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.