As a teacher of writing I have a lot of “marking” to do (called by teachers in other places “grading” or “correcting”) and it takes a lot of time. In common with many teachers I usually spend one day of every weekend on this task. There is a sense that unless you read carefully, and show that you have read carefully, you are not doing your job properly. Students may expect there to be lots of red marks on their papers, especially if they are ticks, and even better double ticks and exclamations like “great work”, or “good point”. But is this really what we should be doing? We all remember stories of students testing whether their teacher is reading their papers by writing in the middle of the paragraph “put a tick here if you are still reading” (or much worse comments). So how can we make the process more useful for the students and make more effective use of our time?
In year 8 my students are writing stories (the theme was loss, whether your team is losing the game or the loss of a pet) and one student suggested putting her draft on her blog and inviting comments from readers. You can imagine how happy I was that this student “got it”, both the process of writing and the idea of a draft, and the idea of blogging. In year 11 my students are preparing for an in-class assessment where they have to produce a piece of personal or creative writing as a response to one or more prompts. In the course of their preparation they created a piece based on the Garden of Panic activity where the student is presented with a setting and some words that are associated with the setting and asked to write a story based on this stimulus. The students were very keen on feedback from this piece of writing and were at pains to stress that I should respond to their ideas rather than other aspects of the writing such as surface level appearance – spelling and punctuation.
Similarly, I remember when I wrote a piece for publication, working with an editor who responded to my draft, and how polite she was in her responses, simply asking questions rather than evaluating anything I had written. I felt honoured to be working with her and she certainly brought out the best in my writing for the piece. So how can we writing teachers respond to student writing to bring out the best in them?
Some years ago I read an article on just this issue that had some really good ideas by K. Murray, called ‘Responding to Student Writing’. It was published as a supplement to Idiom in Spring, 1984. This piece was followed up by Responding to student writing: Continuing conversations edited by Brenton Doecke in 1999 published by the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. Thinking about these articles again now I realise that responding to student writing means, like blogging and commenting, being part of a conversation between student and teacher and, I sincerely hope, between student and student. Wish me luck as I sit here once again engaged in this honourable task of bringing out the best in our student writers.