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How Student Essay Writing Has Changed Since 1969

Yes, it’s me!

Published in ChicagoNow, October 1, 2014

You read that correctly. 45 years ago, I was teaching high school English at Niles East High School in Skokie, Illinois. In case you are wondering, I snagged that job right out of college. Nevertheless, if you do the math, you know you are reading the opinion of a former English teacher of a certain age.

When I read Nancy Bailey’s blog post, Computer Essay Grading vs Student Journals, it hit me just how far we have come from my teaching days. Bailey makes a strong case for the importance of journal writing and other forms of creative expression devalued by current educational thinking. I couldn’t agree more.

Bailey points out that the Common Core favors writing grammatically correct, factual essays that demonstrate critical thinking skills. There is an effort afoot in preparation for the PARCC writing assessment to standardize writing so a computer “robo-grader” can replace humans when evaluating essays. That would be so much more objective, right? To make this work, the computer will grade essays by looking for key vocabulary used as well as for proper punctuation and prescribed length.

Bailey laments having computers replace humans, but I’ll go a step further. Back in 1969, I was assigned five classes of 25 students each. I was also expected to give at least one writing assignment per week. So, every week, I had 125 essays to grade. Because this took a huge amount of an English teacher’s at home time, we were given “readers” to grade the essays. In retrospect, it must have been a teachers’ union requirement.

Being a newly hatched teacher, I felt I should read what my students were writing myself. Doing this, coupled with reading their journals and hearing what they had to say in class, gave me insight into them as people. I never graded journal entries but I did comment on their triumphs and struggles in an effort to connect and be helpful when they were having a hard time.

After doing this for several months, my more seasoned colleagues encouraged me to use my “reader.” They worried I would be burned out by the nightly and weekend work. I thought, why not? When I received my first batch of corrected and graded essays from the “reader,” I knew why not. Because she did not know my students, the “reader” treated all of their work the same way.

While that might seem fair, it really isn’t. I was horrified to see red ink and negative comments all over the work of a student who struggled. For him, the essay was an achievement that required a lot of time and effort. Yes, I would have pointed out errors, but I would have done it with sensitivity. And my comments would have included praise for his hard work and the huge improvement in his writing.

Exit the “reader.” I just couldn’t let someone who didn’t know my students critique their work. And that was another human being. A computer searching for commas and keywords? No way.

Computers are amazing tools but as of now at least, I have yet to meet one that had empathy, insight, compassion, or a love of teaching. They do fit into our current thinking that education is all about meeting measurable standards. I’m just glad they weren’t around in 1969.

Einstein kept a sign in his office that read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Whether he said it or co-opted it from someone else, I have always believed it to be true.

So, consider helping out a former English teacher. If you don’t want your student’s or child’s writing to be evaluated by a computer, speak up. The PARCC assessments are invading our schools as I write this. I’m sure the computer would fail me for this little essay.


by Laurie Levy
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