Zen and the Art of Paper Grading

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Last Wednesday I woke to a soft quilt of fluffy snow outside my window. It looked like about three inches, which would not be enough to cancel a school in Michigan but would be enough to turn my normally five minute commute into a fifty minute one. The reason for this is one light on one hill that I have to go through. When the road gets coated in snow or ice, cars stopped at that light struggle to move on the incline when the light turns green. They spin their tires, weave side to side, and ultimately a couple are able to get up enough speed before the light turns red and the whole process begins anew.

As I sat in the backup, my thoughts turned to another bottleneck that I live with every day: the fact that as a writing teacher, I need to respond to student writing if I want them to grow as writers, but I have 33 kids in each class. In a 5 section load, that is 165 kids whose papers need my feedback. Even if I were to respond in the relatively fast time of 10 minutes per paper, it would take me 27.5 additional hours beyond my prepping, planning, meetings, and emails to respond to all of them. And that is just for one paper.

In life, some things can’t be changed. Snow is still going to fall in Michigan. There is only one viable road that I can take to my school. That means that when it is forecast to snow, I need to set my alarm earlier. And unless the Michigan legislature has a highly unexpected change of heart, my class sizes are not likely to fall anytime soon, which means I am probably always going to have a very hard limit on how many pages of student writing I can respond to.

Luckily though, some things can be changed. I’ve already written here and here and here about ways to become more efficient and effective with feedback, here about training students to become better at working with each others’ pieces, and here about how to get students to better internalize the feedback we do give them. The topic of how to cut down response time while not losing (or even increasing) quality has easily been the most common topic in the young life of this blog because it is the most pressing problem many English teachers and students face. I regularly see teachers I know struggling under stacks of papers like they are Atlas holding up the world, and nearly every student I ask can give multiple examples of moments where a rushed or poorly constructed piece of feedback profoundly damaged their confidence, motivation, and relationship with the teacher.

But in the end it is also important to understand that tightening our pedagogy and increasing efficiencies will only cut down so much time. Teacher responses are the keystone of good writing instruction and no matter how streamlined, responding right to writing is going to take serious time. This means that as writing teachers, papers and the feedback bottleneck are probably always going to play a prominent role in our teaching lives.

I bring this up because while figuring out ways to work smarter, not harder, is important, in some ways the single most important thing we can do to improve our comments on papers is to improve our relationships with those papers. So many teachers develop antagonistic or toxic relationships with their papers. They dread having to look at them, ignore them for weeks in the hope they will disappear, and complain about the load with other teachers in competitions of who has it the worst. Now, I don’t want you to get me wrong, I have absolutely been there. I’ve done all of the above and have had my share of moments where I looked at a three, four, or five inch stack of papers and wondered what would happen if it was “accidentally” recycled. But in those moments I would argue I probably graded them slower and left comments that were less effective and more punitive because the papers were a chore or a weight to endure.

In recent years, I’ve tried to stay away from these traps and reframe my relationship with papers. I’ve done this because we do better and faster work when we have positive feelings concerning what we are doing, and the result is that I have seen a big jump in the quality and speed of my responses. Some of the most effective changes in how I approach papers that have helped me in this pursuit are the following:

  • I’ve set up a grading space and routine that I follow. My routine includes a coffee, ten minutes of reading the New York Times beforehand, and the checking of my favorite Michigan sports blog (I’m not proud of this one) afterwards. This infusion of small treats before, during, and after has turned my daily grading time into something I look forward to in a weird sort of way.
  • I try to keep my goals moderate. Like many teachers I know, I chronically assume I will get done more than I could ever actually do. My approach now is to set what feels like a highly doable goal and then cut it by a third, which generally ends up being a goal that I can actually meet, and meeting benchmarks along the way through a stack of papers helps me to feel like I’m making progress.
  • I strive to keep my stacks as small as possible by much better planning when I assign papers in my various sections. I am not sure how to look at 100 papers and not feel stressed out, so I stagger when papers come in from my sections in the hope that I never have to see 100 papers together ever again.
  • I am very careful not to cart my papers around with me anymore. Persistent physical papers (or tabs open on a browser) can exaggerate feelings of being overworked, as your work is literally always staring you down.
  • I take regular paper holidays, especially over breaks.
  • Lastly, I strive to remember that responding to papers is in many ways a joyful and wondrous thing. We are tasked with helping students find their voices, express themselves, and work through ideas. These are the reasons we likely became teachers, and papers are a central location where that beautiful work is done.

As I look at the weather report for tomorrow, I see snow in the forecast again. This means I will likely be meeting one of my bottlenecks on the way to school. I also have a stack of papers that will be coming to me once I get there, so my second bottleneck will make an appearance this week too. And while I would be lying if I said I wasn’t dreaming about Spring Break where I will get a reprieve from both of these time vampires (I definitely am), I am going to strive to remember that there is beauty that comes with each one too. While I’m in my car, it will be dark and early, but I will get a chance to simply sit, drink coffee, and listen to Morning Edition, which is not normal in a house that is ruled by a toddler. While I grade papers, I will have less time to write, read, run, and rest, but I will have the opportunity to hear and celebrate student ideas, help students build skills and voice, and have an excuse to get an afternoon coffee or maybe even a double, and we should all be so lucky.

Thanks as always for reading, and yours in teaching,

Matt

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