I am just like most other teachers – harried, stressed out, exhausted, working under impossible deadlines with mountains of papers to grade, emails to answer, forms to submit, meetings to attend, and students to teach. With all of the demands placed on teachers, I just as easily fell into the trap of grading, especially essays. I spent long hours making comments in margins, writing some of the same things a squillion times on each set of papers, only to have all of my efforts ignored as students only looked at their grades and then threw the papers away or complained about their grades without even looking at the comments that I had taken hours to write. Feeling frustrated and undervalued does not even come close to describing how I felt on those days.
And then something changed. I was attending an AP workshop during the summer, and the presenter handed out a list of numbered comments to us. These were comments that she typically made on papers, and instead of writing “Your thesis statement in unclear” or “The topic sentence is in the wrong place” fifty times, you could simply write a number, and students would have to refer back to the numbered comment sheet to understand what that number meant. This numbered system also had positive comments to let the students know what they had done correctly. She assured us, and she was absolutely right, that this method would cut our grading time, so that we could give more feedback more quickly to the students.
Awesome! I was going to start using it immediately, as I taught both Pre AP and AP English at the time, and the grading was crazy.
Indeed, using this system did cut my grading time significantly. But something else amazing also happened. As I handed back papers, students stopped immediately digging for their grades. They started counting their even numbers – the positive comments – to see how many they had, and what they had done well on. Some would be thrilled that for the first time ever, they had received a “4” on their thesis statement, which meant they had a well-written thesis. Some students would compete to see who could get the most even numbers. They could finally have a paper back that not only did not look like I had bled all over it, but also let them know what they had done correctly.
You see, that is the trap. As teachers, we are so crunched for time that too often we focus only on the things that were done incorrectly, and neglect to let the students know what they did well on so that they can do it again. I had fallen in to that trap, and I am now so glad that I am out of it.
Because now, by and large, students keep their papers and refer back to them to see how to write something now based on the correct model that they already created. Their questions are better, instead of why did I not get an A, it is now how can I improve this so that it is worthy of an even number. And they are better judges of their own writing now, and base their evaluation of improvement on more even numbers, as opposed to less writing in the margins or a grade. The focus is now in the right place – what did I do well.
As stressed out, harried, exhausted adults in this crazy messed-up world, we also tend to focus on the “what went wrongs” instead of the “what went rights” of the day. We all need to take a time out from that, and instead of bleeding in the margins of the essay of our lives negative comments on all of the things that we messed up, we need to take a deep breath and start acknowledging what went right. We all did something right that day; give yourself a break and a little credit. Do the same thing the next day, and then the next.
When you start to look at all of the things that went right, it makes fixing the things that did not go right a little more doable.
Focusing on the positive makes the impossible possible.