Is it the grading, or is it the grading?

We promised to get back to the issue of grading once we had finished doing a whole bunch of it. As I pondered this over break, considering my response to Doc Z’s throwdown on the subject, it seemed to me there are really two discussions we need to have.

First, there is the pedagogical question of what practices, methods and activity best promote improvement in student writing. This is with specific regard to how we respond to student writing. Should we ‘grade’- that is distill our response into the traditional letter or number, and if we do, how should we do that? Rubrics? Holistic grading? Chucking them down the basement steps and seeing what flies the farthest? Something else? Or should we be responding in some other way? Written comments? Conferences? Something else again? Or perhaps some combination–which as it happens, is what most ELA teachers actually do.

These questions are pedagogical. They are the business of our profession. They are serious and meaningful, and we all should be wrestling with them. If we want students to write well, then they need to write a lot, and we need to figure out how to respond to that in a way that will help them get better.

The second question is actually structural. It has nothing to do with what is best for students. It has to do with what is humanly possible for people teaching writing to do, given the context they work in. Doc Z has documented this challenge really well here and here. Every ELA teacher I know could easily tell the same story. I teach two sections of an 11th grade, honors level, English course. I have sixty-four students in those two sections. If I spend just five minutes on each paper (not much time by the way), that is 320 minutes, or a bit over five hours. Five hours that is not built into our working day.

A full time teacher at our school teaches 5 sections a day, in an eight period day. Since they do actually let us go to the bathroom and eat, we spend some of that three periods attending to ourselves, but I can tell you, not much, and I’m eating my lunch while doing other things pretty consistently. We also plan for the five classes we are teaching, and even when you are a veteran teacher, if you want something productive to happen in a class period, it takes some time to prepare. And, we also have other things that need to happen in those periods: meetings about students, collaborating and helping (or being helped by) colleagues, participating the in the running of the larger institution in many ways. The normal stuff of having a job as part of a large organization. And, while we do grumble, not all of that is bad. It is probably about the same as your job.

But let us imagine that full time ELA teacher assigns one piece of writing every two weeks, and needs to spend five minutes dealing with it in some way. Average class size is 30- and I am being generous here just to make the math easy (I am an ELA teacher after all!) If every kid writes something that I have to spend five minutes on every two weeks (that sounds pretty reasonable doesn’t it?), then I have another 12.5 hours of work every two weeks. Where, exactly, are we going to put that extra day and a half every two weeks?

Which might not sound too bad, but I promise you, five minutes is a joke. The best I can do in five minutes is speed read something, and give it an overall grade, which pedagogically speaking is the least useful thing I can do for students. And that’s if the thing I asked the students to write was not too long, or complex. I think Doc Z made it pretty clear what responding to student writing really looks like. So if you assign something to three of your classes that takes fifteen minutes to respond to, you have now added over a half a working week to your load (22.5 hours). And that was just three of your classes. How many times can you add half a week to your work load? What about a full week? Do the math, how much writing can you really respond to? Not much. You can barely even read it.

So we can, and will, have the conversation about what we should do in response to student writing to help them improve. But I wanted to separate out the problems. I actually love responding to student writing. Helping them get better at the complex, challenging, difficult work of writing is one of the profound joys of this job, and a reason to put up with some of the less palatable parts. But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Doing that work, if you care about doing it well, is incredibly time intensive. It is every bit as challenging and complex as the writing the students are doing- as it should be.

We need to separate out the issues. We should think very hard about what is the best way to respond to student writing (don’t worry, I have an opinion and it is coming!), and then we should ask the equally serious question–why isn’t school structured to make that best practice possible?

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5 Responses to Is it the grading, or is it the grading?

  1. Josh Boldt says:

    I feel your pain. I teach college composition, and I also struggle with many of these same questions. I actually wrote a post last week describing a strategy I used last semester to help reduce my grading load. It ended up working really well for the students, too. Not sure if it would be as applicable to a high school classroom, but feel free to check it out: Paper Two Redux, or How I Kept From Drowning in a Sea of Student Papers.

    • MisterS says:

      Thanks Josh,
      I also taught college comp many moons ago in grad school. I did find that there was more unscheduled time in my working day then, but it was a difference only of degree. Being in the classroom is only part of the job of teaching, yet the structure of the job rarely reflects that.
      Mr. S

  2. mattbeaty says:

    From the student’s perspective, we don’t much care for the answer to your final question: “Why isn’t school structured to make that best practice possible?”

    We want to know the answer to the question “How can we make school structured to make that possible?”

    There can be a million reasons why the system is broken, but as the teachers and students are together in the front lines of this fight for higher quality education, I propose we take action to fix it from the bottom up. Rather than spend our time attempting to define it to death, make the changes that we can with the authority we have.

    This problem isn’t just one with writing, either. “Grading” with any creative exercise in any discipline within any education system seems to have this undefined yet blatantly obvious problem.

    My 2 cents…

    • MisterS says:

      Thanks for your comment Matt,
      I actually had this conversation with a colleague in the sciences today. You are right- it isn’t just writing, it’s anytime we want students to engage in complex critically demanding work. Coaching that process is labor intensive and impossible to standardize. Unfortunately schools are generally modeled on assembly lines (that’s not hyperbole, they really are, read some ed history). Sadly, the larger system has proved painfully intractable to change. As a culture, we like the way the system is. I’m not sure why, but we do. On an individual level, many teachers, parents, administrators and students are searching for ways to serve students better. I hope you have had a few of those 😉

      (Mr. S)

  3. Pingback: Changing the conversation (grades v. learning) | The Paper Graders

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