If they made a TV reality show called So You Think You can be an English Teacher, grading research essays would be the final elimination round. Like leaning on a pole with one foot off the ground, grading the research essay requires stamina, focus, and dedication. This week I collect research essays from five class sections of English I, and I’ve been preparing myself…
Unlike the competitors on many reality shows who must only worry about themselves, English teachers confronting stacks of research essays must ensure that students are also prepared. Truly bad essays in the pile, the ones that don’t follow the most basic of directions, can turn a grader’s spirits more seriously than a rock in the road can sprain an ankle. To prevent such injury to her most precious grading instrument—her ability to care and think reading the essays carefully actually matters—a grader must ensure that her students write the best possible essays, which often requires pre-grading. Like any strategy, pre-grading tries to invest time and energy early on to help things fall into place at the end. By evaluating thesis statements, quality of sources, Works Cited MLA format, and rough drafts, graders can smoke out future problems.
To best prepare for the endurance required with research essay grading, pre-grading should end at least five days before the actual collection due date. Between pre-grading and collection, graders need rest and distraction. Watching movies and carbo-loading so that life does in fact seem worth living can help. The lurking enemy for English teachers in this final round of serious semester grading is not other teachers successfully whipping through their piles, but apathy, losing steam. By banking up on life’s short-term pleasures, teachers can build a reserve of joy and hope for the week of close grading ahead.
The first day after collection, the grader may want to look over the entire stack for Big Problems first. Students who did not use enough sources, or who wrote in the wrong voice, or whose Turnitin.com report shows flagrant plagiarism, need to be dealt with in a calm way. Negotiating what happens next with these students takes lots of energy that may not be available after the entire pile has been graded. Here’s where the pre-grading energy really pays off. Teachers who have records of letting students know at different intervals that they needed to make changes can more readily enforce grading policies now. Parents, counselors, and students themselves respond differently when chances to recover have already been ignored by student writers. Knowing that the Big Problems have been dealt with already will buoy the spirit of the grader as she faces the stack, too.
Now comes the actual grading. Essay after essay, the grader needs to summon up interest and respond with encouraging words. Grading for days…Sixty-five essays left… “No, I can’t watch a movie. I know it’s Saturday night!” Fifty essays left… “No, I’ll have to call her back.” Thirty essays left… “Three before a cup a coffee…Two more before I get a glass of water…Grade the Works Cited before checking email…” Ten left. Ten! Only ten left! Other assignments wait to be graded, piling up on the corner of my desk. Students ask often (constantly?), “Do you have my essay?” If this point in my semester did occur on a reality show, I would film my one-on-one confessions with the camera during this time, wiping away tears as I sobbed about not knowing if I could finish reading all of them and beating my fists against my thighs as I wondered how I could have made the fact that I wanted it double-spaced more clear. Every twenty-fifth essay or so, I encounter a student who has written a beautiful, thoughtful, well-edited essay, and I suck it in like pure oxygen as I continue. Then, like dental work, the stack finally ends. Each semester it feels like a miracle, but in truth, grading the research essay successfully results from stamina, focus, and dedication. No, we don’t win a million dollars. However, paying active audience to students’ written product, really reading what they write, may just seed tomorrow’s thinkers. That’s a million dollar hope that I bank on each time I dive into the pile.
Good luck with grading, everybody! I’d love to know more winning strategies…
co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher