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The Importance of Being Humble When Grading

In my last post, I wrote about the futility of trying to be objective when grading student writing. The point I make is that teachers must bring their professional judgments to bear on writing as they grade it. Teachers must be completely, intentionally, and unapologetically subjective in their responses to student writing.

But with that authority is the responsibility to be humble.

The Power of the Grader

It’s not news to anyone that teachers have power over their students. Grades and other feedback are among the strongest ways teachers exert their power, sometimes more than they even realize. A stinging comment, a too sharp wise-crack, a too-direct suggestion can crater a student’s confidence and his or her trust in that teacher. But a student’s hurt feelings is actually not the most important reason for teachers to be careful about how they wield the power of the grade and response.

Teachers, like everyone else, can only read through their experience and knowledge. Even the smartest among us has limited experience and knowledge—and it’s likely you are not in the group of “the smartest among us.” I can guarantee you I am not in the group of “the smartest among us”—and I can almost hear my former students’ (and current family

members’) heads nodding in annoyingly enthused agreement! We should not respond to student writing as if we are the sole arbiters of writing quality; nor should we make comments that imply as much. If you do respond to students as if your way is the only correct way, you will set your students up for future failure.

Even more important: well-designed, authentic writing assignments require students to write for audiences well beyond the teacher.  The best feedback on that writing comes not from the teacher, but from members of the audience to whom that writing is aimed. In these cases, teachers can pretend to be members of that audience, but this completely artificial. It’s far better if the teacher can devise ways for students to get real feedback from real members of their intended audience. And teachers should use that external

feedback to grade and respond to students’ writing. Teachers shouldn’t be the sole arbiter of student writing, but rather at least in some cases, should be collectors, synthesizers, and communicators of external feedback. If you never count the feedback of other readers in your students’ grades, then you are inflating your own sense of correct and of effective writing. Again,  you are setting your students up for future failure.

Four Strategies for Practicing Humility as a Grader of Writing

  1. Work from a specific handbook for correctness. Choose a style guide that you and your students can use to consult for questions about what is right and wrong regarding grammar, spelling, usage, and other debatable matters in writing. If you don’t choose a standard, you are probably subjecting students to your opinions of what is right and wrong. Even if most people would agree with your opinions (and that’s doubtful in more cases than you might realize), it’s not fair for students to have to guess at what you think is right or wrong. Select a handbook and use that as a reference to which students have access. I favor Diana Hacker’s inexpensive and portable style guide, but there are many others out there. The Purdue OWL is also a terrific resource and is free to anyone with Internet access. For deliciously in-depth debates regarding style & usage there’s no better resource than Garner’s Modern American English.
  2. Work to make your feedback facilitative, not directive. These are terms I learned decades ago from Cy Knoblauch and Lil Brannon, and they remain critically influential in my teaching and in the teaching of many others. Instead of writing, “This is awkward, organize!” write, “This is hard for me to understand. Could you write this more clearly?” Instead of, “Not enough detail,” write, “As a reader, I’d enjoy reading more about this here.” The point is to honor students as the writers of their papers; we are mere visitors, hoping to leave student writers more aware than we found them.
  3. Allow students to get and use feedback from each other. But be careful not to make peer response a game in which students have to help each other guess what the teacher will like or not like. Instead, allow the students to talk about what they like in each other’s writing and what they like to hear more or less about in their peers’ work. Even better: incorporate students’ feedback on each other’s work in your grades and responses. In my classes in which I use peer response, I often make comments like the following on student work: “I would really have preferred to see _________ in your writing, but I have to admit that ______ & _______ liked it just how it is, so your writing was effective with them.” Teachers can’t abdicate their authority to make useful judgments on student writing, but we should acknowledge that in the world outside school, there is rarely a single, all-powerful audience like there almost always is in school.
  4. Swap papers with another teacher and respond to each other’s students. Then you put the grade after reading that other teacher’s feedback. This is a great way to open your mind to other ways of seeing your students’ writing. Sure this can cause debate and could even lead to some embarrassing moments (say you make a mistake in your response), but that will remind you that writing to someone with as much or more authority than you is kinda scary.

Developing Grading Humility

The strategies above can certainly help any teacher remain humble while grading student writing. But, without question, the absolute best way to be humble as a writing grader is to be a writer.

Write often and share it in any of the following ways:

  • Start a writing group with friends and colleagues
  • Contribute to a blog in your fields of interest
  • Send a letter to the editor to your local paper
  • Write an op-ed piece for a newspaper
  • Send an article to your state NCTE affiliate’s journal (or whatever your professional association’s affiliate journal is)
  • Send an article to English Journal

And to really be a writer who teaches writing surrounded by other writers who teach writing, get involved with the National Writing Project. I’ve actually never been a member of the NWP, but I have learned tremendous amounts from those who have.

Striking the Right Balance

Giving supportive, useful, professional feedback on student writing is challenging. I believe it’s something all good writing teachers struggle with throughout their careers. If you’re trying hard to do this well, you’re probably on the right track.

8 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Humble When Grading”

  1. Pingback: Grading Student Writing Objectively: A Myth and a Trap – Edukention

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  5. Thank for your comments. I learned about facilitative not directive commentary from Lil Brannon and Cy Knoblauch’s work. It’s a very easy way to make students feel more empowered as writers. Thanks again, Ken

  6. thesecondmr.b – A life is not important except in the effect it has on other’s lives. -Jackie Robinson

    I saw this a few weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to go back to it especially now that midterms are upon us. Thank you for writing this, I love the part about providing facilitative and not directive grading and feedback. Excellent!

  7. Pingback: (How) Should We Count Effort in Students’ Grades on Writing? | edukention

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