Better things to do?

27 Sep

Co-workers sigh (and some smirk), as they stroll past my office door on their way to the Scantron™ machine, “Whew, I could never read all that stuff….” There are times I daydream about what I could be doing instead of wading through another round of student writing.

I remember a 2012 study from University of Akron that compared the scoring of student writing by software programs versus that done by “trained human readers” that triggered righteous anger among college English teachers. The English faculty at our community college used annually review student performance across our writing program with a blind cross-scoring of student writing from the essay portion of a proficiency test from Educational Testing Service (ETS™). We would compare our scores to those given by one of the top software programs. Unlike the Akron study, our reviews consistently found scores given by teachers were significantly lower than those given by the software. Reassuring proof that we were better than the encroaching technology!

Even with digital aids, rubrics, portfolios, holistic scoring, and other approaches, responding to and evaluating student writing is labor-intensive. What anchors me as a writing teacher, however, is knowing I am not just a “trained human reader” or a warm-blooded scoring machine. I have much more important things to do with students’ writing than compute scores. Like many of my colleagues, I respond to my students’ writings with questions and comments (e.g., “What makes you say this?” “Could you tell me more about this point?”). A student writing assignment is communication, an exchange of ideas between persons. My students are sharing their thoughts with me, and before I do anything else, I must respectfully read and consider those ideas.

My next responsibility is, as a fellow writer, to help these novices develop in the craft of writing. I help them learn how to shape, clarify, and express their ideas for different audiences and purposes. Part of that, of course, is helping them navigate the conventions of standard usage. One way to accomplish these goals is exposing student writers to a wide variety of other writers and texts, including my own. I especially enjoy sharing examples of rejection letters, or pieces that went through multiple revision exchanges with an editor.

When I sit down next to each of my students or with small groups of them (physically or virtually) to share their work; to reflect on how they’ve grown as writers; to give sincere, critical feedback on what might make their writing better—I am doing what even the best software program cannot. It is through these very human interactions that I show students how much I value them; that they have worth far beyond the numbers on the scoring guide. Moreover, I learn fascinating things from students’ writings. They have experiences, points of view, information and writing techniques to share with me and the world. What could be better than learning and writing alongside my students?

By Renee Moore, Mississippi Delta Community College

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