One thing I’ve learned about
grading responding to my students’ writing is that there’s just no way to do it quickly.
(Note about the crossed out word up there–Mister S said after he read this in rough draft form that he wished I wasn’t saying “grading.” The problem is that there IS a time in the writing process when that is exactly what we’re doing, grading–affixing grades to papers that students write. Yes, I do as much as I can to make this a meaningful response to a student’s piece of writing, but until we live in a world that doesn’t demand a grade to reflect students’ work, what we must do is grade these papers. And for me, “grading” is the grueling thing that I do, that takes hours upon hours because I have too many students and not enough time and because I am expected to quantify everything to boil it down to a grade on a transcript. “Responding to student work” is something I love to do–it happens in conversations with students over their writing for example. And it’s a critical part of the process. But that, unfortunately, is not what I’m talking about here.)
Well, actually you can grade papers quickly if you plan to do it badly. Quality assessment of writing that gives students a clear sense of their growth as writers takes time.
Over my 16 years as a teacher responding to student work I’ve done a few things that do make the process faster. I don’t collect and grade everything I ask my students to do, for example. I pretty much focus my energy on my students’ process writing and not much else. But there’s really nothing I can do to speed up the task of responding to and assessing my students’ writing.
But still I try. Back in about year four or so I started looking for the perfect rubric that would make grading papers a simple, quick task. If only I could just check boxes and underline words on a rubric to let students know exactly how they were doing…
I’m not sure how many rubrics I went through in years four through six or so, but I never found the perfect one that would making grading a cinch. The process of writing is complex and unique to each writer and therefore impossible to capture clearly in one rubric that will serve for all of my students.
I began to settle for the rubric that would most clearly define for my students the expectations and objectives for a given piece of writing, that would serve as the conduit of a meaningful conversation over a piece of writing for my students and me, that was simple and easy to understand, that helped to guide my students through revision. I don’t always achieve this, but this is always my goal with each rubric I put together for my students.
Now the actual physical mechanics of grading is something that didn’t shift much for me until the last few years. For years 1-12 or so of my teaching career, my students turned in pieces of paper that had their words upon them, usually stapled together with the rubric for a given assignment. I would stack all these up and begin to make my way through them, making marks on students’ papers and filling the margins with my thoughts in response to their ideas (NEVER in red pen!). I would carry stacks of papers back and forth from school to home, sometimes never even taking them out of my huge school bag while I was at home. But the stacks were always there.
Technology in the last few years, however, has begun to change the game. In response to an appeal from our building administration a few years ago to use less paper (something we could do to help as funding decreased and our budget tightened), I began to experiment with ways to read and assess my students’ work electronically.
One thing that really appealed to me about this was the thought that I’d never have to carry stacks of papers back and forth, school to home, home back to school.
My first attempt at this was to use the reviewing tools In Microsoft Word. Students would email papers to me. I would save them to a folder on my computer. Grading then meant opening the file that contained a student’s paper, copying from another file the rubric and pasting it at the end of a student’s paper, leaving comments throughout the paper with the reviewing tools, then emailing the paper back to the student. This worked fine, but it was more time intensive than I expected to manage the files. I was spending way too much time dealing with email attachments that came in individually from students and then emailing papers back out to my students when the grading was done.
Then along came Google Docs. This was a revolution! Here there would be no shifting files back and forth between me and my students. They would simply share the document with me and then I would have access to it for all stages of the writing process. To see the evolution of a paper I could simply scroll through revision history–making grading rewrites really simple and quick. I could see exactly what a student did in response to my feedback. Students no longer had issues with flash drives crashing or file types that were incompatible with my computer. And I loved that I could see from my home screen in Google Docs which students were working on their papers at a given moment in time. I could even conference with a student in cyberspace. If we were both looking at the paper at the same time, we could use the chat window and talk over the paper, even if I was sitting in a cafe somewhere and a student was who knows where but working on his paper. I pretty much loved everything about having my students work on their writing in Google Docs except for how constricting it felt to leave comments on their work. I really wished I could just circle something with a pen rather than having to highlight it and then go to the menu command to leave a comment. This all seemed to be taking more time than was necessary.
And then our department started playing around with the grading functions in Turnitin.com. I could build my own set of comments and the drag and drop them onto a student’s paper! I could load the rubric right into the system! Surely this would speed things up! I did feel like I was able to give more thorough feedback, but nothing was faster. And dealing with rewrites was horribly clunky. Navigating between the different versions of the paper was not seamless and quick like in Google Docs.
And now? I type this presently on the iPad I got for Christmas. I have an app that permits me to upload PDF documents to a note writing program and then write all over them with all kinds of different “pens” using a stylus. I can once again scribble in the margin, highlight an error, use proofreaders’ marks. I have missed being able to do this. I can also download all of my students’ papers at once from Turnitin.com as individual PDF files, avoiding the annoying issues of moving students’ papers one at a time from email attachments. The app also lets me email a paper directly to a student straight from the app, which is very quick and easy. So we’ll see how this goes…
And I wonder how I’ll be managing all of this a few years from now as technology continues to evolve.
But there’s one thing I do know: Until the parameters of my working day give me fewer students and more time in the day to do everything it takes outside of my classroom to accomplish my best possible teaching in my classroom, the grading will still take hours upon hours. No piece of technology will ever stand in for the work of a teacher of writing.