I Stopped Writing on My Students’ Essays

(Reading time: 3 - 6 minutes)

For 25 years, I have diligently, thoughtfully, and fastidiously written comments on my students’ essays. In my neatest hand, I’ve inscribed a running commentary down the margin of page after page, and at an essay’s conclusion I’ve summarized my thoughts in a paragraph or more. I’ve pointed out problems in the argument and explained basic mistakes of grammar and style. I’ve demonstrated my enthusiasm for a sharp idea and a well-hewn sentence. I’ve carefully moderated my tone, combining praise with correction. I’ve read papers that moved me to tears, literally, and others that left me frustrated - and tried to be sensitive in letting my students know that in either case.

During my first year teaching I wrote so many comments on their papers that one student remarked that I’d “made his paper bleed.” With that quip I stopped writing in red ink, and I started to think carefully about what a student needed to hear to improve. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different ways of writing on student essays -rubrics, audio files, apps.


But no more. I stopped writing on my students’ papers in any way, shape, or form.

During the summer, as the new school year approached, I took a moment to imagine what might be most energizing, and most enervating, about the forthcoming academic year. Visualizing the good stuff was easy. The bad visualization looked like this: I was standing at the front of a classroom returning papers, and a dead silence settled over the room. The silence came from the students’ sense of dread - and mine, too.

Something had to change. I had actually been feeling this way for a long time, but I hadn’t been able to face it head on. As I write, I have some amount of shame in admitting that I’ve stopped writing comments on student papers.
For months I haven’t spoken to a single colleague about this decision. I am an English teacher, and responding to student writing is what we English teachers do. To say that I wasn’t going to write back -felt like a kind of betrayal, like not replying to a letter from a friend asking for assistance or advice.

At first, I must admit, I put the onus for my decision on the students. Most students seemed to spend little time taking in my comments on their papers. They quickly skimmed, looking for the grade, and then shoved the papers into their bags. When I’ve asked students to respond to my comments with their own paragraphs, I’ve been surprised at how little they seemed to have gotten out of what I had so carefully written.

It never felt good to blame my students. My students may well want to be English teachers, too, in their far-flung dreams, but their most immediate concern is getting a language certificate.

Perhaps they were trying to tell me something when they shoved their papers into their bags.

In the face of all that, I didn’t know what to do, but I did know that I wanted to stop commenting on essays and replace the comment with something involving more process and dialogue, which is what English teachers spend a lot time preaching when it comes to writing.

So I decided to experiment. Instead of writing comments on their essays, I would invite students to my office to discuss their essays and grades one on one.
The visits were no easy thing for the students to schedule, given their commitments. There is no tradition of visiting your teacher to discuss ideas. Meeting with a teacher one on one for 10 minutes to talk about a piece of writing boded a new and scary experience for many.

By Michael Millner 

I felt a little uncomfortable, too. I wasn’t really sure how to begin these sessions. I read each essay through just before the student arrived, but I wasn’t looking merely to recreate a written comment verbally. Rather, I was trying to reconceive the whole form of commenting.

I decided that when the student walked through the door and sat down next to my desk I would say something completely vague - like, “How do you feel about your piece of writing?” or “Tell me about it” or “What was the experience of writing this?”
What happened next varied. Sometimes there was uncomfortable silence, and sometimes there was confusion. Sometimes I did have to redirect and ask a different open-ended question - “What do you find most interesting here?” Eventually we would get going but not necessarily in any way that I could have imagined or anticipated.

In our meetings, I didn’t completely leave aside explaining a comma rule here and there, or suggesting a rewrite of a particularly clotted sentence. And I did give them grades, however now I had to look them in the eye when I did so.
What was most important -and most rewarding- for me and for my students, I think, was that I stopped pointing at things and they stopped expecting me to point. Instead, they were able to see their essays as part of an interesting and continuing collaboration with me and ultimately with themselves. Pointing is a well-established model of pedagogy. But my students and I were developing a different model - one that involved a lot less pointing.

All of this took extra time. I could read and write down my comments on a paper about 20 percent faster than I could read and meet with a student. But the time felt dramatically different. A sense of liveliness and dynamism replaced the sense of dread.

I also recognize that there is nothing particularly innovative about conferencing with students about their essays. What was different was the abandonment of the comment as a form of communication, and its replacement with a completely different kind of interaction.

I’m not exactly sure what effect all of this had on my students. Several students spoke of what they called my “passion” for the class and material.
At first that struck me as strange. Students sometimes remark on (among other less complimentary things) my knowledge and command of the material, but they don’t often highlight “passion” as key to my pedagogy (or personality). And my passion for the material and the class activities hadn’t changed at all over the years.

But I think I understand what they were getting at, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it passion. Rather, I came to have a better sense of my students’ lives and experiences and how all of that might connect with the work we do in the classroom. I didn’t blame them anymore for quickly glancing at the grade on their essays and skimming my comments. They were making a point about this way of communicating.

When the written comments disappeared, and a more relational dynamic developed in its place, student and teacher alike discovered something new. •


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