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10 Tips to Tame the Grading Monster

I almost titled this piece, How to Grade a Boatload of Papers During a Commercial Break. My fear was that people would start leaving questions, asking me what size the boat is, and is it a barge or a cruiser, and do I prefer fresh or saltwater.

So I went the safe route. Please don't ask me about the boat.

If you are an ELA teacher, stick around. I'm fighting the same paper monster you are.  If you are a phys ed teacher, or a computer teacher, please stop laughing at us when you see us squirreled away in our classrooms grading papers during lunch. And go away. We have a wicked battle ahead. We need our strength.

Tame the Monster Tip #1: Give Kids Options

You never took an oath promising you would always grade everything. (And if you did, you really should talk to a union representative.) After your kids have completed several similar assignments, present them with the evaluation criteria you're using, and have them evaluate their own work. Then, give them the option of choosing which one is worthy of a grade. The kids benefit from this, because they learn to be critical readers. You benefit because  you've dramatically reduced the grading. Plus, you've given kids additional opportunities to flex their writing muscles. Everybody wins.

              Tame the Monster Tip #2: Give Away the Answers

If you're dealing with a short answer assignment, have the kids work in groups, and provide each group with the answers. You can even set up answer stations, with each station "hosting" a different section of the assignment. Let the kids check their work and discuss the answers along the way. 

                   Tame the Monster Tip #3: Pick Your Battles

Tell students ahead of time that you will give them credit for completing the assignment, but you will only be grading one specific component. For example, during a recent narrative writing unit, I told my students that while I conferred with them over one of their drafts, I would also be grading it based on how they punctuated the dialogue, which we'd covered in one of our mini-lessons. This was perfect, because during our conference I was reading the paper anyway, so I might as well choose something I could grade as I went along. The kids got their feedback, and since they were prepared to be assessed on the dialogue, they were able to refer to their notes to make it perfect.

                         Tame the Monster Tip #4: Take Turns

This is an oldie but a goodie. Check to see if everyone has the assignment completed, but only collect a handful to grade. For the next assignment, collect papers from a different group of kids.Everyone gets a turn, everyone gets a grade, and maybe you'll get to each lunch without smearing sriracha on Brittany's vocabulary assignment.

                      Tame the Monster Tip #5: Simplified Rubrics

Make a simple, easy to use, rubric. This works especially well when you just want to be sure the students completed something, such as homework assignments. Make multiple copies on a page, cut them out, and attach them to the assignment. Voila. If you'd like the one above, you can click it to download.

                        Tame the Monster Tip #6: Grade As You Go

Sometimes, before I collect something, I'll assign a "Do Now" and circulate around the room scoring papers as I go. Even if I only get to a few, those are papers I won't have to grade later. Plus, I'm circulating, not sitting at my desk with my feet up. That's never a good look.

                   Tame the Monster Tip #7: Use an App like Plickers

Plickers is an app that lets teachers collect formative assessment data in real time, right in the classroom. All you have to do is download the app and print out the Plickers scan cards. I printed mine on card-stock for durability. Give students multiple choice questions, and have them hold up an answer card. Scan the class with your phone or tablet, and you can immediately see which answers they have. It's great.

                                 Tame the Monster Tip #8: 

When scoring essays, use proofreading symbols and shorthand comments in the margins, rather than full words and phrases. This is not just a time-saver, it also helps students much more than circled words or x's. Most of my students like to rewrite for a higher score. If I circle their errors, there's no way for them to figure out what they did wrong, because I've done their work for them. I like the rewrite to be a learning experience, not a copying experience.

                                   Tame the Monster Tip #9:

Go over the answers as a class. I don't know why some teachers are hesitant to do this and feel like they have to collect everything. Sometimes, going over work together is the best way for the kids to get feedback. If it's an writing piece with no definitive "answers," use a document camera to show sample responses from a few brave volunteers. Or simply read them aloud and practice listening, as well.

                                  Tame the Monster Tip #10:

An esteemed colleague once gave me the most valuable advice ever. She said that every year, a teacher is entitled to forget a stack of papers on the seat of a train. If you don't take a train, feel free to leave your papers on a bus, airplane, bar-stool, stagecoach...or even a barge. 

Just please don't ask me what size the barge is.

Is That a Poem in Your Pocket?

After two weeks of state testing my kids are ready to move on. That's right. We're moving on here, people! Moving toward one of my FAVORITE days of the year.

Nope. Not my birthday. Try again.

Here are some clues: It has to do with poetry. I've blogged about it before, but I'm just so darn excited, I have to mention it again!  By now we've studied poetry. We've written some. And now we will share it!

If you guessed Poem in Your Pocket Day, give yourself a pat on the back. 

I introduced it today, and it went infinitely better than the first time I introduced it a couple of years ago. That time it went something like this. 

Me: In a few days we are going to celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day. Have any of you ever heard of it before?

Clueless Little Girl in My Class: I have! Isn't that a saying? Isn't that why people ask, "Is that a poem..."

Oh.  No. Could this be going where I think?

Clueless Little Girl continues: " your pocket, or are you ha..."

Ooohhhh nooooo....... Think fast! Faster!

Little Girl: "...appy..."

Me, totally, rudely interrupting Clueless Little Girl in My Class: Happy! Happy! Yes, Poem in Your Pocket Day is such a happy day! Let's talk about how we will share our poems so we can make people happy....

Disaster averted. But let me tell you. I broke out in a sweat. AND I'm sure at least three gray hairs sprouted as I spoke. Maybe five. Yes, I'm sure five.

You've got to love middle schoolers.

Anyway, last year we had a blast. I told the kids that they should share a poem that they carry, and they should plant a poetry "garden."  This means choosing a line from the poem and writing it in an unexpected place. They were really excited to do this, and likened it to secretly leaving a treasure for someone to find. 

A few days after last year's Poem in Your Pocket Day, I was in the bagel store and several of the employees were grinning ear to ear as they told me that kids came in to share poems with them. They shared with bus drivers, neighbors, the principal, and more. It was great fun.

Poetry gardens were planted all over! On fruit, on seashells, and even on the bathroom mirror, written with soap. One student wrote a line on an expensive car. I'm still trying to figure that one out. I suspected it was a Matchbox, but I can't get confirmation on that. I'll try to post more pics later in the week. 

It’s fun! It’s also a great way to celebrate and discuss poetry!

If you celebrate, be sure to tweet and share pictures on Instagram. Use #pocketpoem. And please share them with me on my Facebook page!!! 

I hope there's a poem in your pocket!

Click the image below for a freebie.

What's Growin'?

I'm teaming up with my favorite bloggers in the Secondary Smorgasbord group to talk about What's Growin' in our classrooms this spring. Just the word spring makes me smile.
At home every spring, I eagerly await days that are warm and sunny. I shop around for those gorgeous seed packets that say heirloom. Because if it's an heirloom it's got to be special right? Like Grandma's doilies.

In my fervor, I collect egg shells, banana peels, and salad remnants, so I can make compost for my garden. Black gold.

Heirloom seeds and black gold. I might just go pro with this, I think. Maybe there's even a greenhouse in my future.

Three weeks pass. The heirlooms are still in their pretty packets. And I'm shopping the gardening center for established plants in 3 gallon pots. My black gold? Fool's gold.

I try to do a better job tending to my classroom garden. Even though this week and next, dealing with state testing is akin to managing a plague of locusts.

We'll be getting ready for Poem in Your Pocket Day, and that will take away the sting of the locusts.  (I don't think locusts really sting, but I like that metaphor. If you are a horticulturist or an entomologist, please don't leave me comments trying to set me straight. It's no use.)

We have so much fun "planting" poems in unexpected places, and finding poems worthy of sharing.

All I can say is that no banana is safe.

Even if the peels never do turn to gold.

If you'd like some ideas for Poem in Your Pocket Day, click on the images for a freebie. Enjoy!

Learning from our Failures Matters Most

Our state tests begin this week. The only thing less important is discussing whether some celebrity has had plastic surgery.

My students have better things to learn than how to be right the first time they fill in a bubble.

So I will leave it at that. Hmph.

I’d like to say that we build a culture of success in my classroom. That sounds like something that would look good when some administrator checks off little boxes about me.  I'd like to say that. But the truth is...we pay much regard to failure in my class.

In fact, we build a culture of failure in my classroom... Hmmm...Maybe not.

What I mean is that from the beginning of the year, I ensure that each of my students feels comfortable sharing their successes AND their failures. I show them this

And I tell them this

Most of all, I show them how to fail like a champ and be okay with it. I do that by failing. A lot. In public.

I might write something on the board and turn to the class wrinkling up my nose. Does this sound okay? Do you understand these instructions? I’ll ask.

Some kids will nod and say yes because the teacher is always right. Others won’t say anything because they think what I wrote is demented, but they are too polite to say I'm demented.

I can usually count on at least one kid to admit that no, it doesn't sound okay. It's terribly unclear. It's asinine. My champion.

Help me out here, I’ll plead, wringing my hands. How can I write this so you’ll understand?

And so we revise.

Thank you sooooo much, I’ll say. I don’t know why my brain refused to work. Sometimes that happens to me. But you are my heroes. 

If I do this a few times, it becomes okay to fail. In public.

Other times I’ll flip the classroom. This version of flipping involves asking for someone who thinks they did something poorly to share their crummy work. At first the kids look at me like I’m crazy.

This last part actually happens frequently.

I say that the people who volunteer information when they think it is wrong are the bravest in the world. I call them my heroes. For they are the people who help us all learn a better way of doing things. We only learn to stand after falling down. A lot. In public, even.

Heroes, please help us improve, I’ll plead, as I wave my arms with a flourish.

Kids are comfortable being heroes in my room.We build a culture in which failure doesn't make us failures.

We fail. We learn. We fail better next time.

Thank you to Jackie from Room 213, for hosting this blog hop on What Matters Most.

Mission Nearly Impossible

This is a top secret mission. 

I'm not permitted to say too much. 

Agent Venus has been issued a gag order from Agent Mars. 

Martian thinks I work too hard. Play too little. Too being the operative word. 

Too many papers to grade. 

Too many weekends writing teaching resources. 

Too many fundraising responsibilities. 

Too many animals to save. 

So I'm on a forced hiatus. I bargained my sentence down to five days. 

Too much sand between my toes. 

Too blue skies. 

Too many margaritas. 
Oh no. A local teacher is in danger. Her classroom is in desperate need of a library...

This blog-post is scheduled to self-destr

An Open Letter to Longfellow

        Who doesn't love the coming of April? Ignore tax day and consider that April is National Poetry Month. April also brings the showers that promise May flowers. 

     Some of you are wondering why I've just reminded you of tax day and rain. 

     I didn't mean to make you sad. I promise this is going somewhere better.

     April 18th is also the anniversary of the event commemorated in one of my favorite poems to teach, Paul Revere's Ride
    I'd like to honor Revere, Longfellow, and suburban middle schoolers everywhere, by resurrecting one of my readers' favorite posts. Enjoy!

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I did you a favor. 

    Just like you did Paul Revere a favor, by making him the hero of your narrative poem, instead of poor neglected William Dawes or Samuel Prescott (both of whom also rode on that fateful night, but were sadly overlooked).
     Before I go into the specifics of the favor, let me preface this post by assuring you that I do not condone the "watering down" of texts. I encourage students to read so-called banned books and then ask them to decide for themselves. When Tom Sawyer was altered to remove the racial slurs that were part of the vernacular of the time, (Yes, Longfellow, that did happen. And no, I can't believe it either.) I was as appalled as every other English teacher. Anybody who messes with Twain has some explaining to do, in my book. 

     So, Longfellow, call me a hypocrite, but before I read Paul Revere's Ride, I eliminated a word.  


    Well...I read the poem aloud. 

    And... Longfellow, you used an old fashioned word for rooster. 

    And ...I teach 7th grade. Seventh grade suburban kids.

    So I did the unthinkable. I censored you, Longfellow. 
     There were only good intentions behind my decision. The kids love to hear the poem read aloud. They enjoy the suspense and drama. If I had left the word in, well, that would have been the end of our exciting glimpse into that fateful ride on the evening of April 18th, 1775. I would have completely lost the entire class. You see, that word is not really a nice word to say in 2013. 

     I know I shouldn't feel guilty. After all, Longfellow, you also employed poetic license by changing history to suit your narrative. You would understand that art is fluid, alive, and (I suppose) subject to change.

     Longfellow, I like to think that you would not make that particular word choice if you were writing the poem today. In my mind, I imagine you are thankful that your poem is a source of joy and inspiration, instead of ridicule. 

    So, Longfellow, if you are reading my blog from the Pearly Gates, I altered your famous poem for the good of your own reputation as a poet. Your poem, written all the way back in 1861, ended up being a big hit with the 7th graders of 2015. They thought it was cool (which means "powerful good" in our day). 

     They did have one suggestion though, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. They think we should do something about your name.