Monday, March 31, 2014

"Are You Really Reading This, Thomas Jefferson?"

As a kid, I had the feeling most teachers didn't really read what I wrote. They passed out hundreds of "worksheets" and who could stay on top of all that paper?

In high school, the English teachers (or was it the school?) employed what they called "readers," college students who would read the papers, correct them, and even assign suggested grades. I knew my teacher at least read mine, anyway, because she'd often write a different grade on top, once with the little note, "I don't know why this reader consistently underrates your work." Smiley face for me.

I had a half-hearted (perhaps broken-hearted, but that's another story) Spanish teacher who assigned work for us to do each day, but collected the whole lot on one day. Now I most assuredly did NOT do one bit of that homework until the night before it was due when I frantically ripped some paper out of my spiral notebook and began typing out those jillion ejercicios. But after doing a few, it occurred to me that this lazy man was not going to read all of pages. I began skipping numbers:


And sometimes an ejercicio called for me to do 1-12, but I only hammered out 1-10. I probably shaved off about 15% of the actual assignments on the calculated gamble that this fellow wasn't going to check my work.

I began typing nonsense sentences, sprinkling them throughout the ejercicios: 
 9. El viejo quiero una banana para su perro ("The old man wants a banana for his dog")....  
13. "Hay una banana en mi cuarto, a veces en el piso" (There is a banana in my room, sometimes on the floor).

(I wrote many sentences about bananas. I don't know why; it was a fun word to type, perhaps.)

And then this very bold sentence I'd put in more than once: ¿Ud. esta leyendo esta tarea? No creo que Ud. esta leyendo esta tarea ("Are you reading this homework? I don't think you are reading this homework").

And when I got my ejercicios back, there was the large red A- with an arrow pointing to the raggedy spiral notebook margin I hadn't bothered to cut. Clearly he'd counted the number of ejercicios and was fooled by the dignity the typewriter lent them. Clearly the raggedy notebook margin was the reason for the minus part of the grade.

Clearly this has impacted me as an educator.

I am compelled to actually read what the kids write, to comment on their thoughts, to circle errors and question their answers. Over the years, I find expressions of my same doubts: "Are you really reading this?" And I respond: "Of course not." Sometimes a student writes asides or doodles little cartoons, and I add to the art and write my own asides. "Miss M was here, paying attention to your work," my additions report.

This commitment makes me testy when kids turn in half-hearted work. But is my annoyance directed at the right target? Have other teachers taught them that their work is merely checked for completion, not content? Didn't I have a history of dodging work when I could? Kids soon learn that I truly read their papers, so it isn't until December that I get really truly annoyed when someone turns in hasty, shallow, poor work that promptly receives a pathetic score.

Anyway, with super smart kids, their "Are you really reading this?" queries can be a bit more subtle:

D. sends out a test. Miss M. passes again!

And the answer is, was, and ever shall be: "YES. I am dignifying your thoughts and analyses with thoughts and analyses of my own. This is a dialogue. I care about the time you spent doing work I asked you to do because I believe it will help you better grasp this skill, content, or idea. I grade your work because I sometimes never received essays back from teachers and I suspected my time and efforts went into a trashcan, leaving only a checkmark in a gradebook, and I promised I'd never disdain a student's work that way. Even as I begrudge the time it takes me, I grade your work because I want to dignify your work with my time. I grade your work because I care about you."

That's the truth.


  1. This is why you are awesome :) One of my favorite parts of being a student was reading the feedback from my teachers. It was always disappointing when it was obvious they didn't have much to say because they didn't read it. I had a friend so some very bold testing where he wrote a history paper on his lunch . And it was actually because he just didn't want to do the assignment. He got full credit for it. Ironically this teacher is super critical for one of her other classes and will nitpick over the most bizarre things... but then a paper about lunch gets a free pass? Maybe it was an off day.

  2. The history of his LUNCH??? Maybe he writes like Tolstoy. Maybe the mayo on his paper got it stuck to another paper and she didn't grade it but knew he had to have turned it in and gave him a panic grade. ??? Weird!