On Switching Comment Style

In a stack of papers called Grading.

  • Mar
  • 08
  • 2006

It’s amazing what the internet can do.

Last night, facing 60 papers to grade, I was about 3/4 of the way finished when I read a post over at Blog of Proximal Development. Thanks again to Cassandra for pointing that out to me. I’ve been to BPD before, but I haven’t been keeping up with my blog reading lately.

Anyhow, after reading that entry, I decided to switch my commenting style. Instead of reading as a teacher, hand firmly grasped around the rules of standard English usage, red pen dipped in the ink of Strunk and White, I read as a reader. I read as if my comment was a place to interact with the author and the text. I read like I want my students to read. I read as if I was typing my comment into a little form on someone’s blog.

It Makes Sense

If I write something, I want comments about the content of the piece, not grammar and spelling. I’ll fix those things later or I won’t. If I don’t care enough about the piece, I probably won’t. If I do care about it, I’ll take time to solve those issues once I have the content figured out, the actual story in place, the thoughts planned. As I write these entries, I don’t spell check each draft. I spell check the final draft because I know there are no more words that I’ll put down and possibly misspell.

Most of our students who have a poor understanding of English syntax know it and they know enough to have someone else look at it to fix those kinds of things. I’m convinced that students who hand in papers with things like “They looked at his hand and thought they were beautiful” don’t do so with full confidence in their writing. And students are really great about helping fix each other’s problems. Our job is to get those students to the point where they care enough to seek that extra help from peers. Maybe we should even provide the time and assignments to make that kind of assistance happen.

Corrections As Black Holes

I’ve been thinking about this for years: especially if there’s no rewrite option (and there seldom has been in my history), those red marks all over the page really teach students nothing. Sucking up all our time, giving very little back for that investment, showing students a way to read without any enjoyment of the story, they enforce an idea that if the teacher doesn’t mark it, then it’s not wrong. “Corrections” to papers covered in red ink typically come in the form of merely correcting all the things covered in red ink. Nothing else is changed and that doesn’t show understanding of the problems that created the mistakes in the first place. That’s why we keep seeing the same mistakes over and over, because our comments aren’t sending the message that needs to be sent in the way it needs to be sent.

And this takes the power of authorship away from students. Students are not writers when all they are doing is fixing the mistakes teachers point out. They are copyeditors.

If they don’t understand how to use verb tense, pointing out that one verb is present and one is past isn’t going to make everything crystal clear. “Oh!” Mortimer said. “So THAT’S the correct way to do it! Why didn’t anyone tell me that before? Now I know and it all makes so much sense!”

And when you walk through your corrections with students, I’ll bet the reason they can tell you the right way to phrase it is only because they know the current phrasing is wrong; they try the other alternative phrasing they know and that’s often correct.

So I’m going to try to leave more comments at the end of papers and fewer marks on the text itself. I’ll allow myself to write questions in the margins (“Should this really be here?,” “I want to read more about this! Explain what you mean. Slow down and don’t move on to the next topic so quickly,” “What’s the connection?”) and even circle things in order to make a point (circling the 15 sentences in a row that start with “He was”), but perhaps I’m done with highlighting the hundreds of places where a comma is missing. That frees up more time to write a longer comment at the end and I won’t feel like I’m banging my head against the wall pointing out the same errors over and over again.

Which brings me back to my teacher comment database. Maybe that’s a place for teachers to read the types of comments other teachers are making. We tell students to read more and that will make them better writers. Maybe if teachers read more teacher comments, they will become better writers of them. Why don’t you practice commenting now?

1 comment

1. Howry says:

[3/9/2006 - 4:41 pm]

Greetings from freezing NYC my lovelies. Todd and I have talked about this a lot, and all I can say is rock on to thw database. While in an ideal world I would LOOOOOOOOVE to be able to spend ample time with each paper, the reality of 150 essays at a time, every week or two, is mindblowing. Alas, this East Coast gal is all about the ckeck-box style feedback sheet. Any student who cares enough for more feedback (or is asked by me) comes in for a conference where everything can be elaborated. Just my two cents :) Much love from Bklyn…..