Hitting the Reset Button: Working at Home

I’ve been writing about how the pandemic and virtual teaching has made me rethink all kinds of things about my teaching practices, but the one topic I’ve been avoiding is the biggest. It has probably been the biggest teaching shift I’ve made in my 20 years of teaching…and yet I’ve been hesitant to talk about it. I started this post three different months and kept shelving it until Rebekah tweeted this last week: 

It felt like the permission I needed to tell you all something I’ve been doing (and kinda feeling guilty about) since mid-fall.

I’ve stopped grading at home.

Not like I’m doing less or I’m only doing it when I have a big stack of essays or I’m limiting it to a few hours on Saturdays. I’m not grading at home anymore at all

During virtual teaching, I found myself letting school overtake all parts of my day. There weren’t kids’ sports practices to rush off to or meetings or anything else that would usually take up my evenings so I’d stay on my laptop and work up until dinner. And then I’d get it back out again after!  A month or two in, I started drawing the line more firmly: school time was for work and after hours was for my family. We hiked, we baked, we played games. It was lovely. This year, after a wobbly start back, I decided mid-fall that that firm line was a pandemic practice that needed to stick around. 

The bigger picture

To be fair, I’ve been working towards this for a few years. In 2015, our English department started a major shift toward standards based grading after doing a book study of Cathy Vatterot’s Rethinking Grading. I highly recommend both the book and a team approach if you’re able. That was the same year Rebekah posted this blog post about substituting conferences for paper/pencil grading and that nudged me to think about using conferring to do some of my assessment as well. A few years later,  I wrote about shifting away from grading everything. When I picked up AP Seminar in addition to AP English Language (two writing intensive courses), I realized that something had to give.  

All of those combined experiences helped me refocus how I assess in my classroom, and I think you have to start there. It’s not realistic to just stop taking papers home. You have to step back and look at what you’re doing in your classroom that’s producing all that work. 

The nuts and bolts

But even once I had done all of that rethinking, I still have a lot of work to assess. If I strip away all of the little homework assignments and find ways to give quick formative feedback, if I ramp up the conferring in my room and give loads of verbal feedback, if I build a classroom community where my students are comfortable giving one another high quality feedback….at multiple points in the year I’m still staring down a stack of 60 rhetorical analysis essays from my AP Lang kids and 50 Individual Research Reports from my AP Sem kids. 

First, plan backwards and forwards.

We’ve probably all been told to plan backwards since our teacher training courses. I’ve always planned this way–figure out what I want my students to understand and be able to do at the end of the unit and work backwards. It’s fun to figure out what they need to get to where we’re going.  But that week after they turn their finished work in, you have to think about what YOU need to get that work assessed. If you plan backwards and a little forwards, too, you can build in time to assess work while they’re doing something else that sets them up for the next unit.

You’ll notice my essays were due on a Friday. I left them on my desk for the weekend because I had built in three days
(1/19-1/21) the following week to work on them.

This is an example of backwards/forwards planning that worked particularly well for me. My students turned in essays a week prior to the end of the semester and then spent the next three days working on a project that would lay the groundwork for a language and vocabulary notebook. During those three days of work time, I graded roughly 8 essays a class period (that’s 48!) and was able to squeeze in the others during planning

I was exhausted after those three days, but I didn’t have to take a stack of papers to my daughter’s swim meet or get up early on Saturday morning so I could squeeze in my grading before my family got up. 

Once you’ve created the space, consider your options.

Obviously, you can’t keep trotting out the same project after kids turn something in. My biggest struggle with all of this is guilt (I’ll come back to that later), so in order to feel like I’m still giving my students a valuable experience in my room, I have to think carefully about the skills they’re practicing while I’m grading. You certainly don’t want to create busy work for your students, but you also don’t want to just create more work for yourself later on down the road.

  • Language and vocabulary development

Deep, careful word study takes time so it’s ideal for some independent or small group work time. I used this word hunt assignment to launch our second semester language notebooks. They worked for three days and then I assessed them during class, during small group discussions of their work. 

Our word hunt discussion resulted in our own awards ceremony where we awarded “Wordies” to our favorite words, our best insult words, our funniest sounding words, our biggest flex words, etc.
  • Reading skills

There are so many different ways to have our students practice their close reading skills. Rebekah’s tweet is a perfect example of how you can use a movie to do this. With some thoughtful prep, she turned a “movie day” into some practice analyzing archetypes. That doesn’t really work in my AP Lang class, but I could (and will) figure out a way to have my students watch a series of speeches and track rhetorical choices in a few weeks when we are getting ready to revisit rhetorical analysis.

  • Presentation prep

This is baked into the AP Seminar curriculum for me, but it could be easily adapted in lots of classes with a research writing component. In AP Seminar the students research and write both informational and argumentative pieces. After each big portfolio piece (example directions for one), they shift to a presentation (one group, and one individual) and the timing works perfectly. They submit their final writing pieces, we take a day to do some set-up work on the presentations together, and then I cut them loose to work on presentations for a day or two while I assess that writing. 

But do the kids really work while you’re working?

Listen. I get that you might be thinking “sure…this works with your AP kids. My ninth graders would never let me focus like this.”  That might be true. I know that I’ve been teaching exclusively AP for awhile so my expectations are a little different. I taught other levels for many years, though, and I do know that AP or not, most kids want their essays back. They don’t want us to sit on their work for three weeks. AND, most of them like us! They don’t want us to ignore our families and grade ourselves to death all weekend.

I am very clear and honest with my students about why we are doing what we are doing:

  • This is useful work. I am hoping you’ll get X out of this work time.
  • I am grading and my goal is to grade Y number of papers during this class so that you can have them back by Z.
  • We are all busy and we deserve lives outside of school. If we all work now, we can play tonight. 

It’s not perfect and it doesn’t work for every kid. But it does work for many kids and you can always make adjustments to meet the needs of the kids who need a little more direction.

Let go of guilt.

I said I’d come back to this, but I honestly don’t have much more to say about it because it’s a constant struggle. I was raised by a teacher mom who graded every.single.night of my childhood. I spent much of my career doing the same. The expectation that we drag home stacks of papers is just engrained in English teachers, I think. 

I worry that my students could be getting more out of my class period. I worry that I’m wasting precious conference time. I worry that I’m going to miss a kid that needs something specific from me. 

But none of that matters if I’m so burned out that I’m mentally calculating how many years I have until retirement while I’m conferring. Or if I’m so exhausted by the pace of my job that I lose the joy of my job. If I want to be in this for the long haul, I need to make choices that make that possible.

–Hattie

What do you do to manage your paper load? I certainly don’t have it all figured out and I’d LOVE to hear what strategies work for you. Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie.

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