through, I gather my thoughts. What is worth saying to Vino? What is he ready for? What can I say that will help Vino grow as a writer? Strangely, it was my aunt, a first-grade teacher, who taught me these questions, but they work just as well with seniors.
I flip back through his essay, deciding finally to focus on Vino’s sometimes shallow use of a source. He could dig in more. I jot down a few ideas on a notepad I keep nearby for upcoming writing minilessons to showcase several different strategies for how students can use a source.
I settle down to write Vino’s feedback, which I am doing this time by writing a short narrative response.
This essay thoroughly addresses the prompt, flowing smoothly as you develop your ideas and make your case. It’s a strong essay. At times, I found myself wishing you’d give a specific line or example from your sources rather than simply mentioning the source. Keep pushing yourself to use clear, concise wording (which you achieve most of the time). Come see me if you have questions.
I flip through Vino’s works cited page and then allow myself to look at his self-assessment. I agreed with his scoring on five of the six categories on the English Placement Test rubric. The one category on which we did not agree was the conventions, mechanics, and grammar row, which he marked lower than I did. I noticed very few errors, but Vino is a perfectionist who often doubts his competence. Like so many students, Vino still seems to primarily define a “good writer” as one who is grammatically and mechanically perfect.
I read his explanation for why he scored himself the way he did in all the categories and note how self-aware he has become. He writes, “I think I deserve a 4 (adequate) for Understanding and Reading because I supported Steve Jobs’ message with other sources, but I don’t know if I did it right.” Clearly, Vino recognizes he needs more practice using sources, so my comments won’t come as a surprise.
Now it’s time for the part of this I hate: assigning a grade. I wonder: If I could completely divorce responding to a student’s writing from the tyranny of assigning a grade, from the falsity of attaching a finite evaluation on such a subjective process, might this whole experience transform? Might I—gasp—find joy in reading my students’ writing? Lucky for me, I don’t have to figure out how to stop grading my students’ writing alone. Next year, with the help of trailblazing educators like Sarah Zerwin at thepapergraders.org and Rebekah O’Dell at www.movingwriters.org, I vow to find out.
But for now, I transition from teacher to accountant and start counting points. I study the rubric on which I’ve written my point conversion and determine Vino’s essay accrued 94 out of 100 points. The numbers seem meaningless, but I record it in my gradebook. This is why I keep teaching—the perennial chance to grow and improve.
All in all, it takes me about twenty minutes to grade Vino’s essay. I strive to stay in response mode, counting on momentum to carry me through the rest of the stack of essays. I know how important this work is, and today a small miracle: I can manage it.
There are so many times when this level of response is beyond me, but when I can manage it, I feel like I’ve done my best. I’ve taken the writer and the writing seriously. I’ve been kind and supportive but also instructive. I’ve been fair and transparent. I’ve turned the assessment into a learning activity by involving them in self-assessment. I’m convinced, though, that I’ll learn to give better feedback, and what I do today will transform, and improve, over time.
When I’ve put this amount of work into giving feedback, I want to insure students read and understand it, have a chance to talk with me about it, and use it in some way. Sometimes, as I did with this class, I’ll have them paraphrase my feedback on an index card and share their plan for revision or have them set a specific writing goal for their next essay. Often, I’ll use the notes I took while grading the set of essays to plan a set of minilessons based on the common patterns that appear.
Momentum in grading is important, but perhaps more important is mindset. There are times when I can’t be trusted to grade another essay, when the frustration of seeing the same error come up again and again overtakes me. We all fight against the urge to take out our frustration with one class on the next walking in the door, and so this applies to giving feedback. “Sometimes, I just get enraged,” my colleague Andy Waddell shared, “and I have to walk away from the stack of essays for fear of being mean.” I can relate.
When I can’t give this level of feedback to students, due to time constraints or my own foul mood or simple exhaustion, I take a strategy Jim Gray, one of the founders of the National Writing Project, shared in his memoir, Teachers at the Center. By the end of his career, the only comment he made on a student’s essay was “See me.” Nothing matches a face-to-face conversation with a student about a piece of writing, and if it was good enough for Jim Gray, it’s good enough for me.
Teaching writing is perhaps the most complex task a teacher undertakes. It’s messy, time-consuming, littered with hard choices, and, in my case, haunted with past failures. Just as our students are learning to write, we, their teachers, are learning day by day how better to teach them, if we can just manage to keep pushing the boulder up the hill. My boulder, my hill, sits in an innocent-looking stack in front of me, waiting patiently as the quiet buzz of Panera swirls around me.
I slip Vino’s essay to the back of the pile and let his face fade for now, let it settle down in the stack of essays with his classmates. He’s off center stage, for now.
Fourteen more essays to go.
And that’s just this class. Three more classes to go after this—but they will have to wait for tomorrow. Just fourteen more today.
I pull up my mental file on the next student, Felicia. I’ll hold her face in my mind, and all of our conferences, and then William’s, and then Cruz’s, and then Amina’s. I’m sitting alone in a booth in Panera responding to student essays, but these holographs of students sit with me, ghostly companions, reminding me to do no harm.
Kate Flowers is an English Teacher at Santa Clara High School, Teacher Consultant at the San Jose Area Writing Project , and Heinemann Fellow. She focuses on engaging students in a joyful and vigorous classroom, filled with authentic writing and reading opportunities. She works to adapt progressive practices to work for students in overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, across different socioeconomic communities.