Swamp of Student Work

by gillis

I’m swimming in the literary equivalent of a quagmire filled with disjointed, listing narratives one after another after another. Sometimes I can wade through these marshy grasses happily looking for surprises, as if I’ve got positive-thinking hip-waders on, but today, I am drowning in a swamp of student writing that doesn’t show growth. The mud is cold, and it’s creeping up to my armpits.

You see, I’ve taken home all 90 of my students’ notebooks this weekend after taking a three week break from reading and responding to them. We’ve been working in response groups where peers are giving oral and written feedback to one another on a weekly basis. I thought I’d give things a few weeks to see where they were headed. Now I see where they were headed. They were headed somewhere back to November when students tended to list events sequentially without sensory details or specific information of any kind. They were headed back to Ramble Land where paragraphs might merely be a nice suggestion and punctuation has gone the way of the whalebone corset. The copious amount of time traveling in these pieces has nothing to do with portals or time machines and everything to do with rampant verb tense disagreement. It’s ridiculously discouraging. If I didn’t have a house full of other people’s children to supervise this afternoon, I would surely pour myself a glass of something fortifying right about now.

Clearly the students have not internalized much of the work we have done if they have skidded back to these listy, boring pieces where trips to amusement parks and car wrecks sound less interesting than a day at the laundromat. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to scaffold something. Or I didn’t provide enough practice.  My feedback wasn’t strong or specific enough. In any case,  I have screwed up. And the timing couldn’t be worse because the students will take their standardized tests, complete with the dreaded open response questions, beginning on Monday.  April Fools’ Day. I can only imagine what they will do there. Topic sentence? I don’t need no stinkin’ topic sentence. Evidence from the text? That sounds like too much work. Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh! All of my corpuscles are spinning wildly just thinking about the crazy talk that will come out of their pencils when they are left to their own devices. All those mini-lessons — just a fool’s errand?

I will not give up. I will read every last one of these entries no matter how painful it becomes. I will respond to each writer with specific, targeted feedback beginning with what is strong and true, even if it’s just the handwriting. I will conference with each of the writers. Then I will slowly remove my hip waders and walk onto dry land for that glass of something fortifying.