Eyes on the Prize: Growing Student Writers

Correcting student writing got you down? Try some fresh assessment methods for focusing on growth in the high school English classroom.

By Adrin Fisher

Last spring, deep in the futile throes of correcting essays I had collected on March 13 (the day that must not be named), I promised myself that this year would be THE year: the time when I finally figure out a way to do this essay grading thing better. 2020 has been a lot. 2020 is being a lot.

However, in the interest of keeping promises to myself (despite the deep temptation to keep doing the things I can control in the same way I’ve done them for years), I am forging ahead.

Please forgive my naval-gazing. COVID has caused a convulsion in the school system—and for someone with twenty-three years in the classroom, a spouse in his twelfth year as a reading specialist, and two teenagers in school, a convulsion in the school system affects every aspect of life. So I will start by centering my beliefs about myself as a teacher:

  • A growth mindset is my greatest weapon.
  • Proactivity within my circle of influence is my work.
  • What I focus on grows.
  • My profession was and remains my choice.

Next, I will review my teaching-of-writing process. It goes something like this: think of an interesting essay assignment. I usually create my own because I naively believe it discourages cheating. I talk about how to pre-write and organize. I model. We write in class and I do “walking conferences.” Then we peer edit. Then I collect the final copies with all the work attached.  

And then I mark the essays. This takes time. The stack is thick. I procrastinate a bit first, because I know it will take me hours and hours. In fact, my usual rate is 20 minutes per essay. Multiply that out over 110 students, give or take. 

No wonder I hesitate.  

Two or three weeks later, I return essays. Next comes the possibility of bonus points for revising. To get a good revision grade, students have to address my comments and then make changes. Not hard, really. I give points based on the changes—did they develop? did they fix all the awkwardness?  

But, of course, 90% of my students don’t revise.  

Which means that the 20 minutes I spent pointing out issues in logic or grammar, correcting sentence structure, and asking pointed questions are wasted—waste multiplied by 90%.

Disheartening. 

And in a plague year, nearly enough to push me under.

I have specific ideas about myself as a teacher. I confess that the truths I listed above have not been always the truths of my teacher-self.  But now, this year, maybe I can change.  

Maybe I can take back my weekends (once this hybrid-distance double teaching job with no extra remuneration situation I’m in finally ends). Maybe I can adjust my thought patterns to accept that I am not the sole arbiter of teaching writing. Maybe I am not exclusively responsible for the students’ success. 

So, here are some strategies I’ve collected:

Intentional Marking:  Grade only for one thing. Pick something to correct: introduction, thesis, transitional phrases, organization, etc. Force your pink pen to only touch those things. Only.

Code It:  A few years ago, a younger teacher told me about a system of marking that involves coding rather than correcting. The student (and you) has the key to see what the errors are. This reminds me that one of my high school teachers put a checkmark at the end of a line but didn’t reveal the mistake.

Bank Comments: Create a comment bank for your online assignments. This is a feature in Google Classroom that lets you save comments and then choose the appropriate one from your own list. Likewise, you can use a Google add-on called Keep—it’s a post-it note tab—to hold comments you keep using. You can copy and paste from your notes

Whole Class Feedback: After reading (but not marking) essays, create a list of the big issues and write the class a “letter” that shows common mistakes and fixes, and then encourages students to dive into their own writing.

Just Don’t Grade It: Let students practice, and let yourself cheer them on. This approach is beloved by teachers such as Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Sarah Zerwin.

These strategies are fine and good, and maybe one or more of them will work for you. I still have a problem, though. It’s my weird obligation, a dire sense of “I’m not doing my job unless I…”

Fortunately, in my diligent search, I have come across something I think I can do. At the start of school, I joined a Facebook group: Teaching Teachers How to Teach Writing created by Kristian Kuhn. Despite my desire to sit on the couch and worry that evening, I joined a live PD session given by a Minnesota teacher named Mara J. Corey. (The hour-long session is still available in the archive of the group.) In the session, she explained how her goal is to make students do the heavy lifting of writing.

 

Instead of commenting on each paper (because, let’s be real, similar issues come up over and over again in a set of essays), she provides “Big Picture” pre-teaching. Corey anticipates the problem areas and addresses them during the writing period. For example, she might attack passive verbs or weak sentence construction. Or perhaps she’ll review the ICE heuristic (Introduce, Cite, Explain) for building in text evidence.  

Then—and here’s the really new-to-me-thing—she provides students with a Growth Focus. Either she or the student will choose ONE thing to work on, which is graded on a separate rubric. For Corey, this addresses the 90% wasted time issue by demanding that students improve: It’s not good enough to write an essay that scores 4s across the board; you must ALSO demonstrate that you’re getting better. In fact, she makes the Growth Focus rubric worth 50% of the total score. It’s a simple rubric, A through D, based on how the student sought instruction and applied it.

D

Not Proficient
C
Approaching Proficiency
B

Proficiency with Help
A
Independent Proficiency  
No improvement in the growth focus area 

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Proficient in the growth focus area with one-on-one teacher help (relearning)
Improvement in the growth focus area on my own  

Mastery in the growth focus area on my own
Corey’s Growth Focus Rubric

I’m anticipating your question: If you have to now track each kid’s Growth Focus over time, and coach the students along the way with mini-lessons, small group sessions, or online materials until they master one GF and choose another, how is this going to save time?

Well, the answer, I think, is in the comments. She gears ALL feedback to the Growth Focus. She relies on her essay rubric to take care of the general feedback, without additional comment, so everything she notes or writes on the student paper is only and ever about the Growth Focus. Sounds sensible, right?

So, today, in the autumn of a plague year, I have decided to adopt Corey’s strategy. To that end, I have created tables listing each student along with a GF they’ve chosen and that GF grade.  

Now, have I really cut my correcting time?

No. I’m still figuring out how to be all things to all learners—some on paper, some in Google Docs, some on Kami with my weird little plug-in tablet and stylus. I’m still so tempted to type comments. I think it maybe is taking longer than ever, but I’m afraid to time myself. So, no, not yet.  

But, there is hope. I think this is something I can get behind. I think I can wean myself off marking each RO and asking for clarification each time. I think I can focus on one thing, one individualized thing. I think I can let myself slide into something that’s just as personal, yet less demanding on my time…once it’s set up. I think so. It’s worth a shot.

Eyes on the prize, teacher-friend. The prize is student growth WHILE you live your life. Let’s have our cake and eat it too.

Go forth, be well, and take courage, dear heart.

 Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

The Top Five Reasons Why Back-to-School is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Teaching is a profession to be proud of, and you do work worthy of song.

By Adrin Fisher

Well, it’s that time again.  The summer has slipped by like seawater through a sieve, and teachers are back at school shaking off the dust covers and jockeying for position in the Xerox room—or sitting in mind-numbing professional development meetings under florescent lights—or maybe even standing in front of a class of bleary-eyed high school kids with a bright smile plastered on.

Wherever you are in the back-to-school process, teacher-friend, I want to take a few minutes to remind you of the reasons for the season.

Number Five

Mornings. 

Getting up early is a gift.  You hear those birds singing what my dad calls the “morning chorus,” or the early-morning commuters and the rumble of heavy trucks—or both, depending on your neighborhood, which reminds you that, even though you may feel like it, you’re not the first one up.  Your positive mindset allows you to see an early morning as a reward.  The sun starts rising through the fog and clarity comes.  A hot beverage, a couple of yoga stretches, a few minutes with your novel or in quiet meditation, and you are invincible.

Number Four

Routine. 

“Normal” workers around the world probably get sick of routine, but teachers are a special breed.  It’s great to have a few weeks of summer with a different set of expectations because we can appreciate the return of normalcy.  I enjoy getting my clothes ready on Sunday evenings, hanging them up by outfit, ironed and ready to be grabbed on a weekday morning.  We pack lunches before bed. We return to kids’ bedtimes and homework at the dining room table.  This fall we have some big changes in our schedule as our older son is moving to high school, but we’ve started practicing earlier wake-up times and we have a morning schedule in place…sort of.  Wish us luck!

Number Three

Newness. 

There is nothing like a new pen fresh from the package, or a smooth, new academic calendar, or a new box of crayons.  But even more exciting, teachers get the privilege of looking at a room full of fresh faces.  We all start off in the “honeymoon” stage, where we’re just getting to know our students, and whether we have 17 or 140, the classroom is full of possibility.  It’s our chance to meet these humans in our charge and make them feel seen and heard. What an honor!

Number Two

Challenge.

I’ll be the first to admit that starting a new school year is hard.  The mornings, the routine, and the newness all contribute to the challenge, but the challenge is also the work.  The back-to-school nightmares—dreams of classrooms out of control, missing photocopies, inexplicable requests from the office—started for me in July this year.  You? 

There are the personal challenges that arise from regular life, family life, being a child and being a parent.  There is the personal challenge of simply dealing with many, many vivid personalities all day.  Making 1,000,000 decisions during a work day is exhausting, and often leaves me too tired to have an opinion about anything in the evenings.

And beyond that, there are the professional challenges: maintaining a positive outlook in the face of ever-increasing demands to your daily job; working well with difficult colleagues; taking classes or doing professional reading to maintain your certification or stay current in your field; and then, for an English teacher at least, the incessant demands of planning, photocopying, organizing, communicating and correcting-correcting-correcting that writing.

This is not a job for the faint-of-heart, or the lazy.  Meet it head-on, teacher-friend.  Find your balance. You can do it!

Number One

Pride. 

When someone asks you what you do, you say—without hesitation—“I am a teacher.”  You use the verb form “to be,” because teaching is more than what you do—it is who you are. Teaching is a calling. 

Teaching is an art and a science.  It’s a labor of love, a passion. 

Teaching is activism. Teachers spark change. It’s in the job description.

Teaching is a response to a real, sincere, measurable need. Students need you.  Colleagues need you, especially the newer ones. Teaching is a daily opportunity to serve others with a generous spirit. 

It is—as in the days of the warrior-poets of Beowulf—a path to immortality.

Teaching is a profession to be proud of, and you do work worthy of song.

I want to leave you with the words of teacher-poet Taylor Mali, who performed “What Teachers Make” on HBO’s Def Poetry.  But rather than quoting him, I’ll let you hear him say it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I_JK6tTGKo

Have a wonder-filled, awe-inspiring school year, teacher-friend.  Go out there and make a difference, wherever you are and whatever your reason!

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation.  What is your reason for the season?  Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin