What We Need More Of: Teaching, Not Editing, in the Margins of Student Papers

This is the second of a mini-series that I am doing on things we need a lot more of in the writing classroom. The first was on needing more low-stakes writing and use of writing as a teaching tool, as opposed to solely as a vehicle for expressing one’s thoughts. This week’s is on how we need to do more teaching and less copyediting in the margins of student papers and why doing that is so hard.


Over the last forty years, a compelling and comprehensive case has been made that teachers should not act as editors and mark every little error on every student paper. I’ve written on this before, as have Carol Jago, Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, Penny Kittle, Donald Graves, Nancy Sommers, and [Fill in name of well-known writing teacher here].

Dozens of studies have also been done on the subject, with each supporting the idea that we shouldn’t just copyedit our way through student work because…

  • The haste required to mark everything often leads to a terse tone from the teacher that can intimidate students.
  • With so many comments, it can be hard for students to differentiate the minor concerns from the major ones.
  • Quickly scrawled comments often lead to confusion. Some studies suggest 50% of quickly written comments are misunderstood by students.
  • And maybe most damningly, it is simply ineffective. Students can’t learn dozens of concepts simultaneously, especially if none of them is addressed with any depth.

All of this can be seen in this paper with my real comments from my early teaching days that I use in workshops on the subject of providing feedback:

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Notice the tone, which is nothing if not impersonal and terse; the hodgepodge of highlighted text, crossed out words, new language inserted, and quick comments written in what I call English Teacher Shorthand; and the numerous lessons, each glanced upon at a surface level.

If I were standing in front of students at this time I wouldn’t have taken this tone, delivered my content in such a confusing way, and had dozens of learning objectives, but at the time I didn’t flinch to do it over and over in the papers that crossed my desk.

So why was this? Why do we so often behave differently in that one inch of margin space than we would in person? And why is it that despite every major researcher and teacher of writing over the last forty years shouting at the tops of their lungs about not acting as copyeditors, that approach to papers is still the most prevalent in this country by a large margin?

The answer might lie in why most of us became English teachers. We likely became English teachers because we love kids, love language, and probably loved an English teacher or two while we were in school. When confronted with a comma splice, it feels like leaving it untouched lets down our kids, who will be judged on such things in the world; lets down our beloved language, which we have devoted our lives to celebrating and passing on; and lets down our mentors, many of whom would have unabashedly sliced and diced it with a red pen, even if it meant making the paper bleed red. 

But just because it feels right, doesn’t mean it is right. In those moments of temptation–where the copyeditor in me is dying to nudge aside the teacher–I strive to remember that my students, my mentors, and my language all want me to pursue the same goal: to help my students grow as writers and in love with writing, and that is best done when we have the same ground rules in papers that we do when we stand in front of students.

With that in mind, here are some new rules for how to best play the teacher–not the editor–in the margins of student work, complete with examples from the essays I’ve been responding to over the last week:

#1: We need to use our responses to continue the work of building relationships, meaning, motivation, and students’ understanding of the writing process. 

Peter Elbow once said, “The written comments you make on a student’s essay will often be the basis of your relationship with that student.” He was right, but they can do even more than that! Our comments are the very definition of differentiation, which means they are the perfect spot to build relationships, increase student motivation, teach the writing process, and instruct students.

For an example of this, look at my response to the following student. She has been struggling with getting to class and doing work, so I opened my comments with a response that was meant to reach out and show that I was listening. This is a moment of connection and the hope is that it leads to both an improved relationship and maybe a small motivational bump because it quietly implies that she has something to say that is worth hearing.

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 3.20.46 PM

#2: We should show energy and enthusiasm.

Maybe my favorite line from my first book for new teachers is, “enthusiasm is a billion dollar business.” I still stand by that, as we as humans can’t resist the pied piper call of passionate, enthusiastic energy. Yet so often, even with the most excitable of teachers, our comments read as dispassionately as a set of IKEA directions. We need to bring energy to them in the same way that we bring it to our classes, as this will demonstrate to students that writing is something that one can and should get passionate about. For example, here is my excited response to a student’s argument that I actually disagree with.

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 11.18.16 AM

#3: We should pick a couple learning objectives and dive deep… 

Two of the first lessons I learned in education school were…

  1. We should limit the number of lesson objectives to no more than a few.
  2. We should dive deep into these few key lessons.

The reason for this is simple. Unless we are born with exceptional gifts, we can’t learn dozens of big lessons in one sitting, largely because we can’t learn at all unless we dig deeply into something and give it our attention for an extended period of time. This principle doesn’t change when it comes to lessons on a page, so I tend to pick a couple key things and write comments like this:

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 4.30.24 PM

#4 …and require students to dive deeply with us.

But it isn’t enough for us to dive deeply. Students must dive with us. This is why a part of my final grade for every paper is that the student “makes clear progress” on the focus areas I give them:

Screen Shot 2018-10-25 at 8.11.38 PM

#5: Show that you are hearing them and their ideas. Invite them to the conversation.

So often feedback to writing is a one-sided affair where it is assumed the teacher is a vessel full of knowledge whose job it is to pour that knowledge into the brains of students. While teachers do likely have a depth of understanding that students don’t, learning happens best when students feel like they are active parts of the process. To establish this I go out of my way to show students I am listening to and valuing them as writers:

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So let’s stop treating student papers like a game of whack-a-mole where we smack every error and silence that voice that tells us to do everything. We are not editors. We cannot teach every lesson at once with one swipe of our pen. We are teachers, and that means we need to act as such in the margins as much as we do out of them!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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