Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Leave the essay grading to the machines...


Grading essays is easy. Over the years, I have laid out anchor papers for each grade category in my four point scale, 4-1, for our local standardized test in order to illustrate for my middle school students the characteristics of papers in each category. They generally pick it up pretty quickly. My 7th graders can tell me which papers have strong word choice, a variety of sentence types and  descriptive language. Forgive me if I don't panic at the news that computers can do this well.

Let the machines have the grading. Grading essays is easy. Preservice and novice teachers can identify errors and assess the readability of a student paper with very little support. Grading isn't the hard part and it is better left to AI. As a teacher, I don't want to take up my pick axe and try to race a steam shovel. I'm much rather focus on helping students do the things that only humans can do. 

In Results Now, a book about the rich potential for improving outcomes in schools, Mike Schmoker argues that students should write more in schools and teachers should grade less in order to improve literacy development. Basically, the argument sounds like this: teachers can focus too much time on providing feedback to students who do not have sufficient time to practice the skills and tasks the teacher is assessing. Students can become overwhelmed at best, and discouraged at worst, in their writing practice. Professional writers will tell you that writing requires regular daily practice and routine setbacks. Traditional grading and feedback can interfere with the development of young writers. 

In her book Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, Constance Weaver argues in favor of a generative rhetoric in writing instruction rather than a corrective rhetoric. Simply put, she suggests that we ought to teach students how generate strong writing, instead of teaching them what not to do, a commonplace approach to working with developing writers. We need humans to establish a generative rhetoric in schools. 

 The hard parts are the things we need humans to do. We need humans to create a community of writers who share their work and respond constructively to each other's work. We need humans to teach and support processes for generating ideas, planning and drafting. Humans can help humans think through the purpose and audience for written work and help students revise with those essential pieces in mind. Humans can expose students to different genres and written structures. Humans need other humans to learn how to generate strong writing. Let the machines highlight errors. 

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