My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them, Part II (6-10)

Read Part I First.

Teaching Fail #6: Being a Pedantic Hard Ass

The Story: This story goes way back to when I was student teaching in East Hampton, New York in 1988. My cooperating teacher had a speech class that he asked me to take over. I used his assignment for the students, which required a speech of between 5 and 7 minutes. There were criteria for the assessment, and those criteria were very strict. When it came to the time requirements, the rule was simple. Under 5 minutes or over 7 minutes was an automatic fail.

Raised in a Catholic family, educated from pre-k through 8th grade in a parochial school, I was very comfortable with strict rules. And I was very comfortable enforcing them. So when two students gave speeches under 5 minutes–each somewhere around 4 minutes and 30 seconds–I assigned them Fs.

The students protested, met with my Cooperating Teacher, and even had their parents call. We explained to everyone that the grades were final and that was that. The 0511-0805-1218-2060students were upset, depressed, and pretty unmotivated. Over the course of the next several weeks, I was able to rebuild a relationship with these students, but it took me a long time to regain their trust and willingness to learn from and work with me.

Lessons to Learn: Teachers should remember that the only thing that matters in teaching is student learning, and the more positive a relationship we build with our students, the more likely they will be willing and able to learn from us. By putting the rules over the learning of my students, I ended up interfering with the students’s learning. I wish I could say I learned this lesson early on, but it actually took me years.  I got too wrapped up in the grading schemes and particular wording in exam questions and the language in scoring rubrics. Assessments are for helping understand where students are and where they need to go. Don’t use them to be a pedantic hard ass. Save that attitude for where it belongs: with family.

Teaching Fail #7: Moving Furniture Haphazardly

The Story:  This story scares me just remembering it. I was lucky to teach in a classroom that had a good amount of space, nice carpeting, and these terrific, heavy, strong bookshelves that hooked on large seams in the walls.

When I inherited that classroom in my second year of teaching, the previous teacher, Jim, who had just retired, had the room in traditional rows. I reshaped the room to have groups of students together facing the center of the room. Doing this meant the some of the desks had to be up against the wall. Some of the bookshelves were desk height. So I just took a morning, and moved them high up so that they would be above the students’ heads. Perhaps you can see what’s coming.

During a class later that day, one of the shelves fell, hitting a young woman in one of my “non-college-bound” classes.  This young woman, “Andrea,” was hit on her back–not her head, thank the gods!–and her shoulder. For me, time suddenly stopped. I was horrified that she was really hurt and at the same time–I am embarrassed to admit–I was immediately concerned about my own culpability.  Then Andrea let out a loud string of obscenities the likes of which I haven’t Cartoon mouth with tongue sticking out and lightning bolts sticking out of it indicating loud yellling.heard anywhere short of a biker bar suddenly set on fire.  I and the entire class was stunned, and we stared as her cursing continued.

“Oh my God, are you OK?” I finally asked.

“Owe that hurt like hell!”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?!” Andrea demanded.

“Because he moved those shelves there this morning,” some obsequiously helpful classmate volunteered. “He must not have done it right, so they fell on you.”  I wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole. I was sure the next string of swears would include the words lawyer, law suit, and you’ll never work again!

Instead Andrea shouted, “Jeez. Next time get some help, idiot!” Then, “I’m ok. Go back to your teaching.”

To this day, I love Andrea. She really was OK, and I think she knew damned well she could have sunk me but good. But she didn’t. She knew it was an accident. She called me an “idiot” with complete justification, and we all moved on.

Andrea would be about 42 years old now. I hope she’s had a fantastic life so far and the bruise on her shoulder has healed.

Lessons to Learn: This lesson isn’t really too profound. DO NOT PUT ANYTHING ANYWHERE THAT CAN FALL ON STUDENTS! I hope that’s enough said. Let the custodians or other appropriate personnel help. Or just leave stuff where it is.

Teaching Fail #8: Assuming Your Students Will Be Good Adults

The Story: This story breaks my heart, and it’s one in which I find no humor. As I’ve said a few times in part one, I taught a few rough groups in my first few years of teaching, as most teachers do. I had groups of students who were completely uninterested in school, had jobs lined up for them by their parents, and were mean to students beneath them in the pecking order.

I tried hard to be the kind of teacher who liked students. In even the hardest cases, I found students whose tough fronts masked learning disabilities, an abusive home life, or a series of bad experiences with less compassionate teachers or authority figures. I got pretty good at turning the most antagonistic students into allies by consistently showing them care, respect, and high expectations. And even regarding the students I never reached, I still found things about them to like. I began to feel that inside all students, no matter how unpleasant, was a good person.

I still believe that for the most part, but one student in particular gives me pause. “Wayne” was one of the students who was difficult to like. Petulant, resistant, mean to his peers, and as hurtful as could be to me, he made classes unpleasant for all of us. He often got into fights over nothing, and was good at getting others around him into trouble. He had no discernible sense of humor. No interesting ideas. I never saw him smile, except at other people’s misery–of which he was often the cause.

I worked with Wayne and did my best to like him. I told him I liked him even though I frequently didn’t like his  behavior. I tried to cajole him into learning or at least allowing those around him to learn. I got administrative help and I called his parents. Nothing
really seemed to work, but after that year, I knew he would grow up and eventually make his way positively in the world. I was wrong.

Abstract Black and white painting of darkness.

A few years after I left that school, I learned that Wayne was in jail–on a 25 year-life sentence. Why? He had robbed a cab driver. After he had gotten the driver’s money, he shot him in the back of the head, fatally. Seemingly for no reason. Witness statements and other evidence found him easily convicted, and the judge cited his reckless disregard as a reason for the long prison sentence.

Lessons to Learn: Finding out about Wayne sent me into a bit of spiral. What, I thought, might have I done that would have prevented him from pulling that trigger? We read literature together, I worked with him on writing and communication. I’d have taught job-getting skills and even some social skills in those classes. I’m confident I didn’t teach him anything that would have encouraged murderous behavior, but was there more I could have done to encourage humanity, respect for the lives of others?

Most people who have committed heinous acts have had teachers. Hitler had language arts teachers, as did Charles Manson. Teachers can’t prevent the mentally ill, the psychopathic, or the ethically bankrupt from committing crimes.  Sometimes we have to get help or to try to protect the larger society.  Some of our students may be victims, but others are also victimizers. We need to be prepared to teach them all.

Teaching Fail #9: Thinking Administrators Have the Same Sophomoric Senses of Humor as You and Your Students

The Story: One Halloween when I was teaching high school I decided to wear a costume to class. I dressed like a student. I wore a heavy metal band tee-shirt (this was the 80s), and I shredded a pair of my old jeans. I was a pudgy blonde-haired, blue-eyed very young-looking 21, so Photo of Wayne and Garth from the movie Wayne's World.I probably looked like Wayne and Garth had a baby who ate a bit too much formula! But I did it and I owned it that Halloween day.

I got the biggest kick out of my students’ reactions. My college-bound classes said, “Oh, he’s dressed like a ‘dirt bag,’ isn’t that funny?!” And, my non-college-bound classes said, “He’s dressed like one of us! Cool, man! Awesome!!” Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was dressing like one kind of student, but apparently I was. I was delighted that non-college bound students took my costume as a sign of affection. (I think they knew I actually enjoyed teaching them more than the other classes, but don’t tell anyone I said that.)

So later that day, I ran into Mr. Ed Shomanowski. He was the Assistant Principal with whom I worked. He was a 6’7″ tall walking mountain, a former college football player, who never went into the pros only because of a serious injury. So he became an educator. Ed scared EVERYONE.

When he saw me in the hall dressed as a student, Ed looked at me with contempt and said, “What are you supposed to be?”

Feeling full of myself from the positive reactions I’d gotten from students all day, I said, “I’m your worst nightmare, Shomo!” (Shomo was the name the students who spent the most time with him [that is, the trouble-makers] called him.)

Ed replied without so much as a passing glance of good humor: “If you ever call me ‘Shomo’ again, I will knock you on your ass so hard, it’ll take you a week to climb up out of the crater.”

Lessons to Learn: Do not tick off the administrators in your school. Do not assume they have as silly a sense of humor as your students. If your administrator is a 6’7″ walking mountain, do not crack wise.

I tease. Ed was actually a great support to me in many ways, His office was right on the other side of the wall of my classroom and he could hear my class from his conference room. He appreciated how I used silly humor to connect with my students, and once I established myself as a serious educator, he treated me as an equal. The problem was that I didn’t know he did not like being called “Shomo” by students and that they only called him that behind his back. I touched a nerve. I was lucky that Ed liked me. If he didn’t, my mistake could have been the final nail in my coffin. Don’t let this happen to you!

Teaching Fail #10: Having Only One Pair of Pants at School

The story: This one happened after my high school teaching days, during my fourth year teaching as a graduate student in English at Syracuse University. Some people may wonder why I am so willing to laugh at myself. Stories like this show that it’s basically because I have no other choice.

I was teaching an Introduction to Critical Theory course of about 20 students in a seminar room. We sat at a very long table, and I taught from one end in front of a white board. I had chinos on that were pretty loose in the seat, and I had my wallet in my back pocket. After giving what I’m sure was a particularly brilliant mini-lecture, I sat down as all my students watched. On the way down, my wallet caught on the arm of the chair and a very loud and long ripping sound commenced. The alarm on my face grew worse, as I stood (keeping my front facing the class) and used my right hand to feel that I had ripped my pants open so badly that they flapped back and forth like a flag in a breeze. I sat back down and taught riveted to that position for the rest of the class. Thank the gods it was winter, so I could tie my coat around my waist and get back to my car without being arrested.

Lessons to Learn:  Your teaching life may not turn out to be the “I Love Lucy” episode that mine frequently is, but you should still be prepared for the unexpected. Be ready to laugh at yourself and your own mistakes. Be humble. And treat your students with the care and respect you’d like them to treat you and their peers with. And bring extra pants!

Male teacher grasping head in embarrassment in front of students

This blog post was written in preparation for a presentation I gave at the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I presented “Take My Advice: Learning from a Veteran’s Mistakes” in a session with Leila Christenbury, with whom I recently authored Making the Journey: Being and Becoming an English Teacher, Fourth Edition.

 

 

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My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them Part I (1-5)

Teaching Fail #1: Oversleeping

During my first year of teaching high school English full-time, I had a few recurring fears. Oddly enough, one was that I would be incapacitated by a 15-25-sneeze-long sneezing fit and completely lose control of a class. This didn’t happen in my early years of teaching (although it since has, and was fine). I have pretty aggressive allergies, so bouts aren’t as unusual as one might think.

Another serious fear was sleeping late. This nightmare did, indeed, come true during my first few months in the classroom.

The Story: My apartment mate banged on my bedroom door: “Phone!” The daylight streaming from the window immediately betrayed the reason for the call. “Oh shit.”

“Ken, it’s Kevin. [My department chair] We’re into first period. Where are you?”

“Oh No. I guess I overslept.” I immediately went into my just startled awake version of crack problem-solving mode. Should I call for a sub? woman-waking-up-late-turning-off-alarm-clock-panic-morning-young-girl-laying-bed-56705841Should I run to school? Should I ask someone else in the department to cover for me? I came up blank.  “Kevin, What does one usually do in a case like?”

“What does one do in a case like this?! One gets one’s arse into school is what one does!” This was all the more commanding for Kevin’s distinct Irish brogue. I did, indeed, get my arse into school, and it never happened again.

Lessons to Learn: Especially if you live alone or with roommates who are not invested in your success enough to ensure you’re up in the morning: get a second alarm clock, one that does not require electricity. After this fiasco, I bought a wind-up alarm, and it saved me more than once during power outages or very early-morning meetings.

The bigger lesson here is to not just be afraid of something you think might go wrong. Be prepared for it. Make a plan. Even if you try really, really hard and you have never been unreliable, you will some day make a mistake or be subject to something out of your control. It could happen. Be ready. And then be confident.

Teaching Fail #2: Telling a Student, “If you don’t like this class, no one is forcing you to stay here.”

The Story: Like most new teachers, I had a few challenging students during my first year of teaching. One young woman in a tenth-grade-college-bound class really got under my skin. She was bright and had a sharp tongue. She was also quite cool and appeared very 1144420_ME_1116_me_adv_angry_little_asian_girl-MAMconfident. She was the kind of student who five years earlier would have been dating the alpha-male student in my high school who’d be throwing me up against lockers in the hall.  While I was dealing with this student, I was a 21-year-old new teacher, nervous as a teacup chihuahua in a wolf pack. So I didn’t deal especially well with this brazen, confident young woman.

“Listen,” I once said in frustration after yet another string of sarcastic comments, “If you don’t like this class, no one is forcing you to stay here.”  So she packed her books and left. Problem solved.

Uh, no. Problem created.

The student went right to the principal’s office and told the principal’s secretary what I said. Dr. Aldi was a wonderfully supportive principal, and he was always good humored about my missteps, in part because he knew I meant well and was generally pretty reliable (despite my confessions in this post). Dr. Aldi explained to me quite clearly that, in fact, the state is forcing students to attend classes, and they do not have the option to leave.

Lessons to Learn: Neither students nor teachers have a choice about coming to class. It is up to teachers to do what is necessary to engage students in learning. Like it or not, students can choose not to engage. So it is incumbent on teachers to provide as engaging an environment as possible. If we teach in a way that bores students, their learning will be negatively affected. Since all that matters in school is student learning, we need to make class as fun as possible. Luckily, there’s a great deal of good advice out there for teachers on that.

Teachers, to a certain degree, do have the option of sending students to the principal, but it’s a bad idea for several reasons (for example, you’ll annoy your boss). Instead, deal with students exhibiting negative behaviors in any of the following ways:

  • Have a one-on-one conversation after class
  • Compose a behavior contract
  • Call the student’s parent
  • Give the student an alternate assignment that will keep the student from interfering with the rest of the class (and follow up on this later)
  • Get some advice from a more experienced teacher or school administrator

Teaching Fail #3: Yelling at a Student for Liking You

The Story: Perhaps this is obvious, but if you find a student likes you–that is, has a crush on you–don’t lash out at him or her.  How in the world did I come to this advice?! It’s a short, and sordid tale. I still cringe at this one, now 30 years later.cartoon-pleased-white-lady-holding-her-hands-in-front-of-her-body-and-grinning-at-a-guy-she-is-infatuated-with-hearts-above-by-ron-leishman-211

At 21, I was not the brash, confident specimen of unbridled masculine sexuality  that is writing this blog post. Instead, I was shy, nervous, and less experienced than many. When one of the young girls in a tenth grade class I was teaching started getting teased for having a crush on me, I didn’t know how to react. My concern was really for the student. She was being teased–not so gently–and she didn’t like it. And other students began to embarrass her.

In my own still young brain, I thought the most efficient and effective way to handle this was to stop this student from crushing on me. And in a class, when she did something fairly minor, I yelled at her pretty strongly. The romance immediately ended, and the teasing stopped. I apologized to the student later for over-reacting, but she never knew of my reason for doing it.

It was clunky and inadvertently mean. It worked in a way, but I don’t recommend it.

Lessons to Learn: Be prepared for some unexpected emotional issues. Young people are unpredictable and are learning about themselves and those around them. And if you are a young teacher, still maturing yourself, don’t act too quickly. Ask for advice from a trusted mentor. Also, try to act out of kindness and in kind ways. Yelling at students is almost never the right thing to do.

OK, I acknowledge the lesson from this story is a little thin. Maybe I really just wanted to tell you that there was once a student who had a crush on me!

Teaching Fail #4: Believing “Once a ‘Bad’ Kid, Always a ‘Bad’ Kid”

The Story: This story is pretty famous among my family and friends. I get requests to tell it, and it has become a tale of legendary woe with peaks and valleys and an epic crescendo. It gets better if I tell it after a drink or two. And, I swear it’s all true!  Here I give just the bare bones.

In my first years of teaching, I taught some rough classes. They had students who were savvy and popular and in many ways just not nice.  I want to keep this fairly light-hearted, but there are young people who are real bullies, commit criminal acts, and genuinely make life harder for those around them. I know–and I firmly believe–there is no such thing as a bad kid, but I do in my stories sometimes refer to “bad kids” (in air quotes). Brian (not his real name) was a “bad kid.” I taught Brian for a year; he tested my patience in class constantly and made it much more difficult for the other students in the class to learn. I confess to having being grateful when Brian was suspended from school, which was frequent.

A year or so later, I was teaching when the fire alarm sounded. I dutifully walked my class to the door out of which we had left the building for countless drills before. But this time, blocking that door in full fire fighting gear was Brian. Ifeedbackpic1 was at the back of the line of my students, and Brian was telling the students that they should not go out this door, but should follow the other students to the front entrance of the school.

The sight of Brian at the door trying to convince my students not to do what I KNEW they were supposed to do sent my mind reeling. Brian, who was clearly playing a prank, was trying to keep my students from doing the right thing. This “bad kid” was going to get my students and me in trouble. Well, not on MY WATCH!

“Go Anyway!” I shouted to my young students. “Ignore the fire fighter! Ignore Him!”

I know now I was wrong, but there is some evil part of me that still enjoys the utterly frightened look on Brian’s face when my students began to push against him as I egged them on. But, very quickly, the students stopped, thought better of it–the cowards!–and they obeyed the fire fighter’s commands.

Remember how supportive Dr. Aldi was? Well this time he had to ensure the Fire Department that I would be reprimanded, and doing so he was able to convince them not to have me arrested! I was very contrite and I accepted his firm but kind reprimand. “When there’s a fire drill, Ken, the Fire Department is IN CHARGE! Do you know if that hadn’t been a drill, you might have been accused of forcing your students to march into the fire?!”

Gee. I hadn’t thought of that.

Lessons to Learn: OK, so the real problem above is that I have a unique but consistent reaction to crises: I immediately take charge and then make bizarre decisions. I’m not sure that’s a lesson anyone else could or needs to learn.

But the larger issue is that I didn’t account for maturity and change in this student. I also wasn’t aware that he had, in fact, graduated. When we teach, it’s important that we get to know our students and even if we genuinely don’t like some of them (or more accurately: dislike their behaviors) we should keep track of them. Some students will change and surprise you and become much better people later. Some will even change while you have them in class. Don’t pigeonhole your students. Keep your mind opened to them and what they will become. Otherwise you’ll miss some of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.

Teaching Fail #5: Missing An Appointment with the School Superintendent

The Story: As I thought through all the mistakes I made in my first years of teaching for this post, I began to wonder if I somehow sabotaged myself. Could I really have made so many errors purely accidentally? Of course, the answer is yes. As a nervous new teacher entering a new profession and life as a fully-functioning adult, it makes perfect sense that one would make lots of mistakes. Some of them really pretty stupid. This is one of those.

My department chair had been particularly impressed with a lesson I did. I was the first new teacher hired in the department in over 10 years, so having a new teacher was a fun experience for the whole department. My chair was so excited that I was good (so he thought), that he invited the superintendent of schools–that is, his boss’s boss–to meet me and hear my description of this great lesson and how I came up with it.

The meeting was on Tuesday morning during my planning period. I was excited to get kudos from such a high-level administrator in my first few months of teaching. That Tuesday afternoon, my chair (Kevin) popped his head into one of my afternoon classes and said, “Hey, where were you?” I had totally forgotten the meeting and instead spent my planning period grading papers instead. My chair wasn’t mad, just curious. But I was mad. I missed a really nice moment for myself.

Academic-appointment-book-aug-aug-one-week-spread-5-x-8-black_109239.jpg
I like this kind of calendar book because it gives enough room for daily appointments plus notes. And you can see a week at a time.

Lessons to Learn: When you become a professional (if not before), you become far too busy to be able to keep everything you’re responsible to attend or do in your head. Use a calendar!

Right after I missed this meeting, I bought my first appointment calendar, and I recorded appointments in it. Every morning I would consult it to ensure I kept up on meetings and deadlines. Now I use Google Calendar, which synchs to my phone, laptop, and my desktop at home and at work. I also have the calendar set to give me an alarm 10 minutes before my meetings. The only times I’ve missed meetings now is if I’ve forgotten to look at the calendar. So it’s not foolproof, but it helps.

 

This blog post was written in preparation for a presentation I gave at the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I presented “Take My Advice: Learning from a Veteran’s Mistakes” in a session with Leila Christenbury, with whom I recently authored Making the Journey: Being and Becoming an English Teacher, Fourth Edition.

Prepping for the NCTE Convention!

I first attended the Annual Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English in 1989, as a second year high school English teacher. It was like a nerdy dream come true! Thousands of fellow teachers passionate, good-humored, and smart about teaching English. I discovered aspects of the field I had no idea existed. I got to listen to talks by dozens of the most famous teachers in the field, shake hands with some of my favorite authors, and meet colleagues from across the country, many of whom have since becomeNCTE 2016 Banner image good friends. I have missed very few of the conventions since then. It is my absolute favorite professional event every year. (I put “professional” in there only in case a family member reads this post. Shh!)

This 2016 NCTE convention promises great opportunities. The entire program is now available online to everyone, so check it out.

You know those writers in English Journal and in the books about teaching English you have come to love? Those authors will be right there. You can talk with them–they are approachable and very gracious–and they will appreciate hearing how you’ve used their work. Many of them will also help you become such an author yourself, if you’re so inclined.  In fact, NCTE hosts more than one venue that allows teachers to learn more about how to become an author. See especially the “Meet the Editors” session, usually on Saturday morning, where the editors of NCTE’s many journals will meet with small groups of prospective published writers.

I am speaking at two sessions this year:

  • I am giving a talk called “Take My Advice: Learning from a Veteran Teacher’s Mistakes,” in which I share some funny (and some very not-funny) fails from my first years of teaching and discuss what newer teachers can learn from them. In this session, I co-present with the lovely and talented Leila Christenbury. Leila and I recently co-authored Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts. We’ll be signing copies of the new book at the Heinemann booth in the book exhibit from 10:30-11:30 on Saturday. We’re honored that Penny Kittle will serve as our session chair.
  • On Sunday morning, I am leading a round table discussion on “Managing the Grading Grind” as part of a session sponsored by the NCTE Emeritus Assembly. It’s a session for new teachers, and lots of veteran teachers will be there with advice and big ears for listening to new teachers’ needs. For a sneak peak of my talk, see my  5 Tips for Managing the Grading Grind.

Some of my favorite sessions are the luncheons. Each year I attend the CEE Luncheon andconv-circle the Secondary Section Luncheon, both of which bring dynamic speakers and give me a chance to have extended conversations with old and new friends in the field. This year’s Secondary Section speaker, Leila Christenbury, is a special favorite!

And finally, the thing not to be missed is NCTE’s massive book exhibit! Picture a BJ’s Warehouse with nothing but books about teaching English and Young Adult and Children’s Literature (at a discount). Any many of the authors are there signing or just wandering around buying their own books.

I hope to see you in Atlanta!

 

 

School Writing Vs. Authentic Writing

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by Ken Lindblom

Many students dislike writing in school, and it’s no wonder.  Five-paragraph essay formats, predictable essay questions on books they didn’t choose to read, all written for a teacher (or faceless exam scorer) who knows more about the subject than they do.  Who would find this “schoolish writing”–as Anne Elrod Whitney has called it–appealing? Certainly not Tim Dewar’s daughter, who has “better writing to do”! No where in the world outside school is writing expected to be formulaically written without a real purpose and without a real audience.  As noted educator, Grant Wiggins, has put it:

The point of writing is to have something to say and to make a difference in saying it. Rarely, however, is impact the focus in writing instruction in English class. (29)

While many students claim to dislike writing, according to a PEW Report, today’s young people actually write…

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A Statement for Educators on the Presidential Election

Below is a statement I sent on the morning after the US Presidential election to my colleagues at Stony Brook University.  Perhaps other educators might find it useful. As always, my views do not necessarily represent Stony Brook University or any of its agents or subsidiaries.

Dear  Colleagues,

Last night the nation spoke and elected a new president. Even after this incredibly divisive, often disrespectful, and fraught presidential election, we will witness one of the things that has allowed the United States of America to be a beacon of democracy: a peaceful transition of power. Still, given the president-elect’s apparent agenda and lack of specificity, and what appears to be his supporters’ hope for significant change to the status quo, we may be entering a period that contains a greater measure of political uncertainty than usual. We must deal with that uncertainty responsibly and positively.

As educators we have a responsibility to ensure that each student with whom we come in contact feels safe, respected, and cared about. Many students may now feel distinctly insecure, angry, perhaps even scared. We should do everything in our power to help keep those students from feeling despair. Other students may be beyond jubilant, feeling vindicated and empowered. Others may appear to have no reaction. None of these feelings is necessarily wrong, but we must treat them carefully. We are a powerful community at Stony Brook University, and we will face new challenges together. We will make the most out of the changes to come for the benefit of all. As we do so, it is paramount that we maintain our mission as educators and that we show care and concern for all our students and colleagues.

I ask you to make an effort to be a little nicer, a little kinder, a little more supportive of everyone today and in the near future, as we all try to sort out what this new administration will bring. This election season has caused significant divisiveness, but it has also made visible some very serious social issues that we can and will address together. We can do that in a positive way as we move forward. It’s hard not to believe we have just entered a new historical era in our nation’s journey. Here at Stony Brook and beyond we will make that journey together with open dialog, respect, and care.

Sincerely,

Ken Lindblom

Associate Dean for Academic Programs, School of Professional Development

5 Tips for Managing the Grading Grind

There’s simply no question that one of the primary challenges of teaching is coping with the constant barrage of grading and responding to student writing. I love teaching and I even love reading student writing; but like every teacher I know, I HATE having a stack of papers waiting for me.

priest
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned: It’s been 2 weeks since I collected those term papers, and I haven’t even started grading them yet!

Those papers weigh on me like Jacob Marley’s chains, clanking loudly when I’m trying to relax. They call out to me like angry birds ready to topple me over when I’m feeling rejuvenated. They sting like a pebble in a shoe, disturb my peace like flies in a drink. And the guilt I feel when they pile up!

But responding to student work is a crucial aspect of the job. What’s a busy teacher to do? Here are 5 ideas that may help.

1: Remember What Grading/Responding is For

Every thing teachers do should be about student learning and nothing else. Some teachers, however, say they feel their students deserve a response from the teacher to everything they turn in. I have two reaction: 1) If the teacher’s response doesn’t result in the highest possible outcome of student learning, it’s not worth the time; 2) If a teacher is physically able to respond to everything students turn in, then that teacher is NOT assigning enough work to the students.

Grading/responding is only for helping students learn. It is NOT proof that a teacher is doing his or her job. A short response can sometimes help students learn more than a longer response to his or her work. And, responses don’t always have to come from the teacher. Students can learn from responses given by peers, their parents, and others.

2: Try Different Grading/Responding Methods

You don’t read everything the same way, do you? From cover-to-cover, front to back, slowly and carefully, with full attention? Of course not. Browsing through a People magazine is very different from reading the directions on a bottle of unfamiliar medication, and the process you use for reading them is totally different. And should be. Take the same approach to student work.

Here are some suggestions of different methods to try:

  1. Holistic Response: Try giving an overall assessment (for example a √, √+, or √-). For short assignments, students can glean a lot just from these overall assessments.
  2. Give a Whole-Class Oral Response: Take 5 minutes to give your entire class an oral response all at once. Tell them what the really good work did; tell them what some of the less successful work didn’t do so well. You can combine this approach with the holistic approach to give the holistic grade more depth. Of course, you should teach your students to take notes on your whole-class responses.
  3. Write a letter to the Whole Class: Especially for longer, important assignments, it can be fun and engaging to write a personal letter to the entire class about their work. Not only does this provide a lot of depth for students and save hours for teachers, it also establishes valuable community between teachers and students. In this very rich blog post, Todd Finley gives great advice on writing effective whole-class letters. I’ve written whole-class letters in the past, and I even enjoy re-reading them sometimes. I remember the relationships I built with groups of students in the past, and I wonder about how they’re doing now.
  4. Focus Response: My Cooperating Teacher at East Hampton HS in 1988 taught me this strategy, and I still use it! Tell your students you are looking closely at one particular thing in their work. Focus your grade or response on only that one thing. That allows you to read and respond more closely, and it encourages your students to emphasize that one thing. Of course, you must ensure that that one thing is actually important for student learning.
  5. Swap & Respond: This is something I use all the time. I ask students either to write something in class or to bring something already written. Then I ask them to swap their writing with someone else and take time to read and write a response to it. I’m careful to ensure students know that by “respond” I mean ask questions, write opinions or pose problems, or agree with content. Swap & Respond is not about pointing out errors. Then the students give their writing back to each other, and I usually give them some time to read and chat about what they told each other. Sometimes from there I collect the writing and sometimes I don’t. The value here is that students got a response. Of course, we teachers should make sure we have created productive community in our classes before we can stop reading the responses between students.

3: Use Assessment Rubrics for Longer Assignments

There’s been a LOT written on rubrics. One of their biggest critics, Alphie Kohn, wrote a very compelling case against rubrics. But I really like them when they are used well. Create clear criteria and show students where their writing falls in terms of each criterion. That information demystifies grading and helps students understand where they did well and where their work fell short. Heidi Andrade is one of my favorite gurus on rubrics. She wrote this excellent primer on rubrics if you’d like a quick review.

I like rubrics that include space for comments on each criterion, so I can quickly write something about each. But, if it’s a brief assignment or if I am short on time,

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Simple rubric template found here.

sometimes I will simply put a check mark next to each rubric category. Students can come talk with me (or each other) about any specific area that isn’t clear to them.

I especially like student-teacher generated rubrics. These occur best after a major project has been assigned, but before the students begin writing. Take time in class to generate rubric criteria together. When students discuss together what is in the rubric that they created, they are far more invested in it and the understand it better.

If you’d like to read more about how rubrics can inform valuable assessment, especially of performance (including writing), check out Nancy Steineke’s Assessment Live!

4: Use Your Voice

There is really good software out there for responding to student papers using audio comments. You can record very short individual comments or you can easily create 5-minute videos in which you respond to student writing. Jing is a terrific program for this. Here is one teacher’s story about using Jing to respond to student writing.

Warning: I use Jing videos every semester, but honestly they don’t save much time. But they break the monotony of writing comments, and they are kind of fun. I also get great stories from students about them. One student’s mother and father ran to her room demanding to know who that man talking to her was. It was me! (I guess she has a really good sound system on her computer.)

Of course, you can also have one-on-one writing conferences with students about their writing. This takes time, but sometimes it’s a treat for a teacher to be able to talk about writing with a student, rather than sit alone and write comments about it.

5: Enlist Others: Peers, Parents, Partners

Peer response sometimes gets a bad name, but in my experience that happens only when it’s implemented poorly. When done well, peer response is very powerful, as are responses from others besides the teacher.

Successful writers don’t write to teachers, they write to readers. So getting responses from readers is an authentic way to get feedback. But to facilitate this, teachers must design response practices carefully, using peer-response guides, for example. The Writing Center at the University of Minnesota has a terrific website devoted to helping faculty create effective peer response workshops.

I find the most significant points of resistance to peer response come from some teachers’ feeling that responding is really their job and only their job. That attitude not only leads to teacher burn-out, but also greatly limits what students can learn about writing effectively. Please resist that attitude at all costs.

Don’t Feel the Burn(out)!

Whatever you do, don’t punish yourself with struggling to get responses and grades to your students. This part of the teaching job is a grind, and it can be depressing, lonely, and anxiety-provoking. Even the best teachers fall behind and sometimes even fail to give any appropriate response. The school day and school year are hardly arranged in a way that encourages a lot of feedback to students. This is hard for all of us.

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Did I really just spend all those hours grading this weekend only to get another set of papers today?!

Do your best, use all the strategies you can, and remember that even Super-teachers are still just human.

If you’d like to learn more about effective ways to respond to student writing, please consider purchasing Making the Journey, just published by Heinemann. You can learn more about that book here and here.

I’ll be speaking on “Managing the Grading Grind” at the 2016 NCTE Convention in Atlanta Georgia. I hope to see you there! -Ken