English teachers: the stereotype is fussy, middle-aged woman whose sole job is to sneer at students’ misplaced commas and deny acceptance of late work. There are posts and tweets about how a student turns in late work, and the sheer amount of gleeful, snotty remarks dishearten me to no end. And after I remember to breathe after my raging, fist-shaking, and look deeper into what may be at the heart of this, I am asking all of us who love to read, to write, and to speak and listen to get back to the heart of what we love about being English teachers.
It is well known that English teachers carry the unfair, unbalanced burden of too much grading. Our standards are vast: we shoulder the weight of teaching all students how to communicate clearly and well in the English language, a language fraught with peculiarities and nonsensical rules, more broken than adhered to. Our scores (along with math teachers and sometimes science) are “counted.” During staff meetings and data carousels, the reading and math scores are displayed on metaphorical pikes for all to see, judge often under the pretense of “growth.” Administration are pressed to raise scores, and if they are truly instructional leaders they promote a school-wide approach. If not, they turn the data walks into fuel for petty discourse and grudges.
While we can’t excuse all of the grading, because we are the expert in the classroom, and our feedback and insight is ultimately what our students desire, I am offering some alternatives to lessen the burden. However, if you are one of those for whom control is more important than your students’ learning, I don’t have a lot of hope. Please –with love-ask yourself if it’s about control versus guidelines.
Please: Do not let students read each other’s work. This is not about finding spelling mistakes or misused comma. The reading of the piece is a critical part of this, as is the listening, undistracted, by the feedback giver. The writer reads the work. Follow this protocol for some truly inspired writing experiences. https://blog0rama.com/2019/07/31/writers-workshop/
Studio: my personal teaching philosophy is that teaching of humanities should be more like teaching art: help the talent grow and guide, but remember art is subjective > objective. If the creator can defend his or her work, allow them to make a case for it. Display students’ work as often as you can, and provide chances for open gallery feedback and discussion.
Jennifer Gonzalez has a great post that my own master mentor and friend, Holly, suggested to me years ago. Great ideas do that: they spread, sharpen, and improve. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/single-point-rubric/
Don’t grade everything.
Pick one or two larger pieces of work. Give small check-in grades for progress along the way:
3. One revision pass
4. One editing pass
5. Final published work
Do not assign reading logs. Alternative: assign curated content. (Are your students checking up on your and your reading logs? It’s not much fun when we think about it that way.)
Speaking: give students a chance to talk, and you can provide an accountability piece if they share something that’s on their minds.
Listening: Read aloud. Play author’s interviews and speeches. Listen in workshop.
Calendars and Conversations: do not work in isolation, if you can help it, and reach out to colleagues to see if they’re giving assignments that can be cross-purposed. Make sure to help students with time management (Pomodoro method, etc.)
Deadlines do matter, but I offer that we take a version of ‘love and logic’ about deadlines. English teachers: make a promise to yourself and your students: if they miss a deadline do not offer sarcastic responses. We had a saying in the Puget Sound Writing Project: “Writing is never finished, it’s only due.” Tell students ahead of time that deadlines matter for everyone’s peace of mind and self-care, theirs and the teacher’s. Getting it done and something turned in gives everyone a place to start the feedback and discussion. I would tell students, if you turn in nothing, I am like the fire department: I don’t know if you’re drowning or if you’re on fire. I need to know how to help. There was always the last week of grading where I gave a small window to turn in missing/late work, or redo-work. Some kids took me up on it, some didn’t. Some…couldn’t. I think as we learn more about depression and other trauma we will have new means of helping students with deadlines. And, since we’ve been testing our students since kindergarten, not allowing free play time, we are facing a generation of students who do not know how to self-manage. We’re seeing more anger, violence and disruptions, and the solution seems to be keep kids in the classroom, and we’ll solve the root causes later. But that’s a post for another time.
We have our jobs to do, and putting in grades and accounting for production is deeply embedded in our educational systems. Until that changes, or we make adjustments where we can, we are going to become increasingly burnt-out. We can be creative and thoughtful about this process, and above all: respectful. Modeling both self-respect and respect for our students will create a safer, gentler community of readers and writers. And who knows? They just might meet their deadlines.
Two additional resources: