Grading Papers


It really is kind of a funny concept.

What am I grading, exactly?

How do you “grade” a teenager’s thoughts about a poem? Especially a poem that he spent hours memorizing, delivered in front of his peers, annotated and marked up for tone and mood and all sorts of literary devices, and quite frankly knows better than I do.

I mean, really.

Ms. Shea, how many papers have you graded so far this morning?



Yes, two. And I have been grading for almost an hour.

And am I procrastinating right now? (See previous post for a thorough explanation of the psychology of why writers procrastinate).

Maybe. But these two papers got me thinking.

It’s an agonizing process, as any English teacher (or perhaps History, Theology and Philosophy teacher too) knows all too well. Sometimes it’s agonizing because you find yourself spending far much more time reading and making comments than the student probably did in writing the essay. Sometimes it’s agonizing because the student is obviously muddling through dyslexia and dysgraphia and cognitive obstacles that create hopeless roadblocks between thought and paper.

Sometimes it’s agonizing because you flounder through a mountain of essays, and finally, mercifully, by some Herculean effort finish them…

source: My life.
My life.

…Knowing that in order to be a good teacher you have to make them try again. Which means another mountain of essays.

Sometimes it’s agonizing because your student is obviously very proud of her cliched and hackneyed ideas and innocently believes she has written something very profound.

“It shows that you should look for the deeper meaning behind the poem.”

“It” shows? Who is ‘it’? The poem itself? Don’t you really mean the author or the speaker? “Behind” the poem? What about “in” the poem? Why is the poem trying to stand in front of its own “deeper meaning”?

And what is “deeper meaning,” anyway?

This is the rubric I really should be using.

Other times, grading papers agonizing because you realize that no matter HOW much time you spent teaching thesis statements and quote sandwiches and how to explain evidence, some kids just didn’t get it.

Like, at all.

Like, were you in class for the past two weeks?

Or the past year?

Have I taught you nothing????


–the two papers I just graded did not have any of these problems. They were quite good, in fact.

(Okay, I’m grading my honors class first this time.)

And yet the process was still rather agonizing. The amount of attention you really have to muster to think through someone else’s thoughts and then evaluate how she expresses them is rather staggering.

What do I write in the margins to help her? What do I write at the end to affirm her efforts and at the same time challenge her to strive for better?

Even if the student earns an A — there is work to be done. How do I push her further?

Or if the student — especially an honors student — does not earn an A (according to my meticulous rubric that makes something subjective and mysterious seem objective and mathematical)? Perhaps an A-? Or, heaven forbid, a B?

And yet the essay is truly well done and demonstrates remarkable improvement from the previous one? How do I let her know that?

How do I put a definitive letter grade on something (written small, at the very end) and make it clear that the grade itself isn’t really what the student should care about? That I appreciate his thinking and his time and his struggle, and that I am proud of him?

I love grading papers, and I hate grading papers. I love it when I feel like I am establishing a helpful relationship with my student, when I get to see how he is thinking and what he is doing to improve. I hate it when I realize it’s a one-sided relationship and the student probably isn’t going to read my comments anyway, or try to learn from them, but is going to flip to the very end, glance at the letter grade, groan and toss the whole business into the nearest recycling bin.

But learning how to write was one of the greatest gifts I was ever given by a teacher. My English teacher, my sophomore year of high school, hemorrhaged in red pen all over my first essay, and somehow transformed the way I look at writing, read writing, and attempt to write.

I want to do that for my students, too. Even if they don’t fall in love with writing, I want to help them learn how to think and express themselves articulately.

Because it’s language that separates us from pretty much everything else on this planet.

And yet it is language that helps us connect to everything else on the planet — to name it, like Adam in Genesis — to learn to know it, to come to love it.