Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The end of a semester is always a little overwhelming for me. There are stacks and stacks of papers, literally hundreds of pages of student writing that I must not only read, but write comments on and evaluate.

This semester's end has been particularly overwhelming for me, and it was in the midst of feeling totally overwhelmed that I stumbled upon an idea that I think is pretty good.

For my student's last essays, I am making them do the bulk of the commenting. Let me explain, lest you think I'm just being lazy. There is a method and a purpose to my "laziness."

As a teacher of freshman English, there are a handful of comments that I find myself writing over and over and over and over again on student essays. I have seriously considered getting some rubber stamps made with these comments on them. Here they are:

"Grab my attention"
"Support claims with EVIDENCE"
"Needs development" (i.e. too short)
"Seems unorganized/scattered"
"Break up really looooong paragraphs"
"MLA format!"

Because freshman essays, by and large, tend to have these same problems, grading them has become more of a chore than a joy, especially when I have to grade 125 of them.

So here's my brilliant idea. For this last essay, I am making the students do the commenting. I write those six comments on the board, and have students go paragraph-by-paragraph on their essays, and write the comments as they see appropriate.

If a student thinks their essay is "perfect" or "just fine" they must raise their hand, and I will provide suggestions because writing is never perfect, even for experienced writers.

Here's my rationale. First, it frees up my grading time to focus more on the ideas of their essays instead of getting too caught up with the form. Second, it reinforces for students what I feel are important aspects of writing (focus, organization, development). Third, it teaches students to approach revision in a different way. Instead of them seeing revision as simply making the specific changes I mention in my comments, they are empowered to see themselves as instigators of revision, a part of the process. This is a skill I hope they will carry into other classes.

It is important to mention that I am doing this with their last essays. I have already graded and commented on a couple previous ones, so they are not ill-equipped.

I did this activity in my classes today, and it has worked rather well. The students identify formal problems with their writing, and I am freed to comment on their ideas, which is a much more stimulating and worthwhile activity for me.

This semester, as never before, I am experimenting with new teaching ideas. Too often I hear horror stories about teachers who are boring, passionless, and rather arbitrary with their grading. If we, as teachers, are not keeping things fresh and relevant and enjoyable, what's the point? If a student leaves a class thinking it was boring or irrelevant, I think we do them a great disservice.

Though I am a teacher, I am still learning.



  1. How efficient of you! What you have done can be considered multi-tasking. : )

  2. I can't tell you how many times I've considered the rubber stamp idea. In fact, I am grading an enormous stack of papers right now, and I am ready to bang my head against the wall. This is the general feeling I get after grading stacks of papers. I think your idea about comments is a good one. I also believe that while teachers need to assign lots of writing and to put in the time to actually see improvement, students need to do a lot of the work too. One thing I've been doing this semester is to have them do lots of timed essays, but then to have them pick between two of their essays for me to comment on and grade. They look at the rubric, figure out how they'd grade each paper, they pick the better one, and that's the one I actually grade. The other essay is a completion grade for less points. That way they're still doing lots of writing, but I am not as burdened with grading. And they have to do some self-reflection and evaluation.

  3. Oh yeah- and creating a rubric that you staple to the top of each paper is another good idea because you end up commenting less. The rubric has a lot of those staple comments already on it, and you can just circle "evidence" or "thesis" or "conventions" one time, so that they know where they lost points. I used to be resistant to rubrics, and now I thank god for them.