Saturday, 27 September 2014

Marking wars

There’s a battle inside every English teacher. It’s not a fight between Austen and Bronte. It’s not a war between Dickens and Poe. It is instead a marking battle. The battle between accuracy and creativity.

When I mark, it is often with the focus of accuracy and technical improvement. I will circle a mistake and make a student identify what the mistake is, with the hope they learn from this and never do it again. My mind is always set on accuracy. Targets will be driven by errors and I might spot spelling, punctuation or grammar mistakes. However, my marking doesn’t focus on creativity. I am chained to accuracy and I never seem to escape it. The beast is far stronger than creativity. If I am honest, it is only with creative writing does my marking address the creative aspect. I then might say: I like how you have developed the character and how you end the story. The rest of the time the marking focuses on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

This week I did something different. For a few years, I have discussed and blogged about how we neglect the effect of writing in lessons. An insistence on the purpose of writing has led to some dire writing and some boring efforts in class. I have explored in Sexy Sprouts how students should be taught to change the effect of their writing and for me this has really helped my students. This week I thought about this writing for effect in more detail and applied it to my marking. What if the drive behind my marking was focusing on the effect? What if I solely focused on the effect and left the accuracy alone?

As a result of this thought, I asked a group of students to describe a setting for a ghost story. After teaching students the difference between ghost and horror stories (which amounts to one going Ahhhh! and the other going Oh!), the students set off to write their settings.

Enter the red pen from stage right.  

I marked the work with a very different approach. Instead of the boring ‘two wishes and a star’ approach, I simply put the word atmosphere and a number out of ten next to it. The effort was ‘draining’. Most students scored a two or a three out of ten. Then, I got them to revise their setting without any direct teaching. They got underway with the task. Next, I got the students to assess each other’s work. Again, they only marked it out of ten for atmosphere. Finally, the students wrote a third version. At no point did I actually teach the children how to produce an effective setting during this process. I even refrained from providing them with good examples. I only said to them to avoid the most obvious words.

The result: brilliant examples of progress for very little work and marking on my part.

The difference between version one and three was startling. Students had produced clichéd settings in the first version and by the time they got to version three I was reading atmospheric and detailed, original writing.  My only advice / marking was a word and a number. Prior to this experiment, I have listed to students what would make their writing better. And, they have typically selected to follow or ignore my advice.

I think this approach was more successful than others, for me, was due to the way students were writing and I was responding. There was sense of cohesive focus rather than a disjointed list of features to include. All too often improving writing concentrates on adding things. This approach focused on developing and linking things together. Students were improving the whole text and not tiny aspects. Does this mean that a lot of my marking focuses on the small tiny aspects? Yes, I do. After all, God is in the detail. However, maybe this approach is something that needs weaving into the way I teach. Of course, I can’t possibly do it all the time, but maybe I could do it occasionally.

Along with this approach maybe I have to adapt the language I use in task setting. Persuade. Advise. Review. Comment. This terms used to describe types of writing are so plain and we are expecting students to come up with creative ideas based on these vague, beige types of writing. Perhaps, I should be asking students to make a letter about the dangers of smoking that makes me laugh. Or, they should write a description of a beach that makes me worry.

When you look at the mark schemes for the exams, the writing always refers to technical accuracy and the effect. Yet, we tend to focus on one and neglect the other. I will rarely say that a piece of non-fiction needs a funnier start.

Now don’t get me wrong: I value accuracy but I tend to think that our overriding focus on it has slightly overshadowed some elements of creativity.

There’s a battle in my head, but this time creativity won and surprisingly accuracy was not injured.

Atmosphere: 2  

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

  1. Inspiring blog post, with reflective practice to the fore in an unforced but encourageing way. It was great to see the students and you learning together and the students taking ownership of their learning and progress and gaining insights from their peers. Its good to see teachers like you fighting the battle to keep creativity alive. Thanks