Guest Blog: Ross Trudeau drowning in essay-grading

MG here. Today Ross tackles an age-old question. He writes: What follows is an old story. I have too much work, specifically grading essays. It does not feel sustainable. I would like less work.

Between four sections of English IV and one section of Creative Writing, I teach 130 students. With 130 hundred students, taking 20 minutes to provide detailed, actionable feedback on each major writing assignment means about 43 hours of work.

Moreover, if spread this work out over a manageable-ish two weeks, my students are hemorrhaging investment in the assignment. This article in Wired explains why tightening the feedback loop matters so much here.

I assign major writing assignments at a rate of 2-3 per quarter, plus mandatory rewrites for students who don't meet a certain threshold. So the 43 hours is spread over 2 weeks time, unless I schedule an assignment due the day before a shorter vacation like Thanksgiving or Spring Break. Then I can turn all 100+ around in one week.

When I point out this math to other English teachers, we share a rueful shrug. Yep. Whatayagonnado? And we plod home to our cats with 10 lbs. of essay under our arms.

Here’s what does not work for me:

1. I cannot authentically assess “parts” of a literature analysis essay; i.e., save grading time by giving them feedback only on, say, the essay’s evidence. After all, these are seniors.

What I mean by that is: actionable feedback on your thesis statement is dependent on a critique of your sub-claims, the evidence supporting your sub-claims, your analysis of that evidence, etc. The whole shebang.

2. I’ve tried to work this problem with rubrics with high-lightable “stock” comments. It looks like this.

I don’t like it because the critiquing the nuance and logic of an analytical essay can’t be done with pre-written, 5-word responses.

3. Assign far fewer major essay assignments. With so many kids who arrive behind grade level, fewer at-bats simply isn’t a conscionable option.

These are the pragmatic solutions I find to be irreconcilably flawed. For me the fact remains: there is no substitute for fast, holistic, written feedback. I’m not interested in being an English teacher who doesn’t give adequate feedback on essays. Right now I can manage. I’m not a parent, but if I were I imagine I’d leave this job.

For me it demands a paradigmatic rethinking of what we understand the role of a high school humanities teacher to be. Something has to give. But what?

At this point I’m done soliciting 1% solutions and efficient grading tips. Let’s put everything on the table.

Does my school set aside one day a week for grading and feedback? Does my principal re-prioritize decreasing the number of students I teach when she’s drawing up the budget?

If you work at a school that has been willing to do the hard, messy work of re-imagining the role of the humanities teacher, you and I need to talk. There’s too much I love about my job to give it up.

-Guestblogger Ross Trudeau

* * *

MG again. I would add:

0. From the comments, former Match teacher Vivek takes time away from his duties in U.S. District Court to ask: are there any good empirical studies of the effect of "Teacher comments" on students' writing skill? Or as he says, even "middling" research?

1. Another blogger's thoughts here.

2. A New York Times story on essay-grading software is here.

3. Some teachers at Match have experimented with using their teaching assistants as graders...with certain type of quality control efforts.

4. Zooming out: Budgeting Time.

Most schools I know -- public, private, charter -- are very good at budgeting money correctly. That is, they generally don't overspend by much, if anything. Sure, sometimes they make the wrong budget choices. But at least hard $ choices are clearly made, because you gotta break even. If school leader pays you X more, then we cancel this trip for kids, or deny the PD conference for another teacher, etc.

However, most schools are not good at explicitly describing the hours expected of a teacher.

When I've asked school leaders about it, I usually get shrugs. "No, I can't imagine writing down each task, and an estimate of how long each tasks would take the typical teacher, and what it adds up to per week. Everyone just has to do the best he or she can, and do what it takes to help the kids. Plus frankly, it's kinda scary when you write it out." Hard choices are generally not clearly made.

I've seen various teachers write out their weekly work load. However, I wonder if anyone has examples of a very specific "weekly teacher time budget" that comes from a school leader. Have you? I.e., here are some estimates of how long it is supposed to take you to accomplish all the not-in-front-of-kids tasks: grading, parent phone calls, lesson plans, after-school help sessions, department and grade team meetings, answering email, IEP work, report card comments, and so forth.