How To Grade Writing as an English Teacher

How to grade writing as an English teacher - without spending your life grading writing.

Two years ago, I wrote about saving time while grading writing assignments. I must feel the need for such a reflection at the end of every school year, because here we are again – discussing how to grade writing.

This is the end of about my tenth year as an English teacher (I was part-time for many years). In those ten years, I’ve sat down with thousands of papers to grade. When I first became a teacher, I’d sit down with the stack, normally a bowl of popcorn, and get grading.

Over time, this stopped working. One, my family grew. I can’t sit down at home and grade without my personal children climbing on me. Two, grading burnt me out. Three, I had to kick my leftover college-eating habits. (Studying and french fries turned into grading and popcorn. My older age is not allowing that).

The process I had developed was failing me, so I changed. Grading papers this year has not been perfect, but I would count it as manageable. This is the process I followed while grading papers. Feel free to follow or adapt it!

How to grade writing as an English teacher - without spending your life grading writing.

I read over each paper before “grading.”

I promise this shortens the amount of time it takes me to grade papers!

As the primary audience, I need to get a feeling for the papers. Before I make a mark on papers, I read them all first. This encourages me to look at students’ ideas and reflect as a reader – not immediately as a grader. (I believe there is a difference).

It’s a quick read that provides me a “big picture” to decide where my grading and lesson plans should go next. Giving a quick read before marking provides me with an overall idea. Specifically:

  1. I can figure out if the rubric is fair – and fix the rubric for next time. I might need to clarify a point if every paper missed it.
  2. I decide if I didn’t teach a concept enough. From smaller writing assignments, for example, maybe I never saw that students struggled with indefinite pronouns and their verbs.
  3. I plan what we’ll study next.

This “big picture” might work out to benefit students, but it might not. For instance with the last papers I assigned, I covered MLA format with specifics.

Still, still! Information was in the wrong spot, spacing was off, and on. It was a subject we (again) discussed as a class, but it didn’t change my grading of it. I know we covered it.

I work out my “mental” blocks.

Grading papers is tough. There are endless memes with ELA teachers as the target audience. Grading can be awful and defeating. It can seem never-ending.

First, I don’t grab thirty papers to grade – I choose a manageable number, like five. I tell myself that I will grade five papers and take a break. At the same time, I don’t run to the coffee machine to take the break. I hold myself to the goal.

Second, I chop my activities into manageable pieces. All those brain breaks we are supposed to give students? Yeah, we need them too. After grading the five papers, I walk around, get the cup of coffee, or work toward another goal.

My largest mental block is feeling defeated with a heavy stack of papers on my lap. I give myself permission to take breaks and recognize my success (yes, grading five papers counts as a success) which beats my mental blocks.

I don’t eat.

I don’t – I gained too much weight. What I learned was that if I was hungry and looking to snack, I was tired. Instead of eating my way through a pile of papers (and honestly, I wouldn’t make it – I’d get sleepy), I grab a glass of ice water. This wakes me and stops the fake-hungry pains.

Still hungry but I know I’m not really? I head to bed. I can’t give papers the attention they deserve if I’m exhausted.

I schedule the grading. 

When I leave work at the end of the day, I have goals for the following day. When I face a stack of papers, I schedule them into my day. I don’t avoid grading them, and I don’t assume I’ll grade them at home.

I will tell myself (sometimes I’ll even say it aloud to myself), that I will grade five papers at the start of my prep and two at the end. Sometimes, I write it down.

Adjusting writing lesson plans and tweaking the grading process never ends. I’m not sure it should. The way I would have described how to grade writing differs this year than it did five years ago. I imagine that in five years, I’ll have a more efficient process.

What about you? What grading process could you share to help other ELA teachers?

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