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02 June 2013

Trick to writing paragraph-length comments: Sort the roster first.

Every marking period -- that is, six times each year -- teachers at my school are asked to write a paragraph-length comment on each of our students.

Now, most schools don't require their teachers to write narratives about students.  But those teachers who have a similar requirement, even if it's only twice a year, are asked to take on a daunting writing task.  That's four to five thousand words each marking period.  How is it possible to streamline the process?

A colleague of mine, Matthew Keating, shared the key secret with me several years ago.  See, I used to run my grades, print out the spreadsheet, and then go in order:  "Okay, Adams.  What can I say about him... now Baker.  Now Cabrera.  Now Davis...."  While alphabetical order is the way my spreadsheet and my school's computer system sort the students, it's not a *meaningful* order.  You'll be jumping around mentally, writing about dissimilar students in quick succession.

Matthew pointed out the one easy trick:  Sort the class from lowest grade to highest.  Then write.  This sorting places similar students in quick succession.  Phrases and descriptions can be reused or adapted in the very next comment, not from the comments you wrote half an hour ago.  

More importantly, such a sorting improves the quality of the comments as well as the speed of writing.  Comment writing is a long, intellectually draining process.  Sometimes I'm running on fumes by the end; sometimes I'm pushing up against a deadline by the end.  

So why not get the tough comments written first?  The comments for students with the lowest grades are the ones that will be most scrutinized.  These are the comments most likely to get a teacher into trouble if they are not carefully phrased with politically correct but nevertheless clear and direct language.  These are NOT the comments I want to bang out hurriedly in a desperate attempt to just be done.

This way, when the brain is beginning to fade, what's left to do?  The A students, whose parents are more likely to skim over your praise as just a small part of a hagiographic report card.  For these folks, a two-sentence note with phrases like "I very much appreciate his strong efforts this marking period" will be sufficient.  I can write those kinds of comments in my sleep, which is sometimes essentially what I have to do.


1 comment:

  1. I sometimes take the same approach to grading essays and programs: doing the ones I expect to be most painful first. It is a bit of a disservice to the ones at the top, who deserve as much attention as the ones at the bottom but rarely get it. Still, it is often the only way I can get through the stack of grading. If there is a really painful one near the end it can stop me completely.

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