I have something to tell you, and you’re not going to like it:
I enjoy grading papers.
When I grade papers, I learn about the world. I ask questions I never thought I’d ask. I become more informed. Grading papers, when it is going well, is like reading a really, really, really long newspaper.
Some of the things I’ve learned from student papers:
- Superstar quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t a top draft pick back in the day.
- The NFL has a lot of strange rules and has an even stranger escalating fine scale for the strange rules.
- In some states there’s a different minimum wage depending on whether you receive tips or not.
- The Denver Broncos have a home field advantage because they are used to breathing in that Mile-High air.
- The Jets had a miserable season and we’re still pointing fingers all over the place as to who is to blame.
- Disney Channel shows are NOT what they used to be.
- It will be difficult, but not entirely impossible, for Donald Trump to build a wall against the Mexican border.
- Caffeine has some health benefits.
- There are child YouTube celebrities.
It’s fun to grade papers when students know they have something they want to share. Getting students to that point, however, requires some heavy lifting.
- I model and post my brainstorms. If I am asking 100 students to come up with new ideas, I have to come up with some fresh ideas, too. I share my brainstorming at the beginning of a unit and continue to post and share brainstorms throughout the unit, and students who feel stuck take to or modify my original ideas. This is not unlike the editorial meeting where the editors toss out a variety of ideas and writers pick up the assignment.
- I try to develop a “yes” culture that empowers risk-taking. My students are age-young and experience-young. They don’t know that there are culturally hip, feminist publications like Teen Vogue or analytical commentary pieces like those in Vulture. They don’t know that The Economist blends news pieces and opinion pieces. Or that published writers often figure out what they want to write as they write it. I have a lot of teaching to do around the words “Yes,” “Try it!” and “Other writers already do something like this.”
- I meet writers slightly above eye-level. As teachers, writers, and readers, I think it’s partly our responsibility to share knowledge and resources with our students. If they wrote about cell phone addiction last year (and they all did, they all do), then this year I have to talk to you about privacy and apps on your phone. If you’re reading the MARCH graphic novel series, I have to tell you about the time a Harvard professor was arrested for trying to break into his own home. When they ask me “Is that real?” “Did that really happen?” I know I’ve struck writer’s notebook gold.
How do you help students brainstorm new topics so that you aren’t reading the same paper hundreds of times over?
Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York. She defers to her students’ judgment on good YouTubers. She tweets at @HMX_MSE