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.


  1. Mrs. Swisher, you spend an incredible amount of time grading papers and responding to logs, and I know it's worth every second you spend in terms of student benefit. But I can't help but feel like it's overwhelming. I'm overwhelmed just reading this post. I just wanted to suggest that you don't have to do all the responding yourself. Maybe 3 times a semester you could have students trade reading logs and respond to each other the way you do. You can catch your breath, but the job gets done. What do you think?

  2. Irene! What a great idea. I love reading your thoughts about books, and so I love doing this responding -- one of the reasons I cut back from five days of writing to three was because of the amount of responding...

    I LOVE your idea! It would add another component to the class, where I can model and teach response...let me unpack my thinking and you can help me. I have kids, like you, who read and write sooo well, and kids who don't . Kids who can't read cursive, kids whose own writing is hard to read, has lots of misspellings...I could match papers, I think, so I could make sure kids who don't read and write well would be responded to by someone like you who wouldn't make judgments about them, or go tell the world how poor their skills are...Keep talking! You're onto a great thing here.

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  3. You could have everyone tell you the name of the book their logs are about, then have others volunteer to read their logs, if they read the book or it just sounds interesting. They can ask the person who wrote it for help if they can't read it. Or you could help.