Papers, Papers, Papers: Teaching Writing Isn't Just Copy Editing

Wherever we English teachers gather, we complain about grading papers. Although teachers are reading as fast as they can, the pile of unread essays just seems to grow taller. Guilt mounts. Warning signs gather.

We start fantasizing about accidentally leaving a stack of papers on top of the car and losing them to the wind. We consider driving to the beach and consigning the pile to the ocean. We look with envy at colleagues teaching music and art and wonder how far our teaching credentials might stretch. We ask a recently retired English teacher how she is doing, only to hear, “I don’t miss the papers!” We think about changing careers.

But we can’t quit. The work is too important. Students who don’t write well flounder in college and struggle on the job. One police officer commented that while he had drawn his gun only once last year, he used a pen every day. Knowing how vital writing is for students’ lifelong prospects, many teachers martyr themselves. I know one newlywed who would rise at 4 a.m. and sneak into the bathroom of her tiny apartment to grade essays while her husband slept. Even a few weeks into the new school year, many teachers feel buried under. We can’t let the paper load defeat us.

It is easy to confuse the role of a writing teacher with that of a copy editor. But correcting student papers and offering actionable, descriptive feedback to novice writers are distinctly different things. Unfortunately some English teachers take disproportionate pride in their eagle eye for indeterminate pronoun references or dangling participles and, consequently, can spend more time correcting the paper than the student spent writing it.

This is an absurd outcome borne of the finest motives. Although certain obsessive-compulsive behaviors are compatible with good teaching — organization, tidiness, and a comfort with repetition — it is neither necessary nor desirable for English teachers to rewrite student essays. I know of no evidence that revising students’ sentences results in better student writing. We do it because we can’t help ourselves.

Even more than overwork, it is a sense of futility that overwhelms teachers. We chose this profession in the hope of making a difference, valuing significance in our work over financial rewards or power. We garner satisfaction from knowing our students are learning. Nothing depresses us more than the feeling that, no matter how much time we spend with red pen in hand toiling over misplaced modifiers and skipping yoga class to grade those last 10 papers, our students’ writing remains unfocused and dull.

We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. It’s time to take a new tack. Nobody whispers on their deathbed, “I wish I’d read more student essays.”

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