I recently polled our community on Instagram about the paper pile. Because let’s face it, it’s a huge part of an English teacher’s life. How many papers will you assign? How will you grade them? When will you grade them? These become defining questions. I heard from teachers who have graded papers at an ice cream social, at the bar, at a Superbowl party, in the emergency room, in the delivery room, in a parent’s recovery room at the hospital room, at the beach, and more.
I certainly remember the folders of papers always weighing down my bag from my teaching life. And I remember grading past midnight.
I’m sure you can relate to all of this. But more than ever lately, are you asking the same question as me? DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?
The teaching profession has suffered through many difficult challenges of late, and the teacher shortage is the newest on a long list. I see many colleagues leaving the classroom or thinking about leaving, and while I know there are many factors, the crush of grading still feels like one of the biggest. After all, there would be more time to creatively deal with planning, admin tasks, differentiation, parent communication, and everything else if English teachers weren’t trying to find four or five hours a week to stare down the paper pile.
So today I want to suggest something, just my two cents. I think it would be better to dramatically change the way you grade to give yourself back time, than to be pushed out of the classroom by your paper pile, or made miserable by it. Today on the podcast I’m going to share six ideas for taking back some of your grading time, and then in several upcoming episodes I’ll be going deeper with some of these strategies.
You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Let Some Writing go Ungraded
I’m starting with this one because it’s a very big deal. Somewhere along the way, many students have gotten the idea that every bit of practice should be received by a teacher, checked, and returned with a specific grade.
I’m calling foul.
Just about every skill in life requires practice after practice to get better at it. Let’s go back to one of my favorite classroom metaphors – baseball. No one sits and gives a grade to every swing of the bat at practice, or every toss of a ball. But the coach does get a general sense of progress and weak points to return to, and so do players.
So how can you accomplish this arc of improvement without grading everything? Let’s look at a few options.
Stickers and stamps come to mind immediately.
Order a giant packet of scratch-and-sniff, sparkly, smiley-face and more. Slap stickers on completed work and watch your tough high schoolers break into goofy smiles and start comparing to see whose sticker is best.
When I taught in Bulgaria I ordered a special stamp in Cyrillic that said добре (Good). You can get a stamp that says whatever you want, even “Mrs. Jacobsen thinks this is stellar, but is too busy creating your next awesome class project to grade 100 of these.”
Another helpful option is keeping a set of classroom roster charts on a clipboard in your room. This allows you to go around at the start of class and check off assignments for completion in about twenty seconds as students journal, read, work on bell-ringers, or just get out their books. That way everyone gets credit for doing the work at home, and you’re aware of who might be falling behind. Keep it simple – give everyone five points, or whatever works for you and the parents who are always checking their kids’ grades online (if you have some of those).
You can also let students create a collection of work that practices a similar skill, then turn them all in with ONE marked as the one that best shows their mastery for you to grade.
Similarly, you might have students turn in a piece with a certain section starred that they feel best reflects the current skill you’re targeting. You can provide feedback and a grade just on that section, giving the rest a grade for completion.
Grade with Common Errors
This. Is. Huge. I’m going to go deep with a full podcast on this one strategy soon, but for now, here’s the quick rundown.
Chances are, you’ve got a running list of 10-15 errors in your head that you see in paper after paper, class after class, year after year. We all do. So why write the same comment 5,000 times?
Instead, develop a beautifully detailed hyperdoc or handout with the common errors you see and their fixes, spelled out in detail.
Then, when a student makes one of the common errors, instead of writing a paragraph explaining how to fix it, just write “#1” in the margin to refer them to the error they’ve made and EXACTLY how and why to correct it.
You can add to the common errors list throughout the year as students’ writing becomes more complex and they struggle with new things. You can also use it as an important document when you are drafting, self-editing, peer editing, or choosing what to focus on for bellringers, mini-lessons, etc.
Incorporate Self-Editing Stations
To help students improve their work before they turn it in, set up stations around the room that focus on the challenges students are having with their writing (these could easily come from your common errors list!).
Perhaps one station will ask them to look at the citations in their paper and compare their work to a guide and make corrections.
Another might ask them to check their introduction for the required elements you want them to have in it.
To set up an effective station, create a clear label and a clear task, and then BE SURE to provide helpful resources that will enable students to do that task independently. Sure, you can float around for questions, but you may wish to set up a table where you can work individually with kids or teach a mini lesson to a small group. Having resources available that students can reference really helps. Be creative in laying out resources – models, informational references, and tutorial videos could all be great.
Use Peer Editing with Intention
Sure, there’s something to be said for the “mark one thing to work on and share one thing you liked” model for a quick peer exchange. But to use peer editing to reduce your marking time and really help students help each other, you can set clearer intentions. If your students are working on specific skills with a piece, set up your editors to help with those skills. Have different editors search out and help with different types of things.
Again, this can easily take place with stations, which allows you to put out those oh-so-helpful resources for your peer editors, in case they have their own questions about the skill they’re trying to help their partners with.
Schedule Grading Blocks into your Ideal Week
OK, this idea (and the next one) are productivity tips rather than specific classroom strategies. But when it comes to the paper pile, productivity tips are pretty relevant. Because it is just soooo easy to feel your mind wander to pretty much anything after every single paper you grade. Should I stop now? you might ask yourself seven minutes in. Maybe I should make copies. Maybe I should do the laundry. Maybe I should go make tea. Maybe I will do these tonight.
But if you’ve taken the time to set up an ideal week, scheduling in what really matters to you with the things you have to get done across the time blocks you have available, then you already know when you’re going to do your copying, your laundry, and your grading. So if you’re grading, there’s no need to switch tasks to anything else. You can learn more about this strategy way back in episode 39.
Consider: “What would this Look like if it were Fun?”
I recently finished Ali Abdaal’s book, Feel Good Productivity. It’s full of advice that actually feels practical and doable, instead of a giant super-specific system that will take dozens of hours to implement and eventually become too overwhelming to continue with (ahem, not that I’ve read any productivity books like that, lol).
One of my favorite sections was about how much he struggled with medical paperwork as a junior doctor, and it reminded me of the paper pile. He talked about how he stopped trying to force himself to do it through “discipline” and “motivation” and instead started to ask himself, “What would this look like if it were fun?”
This is huge, for me personally. I light a lilac scented candle during podcast interviews, keep my work tools as colorful as possible, spend tons of my working hours sitting in coffee shops where the vibe helps me focus, and frequently take the first few minutes of my working day to clean up whatever is around me and put chill piano music on the speaker to help create an atmosphere that feels pleasant to work in.
While it won’t always be practical to grade at your favorite bakery over your favorite sandwich, cider, and lightly coffee-flavored dark chocolate brownie (not that I’m speaking from experience), ask yourself: what CAN you do to make your grading experience more pleasant? Could you use special pens you love? Always sit by the window? Sip lemon-ginger tea? Grade with a friend? These little things aren’t a waste of your time, they’re productivity-boosters. Having a routine that is both positive and pleasant for your grading can help you get into work mode and stay there.
We’ll Come back to This
Alright, my friend. Those are six big things to thing about. We’ll be coming back to several of them to go deeper over the next few weeks, because getting a handle on the papersplosion can really help you carve back time for your own personal and classroom creativity. And hey, we think that’s pretty important around here!