Penny Kittle, a world-renowned teacher and literacy expert, once put into words what I think most English teachers are thinking, but not saying:
“Do the math. I just don’t have the time.”
In her narrative essay, “Do the Math,” Kittle describes a day of school. She begins in her bustling classroom, filled to the brim with her students, for which she cares deeply. A child discovers her father is diagnosed with cancer. Seeking comfort, she talks to Kittle. Desperate to help, Kittle listens with a tissue box while keeping an eye on the clock.
The tyranny of the clock begins.
Kittle teaches her four blocks of English—a little short of 100 students—and then shuts her office door to plan her lessons, find mentor texts her students will love, create graphic organizers to break these masterpieces into understandable chunks.
Then the marking starts.
For each of the 100 papers Kittle reads, she does a thorough job, reading once for content flow and again for the writer’s purpose. She red-inks the paper with helpful comments. And then she notices, in between classes, a newspaper.
The newspaper makes her mad.
A columnist complains about “lazy” English teachers. If these lazy teachers rolled up their sleeves and assigned an essay per student per week and read each paper and gave feedback, the columnist reasons, the literacy and writing crisis would be over! Too bad lazy teachers stand in the way!
Kittle likes the idea of one essay per student per week.
But then she does the math.
If Kittle assigns one essay per student per week and marks each essay, how many minutes, outside of her 50-hour work week (partly in the classroom, in meetings, coaching), will Kittle spend marking over the weekend?
Answer: With four classes of 24 students, Kittle has 96 students in her care.
If it takes a minimum of 10 minutes to read and comment on each essay, then she will spend 960 minutes that week reading and commenting on essays.
That is a total of 16 additional hours, or 4 hours per class.
Suddenly, Kittle’s work week has gone from 50 hours a week to 64.
Suddenly, Kittle sacrifices her weekend to marking.
Is there another way?
In “Do the Math” Kittle expresses honestly the frustration of English teachers everywhere. We want to help our students. We know they need more writing practice. We want to offer them feedback. But we also want to live our lives.
Luckily, there is a better way.
The Wisdom of Mike Schmoker
In “Write More, Mark Less,” former teacher, administrator, and consultant Mike Schmoker outlines the three biggest problems with English writing assignments and marking:
1) Overload- We grade for too many things. We overwhelm students.
2) Infrequency- Because grading takes so much time, we limit the writing assignments, to our students’ detriment. Practice does make perfect.
3) Delay- Because grading takes so much time, we hand out work back to our students too late for the commentary to be meaningful.
Schmoker’s recommendations for writing instruction, which I personally follow, include:
1) Frequent writing assignments to develop writing skills.
2) Singular focus for each writing assignment (e.g. “This assignment, we are practicing writing good topic sentences. I will be looking at just your topic sentences.”)
3) Peer-editing and self-editing with clearly outlined success criteria.
4) Opportunities for student revision.
5) Marking with a clear rubric and limited comments.
I have, following this sage advice, cut my marking load in half without compromising my students’ learning.
Here’s how I cut my marking load in half:
1. When planning a unit, I sequence the larger task (e.g. writing an argumentative paragraph) into small chunks (e.g. topic sentence brainstorming–> arguments–> supporting details, etc. )
2. I teach one chunk at a time, constantly checking for understanding. As a class, we don’t move on as a class until every student can perform the chunk task. Because the big learning goal (“write a paragraph”) is broken into small pieces (” write a topic sentence”), students are far less likely to fall behind or get confused.
3. I assign writing practice each night (about 20-30 minutes per night to complete), and I always use the homework in class the next day to check for understanding (this makes students see the value of the homework– if we use it in cooperative learning, like Think-Pair- Share, they’re left out).
4. We check the homework together in class. At this time I provide an exemplar homework assignment. I have students check their homework using clear criteria (e.g. Does the topic sentence state an opinion? Is the topic clear? Is it concise?)
5. As students check their work (or the work of a peer), I go around the work scanning the work myself to see how my students are doing. This gives me an idea if we are ready to move forward to the next topic.
6. I have students give themselves a numerical grade for their homework and comments (e.g. If they got all of the three requirements for a topic sentence right, they got 3/3).
7. I ask students to put their homework into their writer’s portfolios at the back of my classroom.
8. Once school is over, I go through the writer’s portfolios and look at the grades, correcting any obvious errors.
9. I put the grades the students gave themselves into the Power School gradebook as a formative assessment.
10. Putting the homework assignments into Power School gradebook keeps students honest. They know their parents will see if they haven’t done the practice. If they don’t do the practice, when we do a larger writing assignment, and they struggle, they know that they and only they are to blame.
11. I assign larger writing assignments after a few “chunks” of learning, such as a letter, essay, or paragraph. These are for marks.
12. I mark these larger pieces of writing for one thing only (e.g. mechanics, voice, sentence fluency, etc.) using the same criteria we discussed in class, clearly outlined on a rubric.
I’m still a work in progress. Like Kittle, I still wonder to myself, “Can I be a great English teacher and live my life?”
But I’m happy to say that with each year and a bit of formative assessment, the answer is certainly “yes.”
To your teaching success and work-life balance,