Sunday, March 25, 2012

Decisions about Responding

I am an unrepentant teaching nerd. I love thinking about teaching and learning.

I keep coming back to a notion posited by a Twitter friend who responded to my piece about the hours I’ve spent grading this year. His initial challenge had me looking back on what it is I do when I grade, and his next question asked if I was working harder than my students. I have loved thinking about this, watching myself as I read my students’ papers. I’ve researched some, and even revisited an Oklahoma Writing Project presentation I created about responding to student work.

All this pushing and thinking and researching has allowed me to further refine and define what it is I do when I’m ‘grading’ student work, and why I’m committed to the time to do it. My practice is stronger for all this mental work, and I’m really sorry I didn’t do it a long time ago.

Grading is easy and fast. You look at a paper, you find the criteria (or don’t find it) you’re assessing, you slap on a grade and move on to the next paper. I know I’m simplifying, but grading could be described as simply assigning a grade that reflects how closely students matched expectations for the paper. When I grade I’m efficient and focused. I know my students, I know how closely they are capable of reaching my goals, and I know what it looks like when each of them hits the target or misses.

Responding, though – that takes time. 

I’ve been one of those teachers who found and marked all the misspelled words, the awkward sentences, the fragments and run-ons. I was taught by experts, including my beloved English 3 and 4 teacher, Aggie Lynch, at Merrillville High School, in Indiana. Mrs. Lynch was reading an exemplary paper to us juniors, to show us the power she expected of her senior students. In the middle of reading, she found a fragment sentence, an artful fragment, the kind you see in the works of published authors. But her policy was to deduct 10 points for each fragment…so reading that paper to us, she dropped the grade a letter, even as she praised the artistry of the work. I took that lesson to heart and graded the same way – marking in my red pen every infraction I could find.

I thought that was what teachers were supposed to do, and I did it. But my students and I were all dissatisfied. I love to read, and reading their work only to find mistakes was filling me with dread and them with frustration; I couldn’t take joy in my students’ writing and they hated getting their papers back.

So, without being aware of the shift, I began to read and respond – as a reader, as a fellow student. I found ways to express joy and surprise and delight. Also disappointment and frustration. Soon my students stopped ignoring my feedback and began to read my responses. I remember turning back papers years ago and a student being initially angry that he saw writing on his paper – he knew he’d nailed the assignment and did not expect to see criticisms…then he looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s right you’re the one who really writes to us.” He eagerly read my remarks.

So, it’s not the grading that takes so much time, it’s the honest responses I individualize.
My class is an elective, Reading for Pleasure. I have students 9-12 in classes together. I have a National Merit Scholar in a class with an intellectually disabled student. I have eager readers and reluctant readers. I have students who read far above grade level and ones who struggle to read anything. Some have never read for pleasure, some do all the time.

Every one of my 150 students needs different feedback from me, and I spend the first weeks of our semester figuring out who they need me to be. Sandra and Lindy need me to be a sounding board for their thoughts…we’ve read many of the same books, and they’re coming to them for the first time, with all the passion and enthusiasm of a first love.  Lucas needs to know he can read, and he can make connections that would interest another reader. Phyllis needs a cheerleader as she finishes her first book ever, recommended by a classmate. Susan needs to be pushed. She takes the easy way out, summarizing and never analyzing or reflecting. Jane needs to know it’s perfectly acceptable to have strong opinions about her books, as long as she can give me reasons from the book. Jake needs to be encouraged to see more deeply and needs his confidence built as he challenges himself to read harder and harder books. Will, a non-reading senior, needs to know he will be respected for his choices of books and he has a supportive audience for his ideas.

My hardest work happens once students have turned in their Reading Logs. They write three long paragraphs a week to me about their books. I’m working to bring all of them to making connections, giving predictions, asking questions about the books. I want to see insights and observations and reflections. I want my students to take a stand with their books and take risks of interpretation in a safe environment.

My hard work is in the responding. I’m modeling the behavior of a fellow reader in a community of readers. Many students have not been readers before and don’t know the give-and-take relationships readers have. They don’t know how much fun it is to agree on a character, or see different aspects to his personality. They don’t know the enthusiasm readers hold when discussing books. They don’t know that reading is a very social undertaking. When experienced readers finish a book, they look for someone to talk to, to convince, to test out their opinions. When I read and respond to their Logs, that’s what I’m after – building that community, showing how much readers love to talk about their books.

My hard work includes reading every word, with an eye toward deepening students’ analytical stance, supporting opinions, clarifying opinions.

I ask questions if I don’ t know the book – not teacher questions, reader questions – I show genuine interest in the relationships of all the aliens in the sci fi book, the hierarchy of the fantasy world. I help students understand how to talk about a book to someone who hasn’t read it but might want to read. I also share my own opinion of books students are reading that I have read. I love to hint about future events to keep students reading.

I write all over the margins – I draw lines under phrases and write underneath the Log entry. I use notations: smiles, question marks, exclamation points to highlight something the student has said. I ask questions, I demand to understand, to care about their books as they do.
This is what takes time! Each student is reading a different book. Each student is reading at a different level. Each student needs a different kind of reader and responder. I shift who I am with each Log. I have to remember if I’ve read the book, if I can tell where the student is in the book and what I felt like. I have to frame interesting questions in my response if I haven’t read the book. I have to assure my students I care about their ideas.

Am I working harder than my students? I don’t think so. I read their work once and respond. They read their books, write their Logs, and then reread (not because I demand it) their work and my comments to clarify their own thinking. They spend infinitely more time and energy on their Logs than I do. But they do all that once; I do it 150 times.

Do I spend a lot of time? Absolutely. But the dividends include 150 readers who have an authentic audience for all their ideas about their books. They know I care; they trust me; they share deep personal connections to the books they read. They share secrets; they learn more about themselves in their books; they work on issues in their lives that are reflected in their books.

After posting my first two blog entries, one of my former students, posted the link on her Facebook page, and responded: “ I just want her to know how much I personally looked forward to reading every comment on every paper that she graded! That was the best part of getting my papers back!” Another commented on the link and said. “I remember LOVING the feedback from her! Most teachers don't take the time but it made all the difference in helping me to do better on future assignments.”  I was surprised and proud that even years later the time I invested in my students made a difference in the way students saw themselves and saw their worth as students.

They trust me, and I owe them my best.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fun-and-games at the Public Comments Meeting on a stormy Spring-Break Monday

Public Comments to the A-F Grading Rules before the Board of Education approves
The Board Room was packed. Lisa Enders, the General Council, chaired the meeting. No Board members were present, but Enders assured us the Board will get the video and all the written responses before their next meeting…NEXT week.

I was taking notes furiously, and missed some names and titles. I've attempted to find evidence of names and school titles, but may very well have made mistakes! I was trying to listen, write, and worry about the fact I accidentally put my name on the list of people giving public comments. 

NOT in order, but organized by job description, here’s a summary of my hasty, sloppy notes. Names are included if I could get them! I wanted the narrative to begin with one of the people who helped draft the law that allowed the Rules, and end with a plea to start over and get it right.

House of Representatives –
Miles Shelton, House Representative, District 97 told us all the Rules in their current form do not mirror the intent of the Legislature. He called the Rules as written “disappointing and convoluted.”

District Superintendents of Schools—
Tulsa Assistant Super – asked if resources are dedicated for the implementation (SDE Impact statement says ‘School districts may incur minimal costs…’) He asked about the rationale for the ACE ‘pass’ number and asked who will pay for all students to take ACT? What if students cannot afford? He was concerned about the increased paperwork in reporting (‘School districts may incur minimal costs as a result of reporting and data collection’).

OKC – Karl Springer – is disturbed that he and his colleagues were not involved in the Rules until today. He stated that only .5% of OK schools will earn an A – he is disturbed that 33% of schools grades will be at the discretion of the Superintendent of Schools and has not been spelled out.
Putnam City – Paul Hurst – shared a chart with 625 scoring cells…according to the matrix, only three cells will earn A’s – the other 622 will be scored down

Chamber of Commerce
Chris Steel – Duncan Chamber – this system affects the climate in communities. It is as complicated as the system it is replacing. NCLB A = C for OK Rules. He sees this as a hindrance in trying to attract business to Oklahoma. He mentioned workforce development and called the Rules ‘unnecessary’. He stated that the Rules go beyond the scope of the Legislation, and that the Rules will ‘injure’ our state. He asked why the State Board would want to hurt the state and business in the state. He suggested using this year as a baseline year, a pilot year.

Professional Organizations
OEA – Alicia Priest – Concerned about the labeling and demeaning of schools. Concerned about teacher leader recruitment and retention. She asked why the Rules use test scores instead of a true growth mode. She says growth models and expensive and the state has chosen to do this the wrong way.

POE– Jack Herron – Asked for clarification about how charter schools will be graded

Personnel Officers
OKC – Carolyn Gray – concerned about hiring and retaining teachers, Red River Exit; she wants to know what to do about quality teachers – does she move them to F schools or A schools?

Rural Schools
Dale Superintendent – Charles Dickinson – this will destroy communities. The Rules are unusually harsh, there will be economic ramifications and hardships. The Rules will force schools to hire more teachers to try to reach the AP goal; this will be expensive for schools (‘School districts may incur minimal costs as a result of reporting and data collection’). He stated ‘we have little or no chance to be successful’ under these Rules.

Boards of Education
OKC – Angela Munson – She asked about resource allocation, who’ll pay the bills. She stated the deck has been stacked against us. The Rules are complicated and complex

Dale – Connie Cox – the Legislature controls the purse strings, there is a strong disconnect between schools and State Board. Asked Board to seek input from students, teachers, administrators and school boards. Asked, “What are we trying to achieve here?”

Fairfax – Eva Martins – she sees the Rules as taking away local control of schools. They eliminate local control. She is concerned about pushing elementary kids into middle school classes, and middle school kids into high school classes. She said we need to ‘let kids be kids.’ She points out the Rules force volunteerism from parents in order to score well. Asked what is the value of forced volunteerism.

Principals –
Western Oak, PC – Drew Eichelberger – had an extended metaphor about grading doctors on the same kinds of criteria…lovely, complex metaphor. We need to ask him to share this. He welcomes accountability. He called the Rules ambiguous, punitive and pointed out that there is a built-in bias against low SES schools

Santa Fe South – Chris Brewster – thanked the Board for conveniently scheduling the meeting during Spring Break. He asked how many Superintendents were involved in writing the Rules. I was sitting next to Dale Super…he said ‘Zero’. Brewster asked why we weren’t involved. Why are we using the FL model instead of our own people. He urged the Board to restart the process, to involve the right people, and to get it right.
PC – Kinsey (?) called the Rules ambiguous, punitive, arbitrary, discriminatory. Again pointed out less than 1% can earn an A. He said we should be graded on how we serve our kids. We need to work collaboratively as we do in the classroom: “we take kids where they are and work diligently for gains.”

State PTA
OKC -- ?? How is a parent to understand these Rules? She is concerned “we were not brought to the table.” The Rules are not proven. “As a parent we need to know you want us (schools) to succeed.”
What about parental education? How does this benefit the child? Where’s the funding coming from (‘School districts may incur minimal costs as a result of reporting and data collection’)?

Tulsa – Etta Taylor – the purpose of these Rules is punitive. It doesn’t help create curriculum for meeting the needs of our kids. Is the purpose to pass blame and then cut funding in the name of fiscal responsibility? She wants to grade the State Board! She asked several times about the impact on kids.

Steven Crawford of CCOSA ended the public remarks – he encouraged the Board to pull key people together. The Rules are flawed because there was no involvement by stakeholders (my word) in the process…
I was the only teacher who spoke and I read a portion of my written response I’d mailed earlier and hand delivered to Enders’ secretary. I included five pages of notes from The Myths of Standardized Tests.
What next?

The cynical side of me believes the Board members will neither watch the video of our comments nor read the written responses. That cynic believes the Board will approve the Rules as written.

The hopeful side of me wishes the Board would realize not one person spoke in support of the Rules – that every sort of stakeholder was in the room repeating how flawed, punitive, complex the Rules are now. That hopeful person believes the Board will not approve the Rules and suggest the SDE invite stakeholders – Superintendents, principals, parents, community members, local board members, legislators, and students and teachers too – to the table as they should have at the start of this process over with the stated goal of a set of Rules that will help schools pinpoint concerns and weaknesses and be supported through the process of improving.

Stay tuned…

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Response to Oklahoma SDE Grading System

Tomorrow, March 19, is the deadline for public comments about the Oklahoma Grading System for Schools. I will attend the public hearing and deliver a copy of this response. I will also email copies to the Education Committees of the OK House and Senate.

I am responding to the Rules for A-F Report Cards for Oklahoma schools. Unlike other responders who seem to accept the value of high stakes standardized tests being mis-used for this process, I am going to tell you the entire premise of the Report Cards is horribly flawed.

Standardized tests were never designed to retain students in third grade, evaluate teachers, or grade schools and school districts. Standardized tests are designed to give a snapshot of achievement, not even learning. That is all. Any other use of standardized tests is either naïve or cynical abuse of the data.

NCLB is tottering on the edge because of reliance on test data and imposition of high stakes to that data. The ACE requirement forcing students to pass four of the seven EOI tests is about to crumble now that we’re facing our first class of students, some of whom will not graduate. Now, despite this evidence of the flawed nature of using test data to make high-stakes decisions, the state of Oklahoma is going to do it again – to retain third graders, to evaluate teachers, and here, to grade schools.

I often tell my students to create a word cloud of their essays and other writings to ‘see’ the work in a new way. Word clouds analyze the writing and reassemble the most-used words, assigning sizes to the highest-frequency words. A word cloud allows the writer and others to understand what is truly valued in a piece of writing…values shine through the words.

When I created a word cloud of the Rules for A-F Report Card, and then analyzed the synonyms for the word “test” I discovered the values of this legislation: testing, testing, more testing and more testing. Pure and simple. Schools will now join third graders and teachers in being beaten up for test results. Remember, using standardized test data for high-stakes purposes is a mis-use of the data.

In alphabetical order, the following synonyms for ‘test’ or words connected to analysis of tests appear. Achievement, ACT, advanced, AP, assessment, assessments, average, calculation, data, end-of-instruction, examination, exams, growth, improvement, performance, performance, points, points, proficiency, proficient, SAT, satisfactory, scores, scores, standardized, tests, unsatisfactory. Value-laden words that only measure performance on one test, one day in April.

If you look again at the word cloud, look for what’s not there…what words are missing? If they are in the original document, they did not occur in enough frequency to be included in the cloud: citizens, civic, community, engaged, ethical, fiscal, global, goals, independent, individualized, innovative, parents. “Learning” is there, but I fear it’s learning to the test, not learning for life.

Despite the words of Superintendent Barresi that this law is designed to bring transparency to the analysis of school success, I firmly believe it is designed to label as many schools as failing as possible, in the shortest amount of time. She wants parents to know ‘how their children’s schools rank,’ she says. Parents know how their schools perform, much better than someone at the SDE would know. Parents are in the classrooms, in contact with their teachers and main offices.

The transparency needed with these rules is in the motivation of the SDE. It seems to me there is nothing in these rules about support for schools, for help…only labeling and punishing. Why would our own SDE want to label and punish schools? Why, indeed.

We are going down the wrong path – again. We are forcing standardized test results to accomplish something for which they were not designed – again. We are planning punitive high-stakes results without the supportive environment to create sustained change – again.

I’ll let others address the details of the Rules, talking about percentages of attendance, and muddy language and the rest. I don’t understand the ‘big picture’ ramifications to speak to them. I whole-heartedly disagree with the entire belief system inherent in this document. 

I call for that same transparency Superintendent Barresi wants to impose on schools. I call for the SDE to tell us why they think more high stakes will create anything other than the chaos of NCLB and ACE…and soon, the 3rd grade flunk law.

For someone wanting to learn about schools and testing and accountability, I highly recommend the book Myths of Standardized Tests Why They Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean, by Phillip Harris. Also, Drive by Daniel Pink, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in The Age of Globalization by Zhao Yong, and Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System is Failing And What We Can Do About It by Ronald Wolk.

I feel like Cassandra, the ancient Trojan princess. She was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but then cursed to never be believed. She clearly warned her people of future dangers and was ignored every time.  Here I am, near the end of a very long career in the classroom, warning those who choose to ignore.

NCLB’s high-stakes provisions did not work. ACE’s high-stakes provisions are about to prove they didn’t work. The 3rd grade law will prove it doesn’t work. The teacher evaluation instrument will not work. This grading system will not work…unless the true motivation is to destroy public education and sell it, piece by piece, to greedy corporations, ‘partners’ who will take Oklahoma dollars back to Virginia, leaving our state and our children poorer.

So, some transparency: what is the motivation to impose this system on our schools?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Legacy -- Teaching and of Alzheimer's

I read a beautiful tribute to Glen Campbell, who is currently drifting into the black hole of Alzheimer's. Granger Meador used Campbell's last song, "I Won't Miss You," to examine all the way Campbell will be missed. I remembered this piece I'd written, but not acknowledged my dad's own struggle with this ravaging disease. 

I was named to atone…not for a sin; but for a  profound, accidental sadness.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” My grandfather got up, didn’t say another word, and stomped—limped—into the barn.

This was the only time my mother—his daughter-in-law—ever heard him curse. It started innocently enough.

Mama, eight-and-a-half months pregnant with me, was entertaining her still-new family with a book of baby names. My three aunts were visiting from their nearby homes. Mama had recently arrived at the small southern Indiana farm, not-so-fresh from a long train trip starting in Denver. World War II was winding down, and Daddy was on leave to wait for the birth of his first child. Being the center of attention made her feel accepted and cared for.

“What does my name mean?”

“Marian…Hebrew. Bitter but gracious”


“Celtic. Sweet, noble.”

“Bess!” My grandmother.

“Hebrew. God’s oath.”


“Irish. Pure little one.”

“John.” Daddy.

“Hebrew. Gift of God.”

“Mary: Hebrew. The perfect one.” Mama.

Grandpa wanted to know, too. Mama, eager to please, to make a positive impression, looked it up. Her face tightened, she reluctantly read.

 “Claude: Latin. The lame one.”

Silence, shocked, sad silence.

You see, when Grandpa was a child, his doctor-father wasn’t able to save his beloved son from polio. From an early age, Grandpa limped noticeably, visibly weak on one side. Granted, it didn’t stop him from having a full life: farmer, teacher (math…I did not inherit his strengths there), basketball coach. It was Indiana, after all, a basketball crazy state, and his drag-and-shuffle walk did not affect his ability to think and teach and direct young people.

This ‘hitch in his gitalong’ never stopped him from achieving and he pushed himself to excel.  Father, son, grandfather. Husband of a teacher, my father’s high school principal. Local legend.

The silence lengthened. No one looked at anyone else. Grandpa had pushed himself up out of his chair. “Well, I’ll be damned.” An hour later, he returned; a fragile peace settled over the farmhouse. The book was put away, never to be spoken of again.

My fate was sealed:  “Claudia—Latin. Diminutive of Claude. The lame one. Wife of Pontius Pilate.”

Fifty five years later I visited my parents in their nursing home, just a few miles from that same farmhouse.

Daddy had retired from education, like his parents before him. He was my junior high principal. Grandma and Grandpa had been gone for years. The farm had been sold out of the family. My parents’ lives had been distilled to what fit into their double-occupancy hospital room.

His diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's frightened us all...this man loved to read, to learn. How horribly cruel that he would slowly lose that which he valued the most: wisdom. He would often ask me three or four times in a phone conversation, "Now, have you thought about when you might retire?" I would answer him, every time. He knew he was losing his short-term memories. We all know it could get much worse. His mother had died of Alzheimer's related causes, in the very nursing home that was Mom's and Dad's home. His older sister, Alyce, was down the hall, also with Alzheimer's.

The family legacy includes a mission to teach and to learn, and a hideous disease that takes memories away.

On that last visit, I had a rental car, and we decided to go on a day trip to let Daddy point out his favorite haunts: his first girlfriend’s home; his grandmother's home, now owned by my cousin; the corn fields that had changed very little from the time Daddy was a boy. We laughed together as Mama pretended to be jealous. Long-term memories were strong.

We ended up in a tiny settlement on the Wabash River. The Indiana heat wilted us. Getting out of the car, we looked over the bluffs across the river. Bandstand and park echoed a slower, more genteel past.

 Mama, petulant and hungry, wanted a BLT. Daddy and I knew that look, and understood we had to get her fed quickly. We found a shop—a combination grocery store, bait shop, and coffee house, Indiana style. The hardwood floor had been oiled and swept for countless years; the dusty stock on the shelves looked as old as the floor.

Mama chowed down on her sandwich; Daddy drank sludge, self-serve from the community coffee pot. He smiled and nodded, as was his way, to the local folks all crowded around a battered Formica table in another corner.

One of the regulars separated himself from his buddies and sauntered over…sauntering as only an 80-something-year-old man can. He stopped in front of Daddy and stuck out his hand.

“You’re C.B. Lisman’s son, right? You look just like him. He was my Algebra teacher. He was the best teacher I had.”

The men realized they went to New Lebanon High School within years of each other, Daddy the younger. The other man still remembered Grandpa’s influences, his patience, his leadership. They reminisced about graduating with a class of five, seven. They caught up with old classmates.

They remembered a beloved teacher—as a mentor and as a father. I sat back and smiled, remembering the times Daddy and I had been stopped on the street by his former students, adults with their own families, people who wanted me to know how he had touched their lives. Now Daddy heard the same magic about his father.

Mama looked up from her BLT, wiping Miracle Whip off her chin, to pipe in, pointing to me.

“She was named after C.B. Her name is Claudia. She’s a teacher, too.” 

Grandpa, I hope you’re proud. For years you and Daddy looked down on my classroom. Dad's high school diploma from New Lebanon High School has Grandpa's strong signature on the top left. Both these men kept me company as I taught kids who looked very different from their own students, but had the same needs. Three generations taught together every day.

My dad died suddenly, of a heart attack, when the Alzheimer's was not the defining element of his days. He met one of his four beautiful great-granddaughters. He loved his days, he remembered his past, but he still would ask me often when I might retire.

Someday I'll be grateful he died of that heart attack, that he escaped from the indignities of losing his memories, his abilities to communicate, his teaching self.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

More on grading...and grading...and grading.

A Twitter response from Jeff Schwen to my last entry asked about the 10 hours a weekend I grade: “Grading for 10-12 hours a weekend seems very high. Do you see that time/effort devoted to grading reflected in student work?” What a great question. It made me think about exactly what I do when I spend time grading, and what I want the students to learn from my time. The challenge has had me reflecting all week.

My grading philosophy has been years in the making, and involves short lessons learned from others. First, my own daughter when she was in fourth grade…her middle child is now in fourth (told you it was a long process)! Laurie was new to her school as was her teacher. The teacher asked the students to write in a journal every day and she picked them up once a week. That first week, Laurie poured out her heart. She talked about being nervous about being new to the school, unsure of how to make new friends. She tried to connect with the teacher by saying, ‘I know you’re new here too. What are you doing?’ When the journals were graded and returned, Laurie eagerly opened hers to see what the teacher had written. On the top of the page where Laurie had been so honest and open were the words, “I’m glad you’re in my class.” I remember vividly what Laurie said to me when she came home: “Huh, she didn’t read a word of what I wrote. I’m not going to write to her like this again.”

As a mom I was frustrated by this teacher who gave an assignment and then didn’t read students’ work. As a teacher, it was a real epiphany moment. Had I done that same thing to kids? Did I not take their words and their feelings seriously? If I ever did, it ended that day. From that day, I vowed to myself to read every word every student wrote to me – short answer, essay, fast note on a paper. Every word was treated with respect, since that showed my respect for my students.

Later, when Laurie and her friends were in 10th grade, I had several of her friends in my English class. Two, Micah and Jesse, loved to test me in many ways. They both decided to ‘booby trap’ a five-paragraph essay and see if I noticed. So, along about paragraph three or four, in each essay, my jokers wrote something like: “Boy, Mrs. Swisher, I’m really tired. I should have started this essay earlier!” And then they continued their literary analysis. Of course I found their remarks and we all laughed. Then, they told me about another teacher who routinely assigned multi-page papers, but all the kids knew he only looked at the first and last pages…so kids literally copied from encyclopedias to fill in the required page length… had been doing it for years, told each other about it, and he never discovered it.

That strengthened my resolve to make sure kids knew I read their work. What’s the easiest way to prove to a student that I read her paper? By responding. Not just at the top of the page, but in the margins, along the edges of the paper, at the top, at the bottom, sometimes wrapping my words around theirs.
At the beginning of each semester, I tell students that I will read every word they write. Many look at me suspiciously when I make that promise. They’ve believed teachers in the past and learned teachers only skimmed their work.  I promise if they write to me in their Logs, I’ll write back. Every time.  I also promise to do everything I can to return papers back the day after they turn them in.

In my class, Reading for Pleasure, I ask students to write three times a week…individual responses to their books (yes, we read books; not magazines, books!). I teach them how to connect with literature, and how to use their authentic voice in their Logs. We talk about the difference between writing for me and for their other English teachers…I want them to use “I” and tell me their opinions. I time students as they write and can instantly tell when they haven’t devoted themselves to the entire time. This solved a dilemma in my class, since it’s an open elective for grades 9-12. I always have IEP students in my class, often with some pretty severe disabilities. This semester, I have four students who need a full-time aide to accompany them to my class. It’s their only mainstreamed class.  Requiring all students to write for five minutes differentiates the assignment. My disabled students may produce several sentences in five minutes, while my National Merit scholars may write close to a page. Each student can be assessed on his or her ability.

If my students write 15-20 minutes per week, I must attend to each Log with that respect my daughter’s work did not receive. It usually takes me 3-6 minutes per Log to grade and respond. There’s the time-consuming part, the responding, considering the fact I have 150 students, give or take a few...the number is pretty fluid.

Grading – reading and assigning worth for the work? That takes no time at all. But, reading every word? Finding things to say? Knowing who can read my cursive and who can? Modeling the questions readers ask each other about books, or modeling the kind of talk readers who’ve read the same book, that takes time. And I don’t begrudge that time. My class is designed to give students time to read, books to read, and an authentic audience for their thoughts. I am ‘growing’ readers and writers and thinkers. Can’t do that unless you spend the time responding to their efforts.

Each student’s Log is a different puzzle to solve. Have I read the book? If I have, I can respond with reinforcement of their ideas, little hints about future events. I can share MY response to the book and the characters. If I haven’t read the book, I ask questions…I help students clarify their thinking about the book by having to interpret it to someone who’s interested but not knowledgeable. For all readers, I ask questions, but try never to ask yes-no questions. I want to challenge students’ thinking, deepen it, and give them a safe place to play with ideas. This is the way I build my relationship with students, which helps me find the next book, and the next. We have deep, rich conversations on paper, ones I value, and I believe my students do too.

The notion of timely feedback is also a vital part of what I do. Students need their Logs back the next day, since most of them are still in the middle of the same book they were reading the day before. They are interested in what I have to say about their book, ONCE they know I really read and I really respond. Most students, as I pass back their Logs, will put their books down, to reread their Logs and my comments. I love that, not only because I know we’ve bonded over a book, but because it forces the students to go back and read their own work again. How often have we teachers seen a student look at the grade at the top of the paper and ignore all the teacher comments, assuming they’re negative? My students know I care about what they have to say, and that I ‘listen’ on paper to their thoughts.

Back to Jeff’s question: do I see my time grading (actually responding) reflected in student work? You bet. Students who were suspicious, hesitant, at the beginning of the semester, begin writing more and more. At the beginning, as I’m introducing the idea of the Logs, I often write more on the papers than the students do. But they learn. They learn I care, I’m interested. They learn IF they write to me, I write back to them. Their efforts to think about their books are rewarded as we have our own private conversations about their books.  Logs get longer and longer; my questions in the margin are answered, my opinions about books become valued. But most of all, kids learn I’m someone who genuinely wants to know what they think about books. Time well spent, and time rewarded…

I’m not just grading their Logs; I’m teaching them how to talk about books, how to be literate adults. That’s worth the time I spend responding.

Jeff Schwenn, thank you so much for pushing my thinking with your question.