To grade or not to grade…

On the heels of my efforts this week to grade my 88 research papers (which, as I expected, are taking me a huge amount of time), Mister S challenged me in a conversation in the office yesterday whilst I ate my burrito during my lunch/prep period about the whys behind the grading. Why was I punishing myself? Hadn’t I already given feedback on their rough drafts and didn’t need to do such a thorough grading on the final drafts?

This conversation really teased out some of the issues surrounding grading. See, both of us are thinking deeply about this piece. I’ve always operated on the concept that if I’m knocking myself out working on something for my teaching, there are probably pieces of that I could turn over to my students and they could end up learning a lot from the experience: deciding what books we should read, determining discussion topics, facilitating class discussion–even teaching the class on occasion. I once asked a pre-service teacher who had spent HOURS one evening putting together a gallery walk intro activity for a book whether or not he could have turned over that research and work to his students instead and then THEY would have learned about the book what he did in putting the whole thing together.

But for 15 years, I have not figured out this grading piece.

When I taught AP Lit, my students wrote in-class essays every Friday. Most of these, however, were “practice” essays, evaluated by their classmates against the AP essay rubric but whose scores did not go into the grade book unless students wanted them to (and then I also scored the essay as well). Every four to five weeks, students wrote an “exam” essay that I DID grade, and this grade counted (though students did have the option to rewrite most of them). This was me trying to take the pressure off of grade-motivated students taking their first hard-core literary analysis class. They were learning a new type of writing/thinking and needed space to take risks and learn without having it affect their grades. This also kept the students writing EVERY week without me having to grade EVERY week.

Regardless of ways I might use peer feedback and self evaluation to lessen the amount of grading I myself need to do, there are times where I guess I just feel like the work comes to me. Times where I must sink into each student’s piece of writing and really spend some time and fill the margins with thoughts and suggestions. Times where I must let students know how well they are using the English language (because who else in their life is helping them to master it if not me?). Times where I must both zoom in to the small details of a students’ writing and look at the effect of the piece as a whole. Times where my “expertise” (I am so still learning about writing myself–but I have more experience at this than my students do) comes into play. And I tried to explain to Mister S yesterday in the office that this is one of those times. Even though he was right that maybe my students won’t even look that closely at the comments I will so carefully make. Even though he was right that I could certainly take a minimalist approach here and read papers, not leave too many comments on them, give each student a narrative response and move on. Even though he was right that a lengthy self-evaluation from each student could tell me much of what I need to know to settle a grade for each paper.

Even though I’ve already spent four hours and forty-nine minutes and I’ve only graded ten papers and I’ve got 78 to go…

But I’ve been thinking since then about how I can better unpack those reasons for why this is one of those times in the context of all the reasons Mister S and I want to move away from grades and all the reasons why we are finding that shift difficult.

Mister S: I propose a couple of blog entries, to be posted this week or next while we’re in the midst of wrapping up a semester and needing to boil down student performance for the last four months into one letter that shows up on their transcript, where we will truly work to unpack these issues. One will be a list of the reasons we wish to move away from grading. The second will be a list of the obstacles. As we work, discuss, grade, respond to student work over the next week and a half, let’s build these lists and then we’ll post them toward the end of next week. Are you in? (I know you’ll be walking into the office at any moment and of course I could ask you then, but you’re not here right now so I’m asking you in blog space so I can wrap this post up and, well, grade a few research papers).

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4 Responses to To grade or not to grade…

  1. Lydia Mariam says:

    As a former student of yours, I appreciate that you are dedicated enough to spend time engaging your students’ writing and providing thoughtful feedback. I know I really benefited from this when I took your AP English class over 10 years ago (is that even possible?) and it has been something I have valued greatly throughout graduate school. It is a rare and precious gift from a teacher. I am glad to know that you are still giving your students that gift, in spite of the cost to you! Thanks Ms. Z. And now I must carefully check this post for spelling and grammatical errors, so as not to invalidate the point I am making!

  2. DocZ says:

    Hi Lydia! Thank you so much for reading my post and leaving a comment. Comments like this will help me endure the hours ahead (I just figured out that I’ll need another 31 hours to finish grading these papers at the rate I’m currently moving. I’m pretty sure I’ll get faster and won’t need that much time, but still…).

  3. Carla Roitz says:

    What is it that makes these research papers such a bitch to grade: the length? are they boring? are you obliged to evaluate them on a lot of different criteria? Maybe if we can reduce the things that make grading so time consuming, we can find a way to live with it.

    Meanwhile, I’m looking ahead to winter break and trying to figure out when I’ll grade my Snapshot Narratives…an hour a day? Not realistic, I don’t have the discipline. A couple of full days at some point? I’d have to hire a babysitter. I suppose I’ll do what I always do…leave it till the end, then spend the last few days of break with a dark cloud of ungraded essays hanging over my head.

    But at least the Snapshots are short, and personal narratives are always more “fun” (did I really just say that?) to grade.

    • DocZ says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Carla! Good questions about the grading. It’s a bunch of things that makes the papers time intensive to grade… things that are important…I think. Jay and I will try to articulate these issues in a couple of posts we have planned that hopefully we’ll get to over break. For 15 years I’ve been trying to figure out how to make it all go faster, and I have made strides in a lot of places. I make very deliberate decisions about where to focus my grading energy (not everything I collect from my students do I read carefully and respond to), and it seems there are just times when I have to put in the intensive grading. I think these research papers are one of those times, but I want to explore that to see exactly why I think that.

      I have some “fun” grading on my desk right now–creative writing portfolios. I’m looking forward to looking at those this afternoon!

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