How to Teach Writing and Spend Less Time Grading Papers
Jordan Kohanim’s thoughtful explanation in Education Week regarding why he decided to leave teaching certainly resonated with lots of other teachers as evidenced in the comment section following his essay. Kohanim cites the usual perfect storm of problems: litigious parents, low expectations for students, inept administration. He presents an altogether understandable description of a professional situation that had become untenable for him personally. However, as a former English teacher, I had to wonder about this reason for leaving:
“My classes were big. If I worked six-hour days with no breaks, it would take 28 days to grade my students' 159 essays. I was an English teacher. My kids had to write. I had to grade. And I actually enjoyed grading, but 159 students? That was too much. Twenty-eight days to grade those essays was too much.”
When I first started teaching I had about the same number of students, so I can commiserate with Kohanim. It was overwhelming. I remember it well because my prep period was the last period of the day, and by that time I was too exhausted to do much more that sit and gaze fixedly at the stack of papers before me.
But that was a while ago, and since that time English teachers have figured out lots of ways to teach writing without acting like a major publishing house editor. Doing the math, it turns out that Kohanim claims to have spent a little more than an hour grading each student’s paper. Good lord.
First of all, if an English teacher uses the writer’s workshop approach, by the time the teacher sees the final draft, it should be clean and publishable. Secondly, teaching kids to write is about teaching kids to revise. Sharing their work with others in the class, defending their argument, using spell check and other computer tools are all part of the writing process. Teaching kids to write on the computer is part of the writing process too, and I would hope no English teachers are still expecting kids to write their essays first and then use the computer as a typewriter.
Finally, we should be teaching kids to write all kinds of things besides long-form essays or the moribund 20-page term paper. Short paragraphs, directions, opinion pieces, jokes, poems, plays – even recipes. The key to learning how to write well is to write and revise often, not to write one opus that the student won’t see again for weeks. Gettng a paper or a test back weeks or even months later does nothing to enhance learning.
So, yes, I can see how forces that a teacher can’t control can become so frustrating that he or she may decide to leave the profession. But knowing how to teach writing so that it is effective without being professionally debilitating is the teacher’s responsibility. Besides, few students actually read myriad editing comments or appreciate reams of criticisms, corrections, and suggestions about their work.
Someone suggested that English teachers should have paid “correctors” to grade essays. That idea suggests to me a lack of understanding about teaching writing as a dynamic interactive process to improve communication.
I’m always sorry to see a good teacher leave the profession. And Kohanim certainly cites some good reasons. Grading papers probably isn’t one of them.