So the way I like to tell the story, the disciples approach Jesus and say, "Hey. We want to get this enlightenment thing. Do we tear our clothes? Do we eat gluten-free? Do we confess that we cheated on our taxes?" And Jesus says, (and what follows is for real): "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate." This is from the Gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Library, a series of scriptures found buried in urns that didn't make the cut for the Bible as we know it. No wonder: Don't tell lies? Don't do what you hate? Institutions~whether family, school, church, government, business, or the local book club~would not exist unless we lied and did what we hated. Truly, think about it. We all specialize in sailing down The River Denial. We lie to ourselves. We lie to each other. And we drudge through things we hate. So the founders of the early church were not about to give these truth-telling gospels air time.
So if what Jesus is purported to have said is the key to enlightenment, this means that teachers marking papers are destined for hell~or, at the very least, wrecked weekends and no time to watch "Lost" or "The Voice." Because traditional ways of marking papers~copy-editing and co-writing student papers; assigning numerical grades to everything; tabulating for report cards~are boring and onerous. The only way to keep doing it is to lie and do what you hate.
In the beginning of my career, I truly hated marking papers, and I assumed the position that I just LOVED it~bled all over my students submissions (yes, that's the word for it) first in red ink, then in green (as if that was more "with it"), then in carbon pencil. I pored over every word as if it were the proverbial gospel truth. I would end up putting more effort into responding, and often lay down more footage, than they did.
Then I enrolled in a post-doc MFA program for poetry, and my over-zealous mentor bled all over one of my essays. I was a published author by then, had blissfully written a dissertation (no lie), was truly engaged in learning, and for a month I couldn't even read all the comments. I couldn't revise. I felt as though she had co-opted my work. I was disenfranchised~literally, had lost my freedom of thought. If I was so affected, what about students who are insecure and discouraged~and therefore rebellious?
WOW! All those months and months of moiling over student papers~an agonizing, futile, backfiring waste. Then I read The Nag Hammadi Library. Ever since, I have lived by that quote: "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate." OK. I approximate that as best I can, so I can still have students to teach and draw a salary that allows for massages. I also teach students to not tell lies and not do what they hate. Yes. Read on.
Surely, it is worthwhile to review how students are thinking, learning, "progressing." As I have grown as a teacher~and learn how to support their creative and critical thinking~the papers have become much more engaging. But still. So I ask myself these questions: What exactly do I hate about marking papers? How am I telling myself and my students lies? I ask the students corollary questions: "Do you hate writing papers? If so, why? How are you living a lie with them?" Then I ask, "How can we do this so that we can tell the truth and love what we do?"
From my point of view: I hate stacks of papers~they overwhelm me. I hate marking every error. I hate reading unreadable work. Students hate being isolated from each other. They hate writing papers that don't reflect who they are. That's a whole other topic, but focusing on marking papers, here are some strategies that helped me transform our experience. And the guy was right~the teaching and the learning got much, much better.
(1) For all assignments, we focus on audience and reader engagement. I draw a line where I become disengaged in a paper. This is far more helpful and awakening than the lie of plodding on. I will ask, "Did you write this in a rush? Resent it? Not care? Why?" The ensuing discussion is where the learning happens. Then I send the student back to write a real paper.
(2) This is important~we learn what we do. I don't need practice in revising their papers for students. THEY do. Either for themselves or for each other. (And fragments can be more effective than "complete sentences.") See (3). I will identify an error pattern, but not do the work of finding all of the instances of it. I find ways to encourage them to teach each other.
(3) We respond to assignments in person. This truly solves the problem of leaning towers of spilled papers. I will put the paper on an overhead projector, either on a tray or digitally. Looking at the same screen is a powerful communal act.
(4) We do workshop the first pages of first drafts. "Yes but the good stuff is on page 3!" "Well then, bring it to the front. It's your job to get and keep us engaged."
(5) On submission days, students gather in groups of four to read and respond to each other's papers, while I one-on-one privately for grades. KNOW THIS: we can all tell by a quick look where a paper is going. Study the literature, not their papers. I ask students to tell me what their peers said. They report back to the groups what I said. It might take more than one day. But we're done.
(6) Students come to me with a proposed grade, referring to criteria that I sometimes give them, sometimes have them develop together. It's rare that a student is off by more than a plus or minus.
The Benefits: No stacks. Students get immediate responses and ideas for revisions. They practice writing and reading for audience. They teach each other (which is the best way to learn). We tell each other the truth, and we do what we love~exercise the power of language and community.
"Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate." How can you be more authentic in the classroom? How can you find bliss in your life?
© 2014 Susanna Rich