Monday, May 6, 2013

Grading Papers: The Life of an English Teacher


We all do it.
This morning I was curled up on the couch with my coffee and a stack of student papers to grade.  This scenario has been part of my life for many years.

Being an English teacher is like having perpetual homework.  In the mid 1980s, I was a high school teacher.  And everywhere I went--Sunday to my parents' house, a road trip, an afternoon at the park--I brought a stack of papers.  Not that I always graded them there.  Often I'd set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. to finish grading in a haze before I jumped in the shower.

I left teaching once, in 1989.  I said I was sick of grading papers. I got a job working for a computer publishing company.  Sitting in a cubicle under florescent lights from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. made paper grading look not too bad.  So after a year, I went to grad school and re-launched my teaching career as a college professor.

Over the years, I've tried all kinds of paper-grading tricks, such as:

* Standing while grading so that I don't get too comfortable and spend unnecessary time on the papers.   (That bombed.  It made grading feel too much like punishment.)

* Going to a cafe to grade.  (I found out if I'm going for comfort, I tend to prefer my own home.)

* Grading only in my office; never taking a paper home.  I found this not to my liking for three reasons:  1) It doesn't allow me to take advantage of one of the great things about the job:  flexibility.  I like that I'm on campus 2-3 days a week, which would have to be more if I graded only there.  2) After teaching, I am often not in the head-space to grade.  3) Before teaching, if I'm frantically grading papers, I walk into class agitated. I prefer to walk slowly to class, hot tea in hand, meditating on being open to whatever comes up. 

* Having my students write 3 strengths and weaknesses on the last page of their paper.  They are usually spot-on.  And then I don't have to write out the obvious; instead, I write "yes!" next to their comments. 

* Stapling a grading rubric to a paper and checking-off the strengths and weaknesses.  But I'm such a verbal communicator that I found it hard to replace words with checks.  A supposed time-saver became an extra step.

* Instead of correcting grammar and spelling errors, I mark an X next to the error.  I then return papers and have students (in small groups) find the problems and fix them.  If they can't figure it out, I help them.  Usually they can fix 95% of the errors this way.  And it saves me huge amounts of "editing" time.

* Having students share first drafts in small groups.  They read aloud their papers, and the group discusses questions on a worksheet.  The writer listens and takes notes.  This is one of the most successful ways to assure better quality papers because I'm honoring the writing process.

* I also have students reflect on the experience of having written by completing these statements:  "I discovered...", "I was surprised...", and "I wonder..."  We then go around the room and have each person share one insight.  This isn't a time-saving device, but it often has some amazing results that get me psyched to read their papers.

However you slice it, though, paper grading takes time.  It has its ups and downs.  It can feel like a psychological drain, but it can also be powerfully rewarding.

This morning, for example, I was reading student papers reflecting on campus literary events they attended this semester. One student wrote about poet Mark Heinlein, and how--as a result of watching Mark in action--the student feels he has found his tribe:

"I have always wondered if I was one of the only people to look at some of the smallest things in life and think about them as being something bigger than face value.  Sometimes I thought I just over-analyzed and thought about things too much, but after hearing Mark speak, and also being in a creative writing  class and getting to know Professor Evans throughout the semester, I realized that I am not alone."

This is my last week of teaching.  I'm wondering who I will be now with no stacks of papers looming on the coffee table, with no student voices resonating in my head and heart as I read on the couch, coffee in hand.

Most of my teacher friends would answer that I will be free to do more of my own writing.  This is true.  And yet I know this:  much of what I will bring to my own writing as I move to the next chapter of my life will be touched by those thousands of students whose words I responded to with my own.


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