Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Grading Student Essays Is So Difficult (a five-paragraph essay)

This is originally from February 21, 2006. I was teaching 6th grade language arts and math.

Why Grading Student Essays Is So Difficult

Do you enjoy hearing what the younger generation has to say? Would you like to take a look inside the mind of an eleven year old? Have you ever graded an essay written by a sixth grader? In my career, I have graded thousands of student essays. This is a much more difficult task than one might think for several major reasons. The pre-teen seems to be locked in a never ending battle of refusal to follow a prescribed format. Young people just entering adolescence also resist deciding upon and committing to three concepts to support their arguments. And reading their essays to someone who might help them find and fix their mistakes is taken as a scandalous suggestion. When facing these obstacles, it’s a wonder we ever ask these children to put pen to paper at all.

My sixth grade students spend quite a bit of time, during the first few months of school, learning about the structure of a five-paragraph essay. We spend weeks on introductory paragraphs alone. Once we have practiced the introduction, we learn to develop the entire essay, finally focusing on the proper way to conclude the essay. We have visuals, handouts, and memory devices. We have six different tried-and-true methods of coming up with attention-grabbing introductions and equally gripping conclusions. Yet as I pore over the fourth assigned essay of the school year, I find that far too many of my students have thrown format out the window and have just decided to “wing it.” Introductions lack that attention-grabbing quality. Body paragraphs, if they can be called that, blur together in a sort of “stream of consciousness what do you expect I waited till the night before it was due” muddle. Conclusions conclude only that someone was not listening (or reading the detailed handout) that week in class.

Perhaps their reasons for abandoning the requirements has something to do with the trouble they have coming up with three different ideas to support their theses. Now, don’t get me wrong: the average eleven year old has plenty to say about things that really matter, such as why life is so unfair, popular culture, why life is so unfair, how uncool adults are, and why life is so unfair. Of course, they will not put these ideas down on paper; they will simply “instant message” them to their friends, “text” them over their cell phones, or whisper them over the phone when parents have just left the room. But ask the same young people to give three distinct, separate reasons why they strongly believe something, and they fall apart. Or perhaps they can come up with three supporting details, but those details, like the wild creatures they are, simply will not stay neatly confined to their assigned spaces in the essay. It becomes a kind of “free for all” of subtopics scaling the walls of their body paragraphs and raiding a neighboring paragraph village, where they sometimes settle, giving up on a life of pillage and plunder, even if they know darn well they don’t fit in there.

All these issues might not be so bad if each student found a responsible, mature user of our precious language to whom they could read their writing. Or perhaps they could simply use the spell check and grammar check options of their word processing programs. Ideally, each student would find a writing “mentor.” This could be a parent, an older sibling, another relative, or even a peer their own age. As long as the person can hear and has a fairly good grasp of the English language, another brain thinking about the ideas being produced is twice as much intelligence. Another set of ears to hear when things don’t sound quite right is a powerful tool. But what really happens is that students reading their own work out loud finally notice those things that never popped out as being incorrect before. The student actually ends up clarifying or correcting their work with very little input from the mentoring individual. However, for some odd reason, young people refuse to pursue this very effective option. They prefer to throw away the essay grade rather than experience a little awkwardness the first or second time they read their work aloud. I worry what will happen to them when they enter the work force. You can’t even ask “Do you want fries with that?” if you’re not willing to speak up. Forget about the corporate world.

The generation who will decide on the rest homes for my generation does have a lot going on in their minds. They are creative, they have good ideas, and they are very funny. But for some reason, they prefer to hide these talents from us old folks by ignoring proper essay structure, obscuring their fantastic ideas in bland body paragraphs, and including as many errors as they think will cause my red pens to run out of ink forever. Therefore I beseech the middle schoolers of America: Trust the English teacher. Plan the essay. Stick with your plan. And then get someone to listen to your essay before you hand it in. Your teachers forevermore will thank you for it. (And please type it. We really like that.)

Word count: 872

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