Essay Grading as an English Teacher
Two weeks, 150 essays graded, lots of thoughts
Almost every English teacher has their own go-to stories about grading essays.
In my early years teaching in rural Arkansas, I’d sneak off to the local diner Reds many a Saturday morning with my stack of essays and order a greasy breakfast and unlimited-refill coffee—and then watch as the chatty diner filled around me speculating about how the Razorbacks would do that afternoon while I sat there quietly trying to make a dent in the seemingly-un-dentable pile of student writing that needed feedback.
That’s how far too many Saturdays went for me back then.
Things have changed, thankfully, over a decade later: that “stack” of essays is now broken down into various folders on Google Drive (benefit: no more embarrassing coffee spills on student essays) and I also now have two little ones running around the house (downside: no more escaping to a local diner all day for Saturday grading sessions).
Furthermore, as a 12th-year teacher, I feel like I’m much more efficient and strategic with feedback, too, and also planning intentionally for when these essay grading windows make the most sense.
What hasn’t changed, though? Sometimes all the best laid plans collapse (the cause this time: nearly a week of school closed for snow and ice) and the deadlines arrive with all 150 essays coming in the same week—and semester grades due soon after.
So for once I figured I would simply keep track of just how much time it took to navigate all the grading and feedback over this grind of a stretch—weaving in some context and reflection along the way.
To get started, here were the top-line numbers over the last two weeks of January:
150 essays (roughly half from AP Literature, half from English 10)
25.75 hours grading and writing feedback for students
Nearly 80% of that grading (20.25 hours) outside of contracted hours
First, Though, What This Post Is Not
Before naming the motivation of this post, I want to be clear about three things I don’t in any way intend for this weekend’s Broken Copier post to be:
This is NOT a “martyr” post about how much I graded. Every English teacher I work with had a similar story in our building over recent weeks, and I know that seemingly every English teacher across the country experiences their own waves of student writing over the year. The point of this post, rather, is that this is the “normal”—and I feel like that’s worth discussing!
This is NOT a “problem in search of a solution” post: I feel really good about where I’m at with grading and feedback of student writing right now! I focus primarily on collective feedback, have efficient systems that focus feedback towards where I believe is most helpful for students, and have made major strides since the Reds diner days in my early years.
But this is NOT a “solution” post, either: I don’t have any resources or tricks to fix this problem, and I also don’t have any deep convictions about structural or systemic ways to address this. Giving meaningful feedback on student writing takes time, and that time isn’t uniformly distributed over the year—which makes me skeptical of “additional prep time for ELA teachers” solutions I’ve seen. (Even if they’re well-intended!)
So what is this post then?
More than anything, I wanted to fully capture something that I know is a reality for countless teachers, and to share a bit about what this looks like for me in the current moment.
Without further ado, then, let’s proceed.
What Grading 150 Essays Looks Like For Me
I have three sections for each of the two courses I teach, so I try to schedule deadlines strategically so that there are never simultaneous essay waves—which means that a normal “essay pile” is around 75-80 essays that I can usually work through rather comfortably (relatively speaking) in a 10-day window.
However, due to recent weather chaos those deadlines merged and I didn’t have any wiggle room with the end of semester about to arrive, leading to this outlier situation and the 20+ hours of grading outside of contracted hours it took to navigate it.
(If you’re reading this and wondering why so much of this is outside of contracted hours: the majority of contracted hours for teachers are spent…teaching. And then also planning for teaching, and countless other things that also pile-up at the end of a semester.)
Where do those 20+ hours come from, then, you might ask?
In our house, the two little guys (4yo and 1.5yo) tend to wake up around 6am and go to bed around 7:30pm, with about a 1.5 hour “nap/quiet time” window on weekends. So that leaves the following “windows” for grading:
Waking up early and grading before the kiddos get up (not ideal: as sleep is important)
Having a later-than-usual cup of tea and grading after the kiddos go to sleep (also not ideal: as I’m typically already drained at that point)
Sacrificing the desperately-needed weekend “quiet time” break and sneaking in some essays during that window, too.
To get those 150 essays graded in the final two weeks of the semester? I pretty much had to use every one of those windows available for about 10 days straight.
It was a grind, and a miserable one at that.
But What Does Grading an Individual Essay Look Like?
I don’t believe there is a “right way” when it comes to reading essays and giving feedback. After all, I’ve changed my own process many times over, and surely will continue to change it all the way until I retire decades from now.
That said, my current process has three main steps:
Opening a separate document to gather “collective feedback” as I grade: both positive and negative trends that I notice emerging across the different essays, along with highlight sentences from specific essays. As I’ve shared before, these trends eventually become the core of our “collective feedback lesson”—probably one of the most important changes in my practice as an English teacher in recent years.
As I read through each essay, I do add comments directly onto their Google Doc—sometimes on a targeted convention skills, but more often to add quick, real-time thoughts I have while reading. (As you can see in the time stamps above, I’m pretty efficient while doing this!)
Then after reaching the end and reflecting on my added comments, I move through the more-traditional phase of scoring the essay based on the rubric and leaving feedback of about 200-ish words—always organized by “Strengths and Celebrations” alongside “Questions and Growth Areas.”
To be clear: not counting the comments, we’re talking about 200 words of feedback on 150 essays—which arrives at a clean 30,000 word count of feedback for the past two weeks.
(Forgive me, I have to type it again, primarily written outside of contracted hours.)
Yes, I’m probably way too much in the weeds at this point in the post, but the goal was to be as transparent as I could be about my process, right?
Finally, I like my process. I feel like it balances efficiency with effective feedback, especially when coupled with lessons designed around students engaging with and reflecting on their feedback regularly.
So it is what it is, I guess?
Three Things I Think About Essay Grading Right Now
Now that I’ve had a couple days to recover from the absolute grind of those 150 essays, I feel like I should summon a semblance of conviction and offer some broader takeaways as far as what I “think” about essay grading in this current moment.
Here’s what I have for now:
Quality Feedback from a Teacher to a Student Matters. Not just in an individual essay, but over an entire course, too. There is something really amazing about getting a front-row, participatory seat in watching a student grow and emerge as a writer within a school year. There is a journey that can occur between the writer and the reader in piece-after-piece, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It is irreplaceable. And worth it.
(Also: go readon this topic right now, if you haven’t yet!)
You Cannot “Hack” Your Way To Quality Feedback. Everything is a trade off, ultimately, and the amount of time you invest is the amount of time you invest. I have zero doubt that an avalanche of new “tricks and tools” are heading our way, too, via the new artificial intelligence paradigm of ed-tech, and they may save you “time.” I believe that saved time will come at a severe cost, however, not just in terms of the quality of the feedback but more importantly the relationship you and your students share along their writing journeys. Think carefully before you choose that shortcut.
But You Can Be Intentional About How Students Receive Your Feedback. In a “Kicking The Copier” this past summer I went more into detail on this, but I still grimace thinking about the days early in my career of handing students back those coffee-stained essays and then seeing many students moments later stuff them in their backpacks after a quick glance-through. (Or even worse: toss them in the trash) That’s why I now build an entire lesson around returning feedback and reflecting on it, and knowing that this lesson is the end-goal becomes incredible fuel for me throughout the essay grading.
Ultimately, aseloquently captured in his reflection “Apologia” last week, “Teaching is both a struggle and a joy. Teaching is both rewarding and exasperating.”
So allow me to scrape from Adrian’s language, since that’s what all the AI companies are doing these days anyways.
Grading essays is both a struggle and a joy.
Grading essays is both rewarding and exasperating.
The scale isn’t always balanced, admittedly, with the struggle and exasperation weighing a great deal of late for me.
But the rewarding joy is still there, too, and I am going to choose to end on that positive note.
Along with this one: especially if you’re an English/ELA teacher, feel free to share your own “essay grading” story in the comments! Do you have a favorite spot or background music? A particular routine you cling to in order to keep your head above water? Or, dare I say it…a solution?
Feel free to share—and as always, take care!
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