Mark my Words

By | 22 November 2007

If you are a kinaesthetic learner, movement helps memory. So a trip to Leicester carried me back, in more ways than one. My last year of studying before I became one of the world’s workers was spent in Leicester, and it was there that I fled at the end of my very first week as a lecturer.
On the train to Leicester, I spent my time proudly marking my first batch of student scripts – A level English, “lit crit”.
Proudly, there I was, transformed from a low-life student into a person who could make judgements on other people’s work. See mistakes and point them out with my little red pen. Spot the gems and applaud in the margins. I could be critic and coach, guide and guru, mentor and mediator.
With my little red pen, I wrote reams. Now I think: “How dared I?”

Years later, at a meeting of the National Association of Teachers of English, I saw an OHP of a piece of work by an 11-year-old, new to secondary school. The writing was unparagraphed, misspelt, with little punctuation. Red ink everywhere, and no wonder.
Second OHP, little improvement, but less writing, now about half a page. Almost as much red ink and the teacher visibly cross.
Third OHP, less red ink, but only four lines of writing. The writer offered a silent declaration of defeat: “Tell me I do it badly, and I won’t do it at all.”
The lecturer said: “This is how an English teacher destroys a writer. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Twenty years later, it is all I can remember of the meeting.
We who did the marking found writing easy, of course, so we were so busy using our own voices in the margins of the paper that we were no longer listening to the fragile, tentative voices emerging on the page. Destroying writers – was that what we actually did?
I tried harder to listen, and to respect. Mark in pencil, not red ink; mark for particular things, depending on the task – today, ideas, tomorrow, paragraphing. Gently does it. Encourage. Praise.
So I did it differently, but I never lost the love of marking. I was even a happy examiner at A level – 400 scripts in three weeks? No problem! Bring it on!
But neither did I lose my belief that marking was central to what a teacher does, as inseparable from the job as walking into a classroom.
For practitioners of written English, writing regularly and trying to write better seemed to me as obvious as it was that you should get in the pool and move through the water somehow if you wanted to learn to swim.
You do not learn to swim standing on one leg waving your arms. You learn in the water, wet and exhausted, but making your way through water with your feet off the floor.
And, like it or not, you may make better progress if a coach stands on the side of the pool and says: “Do it like this, Sunshine, not like that!”
I suspect marking has fallen out of fashion, and I do not think it is because of the inherent risk to the young ego of having red ink splashed on work. I think it has to do with teachers’ perceptions of what the job – teaching – is, and the government’s wish to make teachers’ working weeks bearable.
A class of 30 producing a 500-word GCSE practice essay every week will knock out 15,000 words. Six classes a week – 90,000 words. Then there are 3,000 words each from A level students, “because I’m so in to Ian MacEwan!”, and there are 12 in the class so that is 36,000 words – all in a week.
An average novel is about 70,000 words, and how fast can you get through that? Without having to judge its spelling, punctuation, grammar, paragraphing and – oh yes – ideas?
Marking has always been the real reason teachers needed the holidays, because that level of effort every night of the week in term-time is, in the end, a killer. The first thing it kills is your sex life, followed by your social life, and maybe, ultimately, your teaching life.
I always believed maths teachers had an easy, ticky life – right, wrong, tick, cross. Marking heaven. But be an English teacher, burn out.
Or cheat. Which is what I believe we do when we set work that does not need marking at all – “Find out about this! Give an oral report in class! Read about a character and interview him in the style of Charlotte Church! Work in pairs, groups, teams of 100! Research on the internet…”
You do not learn to write with regular tasks like that. And writing needs practice, not just to be done and forgotten – “I’m marking every fourth piece of work this week!” – but done and appreciated, which is what good marking is. A dialogue between a learner and a teacher. One-to-one teaching with every piece. Real personalised learning.
And it goes with the territory. Sorry, but it does.

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