Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Can you mark creative writing?

Do you get pressure from your management to give an 'assessment' -- that is, a mark -- for each student? Most institutions insist on it; and no, it cannot be a little statement [brilliant characterisation but needs to improve language]. It has to be a number or letter to put in the box so that the computer or observer can see instantly that the student has been assessed.

A whole 50% of my lovely keen class, in week 2, completed 'homework' (polishing up one of the exercises we did in class) or, per my invitation, gave me something they'd written previously. I have often had classes where hardly anyone gave in writing, which is a shame. Students aren't getting their own money's worth if they don't get feedback.

So I had a busy day yesterday prepping for class and reading and giving feedback. So how do YOU give feedback? I would never-never-never put a grade on a piece of creative writing -- far too specific and potentially devastating to a tender writer. No, I just put comments on their pages.

Obviously this indicates to you that I do not accept emailed writing from students. I spend enough time at this screen on my own stuff... as well as ink and paper. No, I tell them that publishers and competitions have their rules, and so do I. I want them to Make the Effort. Also, to practice proper layout.

I use pencil, not pen, because it looks softer, kinder. I adopted something that I liked from feedback I have received... tick in the margin and/or bottom of page. Shows I like something, or at least it looks like I have actually read the page.

Except for very small comments I put all my feedback at the end of the writing. Yes, I do it sandwich style: a positive, enthusiastic sentence or several, then some critique (I give page and para numbers, or sometimes in the margin of the section in question I pencil a squiggly vertical line). Then end with some upbeat encouragement.

It is all handwritten on their work. Gracious me, if I got into typing out my feedback I would spend far too much time and perfection on my comments; I know, because I have tried it once or twice, that I tend to get too far into explaining why something isn't working. As in writing this blog, I think and type simultaneously... and always find things to say. In the case of feedback, too many things.

Handwritten feedback is more personal, too. AND, I am famous for my illegible handwriting (though for students I try harder)... so I apologise in advance and say it brings me closer to my students: if you can't figure out something I wrote, come and talk to me!

Then there's the challenge... how much do you criticise? Where do you rein in your perfectionism, where can you best help a writer to improve without squashing? Hmmm, think I'd better continue this next week. And I do have a secret grade scheme, to keep management happy.

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