On Assigning Writing

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Jun
  • 01
  • 2005

Literacy is a school-wide goal that does not fall squarely on the English teacher’s shoulders. Every content area has a mandate to promote literacy. Standardized test scores demand it; colleges demand it; employers demand it; society demands it. A part of reaching that mandate is in assigning plenty of writing and providing adequate, immediate feedback.

However, with the amount of time it takes to read and comment on an essay weighing in at even 3 minutes each (a conservative estimate), that’s 3 hours that it’ll take to read one assignment from 60 kids. Think about how low the level of detail will be if all you have is 3 minutes to read *and* comment on an essay. Even on a 3-paragraph essay, that doesn’t provide a lot of time to give meaningful feedback.

Consider further that grading 60 papers only happens if you have 2 classes of papers to read. What about the assignments for your other 3 classes? At 3 minutes each, you’re suddenly up to 6 hours of grading, 9 hours if you’ve given an essay in all 5 of your classes like you know you should. All that time on top of planning on top of grading today’s in-class assignment on top of grading any ongoing assignments on top of moving the class further along in the latest unit of study and you are one crazed teacher.

When faced with a stack of anywhere from 60 to 150 essays to grade resulting from just a single essay (an estimated evaluation time of 3 to 9 hours based on a 3-minute read of each essay), the desire to hand out yet another writing assignment quickly fades; the idealistic impression of what you should do dissipates in the face of the reality of what you have to do (which is to spend hours reading and commenting on all those papers!).

But we must do it, for the good of everyone involved. Just stop to consider the impact this will have on your life before you get your authors involved in another writing assignment. Rethink that final 5-page paper. Will you have time to grade them? Adjust your plans for that 10-page research paper if the due date butts right up against vacation. If you won’t grade the paper for another 3 weeks after it’s turned in, why is it due 3 weeks before you’ll have a chance to get to it?

I know that I’ve often launched straight into the next writing unit without considering how long it will take me to grade the current set of essays. Each year, I try not to assign another piece of writing until the one I’ve collected is returned. I get closer and closer to it, but each year I fail. This year, I collected a short story, then a Walt Whitman paper, then a Civil Disobedience dialog, and we’re working on the UC Personal Statement. I’ve just returned their Whitman paper, but the other pieces of writing are still in the queue.

Even once I do return that work, it will have less meaning to the students for the length of time I’ve kept the essay. Meaningful, immediate feedback carries the most weight and impact on a student’s writing. With so much other homework and many other tests to study for in the meantime, young authors easily forget the process they went through to write a paper. If I tell them 2 months later that the process they went through way back then didn’t work for them, that’s not very useful.

1 comment

1. Matthew Brown says:

[2/12/2006 - 6:56 am]

This is an aspect of teachers’ work that is so often overlooked, especially by policymakers and parents. There is also no reward built in for teachers to assign and correct student writing; in fact, quite the opposite — teachers can easily avoid the extra work, and often do. See my blog for my thoughts on that.