I’ve written before about marking, but just to summarise: it has always been something I’ve loved doing. There was something in that Boxer-like satisfaction of ploughing through an unending pile of books, leaving lovingly crafted comments in an array of coloured pens and stickers that just looked like it would work so well. How could pupils fail to make progress when I’d spent so many hours on them?
So something I was nervous about when starting at Michaela was their approach to marking; that is, don’t do it. I’d read Joe Kirby’s blog and spoken to him at length, but remained steadfastly concerned that marking worked – if you ensured pupils
acted on feedback. I then moved to the idea that marking worked, but at what cost – a teacher with six or ten classes cannot be expected to give the detailed feedback the lightly-timetabled members of SLT seem to manage on a weekly basis.
In my second week at Michaela, we had a department meeting where Joe brought up the excellent question: it’s great for workload that we don’t mark, but how do we make sure we’re giving feedback to make pupils’ writing better?
One of the main reasons I think I find marking helpful is because it holds me accountable – I am actually reading if I am putting a pen to paper to say something about it. (I annotate the books I read in the same way – it helps me to remain focused.) But while this is an essential strategy when it is 7am on a Saturday, pre-intervention, and you want to clear the last 20 books to enjoy a semblance of a weekend when you return home that afternoon, or 9pm on a Wednesday when you just want to sleep, actually, I had underestimated my ability to focus.
To begin with at Michaela, I couldn’t get out of the habit of marking. I would spend two hours with about 60 books, circling and underlining when I couldn’t resist; writing limitless notes to share with the class, photocopying paragraphs to get pupils to annotate their peers’ examples. Joe’s comments on this kind of feedback were: ‘would you want all teachers to be photocopying twice or three times a week? Is it worth the time getting the pupils to annotate a piece of paper they are then just throwing away? What else could you be doing with that time?’ Moreover, I was reminded of why marking is not always the best method – if I’d put the merest hint of a mark on a child’s book, their hands shot in the air: ‘why is this circled?’ ‘I can’t read your writing on this spelling correction.’ ‘Why is there a question mark here?’ Marking breeds over-reliance on the teacher.
Now, I’m getting into the swing of the Michaela way. I read my pupils’ books once or twice a week. I teach four classes, each with between 28 and 32 pupils, so it is about 120 books in all. I read 60 books in 30 minutes. As I read, I make notes: spellings lots are getting wrong, things they’re all doing well at, and the main issues they need to improve. I note down anyone whose paragraph is amazing to reward with merits or show the class; I note down anyone whose work is messy to give a demerit to. It looks something like this:
In the following lesson, I teach the spellings from the front, and then test pupils. They will write their corrections out in green pen, interleaving the ones they got wrong, or the ‘toughest three’ if they managed, on this occasion, to score 100%. I’ll test them again the following day. I’ll share the positive things I found and celebrate the star paragraphs, and then explain carefully, perhaps modelling on the board (as Katie Ashford has described brilliantly here or occasionally putting a great paragraph from the class under the visualiser, how they can all improve their own paragraphs. And then they improve them, in green pen. It looks like this:
The second powerful tool is in-class feedback. With an excellent behaviour system, silent writing for 25 minutes means I can see every child’s paragraph twice while circulating, giving them suggestions and tweaks while they write. On my colleague Lucy Newman’s suggestion, I’ve also started using my visualiser more. This way, we can take a pupil’s book, display it to the class, and show pupils how to edit their mistakes in that very lesson, just by giving oral feedback on the common errors they are making, or the aspects they really need to focus on improving.
The thing is, what makes the difference in their writing is the quality of the feedback and how timely it is. They don’t need feedback on a paragraph they wrote two weeks ago. At Michaela, they can improve the paragraph they wrote yesterday, while it is fresh in their minds. I miss marking, I do. But I’m realising I did it for me, not for the pupils.