Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Joys of Grading Essays

I wrote a little about grading essays yesterday in my Friday Quick-Takes, and as I have quite the stack of essays to grade, both online at Brave Writer and for my co-op writing classes, it only seems fitting to further procrastinate and write about grading rather than grade the essays themselves. Just for a little while....

You see, grading is difficult. But you knew that already.

In my current Brave Writer class with younger students (ages 7-14 right now), I'm not so much grading as providing feedback and asking questions to help these young writers expand their writing. It's a gentle, careful process of wheedling more writing from writers who are not used to writing multiple drafts, who assume that as soon as they lay down their pencil after the first draft, they're finished. So they are understandably reluctant to have to return to a project that they consider complete.

Grammar and spelling aside (which we deal with right before turning in the final story next Thursday), my object is to persuade them to write more, to fill in gaps in logic and description. If a character chops off the head of another character while inside a whale, where did he get the hatchet? What does a particular animal look like and act like if it's one I've never heard of? If two characters have a conversation, dialog might be an excellent idea.

I'm usually asking questions--lots of them--to draw further writing out of young writers, to get them to show rather than tell. And the questions need to be sprinkled with encouragement. Lots of it. When writers know that they are being understood and are doing some good work, they are more apt to keep writing. Aren't we all? :)

I step into definite grading when I tackle the writing of my high school co-op students. They've just turned in their first essays: the college prep class has written a Keen Observation Exercise from Brave Writer's The Writer's Jungle (my absolute favorite book on teaching moms how to be writing coaches for their kids!) and the honors class has submitted their first formal essay, a personal narrative. In grading these essays, I strive to balance critique with encouragement, noting not only errors and suggestions for improvement but also what the writer has done well so he/she can continue doing it.

Grading is gut-work. I stick to the old-school way of grading: A=excellent; "B"=good; "C"=average; "D"=below average, "F"=fail. I can't tell you exactly what separates an "A" essay from a "B" essay, but I know it when I see it. It's that spark of intrigue, a desire to keep reading the students' work after the essay has ended, a clarity and originality of expression, a permeation of true excellence throughout the paper--that's what gives me that "A" range--and the personality of the writer being revealed, no matter the essay topic. And I don't give "A"s lightly. Once I get to know each students' work, I grade them against themselves--when I see improvement, their grades go up, and when I see work that doesn't measure up to previous essays, grades go down.

Grading takes all of one's attention and concentration. It's truly hard work. As a grader, I have to tunnel into each writer's mind and try to understand how his/her mind works and evaluate how well they express their ideas. And the majority of teaching writing does not happen in the classroom; it happens in my (copious) comments on the essays. I note strengths and weaknesses, and then I hope to see the writer using these comments to the best advantage by shoring up strengths and addressing weaknesses. I base my grades on how well they apply what I teach in those comments.

I used to grade essays with a purple ballpoint, as seen in the above photo. Now I use a Waterman fountain pen which is much easier on my hand, allowing me to write in much more comfort as I don't have to press down while writing. First I used sepia ink that I refilled myself from a bottle of ink. Then I changed to a sea blue with commercial refills which stands out nicely against the typed pages. At the end of each essay, I write a personal note to the writer, sandwiching comments about areas needing improvement between positive notes. I find this method of teaching works very well.

With my online classes, I make comments in bright blue or purple fonts in a quoted reply so that I have their essay right there in the Brave Writer Classroom. The advantage of the online classes is that not only can students read their own comments, but they can also read other writers' rough drafts and my comments to them as well. So they learn a great deal about writing in a short few weeks as I comment and ask questions almost line-by-line through their stories/essays.

If you're a home schooling family who is struggling with providing feedback to your student's writing, I am available to grade essays online. Just check out my web site right here: Susanne M. Barrett: Online Essay Grading and Language Arts Tutoring. I also list my materials for my Class Day courses on the site which I can also teach long-distance via e-mail.

So speaking of grading stories, that's what I need to be doing this afternoon as I comment on the first rough drafts of stories based on Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. So, off to work I go....

On the writing journey with you,

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