A Snow Day Stumper


I still haven’t figured it out.

I can write a dozen critical discussion questions about Chapter III in Susan Minot’s Monkeys in under twenty minutes. I can tame a class of itchy, giddy, self-satisfied junior boys during last block on a dress-down Friday with a free-association journaling activity on childhood memories. I can inspire my freshmen with a horror story challenge or a haiku writing contest; I can grade a Huck Finn oral presentation on the spot. I can pose the one question or point out the one flaw in reasoning that renders a cocky student speechless. But I can’t, for the life of me, correct a paper in under a half-hour.

My first year teaching, 2000-2001, I was trying to manage both lesson-planning and grading essays. I would spend all evening scrambling to get one chapter ahead of my students in the novel we were reading, developing paper topics and clever exercises that served all seven of Howard Gardner’s learning styles (skits, naturally, for the kinetic learners; therapeutic reflection in small groups for the introverts). On Sundays, I would lock myself in my bedroom and watch Lifetime movies as I marked up page after page of bumbling prose and typos and improper MLA formatting. If I was lucky, I would grade maybe five or six papers over the course of the day.

Now, I need to whip up fresh lesson plans only a few times per week, because my repertoire is already so conveniently huge. Fifteen years of teaching English will do that for you. Instead, I spend my free periods responding to parent e-mails, reading and writing for my MFA program at Emerson, and photocopying handouts. In the afternoons, I go grocery shopping, tend to the dietary, psychological, athletic, and artistic needs of my two children, supervise playdates, unload the dishwasher, trim and marinate chicken breasts for dinner, vacuum Cheez-It and Goldfish crumbs, iron my and the kids’ clothes, and watch reality t.v. with my husband—when I am not in Boston at grad classes, that is.

You would think that, with every second of my time accounted for, I would have invented a fool-proof approach to banging out corrections on an essay in five minutes flat. You would think that I would have learned by now that I cannot save the fledgling amateur writing population by circling every comma splice and crossing out every unnecessary adverb…that while I believe crafting a perfect thesis statement is a life skill, not every teenager does…that the leading questions I pose in the margins—“Are you sure the narrator [in James Joyce’s “Araby”] is a stalker? Could other, more straightforward interests be driving his affection for his friend’s older sister?”—are not ones that will guide the writer to a career of groundbreaking literary analysis…that what he is most interested in seeing is the final letter grade on the last page, because that letter is what his parent is most interested in seeing, or because that letter deems his absolute worth, regardless of the conversation about his writing into which I am trying to invite him through all of my commentary.

But it still takes me 30-45 minutes to grade a paper. And this dilemma is starting to hurt my feelings.

An average of twenty students, times 30-45 minutes per paper, equals 10-15 hours of correcting for one class for one assignment. So it’s feasible that at any point, I could be facing 40-60 hours of grading in order to return a major paper to every student in each of my four classes. In the English Department, we are supposed to assign our classes two major papers per quarter, in addition to all of the smaller critical and creative writing assignments that are part of the curriculum. Distribute those 40-60 hours amongst the hours that I spend now actually teaching in the classroom, returning parent e-mails, fulfilling my own personal dreams of becoming a published author (Is that okay? Is that okay, that as a teacher, I have my own dreams that sometimes take me away from pointing out run-ons and weak introductory lines?), attending department and faculty meetings, taking my children to lacrosse, soccer, and gymnastics, pounding the crap out of chicken breasts, etc., etc., etc….and I’m thinking that it’s not so astounding that it takes me weeks upon weeks, and sometimes months, to pass back a paper. Even if I could dedicate an entire hour per weekday to grading this type of assignment, we’re talking a minimum of six weeks before the kids have it back in their hands.

“When are we getting those essays back?” they demand.

“When I’m done grading them,” I calmly say.

It’s a phenomenon, the way that this one question can deflate my confidence in an instant, can make me feel so accused. Their words often carry an unintentional chord of arrogance. They have spent their precious time (a few hours, maybe, over the course of a couple of weeks) writing this essay, and now it’s my obligation to satisfy immediately their eagerness to know how they have performed. I mean, I don’t blame them for wanting instant gratification. As young people, the majority of their job in life is to go to school and to complete their homework. On the contrary, though, the majority of my job in life is to be a parent and a wife. I am also a writer and a freelance editor, and I am nurturing goals outside of the realm of the occupation that pays my bills. My students don’t understand the complexity in my days that allows for only minimal attention to the duty of grading papers. And they shouldn’t—they are kids. But my inability to convey why it’s taking so long for me to respond to their work leaves me feeling frustrated and ineffective. They don’t care about my “excuses.” They just want their papers back.

Every school year, I speak to at least one parent who says that her son’s experience with English in eighth grade was less than productive. His teacher was perfectly lovely, of course, but because she taught five sections of twenty-two students apiece, she struggled to pass back papers with beneficial feedback in a timely way. These parents express empathy for the middle school teachers, but also hopeful expectations that the turnaround window for writing assignments will greatly improve now that their sons are attending a private school. Because the turnaround window will shrink, the feedback will automatically be more useful, and the children will learn more skills more quickly. The implication that the high tuition for private school automatically guarantees tireless dedication on the part of the school’s uber-invested teachers is always nestled into the tenor of these conversations. What are they paying for, after all, if not a teacher’s full emotional, intellectual, and professional investment in each child whose family is shelling out $80K for his secondary education? Here is the problem…the way I see it, this investment involves both the 30-40 minutes of painstaking response to each essay he writes, as well as a lickety-split turnaround.

And I can’t do it. I can’t do both.

I am a writer, and so I am deeply in love with the art of fashioning powerful, technically-precise sentences in a captivating, individualized voice. My love for this art compromises my capacity for mailing it in where responding to student writing is concerned. I can’t let anything go. I can’t permit a student writer to mangle syntax or randomly switch verb tense. I can’t resist identifying a hole in his argument about a Willa Cather novel that I know inside and out. I can’t withhold the swipe of my pen through an empty compliment that he directs toward the author: “In ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’ Hemingway does a marvelous job of showing how the girl and the man have different opinions about raising their unborn child.” My calling is to model how one must treat language, respect it, caress it, and shape it, use it to change minds and to charge spirits. If I don’t share my love for the precision and romance of expression, whether through writing myself or teaching writing, then my soul dies. Seriously.

I am also maniacally committed to expressing myself with utmost clarity. Young people must learn how to express themselves with utmost clarity as well, not only to survive in the world, but to excel. In fact, very early on in my teaching career, I once fell into trouble for not wording my observations and suggestions carefully on a student’s essay. I had come to his paper after reviewing a tall pile of mediocre work—Had every kid ignored my repeated instructions for how to explicate a passage? Was this some sort of uprising?—and lost it: “What are you doing? This isn’t a public service announcement”; “Ugh!”; “Really? What were you thinking?”. I received a threatening phone call from the boy’s father, as well as a visit on PTA night during which he straight-out bullied me, pointed finger and all, in the library in front of my colleagues and dozens of other parents. While my school’s administration was supportive and protected me from further interaction with this father (hell, his own kid even wrote me an apology on the final exam for his dad’s behavior that year), I still understood that this trauma was meant to teach me a lesson about thoughtfulness and appropriateness in teaching and the permanence of the written word on a student’s paper. I needed to evaluate what it meant to offer constructive feedback, as well as what it meant to cover my ass. So another element of grading that I am not willing to compromise is choosing every word with compulsive exactitude before I write it in the margin of an essay. If I am pointing out an incomplete thought in a student’s paper, for example, I can’t underline the phrase and write “sentence fragment,” next to it, because by writing “sentence fragment,” I am using a sentence fragment myself, and therefore committing the same grammatical crime for which I am criticizing him. “This clause is a sentence fragment” not only solves that problem, but also avoids a demonstrative pronoun situation in which the noun is unclear (i.e., “This is a sentence fragment”), a lesson that I will undoubtedly be teaching the class soon. (Disclaimer: I, myself, use demonstrative pronouns in this blog post. I use them because I know the rules of grammar well. Once a writer knows the rules, he or she can feel free to play with them and even to break them. My students aren’t polished enough writers yet to capitalize on this freedom.)

Yes, I know—I’m crazy.

I’m not sure what my intentions are in venting about this dilemma that has never really resolved itself. And I don’t fully know what the solution is. The past six snow days have left me staring down piles of essays, and wrestling with the decision whether to spend these gifted “free” hours catching up on grading them, or writing fiction for my master’s thesis, or indulging in blogging for some much-needed catharsis, which I have not done since last summer. Yesterday, I found myself in tears as I faced this decision. My heart was pained with the knowledge that I was behind in correcting and that I dreaded the task of remedying the situation. My heart was pained with my distinct desire to write for myself…to play with and read to my children…to even watch a few Grey’s Anatomy episodes, which I have been DVRing since September and haven’t had the chance to enjoy (speaking of brilliant writing…). My heart was pained with the realization that I will never find peace in spending as much time as I do responding to the essays that I have assigned, even though my meticulous, passionate attention to writing and to my students’ growth as writers is both admirable and valued by those students’ families and by my employer. The truth is, I’m not sure I can hold up my predetermined end of the paper-grading bargain as a private school English teacher for much longer.

Since matriculating in Emerson’s MFA program in Creative Writing back in the fall of 2012, I have had to adjust my teaching methods in order to give myself time to fulfill my coursework. Over the past two years, my pedagogical approaches have included more live-workshopping formats, small group collaborations and presentations, and paired and individual in-class writings, rather than lengthy writing assignments outside of class. The increasing ease with which students can access online study guides to classic and contemporary texts has also inspired my switchover to essay composition and graded analytical discussions during class time. Now that I have been focusing more of my energy on in-person oral feedback to students, I am finding it more and more difficult to motivate myself to spend those 40-60 hours per assignment—mostly outside of the professional school day—giving extensive written feedback. My school believes strongly in the importance of getting back papers in a “timely manner.” But I am starting to wonder whether endless correcting and the assumption that an English teacher will sacrifice multiple other interests and responsibilities so that she can continually satisfy the temporary needs of her students are the only answers to teaching young people how to communicate, to create, and to convince.

Categories: TeachingTags: , , , ,

5 comments

  1. I’m glad you wrote this (and I’m glad I read it). I tend to grade work on my favorite texts glacially slowly too (for the reasons you give here – because I ‘know them inside and out’ and the fact that, well, I LOVE THEM!). Occasionally I remember that what’s in my head and heart shouldn’t always dictate how I correct a 14-year-old’s writing. He might need to be reminded of sentence fragments and also how to use quotations to help his argument. Or maybe he needs to see the large menu of options when writing dialog, or setting description. Maybe he just needs ONE of these things right now. I just need to remember to give him what he needs most right now (which obviously means ignoring many things I care about BUT this incrementally strategy allows me to correct essays in 10-15m AND it gives him a manageable task to work on). I’m just not very good at doing this all the time.

    As I have said to you in person, there are times where, if the State visited our house, they would take our kids away (particularly if they visited from 6:30-7:15am!!). But despite our many screw-ups as parents, one of the concrete decisions we’ve made that’s been really helpful is a no-screens policy from Monday-Thursday in the house (no-screens unless it’s work related . . . a slippery slope for sure). It’s hard at first but it has helped me with getting work done, sleeping, and reading more. Just a thought . . . . Jay

    • Hi, Jay…thank you for your comment. I have also tried the focused correction method, and I have found it more difficult than I thought because I tend to regard a piece of student writing holistically. Also, I have had students point out to me things that I have told them in a conversation to do or fix in their papers, but that I have “neglected” to mention on their drafts. (Bastards.) Again, it’s the whole CYA policy. I want to make sure that I am absolutely, positively clear at all times. This is a lot of pressure to put on myself, but I am ultra obsessive that way. In terms of screen time, limiting it is hard because my whole writing world is on my computer…and I don’t view my creative writing, for Emerson or for fun, as work. It’s my passion! At my computer is, actually, where I most want to be at any point and time, with the exception of doing something active with my husband or kids. Simply, I just don’t have enough time in the day to do everything I want and love to do. : ( But that’s the case with all of us, I think.

  2. I think that you express something that many people in our department feel (some express it and some don’t). It would be really interesting to pass out a descriptive paragraph OR a 2 page essay or some reasonably sized sample of writing, spend 15m with it alone THEN discuss our grading / comments in small groups. I’m sure we’d all learn something. It just isn’t reasonable (as you’ve already said) to spend 40-50m per essay when you teach 80-90 kids. I’d love to discuss (AND SEE) the alternatives.

  3. Absolutely. That would be a great exercise. We could even take the sample piece of writing for a week, review it and respond to it, then photocopy our comments for distribution in the following meeting. Brilliant. I just have a feeling that my commentary and, say, John Klein’s would be utterly different.

  4. The thing about catharsis is that it’s suppose to help you pick up and move along. Hope writing this essay helped or you have a few more paid snow days. I enjoyed the very interesting exchange between you and Mr. P. I also remember that the excellent writing help you received in high school was in classes where the teachers had no more than 10 students. Keep in perspective that fact as well as their 50 percent higher tuition over your current school,

    For me, only three things about my high school English paper grading stand out.(elite public high school circa 1962)
    We only got a mark and short generalized note at the bottom of a paper. (Ex. “‘B-, paragraph on Walter character insightful, WORK ON YOUR GRAMMAR AND SPELLING!) We were not allowed to write sentences longer than a line and a half or two at the most. (Department ruled by Hemingway and Steinbeck freaks) . As excellerated students we had the head of the department whose mantra was,” Do not expect to get into a top college if you don’t get an A in my class!”

    In college of course most professors had “readers”.

    Keep the faith. Life gets easier in your fifties.

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