In a room full of teachers, here is my student perspective.

Writing Comments on Students Paper by John Bean.

Intensions are an interesting thing considering we only know what our own intensions might be. How that is translated to the receiver is always in question. I think that is why during a conversation or discussion the question of “do you understand?” is always appropriate.

I read this paragraph on page 2 and literally had to sit on it for several minutes. ” We know what we mean, and we know the tone that we intend to convey. Often, however, students are bewildered by our comments, and they sometimes read into them a tone and a meaning entirely different from our intensions.” I went back and remembered some of the comments I did and didn’t receive on some of my papers in the past. Some being so vague I almost wonder if the teacher actually read the entire piece, or was that one liner for one specific part of the paper. So many questions occurred which usually left me more confused. Was it good or not? Is really what I want to know, and if its good tell me how to make it great. If it’s not please teach me how to do better. A lot of the time as student writers we are conflicted into writing how the instructor wants you to write and writing how you want to write. The way we meet in the middle is start off by hitting the points your instructor advised, follow up by adding in your own spin to it, in order to get your authentic voice out on the paper. At least that is what I have always done, I find that most helpful to stay true to myself and also give the instructor the opportunity to find any area that I can improve on.

So many times I would read feedback in the tone I feel it might have been presented in a negative light because of my own assumptions. The earliest I can remember when teachers started to leave one or two liners of feedback it didn’t make me feel like I needed to do real work to put a good paper together. In my mind according to those two liners I was on track. I am also 100% sure that there has been several times that I also misread a comment on some of my work. Anytime I am writing a creative story and it is being shared, if something such as the character or scene is being questioned or a suggestion is being revealed I almost always misread the tone. It could be a personal thing that I feel I have the right to take it personal considering this is my own personal work.

” You haven’t really thought this through” written by a teacher is probably one of the most insincere comments ever. I think a better note would be something along the lines of, ” I want to better understand your point of view.” That way what ever the student was trying to say but probably couldn’t articulate it through their writing could be discussed and the teacher could teach the student how to format it better. I believe sometimes certain comments can create a hostile teacher student environment.

Overall it’s clear that language and tone plays a huge role in the communications between student and teacher. I am the type of student who enjoys getting positive feedback, but I am open to constructive criticism. In my opinion if I am not getting the specifics then how do I ensure that I am getting all the information needed to succeed. I believe it is the teachers duty to determine what type of student they have and what is the best way they will benefit from the feedback. It is possible that with some students negative feed back from a teacher could result in an extreme case of little to no confidence.

Considering I haven’t been through any professional training regarding teaching I do find it helpful that this piece gives a nice guide on positive and negative teacher responses when it comes to meaningful revising. I have confidence in saying I will refer back to this once its my time to shine in front of the classroom.

Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out three forms of judgement: by Peter Elbow.

Pretty ironic that I read this second, and for me it coincides with my exact sentiments above. Which I am not surprised considering I usually side with Elbow on many of his other think pieces. His description of ranking vs evaluating pretty much sums it up for me. Ranking makes things seem as if there is a competition or a winner and a loser in this. The winners receiving the one liners of ” great job” and the losers seeing “Did you not understand the assignment?” Totally understandable why he doesn’t like it very much. However, when we are referring to evaluation, giving the students a thorough look at their work and when the teacher replies with valuable feedback it is a win win for everyone.

Elbow pointing out students actually asking their teachers what do they want for an A is literally what I stated above when speaking on how students will write a paper in the way to please the instructor. That brings me way back to the banking method of just telling the students what to write and not how to write. Justifying grades by leaving a comment for me is only helpful. If I receive an A then its an A, however anything below that I am going to what an evaluation on how can I improve. Of course too much of something can be looked at as a negative, as he also mentions when it comes to evaluating. Elbow brings up an interesting view point when it comes to cheating. He believes that there is more cheating from students who typically receive higher grades due to the ranking process. He believes that if that is not fully but somewhat omitted a lot of issues would go away.

A surprise moment within this reading was when he began to speak on liking. Liking your own work is genius. If you are the writer that I think you are then there has been several tear downs and ripping your own writing to shreds. I think we should all agree to ending that method. “Only if we like something will we get involved enough to work and struggle with it.” Almost sounds like that relationship you want to work through but the key is work through. Can you imagine creating a master piece of your own and you don’t like it! I can take a wild guess that an author not being pleased with their own work will translate on to the pages. Bottom line is like it and fix it.

Overall I am happy that Elbow made his points clear and gave solid reasoning for his views. I believe both of these readings are not to criticize teachers but to look in the lens of the student. I am actually looking forward to reading the blogs of my classmates who are educators and their view points on both readings. It will be very interesting to see their point of view considering they are already in the mix of some of these grading practices.

On Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking”

Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment” was particularly relevant to me, as a high school English teacher. I thought it was extremely well-organized, as it began with clarifying its terms, and setting forth the need for examination of the topic (the lack of consensus even among “the best critics” on what constitutes “good writing”). This immediately spoke to me as an educator, because I see firsthand the lack of consensus amongst colleagues, when evaluating student writing. I have had students come into my class, quite convinced of their superior writing prowess, only to be deflated by my critiques of their writing. Certain colleges (who shall remain nameless!) often write only glowing praise of student work, and can do little to give students realistic perceptions of their writing abilities, objectively speaking. Other colleges (who shall also remain nameless!) rip student work to shreds, even when it is good. I think, whether we have experienced this phenomenon from the perspective of teacher, or as students ourselves, it is important to note the universality of the “easy grader” and the “hard grader.” Personally, I strive to be somewhere, not in the middle precisely, but closer to the “hard grader” side of the spectrum. I think it’s important to point out areas of improvement in all writing, since none of it is “perfect,” so that my grading is meaningful and serves an educational purpose. My job is not a cheerleader, but it isn’t a drill sergeant either.

I think Elbow’s essay also underscores here the need for Common Assessments, Common Rubrics, and Common Grading Sessions. In my district, for example, we use the first two of these, but we do not have time in our scheduling for Common Grading Sessions. (What I am referring to here is when a number of teachers of the same course assign the same piece of writing, and get together during common planning time to swap papers and grade each other’s writing, or to run grading past colleagues, to get their opinion of the grade.) I think this is perhaps one of the most important components of using Common Assessments and Common Rubrics in that, if teachers aren’t regularly meeting to collaborate and calibrate their grading, the first two components are essentially useless.

When Elbow discusses Rubrics (p. 190), he also brings up a critical distinction, as he notes that “these [rubrics] are rarely passed along to students”: rubrics are for the teacher and the student! How often is it that the teacher assigns a paper, receives and grades a paper, and then attaches to rubric to it- justifying the grade, but only after it is too late! This spoke to me very strongly because I just did a “Why are Rubrics Important” exercise with my classes this week. (For those of you who are familiar, it is the “Draw a house” exercise…) I thought his essay was also fair in that it didn’t tout rubrics as the be-all and end-all of grading, as he acknowledged that some students will simply use the rubric to “sell out” and just “give the teacher what she wants, in order to get an A.” It was a balanced exploration of the usefulness, and pitfalls, of rubrics.

With respect to ranking, I could have used a bit more psychology to bolster the claim that we have an innate “hunger to rank– to create pecking orders.” (p. 190) I enjoyed how he touched on the surface of Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (which, to me, also underscores the need for Differentiated Assessments) but thought he could have explored this topic in a little more depth. This paragraph was problematic for me, though, in its sexist example at the end of the paragraph. I found that his point could have been made by using a more accessible example, such as ranking an Olympic high-jump diver, rather than a “pretty woman.” But I digress…

Elbow won me back in his observation that “There are a fair number of mistakes in grammar or spelling: more than ‘a sprinkling’ but less than ‘riddled with.'” (p. 191) Students, and teachers, can appreciate that absolute perfection is not a standard against which one should be measured. It does justice to both student and teacher alike to acknowledge, honor, and accept that nobody is perfect, and therefore, no writing is.

So the real value, then, is not in the outlining of the problem (anyone can do that!) but in the solutions. Elbow makes a number of practical and easily implemented suggestions for dealing with the problems of evaluating. Portfolio reviews show growth, contract grading is excellent for students who struggle with behavioral issues, and self-evaluation is a very useful, albeit meta, tool for fostering reflectivity in students. I liked his suggestion of using grids to measure “soft skills” such as punctuality and timeliness of work, effort, and improvement, even though we are discouraged from grading such skills, since they aren’t easily “quantifiable.” I also personally liked his suggestion of the “ungraded assignment,” although I know that students have been conditioned to want a “payoff” for every single shred of work they do in a class. To an extent, it’s part of the “grade addiction” that students, and frankly, teachers suffer from in the traditional school setting.

But I really enjoyed Elbow’s connection between “liking” and “teaching,” and the paradox of liking something first, then improving it, or vice versa. I thought that was a fresh way of looking at work, and at people, and it truly drives home the idea that we are more likely to invest in things (or people) if we are already invested in them. But it had such realistic advice in it- “permission to hate the dirty bastards and their stupid writing” (p. 204)- that lent credibility to what he was saying. It acknowledges that our students don’t always like us, and we don’t have to like them in order to like their writing or be effective teachers. It also tackles some of the other unfortunate realities of teaching. He astutely points out, for example, that “writing wasn’t meant to be read in stacks of twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five,” which is exactly what Board of Education policies about turnover time in grading don’t understand. As a teacher, I have set out on the mission to grade a hundred essays, only to find that after five or ten, I am grading angry, enraged by seeing the same errors over and over again! That’s when a “Please remember to use your Transition Words and Phrases reference sheet from class to improve the organization and flow of your paragraphs” turns into “Trans Words and Phrases,” which shortens into “TWP,” which can easily devolve into “WTF???” scribbled angrily in red pen!

*Breathe. Put the pen down, and walk away from the essays.*

On “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers”

Which is why, after finishing Elbow, when I picked up Bean’s essay on “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers” in instantly, audibly, and guiltily laughed out loud! I was one of those teachers who “have red-penciled students’ errors with puritanical fervor.” Guilty as charged. And I absolutely loved the disconnect between the teachers’ comments and the students’ comments in the section that followed, because, as a teacher I have written those, and as a student, I have reacted much the same way to comments I didn’t value or understand.

I thought the strategy of “mitigated criticism,” ( a.k.a. “the sh*t sandwich”) was really useful as professional advice for those of us who teach, both in communicating with students, and with their parents. (Bread: Johnny is a really bright student. Sh*t: But lately, he hasn’t been turning in assignments, put gum in Jenny’s hair in class, and keeps getting up to walk around the room while shouting profanities at his peers while they are taking my SGO assessment. It’s a total discipline nightmare, and it’s really disruptive. More Bread: But if he could just channel some of that effort into positive participation, I know his grade in my class can improve.) It starts off on the right foot, says what it needs to say, and ends with something positive for the student, or his (knows-darn-straight-how-her-son-acts) mother to leave with.

Yummy.

But on a more serious note, I think Bean’s true gold lies in reminding us that the root and purpose of revision is just that: “Revising doesn’t mean just editing; it means ‘re-visioning’– rethinking, reconceptualizing, ‘seeing again.'”(p. 321) And that’s what we really want our students to do- to look with fresh eyes, or through our eyes, or through the eyes of the reader. It’s really about empathy, on the part of the teacher who is offering feedback, and the student whose work is being revised and evaluated; and it’s also about purpose. As in, “Is the purpose of my feedback to justify the grade I gave?” or “Is the purpose of my feedback to teach, to open up my students’ eyes to a learning opportunity, to spur their growth and improvement, to allow them to revise and resubmit?”

And I think Bean’s “Hierarchy of Questions” questions could, by themselves, serve as a pre-submission self-assessment or checklist for students. I ask my students many of those questions on peer-editing and self-checklists in the “rough draft” stage, and I usually don’t grade those at all, until we are in “Final Draft” territory. (Lately, I have been trying to steer away from that terminology, too, as I think it signals to the students that they are out of chances to improve. I’m leaning more towards “Polished Draft,” and am trying to sort out how to let students choose which papers or assignments they want to revise, while still balancing the realities of teaching with hard deadlines, such as marking periods and interim reports, etc.)

I found the suggestions and examples of the types of comments that encourage revision useful and thorough, and I especially liked the reminder to give positive praise when possible. (Thinking back to the puritanical red-pencil, it is easy to get sucked into negative commentary and rage-grading, and only focusing on negatives, so it’s nice to be reminded to be nice!) I thought, over all, this article is a good must-read for any teacher of writing.