When we had to run the mile in elementary school, I was always at the back of the pack, inhaler in hand, slowly walking my way across the finish line. I have never been a runner; believe me, I’ve tried. So on Saturday afternoon, when I got the urge to hit the pavement in a light, albeit slow, jog, I was running away from more than my problems—the heaps of papers, laundry, meetings, assignments, and work I had waiting at home. I was running away from grading the problems of my students.
In the beginning of the year I always find that students are hesitant with their writing, cautious to share with one another, eager to find personal stories that are interesting yet not too revealing. I don’t blame them—after all, as much as we want to believe high school is a safe space to share our feelings and experiences, it isn’t. Bit by bit though, students unravel, some sooner than others, and slowly I begin receiving stories that are raw and honest. This last set of personal narratives I received included stories about the deaths of parents and grandparents and the suicide of a close friend. Students spoke about dealing with anorexia, suicidal ideations, and clinical depression. At 16 and 17 years old, many of these students have lived more life than some adults.
Part of this process has to do with the fact that my students peer review each other’s work. I find that as they are exposed to one another’s writing they tend to open up further. In addition, I share my own writing with them, in particular one piece on the complications that happened after my father had open heart surgery two years ago. I pick and choose what classes I share this piece with. Some classes are ready to hear that their teacher is capable of fear, anger, anxiety, and hurt; some classes aren’t. The piece is revealing of who I am as a daughter and sister instead of pigeon holing me into the role of a leader and teacher.
The problem with this dynamic is that it doesn’t fit into the traditional education system. While I am not an advocate of grades, I am also not anti-grades. Still, I find that no number can adequately convey the power of writing or the strength and guts of these students. As a teacher, I have to look at the structure, craft, mechanics, and formatting of a paper, but no matter how much I observe the concrete aspects of a piece, I cannot help but remember that my job isn’t just about correcting punctuation or spelling; my job is to do justice to the stories of my students, to help them tell these stories in the most compelling way possible, which is what led me to my run on this fall day.
Unfortunately, my tromping across scattered leaves with heavy breathing and a stitch in my side didn’t bring any clarity, and when I returned to my kitchen table, the same stories sat underneath my pen, covered in blue ink that praised their bravery, their craft, their story. But still, these stories were gradeless, waiting for a number, waiting for the end of the quarter, waiting to be put into my online gradebook. So my question for all of you teachers, those of you who have been teaching and grading for far more many years than I, how do you tackle these difficult papers? How do you tack on a number to something that has so much more value?