By Adrin Fisher

Last spring, deep in the futile throes of correcting essays I had collected on March 13 (the day that must not be named), I promised myself that this year would be THE year: the time when I finally figure out a way to do this essay grading thing better. 2020 has been a lot. 2020 is being a lot.

However, in the interest of keeping promises to myself (despite the deep temptation to keep doing the things I can control in the same way I’ve done them for years), I am forging ahead.

Please forgive my naval-gazing. COVID has caused a convulsion in the school system—and for someone with twenty-three years in the classroom, a spouse in his twelfth year as a reading specialist, and two teenagers in school, a convulsion in the school system affects every aspect of life. So I will start by centering my beliefs about myself as a teacher:

  • A growth mindset is my greatest weapon.
  • Proactivity within my circle of influence is my work.
  • What I focus on grows.
  • My profession was and remains my choice.

Next, I will review my teaching-of-writing process. It goes something like this: think of an interesting essay assignment. I usually create my own because I naively believe it discourages cheating. I talk about how to pre-write and organize. I model. We write in class and I do “walking conferences.” Then we peer edit. Then I collect the final copies with all the work attached.  

And then I mark the essays. This takes time. The stack is thick. I procrastinate a bit first, because I know it will take me hours and hours. In fact, my usual rate is 20 minutes per essay. Multiply that out over 110 students, give or take. 

No wonder I hesitate.  

Two or three weeks later, I return essays. Next comes the possibility of bonus points for revising. To get a good revision grade, students have to address my comments and then make changes. Not hard, really. I give points based on the changes—did they develop? did they fix all the awkwardness?  

But, of course, 90% of my students don’t revise.  

Which means that the 20 minutes I spent pointing out issues in logic or grammar, correcting sentence structure, and asking pointed questions are wasted—waste multiplied by 90%.

Disheartening. 

And in a plague year, nearly enough to push me under.

I have specific ideas about myself as a teacher. I confess that the truths I listed above have not been always the truths of my teacher-self.  But now, this year, maybe I can change.  

Maybe I can take back my weekends (once this hybrid-distance double teaching job with no extra remuneration situation I’m in finally ends). Maybe I can adjust my thought patterns to accept that I am not the sole arbiter of teaching writing. Maybe I am not exclusively responsible for the students’ success. 

So, here are some strategies I’ve collected:

Intentional Marking:  Grade only for one thing. Pick something to correct: introduction, thesis, transitional phrases, organization, etc. Force your pink pen to only touch those things. Only.

Code It:  A few years ago, a younger teacher told me about a system of marking that involves coding rather than correcting. The student (and you) has the key to see what the errors are. This reminds me that one of my high school teachers put a checkmark at the end of a line but didn’t reveal the mistake.

Bank Comments: Create a comment bank for your online assignments. This is a feature in Google Classroom that lets you save comments and then choose the appropriate one from your own list. Likewise, you can use a Google add-on called Keep—it’s a post-it note tab—to hold comments you keep using. You can copy and paste from your notes

Whole Class Feedback: After reading (but not marking) essays, create a list of the big issues and write the class a “letter” that shows common mistakes and fixes, and then encourages students to dive into their own writing.

Just Don’t Grade It: Let students practice, and let yourself cheer them on. This approach is beloved by teachers such as Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Sarah Zerwin.

These strategies are fine and good, and maybe one or more of them will work for you. I still have a problem, though. It’s my weird obligation, a dire sense of “I’m not doing my job unless I…”

Fortunately, in my diligent search, I have come across something I think I can do. At the start of school, I joined a Facebook group: Teaching Teachers How to Teach Writing created by Kristian Kuhn. Despite my desire to sit on the couch and worry that evening, I joined a live PD session given by a Minnesota teacher named Mara J. Corey. (The hour-long session is still available in the archive of the group.) In the session, she explained how her goal is to make students do the heavy lifting of writing.

 

Instead of commenting on each paper (because, let’s be real, similar issues come up over and over again in a set of essays), she provides “Big Picture” pre-teaching. Corey anticipates the problem areas and addresses them during the writing period. For example, she might attack passive verbs or weak sentence construction. Or perhaps she’ll review the ICE heuristic (Introduce, Cite, Explain) for building in text evidence.  

Then—and here’s the really new-to-me-thing—she provides students with a Growth Focus. Either she or the student will choose ONE thing to work on, which is graded on a separate rubric. For Corey, this addresses the 90% wasted time issue by demanding that students improve: It’s not good enough to write an essay that scores 4s across the board; you must ALSO demonstrate that you’re getting better. In fact, she makes the Growth Focus rubric worth 50% of the total score. It’s a simple rubric, A through D, based on how the student sought instruction and applied it.

D

Not Proficient
C
Approaching Proficiency
B

Proficiency with Help
A
Independent Proficiency  
No improvement in the growth focus area 

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Proficient in the growth focus area with one-on-one teacher help (relearning)
Improvement in the growth focus area on my own  

Mastery in the growth focus area on my own
Corey’s Growth Focus Rubric

I’m anticipating your question: If you have to now track each kid’s Growth Focus over time, and coach the students along the way with mini-lessons, small group sessions, or online materials until they master one GF and choose another, how is this going to save time?

Well, the answer, I think, is in the comments. She gears ALL feedback to the Growth Focus. She relies on her essay rubric to take care of the general feedback, without additional comment, so everything she notes or writes on the student paper is only and ever about the Growth Focus. Sounds sensible, right?

So, today, in the autumn of a plague year, I have decided to adopt Corey’s strategy. To that end, I have created tables listing each student along with a GF they’ve chosen and that GF grade.  

Now, have I really cut my correcting time?

No. I’m still figuring out how to be all things to all learners—some on paper, some in Google Docs, some on Kami with my weird little plug-in tablet and stylus. I’m still so tempted to type comments. I think it maybe is taking longer than ever, but I’m afraid to time myself. So, no, not yet.  

But, there is hope. I think this is something I can get behind. I think I can wean myself off marking each RO and asking for clarification each time. I think I can focus on one thing, one individualized thing. I think I can let myself slide into something that’s just as personal, yet less demanding on my time…once it’s set up. I think so. It’s worth a shot.

Eyes on the prize, teacher-friend. The prize is student growth WHILE you live your life. Let’s have our cake and eat it too.

Go forth, be well, and take courage, dear heart.

 Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin


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