Traffic Jam

IMG_0852I carry these color folders back and forth with me from my office to my home and then back again to my office.  They are filled with papers, quizzes, exercises that I haven’t gotten around to looking at.  There is always the intention of reading them, correcting them, and grading them.  The stacks continue to grow as more and more work is turned in.  I walked into the division office the other day and showed another teacher my bag of papers, and she said, “Oh, so I’m not the only one.”

Is this a wide-spread problem, or am I in a tiny, little minority of procrastinators?  What is it about keeping up with the workload outside the classroom?  I always seem to be behind the minute the first, second, and third assignments are handed in.  My intentions are always good, but that sounds like the students who don’t get their assignments done on time.  (And we also know where the path paved with good intentions leads.)  In addition, what kind of a role model is it for students when they see their papers are not returned in a timely fashion?  “What was the big deal about having to turn them in by a certain date if the teacher doesn’t get around to looking at them?”

A colleague casually said, “Why don’t you give assignments that you look forward to reading?”  In the best of all possible worlds, this would be ideal.  The classes I am teaching now are 3 and 4 levels below English 1A.  The students are still learning the fundamentals of English sentence structure.  They are learning to write correct yet complex sentences.  Many of the assignments are quite basic.

In teaching to write adjective clauses, I’ll show certain scenes from Groundhog Day and ask the students to summarize the scenes and include who the different characters are.  They can explain that easily using adjective clauses.  “Phil Connors is the guy who is living Groundhog Day over and over.”  Not exactly earth shaking.  But such simple exercises lead to better writing, or so it is hoped.

I have asked myself whether the amount of homework I give is excessive, considering that I cannot keep up with it.  Part of me thinks that mechanical exercises in the book teach form but not usage.  I try to make outside assignments reflect the world of writing.  I want the students to be able to incorporate adjective clauses, for example, into their regular writing on campus in all their classes.  I could go on, but continuing to write here will not make the pile of papers any less.  It’s back to the stacks.

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9 thoughts on “Traffic Jam

  1. Grading is our only procrastinatable (!) task. We HAVE to hold class, we HAVE to prepare, etc., but we can always give those papers back later. And you nailed the consequences. Unlike fine wine, feedback does not improve with age.

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  2. Richard, one of my colleagues (and friend) spoke quite provocatively about this issue as we chatted at our company party. I’ve thought a lot about her words and I’m trying to apply the theory this quarter. Because it has the potential of helping us out a lot, I’ll share it with you here. She said that she gauges all effort via a cost/benefit assessment (quickly, in her mind). Her goal was to only collect items that needed her thoughtful feedback. When having students engage in groupwork or in group quizzes, she walks around and notes who is participating (frequently all present, but occasionally a subset of those present). With a quick check in her roster, she can acknowledge and record participation in that learning activity. This is how I’m trying to apply that idea this quarter. I’m trying to take no papers from my class except exams. At the start of class, students submit their “module” of work due and get started on a (group) quiz that gives them one more opportunity to review a new skill or an old skill that will be needed for the day. While they’re working on that, I quickly check, record, and return their packets. Most people just get credit, though I record pluses and minuses for exceptional attempts so that I have a crude record of the effort put in. I silently take roll and give credit to those who are working on the quiz. I then project the answers and take questions or make a few important points. This takes about 20 minutes. But then the students are ready (in most cases) for the important work of the day and I don’t have to take that massive stack of paper from the class. In week 5, students got more chatty during that quiz time so I may collect the quizzes for a few days to help them remember what I’m expecting of them. It’s hectic to write a quiz for every class, but it’s also fun and promises fresh, creative thinking. I enjoy it a lot more than providing written comments on individual work, which is an important benefit. It provides students with very low stakes formative assessments, which is also an important benefit. And it primes them for the important new ideas of the day. So far, I like it. At times, it feels awkward to avoid the additional work of more feedback, but the truth is, they’re getting plenty of that with what I’m doing. And I do want to be available to them, which I can’t be if I have to work until I fall into bed each night. So in a way, it feels like I’m taking care of them and me with this approach, giving myself permission to discard the unhelpful bits of work that get in the way of the really helpful stuff!

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    1. Richard, this morning, after yet another late night accomplishing only a fraction of the grading I’d earmarked for the weekend, I read your post and a feeling of calm washed over me–I was not alone! My post last week focused on this all too familiar topic of the grading dilemma. This morning, I only returned quizzes on the current text as well as freewrite comments, so they could better prepare for the upcoming assignment. Also, in lieu of collecting the newest homework assignments, thus adding to the traffic jam, I took a new side-road: I prepared classroom activities that asked the students to use the homework and then present to the class. I gave them credit for both participation in the group activity as well as the preparation they had done the night before. The risk with this method, though I was testing their knowledge and asking them to apply the skills from home, was having students feel that they weren’t getting individual credit or feedback. I did offer to collect the work of those few students who need the commentary to feel that it was worth their time. A colleague at SFSU is a master at collecting work during class, assigning an activity, grading the turned in work, and handing it back before class is over. I often thought that she missed some of the interaction that I enjoy, but she took home much less work than I did, so . . .

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      1. That feeling of yet another assignment coming in when you haven’t returned all the students’ homework assignments is like drowning. Drowning in papers. I don’t know if i could really correct the papers during class, but having fewer papers to carry home is still a step in the right direction. I liked your activity of having the students present their work, and I hope I would hear from everyone, not just the more talkative and perhaps more engaging students. In any case, my old system has got to go.

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  3. I don’t pretend to have any idea how tricky it is to grade and assess work in ESL, but what you write here makes me wonder about a question I’ve yet to really answer myself.

    I feel obligated to do SOMETHING to everything a student gives me. I have to carefully read it, mark it, advise it… but then… maybe I don’t. I’m wondering if it’s okay to give something a read-through, see whether the student did (mostly) what was asked and give it a quick grade. If a particular piece needs something serious I’ll slow down. In my own grading, right now I’m trying to limit my feedback to those places where it will have the most impact – how many comments do students need and where do they pay the most attention?

    Let’s not even get into that evidence suggesting students neither read nor apply most of what their teachers write in the margins ☹

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    1. Some of my students even tell me that they can’t read what I write anyway. But, yes, there is an obligation to do something with the paper. It is almost like stamping it “turned in.” The best work is when I ask the students to rewrite what they have given me, but I give enough feedback for the students to know what to do. In order to get credit, students have to turn in both the original homework and the new version. (That, of course, adds to the work load!)

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      1. So, this thing you’re thinking about with the amount of feedback that needs to be given is really complicated to me. I really don’t know what to do about it.

        So now I think you and I should start collecting some data from our students. First, we should be honest and let them know that our current obsequiousness to feedback is slowing things down – for them and for us. (There are only so many hours in the day). So, where would they like more feedback, and where do they think they could do with less? Would they be fine with a quick grade on one assignment if they knew they would get paragraphs of response on something more important?

        I’m actually pretty serious about getting this kind of information, so if you’re interested we should make up some kind of survey.

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      2. Yes, great idea. Let’s give the students some say-so. What is their response when there is very little on the paper they get back as opposed to the paper where there is a lot written?

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