Mar 13, 2013

The Secret to Slaying the Paper Monster

This weekend's stack: Two tests, a Bible assignment, and science project proposals plus a few miscellaneous late assignments.  This is actually a little thicker stack than usual, but fear not, by Monday morning it will dispatched.

At eight weeks and going strong, I think I'm finally ready to declare victory.  I believe I have finally done what for almost two decades seemed impossible.  I have slain the Paper Monster.

Way back in 1996, a year after my first teaching gig as a student missionary in Chuuk, I wrote a column for my college newspaper recounting my earliest battles with the seemingly unconquerable  Paper Monster--the never ending stack of student papers that haunt every teacher's days.  Little did I know that the battle was just beginning, and that for years to come I would engage in a Sisyphean struggle  to eliminate the pile that never seemed to diminish.

But quite suddenly this past quarter I stumbled upon victory.  For all of this quarter I've remained completely caught up with my grades.  Each day I clear the Shelf where the students submit their work, and by the next morning all the papers are graded and are ready to return to the students.  Oh, sure there are a few exceptions:  a big test or project that takes a few days or a weekend. But on the whole, the turnaround is 24 hours or less.  I've even stayed on top of the music and P.E. grades, which is completely unheard of.  Throughout my career, those types of classes stayed blank all quarter long, and the grades were entered en mass at the end of the marking period.

My students have had mixed reactions to this new promptness.  Some of the ones that tend to struggle more, seem to welcome the change.  Knowing they have to get their assignments in and getting the immediate feedback seems to motivate them.  Others--including some of my stronger students--have been frustrated by the lack of leeway to sneak an assignment in late.  They miss the days when they saw papers languishing on the Shelf days and even weeks at a time and knew they could drop a paper in late with me none the wiser.  On the whole, though I believe the change has been good for all of us, but especially for the students.  My staying on top of my work helps them stay on top of theirs.  Just as I now know exactly where my students stand--who is doing well, who is in trouble--my students also know how they are doing.  Timely feedback is crucial for student success, and I'm so glad I'm finally providing that feedback on a consistent basis.

So how did I slay the Monster?  What was the secret?  For awhile, I didn't really know.  An incident that I won't relate here was the initial motivator.  I was angry at the time, and determined not to be found wanting in this area again.  But that passed, and yet I stayed caught up.  Eventually I was able to pinpoint a few key things that made the difference:

To begin with, I already had a couple of elements in place that made staying caught up easier to accomplish. For one, I'd already eliminated a lot of the actual grading years ago.  Most daily homework I correct in-class with my students.  I read the answers, and the students correct their own work.  I spot check for cheating, both during the correcting (looking for the kid writing frantically while I'm reading the answers) and when I collect the papers.  I only grade tests, quizzes, and projects where student correction isn't practica l.  So already, most of my "grading" is actually about entering the grades in the gradebook rather than actual correcting of assignments.

Another element I had long in place, was an emphasis on actual learning rather than busywork to keep the kids occupied.  This was the take-away of that college newspaper column--that the Paper Monster could be defeated by focusing on actual teaching rather than a lot of worksheet heavy make-work.  In truth, that approach subdued the Monster but did not destroy it.  No amount of creative, student-centered teaching could free me from the necessity of grading, and the inevitable paper pile that came with it.  Still, fewer worksheets really do help.

Finally, I had in the past year or so began to really make use of on the spot assessments, in essence grading the students while they were working.  With the iPad it's been easier than ever to lean over a student, see how they are doing, or mark a page in their practice book, and enter the grade directly into the grading program.

With these elements all in place, all I needed was one final piece of the puzzle to make it all come together.  The stake in the heart of the Paper Monster was simply this:  Vigilance.  I had to make grading a top priority.    I had to grade when there didn't seem to be a need to grade.  It was that crucial moment when the stack was still thin--three assignments and a quiz--and time was short--10 or 15 minutes that I had act.  These were the very times when in the past I would have said, "Well, it's only a few assignments.  I'll get to them later."  Now it's "It's only a few assignments.  Let me just get them in now."  At first I figured that sooner or later I'd get busy and fall behind, and I just wanted to stay ahead as long as I could.  But I found that my success bred further success, and I've now become obsessed with staying caught up.  As a result, it appears that I may finally end the quarter with nothing to do but write my comments and print the report cards!

Sure, in the scheme of what really matters in education, maybe destroying the Paper Monster is only a minor achievement.  I only wish some of my other challenges were so easily solved:  How to reach every student and help them see their God-given worth and amazing potential.  How to make sure that I do right by my students ten out of ten times rather than on occasion giving in to irritation and sarcasm. How to effectively teach my subject matter in a way that is meaningful and relevant to each student.  Teaching is hard work, and staying caught up with grading is often the least of what sometimes to be intractable challenges.  But if slaying the Paper Monster has taught me anything, its that what often seems impossible in education,
 whether as simple as a pile of papers or as complicated as a recalcitrant student, is possible after all.

Edit: It would seem the Paper Monster did not take kindly to reports of his demise.  I ended up unable to finish this blog until now because I was working on the pile pictured at the start of this entry.  A couple of things came up that prevented me from finishing the stack in a timely manner, and I ended up staying up until 1:30 A.M. Sunday morning and still not finishing the grading.  Monday morning I had to tell students inquiring about recently submitted assignments that I hadn't graded them yet. But I got caught up today, and as of tonight, the Monster is definitely dead this time.

1 comment:

Mai said...

I'm glad you're still caught up - that's amazing!!! I've still got some prioritizing to do to get to the point you are right now, but it's good to know that it can be done!

Even though staying on top of grading may not be the most important think in education, hopefully it allows you less stress & more time to focus on all those truly important areas mentioned at the end of your post!!