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Managing the Paper Load

When I first met my mentor teacher, Abner Greene, at Mountain View High School (CA) during graduate school, he told me, "The first thing you have to understand about the teaching profession is that it's an undoable job."

His point was that, as teachers, we have to figure out what we can accomplish given the sheer number of students that we teach in a typical public high school and not put unrealistic expectations on ourselves, especially during the writing process.

The primary issue for most English teachers is how to manage the relentless paper load of student essays. Abner's strategy was to limit himself to grading five papers per night. After five, he told his students, the quality of his feedback rapidly diminished. As a result, he warned students that it was going to take some time for him to return all of their essays, especially since he had nearly 200 students.

As a young teacher I used a similar strategy, assigning an essay at the conclusion of every book. I gave myself one week to grade all the essays in a given class, putting an essay return schedule on the whiteboard in the back of my classroom to let students know when they could expect their essays to be returned:

In general, my goal was to return all student essays by the time we had completed the next book. With this system, students usually wrote a total of four full-length essays over the course of a year—one per quarter. Over time I ultimately became dissatisfied with my writing program, primarily because it violated what I thought were the three essential criteria for providing effective written feedback—namely, that it be the following:

1. Timely

Most research concludes that feedback is only effective when writing is still fresh in students' minds, which generally means within a week. With my old system of grading, only one class received feedback in a timely manner. For everyone else—whether it was two weeks or six weeks—the comments they received were for essays that students no longer remembered or had any personal connection to.

2. Understandable

The problem with written comments in general—no matter when they are read by students—is that there is no guarantee that students will understand what has been written in the margins. Written comments are basically a monologue, not a dialogue, so there is no way for students to ask questions or for teachers to check for understanding.

3. Actionable

In my opinion, the biggest issue with the structure of traditional writing programs is that students cannot use the written comments, questions, or suggestions to improve the existing piece of writing. Instead, the hope is that students will apply the lessons learned to their next essay, but there is no opportunity for students to revise the essay for which the comments are intended or most relevant.

As a result of my growing dissatisfaction with my existing program, I decided one year to make a radical change. My goal was not only to increase the number of essays that students wrote over the course of the year, but to comply with the above criteria for effective feedback.

At the time I was teaching junior Honors at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City. Since my students would go on to AP Literature as seniors, I decided that they should write three essays each quarter based on the types of essays they would find on the AP Literature Exam: an AP Poetry Analysis, an AP Passage Analysis, and an AP Literary Argument.

At Skyline we read one major work each quarter. With my new program—which is the one I still use in my enrichment classes at Literary Focus—we would begin by analyzing a poem that was related in theme to the major work. For instance, if we were reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and used the 2016 AP Literary Argument prompt for the final essay, the theme of deception might lead us to choose Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" for the AP Poetry Analysis. In the middle of the novel or play we would take a key passage from the text and turn it into an AP Passage Analysis. Once students finished the book, they would write the AP Literary Argument.

During the first quarter of the year, we would read a model for each type of essay so students would understand how to structure their arguments based on Hegel's Dialectic—the rhetorical framework we use for all of our AP essays—and how to incorporate textual evidence to support their claims. The following is an AP Poetry Analysis for Robert Hayden's poem "Those Winter Sundays," which we might use as a model for the first essay:

After we read and discuss the model essay, students would then attempt to write a draft on their own. On the AP Literature Exam, students have 40 minutes to write each essay. At the beginning of the year, I would usually give my students the entire class period to write the draft, which on our block schedule consisted of 80 minutes. (If a school is not on a block schedule, I would have students start the essay in class and then finish it for homework, if necessary.) Since the AP Literature Exam was exclusively a pen-and-paper exam at the time, students always handwrote their first drafts in class. With the AP Exam gradually transitioning to an online format, however, students will eventually need to start using computers for these initial drafts.

When students students complete their first drafts, I collect them and prepare for the peer response process during the next class. To begin, we would first read an anonymous sample essay from a previous class (or from another section) on which I had written sample response questions in the margins, such as the one below from an AP Passage Analysis prompt for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:

When responding to student writing, I teach students to use the Socratic method—meaning they should only ask questions of the writer in the margins. We tell students that there are two types of questions they should ask: clarifying questions or probing questions. Clarifying questions ask the writer to clear up anything that is confusing for the reader. For instance, the question that I ask in the right-hand margin for the introductory paragraph in the sample essay is a clarifying question: "What is his attitude towards Gatsby's 'reality and imagination'?" As I read the sample introductory paragraph, it is unclear to me what Nick's attitude is concerning Gatsby's conception of time. The question in the left-hand margin for the introductory paragraph, however, is a probing question: "Does Gatsby's imagination distort his 'reality'? How so? Is this necessarily bad in some ways and good in others?" With this question I am trying to push the writer to think either differently or more deeply about the claim they have made about Gatsby's imagination.

As we read through the sample essay aloud in class, we discuss not only the argument being made in the essay, but also the questions that I have asked in the margins. What I try to model is active, engaged reading, where students think deeply about the ideas that the writer is trying to express. When students begin peer responding, they are responsible for asking one question—either in the left- or right-hand margin—for each paragraph in the essay. If students are following the framework of Hegel's Dialectic, there should be four paragraphs in total and, thus, four questions from each peer responder in the two corresponding margins.

Before students begin reading each other's essays, we introduce the six-point grading scale that the AP, ACT, and SAT use to evaluate student writing. Rather than going through the criteria for each exam, I simplify the rubric to mean the following in a holistic sense:

The key line of demarcation is between a 4 (good) and a 3 (fair), which is determined by whether or not the essay is structurally sound. In other words, if there are fundamental structural flaws—for instance, the lack of an introductory paragraph or textual evidence to support the claims—it is difficult to give an essay a score of "good" no matter how well written the essay is. To help students finely tune their assessments, I allow them to add a +/- to their scores to help differentiate scores within a certain level. For instance, a 4- indicates that an essay is barely passable, whereas a 4+ implies that an essay is really good, borderline excellent.

To help students better understand the various levels, I offer the following suggestions:

6: Outstanding

To receive a score of 6, the essay does not necessarily have to be perfect, but it should be one of the best in the class. The essay should have a compelling argument, thought-provoking evidence, and sophisticated commentary. There also should be virtually no spelling or grammatical issues.

5: Excellent

To receive a score of 5, the essay should be one of the stronger essays in the class. The essay should have a convincing argument, appropriate use of evidence, and insightful commentary. While there may be a few spelling and grammar issues, they should be hardly noticeable to the reader.

4: Good

To receive a score of 4, the essay needs to be structurally sound. There should be a clear argument, adequate use of evidence, and consistent commentary. Even though there might be more than a few spelling and grammar issues, they should never impede the reader's overall understanding of the essay.

3: Fair

To receive a score of 3, the essay needs to have at least one fundamental flaw in its structure, which may include not having the appropriate number of paragraphs, not making a clear argument, failing to use adequate evidence, or providing unclear or inconsistent commentary. In addition, the spelling and grammar issues might be so prevalent that it occasionally impedes one's understanding of the essay.

2: Poor

To receive a score of 2, the essay needs to have fundamental flaws in multiple places, which may include not having the appropriate number of paragraphs, not making a clear argument, failing to use adequate evidence, or providing unclear or inconsistent commentary. In addition, the spelling and grammar issues might be so pervasive that it is often difficult to read or understand the essay.

1: Unacceptable

To receive a score of 1, the essay must be virtually unreadable or nonsensical. The essay may not address the prompt or the literary work in any recognizable way. In addition, the spelling and grammar issues might be so overwhelming that it is difficult for the reader to make any sense of the essay.

After we have gone through the scoring criteria, I ask students to grade the sample essay that we have just read in class. Students are instructed to write their score—using +/- designations, if they'd like—and once students have written down their scores on the top of the page, I ask a random student to give their score and a rationale for their assessment. After the student gives their explanation, I will ask by a show of hands how many other students agree with that student's assessment. If any students do not raise their hands, I will ask one of them to explain why they gave the essay a different score. After the explanation, I will ask by a show of hands how many students agree with the second score.

Eventually, every student's assessment will be accounted for before I give my own evaluation. Almost always, my score coincides with the score that the majority of students have decided upon for a given essay. Even though students may not yet be able to articulate clearly what makes good writing, they usually can identify quality writing when they see it. Through these discussions, however, students gradually learn how to discuss writing in a more sophisticated and nuanced way.

After we read and evaluate the sample essay, I then return the essays that students wrote the previous day. In their small-groups, students pass their essays in a clockwise direction to the first peer responders, who put their names at the top of the left-hand margin and proceed to read the essay and write one question—either clarifying or probing—for each paragraph in the left-hand margin. After five minutes, students are instructed to put an overall score next to their name before passing the essay in a clockwise direction to the second peer responders, who put their names at the top of the right-hand margin and write another question for each paragraph—either clarifying or probing—in the right-hand margin. After another five-minutes, I instruct the second peer responders to put a score for the essay next to their name and return the essay to the original writer, who silently reads the questions that have been asked in the margins.

After a few minutes, students are then instructed to turn their desks into 4dek formation to discuss each essay one at a time in their small groups. The author of the first essay runs the first discussion and asks the peer responders follow-up questions so the authors are clear on what issues need to be addressed during the revision process. When the first authors are satisfied with the feedback they have received, they self-assesses their own work by putting a score at the top of the page and circling it. The group then proceeds in a clockwise direction to discuss the next essay.

When everyone in the group has received feedback and self-assessed their own work, students turn their desks back to the front of the room and pass their essays in, which should look something like the following:

When I enter scores for an essay draft in my gradebook, I use only the students' self-assessment scores. The drafts are only worth 10 points, so a self-assessment score of 6 (Outstanding) would be recorded as a 10/10 (A+), a 5 (Excellent) would be a 9/10 (A-), a 4 (Good) would be an 8/10 (B-) , a 3 (Fair) would be a 7/10 (C-), a 2 (Poor) would be a 6/10 (D-), and a 1 (Unacceptable) would be a 5/10 (F). Students who have not written an essay receive a 0/10 until they write it.

Students also receive five points for participating in the peer response process, provided that they have asked quality questions for the two essays they have read. If students have not asked the appropriate number of questions or have not asked quality questions, I will show them their responses the next day and explain why they are not receiving credit.

In comparison to the initial drafts that students write, the final revision due at the end of the quarter is worth 100 points. In other words, the drafts are worth minor points and should be seen as "practice" (i.e. formative assessments). I have contemplated not grading these drafts at all, or just giving completion credit, but I like having some accountability to make sure students put forth their best effort. Since drafts are only worth 10 points and are based on self-assessment scores, students seldom take issue with these drafts being graded.

What is most important about the process is that students not only get an opportunity to practice writing in a timed setting, but they also get a chance to discuss what makes an essay good or bad afterwards. By going over a sample essay with the whole class and then giving and receiving feedback in small groups, students learn to identify and articulate what constitutes an effective argument. Even though the quality of peer responses will vary, students get to see and discuss each other's work so they get a better understanding of what makes some essays better than others. Invariably, after going through the peer response process, students return to their own essay with a fresh perspective and a better sense of what they have to do to improve their arguments.

Once I have recorded students' self-assessment scores in my gradebook, I pass the drafts back the following day so students can begin the revision process. At this point, if students want my feedback, they need to type up the essay—hopefully incorporating the peer feedback that they have received—and submit it to me. When they submit their essays, they also need to schedule a 15-minute writing conference with me either before or after school. I reserve two spots before school every day and three spots after school, which are filled on a first-come, first-served basis over the course of ten weeks in a quarter. Students generally are able to get a conference within a couple of days, except during the final week of the quarter when I tend to fill up early in the previous week.

On the last Monday of the quarter, students submit a revision of one of their drafts for a final evaluation (i.e. a summative assessment). Students will understand at the beginning of the quarter that the final revision will only be read and evaluated. In other words, there is no time for written comments; instead, they will just receive a score similar to the one they will receive on the AP Literature Exam the following year. I emphasize to students that they will write three different drafts over the course of the quarter and should try to get as much feedback as possible over those ten weeks. Once the final revision is submitted, however, the time for feedback is over. If students have gone through the revision process and written multiple drafts, however, they should be able to predict fairly accurately what the final score will be.

Over the course of the ten weeks, I still limit myself to reading five essays per day, but by incorporating the 15-minute writing conferences, I am able to have individual discussions with students so they can ask questions and I can check for understanding. What my program requires is for students to have the motivation to revise their essays and be willing to schedule writing conferences to discuss them afterwards. For students who take advantage of that opportunity, the benefits are obvious and the improvement dramatic.

Even though a number of students regularly do not bother to seek feedback on their essays, they still gain much from the process. For instance, instead of writing four essays in a given year, they write twelve. They still are involved in discussions virtually every other week—both as a whole-class and in small groups—about what makes writing effective. In course evaluations, I inevitably receive feedback from students who claim that their writing improved significantly over the course of the year. What always strikes me is how many of those comments are from students who have never attended a single writing conference.

As teachers the best we can do is provide students with opportunities to work on skills and improve as writers. Even though we cannot force them to go above and beyond the most basic requirements, we can create structures that give even the most unmotivated student practice and feedback during the writing process. What I have found is that the amount of work from a teacher's perspective is about the same, but the nature of the work is exponentially more rewarding. Not only are students writing three times as much as they were in my old program, but the five essays that I read each night are from students who are actively seeking feedback and willing to sacrifice their personal time—either before or after school—to discuss their writing in greater depth during individual writing conferences.

In many ways my writing program is a choose-your-challenge endeavor. For the motivated students, they receive more feedback than they would in a traditional program. For the ones who are content just going through the peer response process, they still improve significantly through the increased quantity of writing and the number of whole-class and small-group discussions that we have about the writing process. Overall, the program has proved to be a win-win proposition for all involved.

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