I am giddy right now. I am so obnoxiously self-satisfied and ecstatic that I dare anyone to burst my bubble. Why? Because I just completed my grading and response letters for Trimester 2 Final papers in record time. Four days, to be exact. All grades posted within four days, and students will receive their feedback letters and rubrics less than a week after they turned their papers in. This year, my tenth year of teaching, is the year I have finally hit my peak of paper-turnaround efficiency. I'll give the basics in case you find something in my technique worth stealing.
1. Make a schedule in writing, and hold yourself accountable. Make sure the people in your life understand that this takes precedence right now, so you can be fully present later. I would rather miss one dinner with friends or family to get papers done in a timely manner than spend that gathering thinking of papers and hating myself for procrastinating. The people who love you will understand that there are times when work has to come first. Not all the time, but once in a while, for major papers. This happens three times per school year for me, at the end of each trimester. Other papers are not as high-stakes, and grading them can take a backseat to my life.
2. Satisfying and self-nurturing breaks are a required part of that schedule, no exceptions. I hold myself to a roughly "two hours on/one hour off" schedule for nights and weekends when I have major grading to complete. If I reach the end of a class period before the two hours is up, sometimes I will start my break early and enjoy the extra time. If I'm sufficiently rested after 30 minutes of break and ready to keep my grading groove going, I'll start back early. Do not think that working non-stop will be more productive. It isn't. Taking a step away from the work at regular intervals will make you more efficient in the end.
3. Read student writing with a focused purpose for your response. I've sung the praises of having students writer "Dear Reader" letters before, and I would never go back to high-stakes writing and grading without them. We often tell students to have a purpose in mind for their writing. We should all grade with this same emphasis on purpose. Note: purpose for grading is not "to get these done" or "to make them realize all the mistakes they made." Purpose for reading and grading is to gauge how well students were able to achieve their purpose as writers, and to help them in the major area where they fell short. You cannot and will not fix everything that's wrong and make it better. I have some students who spend an entire year working on improving one aspect of their writing (like organization). It's okay. Giving them the time and feedback they need on that one area could be what makes them a great writer someday. Addressing every mistake won't. I have all my students for two years in a row; I'm lucky enough to see the progression that many teachers can't after only one year.
4. Pick the biggest strength and the biggest weakness to address. It is proven that the brain can only process so much at a time, yet we constantly think developing kid-brains are capable of handling everything we throw at them. Stop. Start with the positive so they know you care about them and respect their work. Address the weakness that is most damaging to their effectiveness as a written communicator. Yes, I hate poor capitalization as much as any self-respecting English teacher. No, I do not think capitalization is more important than a coherent overall piece of writing. Most grammar/usage/mechanics errors are a choice. Hold the students accountable for that choice, and move beyond it. I never want my students to think that "good" writing is solely dependent on spelling/punctuation/capitalization. Writing is more than those things. If our feedback isn't more than that, we are not teaching writing, we are only teaching editing.
5. Remember that your student is a person, not just this piece of writing. It is okay to be disappointed in a piece of writing and the student's effort, and to let them know where they've fallen short. It is not okay to allow a child think one piece of writing is a reflection of his or her self worth. If you haven't been critically judged on your writing lately, take a class with a professor who grades the way you do. Do you like it? If not, change something about how you are responding to student work. We are fragile people, those of us who love the written word. Don't let holding the pen make you forget how it feels to read criticism of your work.
6. Use your words to give meaningful response on two things (see number 4), rather than crummy response on everything. I have never had a student from my earlier years of teaching thank me for the marginal comments and paragraphs I used to scrawl across their papers, highlighting every issue and strength. I have dozens over the past few years who tell me they keep my response letters. Some of them don't even remember the pieces of writing that I wrote the letter in response to, but they kept the letter from me because it was personal and I took the time to create meaningful writing just for them. I can read 5-7 papers and write 5-7 (two to three paragraph long) response letters in the time it used to take me to rip into three papers with a pen. Which option makes me more efficient as a grader? Which option makes me more efficient as a teacher? Which option creates a better overall climate for writing? The answer is obvious. People are often skeptical that in-depth letters could be more efficient than comments. They are. There is never any doubt. You know what I heard in the hallway when my students were talking about seeing their Tri 2 Final grades posted over the weekend? I can't wait 'til we get our letters from Mrs. Hauptsteen! I've never heard a student say that about marginal comments. Ever. Building relationships is the single most important part of teaching. We have the ability to solidify or destroy them with our feedback. Chose wisely.
7. Celebrate victories together. I tell my students my goals for when I'd like to have grades and letters back to them. I give them a daily update until that happens. I boast about my productivity. I tell them how difficult and rewarding it is. When I told them today that I finished the last one while they were taking Iowa Assessments, my sixth period 7th graders gave me a standing ovation. Even the kids who don't like me stood up, swept away in the wave of peer pressure. Some remembered that last trimester it took me six days, so this was a new record. They celebrated with me, for doing my job. You know what feels better than accomplishing the enormous task of grading your brains out for four days straight? Having kids be proud of you for it.
I know I get preachy when I talk about response to writing, and I hope that doesn't drive away those who disagree with my methods. I believe that every good, reflective teacher has one core belief about their practice that they hold above others. It doesn't mean that I don't hold the other aspects of teaching English in high regard, but response is my obsession. If I could have one impact on the teaching world, it would be to change the way we approach response to student writing across every classroom in every school. I don't have that kind of power, but it won't stop me from preaching.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.