Flow-grading papers

Yeah, flow and grading papers. Sounds like an oxymoron. Kinda like lets have fun going shopping

Hear me out. Nobody likes to grade papers. I’ve been teaching for twenty years and not once have I said, “Yeah! I’m so looking forward to spending my evening grading papers! I’m cancelling all of my plans and I’m gonna bust out the wide line red pen and tear apart some self-esteem!” Nothing destroys a writer’s self-esteem more than a thick, dripping red pen. Who doesn’t have a memory of that English teacher.

But, as I’ve said before, I’ve been thinking a great deal about flow. And I realized that as crazy as it sounds,  you can enter flow when grading papers. And no, I abstain from all forms of medication to do this. Though a glass of wine does help. But, hey, wine helps with most things.

Grading papers can be a form of torture, belonging somewhere in the lowest circles of hell. Those of us who love teaching went into the profession because we love the content or because we like working with kids. We did not go into teaching looking forward to hours of our lives being taken up by attempting to find order out of chaos, to which the reading and grading of adolescent writing can be compared.

I think that the act of making the crooked straight and the way smooth should happen much earlier than a student’s belief that they have turned in a “final” draft. The conclusion of a student’s written work should be an affirmation not a submission.

I start all writing tasks either by providing my students with the criteria for success (a rubric) or I start by creating this list with them. For example, we may create a list of the successful elements of a short argument. We generate items like a clear topic sentence that includes an argument and the subject of the argument. In this post, I’m talking about a persuasive argument that includes research so I provide the students a rubric that lists out all of the requirements. If I can figure out how to upload it to this site, I’ll do that.

By the time all the papers are submitted, I believe success means that I can already predict what each paper will earn because I have read them all, or portions thereof.

Each element on the rubric is a mini-lesson, a conversation, a peer-review session, a posting on an on-line platform where all members of the classroom can review (Padlet is great for this). No part of the research paper is completed without someone else’s eyes looking at it and providing some level of feedback. Please see my earlier post on peer review.

Of most critical importance to this idea of mastery is that for the research paper, I conference with every student twice. Yes, twice. Does this take well over three hours per class? Yes. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. How else do I best guarantee that the student can organize a sustained argument; trust me, the red pen of death doesn’t work.

Every student gets a three minute thesis conference, presenting their viewpoint and their three supporting arguments based on the reading of at least 5 sources.  At the end of the three  minutes, we have several possibilities. One, we both agree that the argument is sound and provable. Two, some of the argument works but more sources are needed or one of the supporting arguments needs more development. Three, back to the drawing board. Every student meets with me until they have a thesis that makes sense. Why?

There is zero point in assigning a significant assignment, especially a challenging task like a research driven persuasive argument without many frequent checks for understanding. There is no point in having a student move forward to the next step in constructing the paper without the first being solid and clear. The simplest analogy would be to build a home without first pouring the foundation and letting the concrete cure before attaching your framing. No home will stand long without a solid foundation.

Then, every student gets a conference to justify their outline. Three supporting arguments with three text supports to justify their thinking. Mind of a thirteen year old here. Remember flow, right?  Now you need to listen to the logic of a young adolescent-fascinating!

I’m no musician or artist, can’t carry a tune in a bucket and can  barely sketch a stick figure, but I equate this time, working individually with a student, as a collaboration in making something of meaning, of lasting beauty even. If you know any thirteen year olds, you know that logic is a thing of beauty, a rare gem.

Some come to me focused as an arrow to the bullseye. “Because the planet is heading for a mass extinction event, people must reduce their use of fossil fuels, eat less meat, and recycle more materials.” Pretty good for a thirteen year old, right? Then there are those trying to prove that we should allow cell phones in school because so many kids have them. You get the idea. Every conference takes you on a different ride. It’s just that some end up like Jason Bourne at the end of a chase scene, bruised, limping, desperate for a way out.

But every paper is eventually saved. Is given some kind of cure. These two conferences, thesis and outline, set up a logical, sequential paper. While we work on other projects and other material, every student has access to me during every class for all of the days leading up to the paper.

And, call me crazy, I feel like flourishing a conductor’s baton when a student can, after we’ve talked and worked so hard together, walk me through his or her viewpoint, providing me three supporting arguments and research driven evidence for those arguments. It’s poetry, it’s music, it’s a work of art. It just flows. It’s an English teacher high.

Yes, there are many other details to a research paper. The hook, the background in the introduction, the citations, the conclusion. Yes, these are all important and we examine all of these in class.

Now it is time to submit the final papers. Rubrics are stapled to the top of these 3 to 5 page offerings to the gods of pathos, logos, and ethos.  Works cited entries are carefully alphabetized with many a mumbled ABC song.

Ah, what about the flow?

And now I get to grade 120+ 8th grade research papers. Grade them, but not read them for the first time. The writer and I know what the paper will likely earn. We’ll be off by a few points; we may have a difference in opinion about what how many points should be deducted for the forgetful omission of a parenthetic citation or whether the hook is truly interesting and engaging.

Yes, some will be a heretical waste of time; some will have done everything they could to avoid conferences, delaying the inevitable.

Many will be artistic in their simplicity. Hook, background, thesis, three paragraphs supporting the thesis, conclusion. Each paper allowing me to flow through the argument.

I’ll pick  up that pen only occasionally and, by the way, I don’t use red.

Thank you for reading.


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