Five Ways to Spend Less Time With Papers This Year (Without Sacrificing Your Impact)

Last week I tweeted out a simple question in preparation for this post: How many students do you have on your student load for ’19-’20?

I tweeted this because while teachers struggling under massive student and paper loads is a pretty well-documented problem (the very first English Journal from 1912 opens with a discussion of this; see below), I wasn’t sure how big student/paper loads across the country were. I know how things tend to work in my little part of the world (130-160 students spread across five sections is a full-time load for most Southeast Michigan districts), but I had no idea what the national scene looks like.

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My Favorite Grammar Hack

My last post was about how if we want grammar to stick, we need to do two things:

  1. Teach it in the context of student writing
  2. Approach it as a study of opportunities that enhance our writing, not errors we need to avoid

When it comes to doing this, I have found no tool more useful than the sentence. While on the surface the definition of a sentence is rather dull…

…in practice, sentences can be gorgeous laboratories of nearly infinite variety. They can be extended, cut down, puffed-up, moved around, mixed-and-matched, and generally treated like Playdough. And in the process one can teach nearly any grammatical rule and tool imaginable. Here are the top three ways that I use the humble sentence to help my students learn and learn to love grammar:

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The Key to Teaching Grammar? Make It About Opportunities, Not Errors

Photo by Jessica Lewis on

My most popular posts have been the ones on grammar. This is not surprising, as grammar remains one of the most maddeningly frustrating problems of the writing classroom. We know from over 60 years of research that teaching grammar out of the context of student writing (aka, in stand-alone worksheets, diagramming, term memorization) doesn’t work and can at times make students worse at grammar.

At the same time, teaching it in the context of student writing is tricky because students tend to have wildly different understanding of grammar. In any given class, I will inevitably have some students who will use a term like subordinate conjunction without hesitation sitting right next to others don’t use periods or capitalization regularly.

And, just to make it even trickier, the stakes concerning grammar also tend to be really high. While much of writing is so subjective that it is difficult to assess on standardized tests, basic grammar is quite concrete, meaning that it is often disproportionately represented on the exams that our students (and often us) are often disproportionately judged by.

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I’m So Sorry About the Rain: How to Significantly Improve Relationships With Students in Four Seconds

Photo by Bob Clark on

Teachers tend to be both helpers and problem solvers. In fact, if a random group of teachers were polled, my guess is that those might be the two most common traits found, as to be called to the classroom generally means you like to both help others and tackle major problems.

And being helpful and a problem-solver are generally positive traits for educators to have, but there is one moment where these mostly positive traits can become liabilities: when we sit down with students to give them feedback, either in person or on the page.

As I’ve discussed before, I’ve observed that when teachers give students feedback, they almost instantly enter let’s-fix-it! mode. Considering the sheer number of students we often have, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, but as Daniel Coyle shares in his book The Culture Code, there is a simple experiment out of the Harvard Business School that shows that maybe there is a slightly better mode to enter first, if only for four or five seconds, before entering fix-it mode. Here is how he introduces it:

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Feedback Should Be a Two-Way Street

“Before I know what to teach, I need to know whom I teach.” -Cornelius Minor

Last week I finished We Got This., Cornelius Minor’s relentlessly positive and ridiculously quotable book (which is a highly recommended read), and while it has me thinking about a lot of things, what I keep coming back to is the line above. Minor has a number of eloquent and flashy lines, but it’s this simple line–which acts as a thesis statement of sorts for the book–that has sat with me, as I feel that it hits upon something important and rare.

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The Six Books I’m Reading Before School Starts

Blogger George Evans recently wrote a blog post called “In Defense of Slow” where he states that “many things in education are simply too fast…in this rush to cover content, to get through standards…we lose the heart and soul of what we should be there for.”

I connected with this instantly, as I’ve written about how cramming too much feedback into a single paper or cramming too much content into a single lesson or unit paradoxically often leads to less learning. Sure, the amount covered by the teacher is more, but the amount ultimately retained by the students tends to be far less.

It is worth remembering though that the same is true in our own education as well. For most summers of my teaching life, I tried to blast through twenty, thirty, or forty books in a vain effort to chop my always massive to-read list down to a more manageable size, but at the end of each summer this left me feeling less recharged and a bit fuzzier on the details of many of the books than I’d like.

So last summer I decided to focus on reading six books and read them well and deep. The result was a far more enjoyable and fulfilling experience, so I am going to do the same thing again this summer. People seemed to really enjoy the list last year (I mean who doesn’t love book lists? They are among my favorite things in this world), so I wanted to share my summer 2019 list. Here it goes:

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A More Human Way to Respond to Essays

So far in this month focused on the essay, I’ve spoken about the power of giving students choice to pursue their own interests in essays, we’ve looked at a student perspective on the essay, and I’ve argued that the essay shouldn’t be the only genre of writing we elevate.

I wanted to end my posts concerning the essay with what has been maybe the biggest shift in my classroom this year: the more human responses I now give to essays.

Until very recently, my response to essays tended to focus on the main elements that go into making an essay–the thesis, topic sentences, evidence, analysis, and introductions/conclusions, with a few occasional discussions of mechanics or word choice. But this year I got to wondering if all or even most of our attention should go to towards those things. Here’s why…

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A Student Reflects on How We Teach Essays

A few months back, I got a message from a high school student named Ellie asking if I could publish a piece she wrote. I don’t publish many guest essays, but after reading it, I felt that this was a piece I should share, largely because (beyond being well-written and thoughtful) it contains a perspective rarely seen in discussions of education: the student perspective.

As teachers we may occasionally or even regularly ask students how a lesson, unit, or class went, but even when we are committed to hearing the students’ perspectives, the realities of the classroom mean that our surveys often have to be faster and more surface-level than we’d like. Further, even if anonymous, student responses to a lesson, class, or teacher tend to be heavily skewed by the relationship/dynamic they have with that class or teacher.

To get a truly deep and relatively objective look into how our teaching practices impact students is rare, and it is part of why I am handing the microphone today to Ellie. The other reason is that Ellie makes some novel and interesting points about form-first teaching, thesis statements, and creativity–points that I haven’t seen made anywhere else. I walked away from her essay holding an internal debate with both her and myself, which to me is a surefire sign that what I just read was worthwhile.

So without further preamble, here is a student perspective on the essay and how it is commonly taught. I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime I hope you get as much from it as I did! Thanks as always for reading!

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Choosing Their Own Adventures: What Essays Look Like Without a Prompt

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve long been reticent to discuss the essay and especially the five-paragraph essay on this blog because it is easily the most controversial corner of writing instruction. I’ve seen first-hand in discussion boards and department meetings how deep essay teaching practices can run (the one time that I waded directly into this space with the blog, I spent the better part of a summer day defending myself on Twitter), and with so much else to talk about, I have generally steered clear.

My tabbed and dog-eared copy of Why They Can’t Write

But in recent months, the universe has been sending me signs that it is time for me to discuss the essay in some depth. I’ve had a number or readers reach out asking about what I do, as the essay is central to most writing classrooms; I’ve also gotten several wonderful pieces sent to me by readers–including one from a student reflecting on her five-paragraph focused education that I will share with you next week–that illuminate some things I’d never thought about before, and I stumbled through a very happy accident into reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, which really got me thinking about the role the essay plays in our classes (also, despite its essay-centric title, it is a wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking book that discusses everything from online “personalized” education to the role grades play in our classes to essay writing; it is one of the most interesting reads I’ve had in some time).

Add all of that together, and I have decide that May will be a whole month spent rethinking and hopefully reclaiming the much-maligned essay as a vibrant and lively genre, as opposed to the soul-crushing exercise in compliance that it often becomes. I hope you enjoy!

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