“Dave, how long do you spend grading articles of the week?”
I sometimes hear that question, or at least I see it written on the faces of people who start doing the math when I tell them about Kelly Gallagher's article of the week (AoW) assignment.
The assignment: Students read, purposefully annotate, and write a one-page response to an assigned article every week.
The math: Okay, he said a one-page response is due from each student every single Friday, so with a typical roster of kids, that would be anywhere from 100 to 200 pages of student writing to grade. Every. Single. Week. Yeah, thanks for the cool AoW idea, but no thanks. I like having a life.
Which I completely respect — the having a life part, I mean. Great teachers have great lives (read: lives not constantly shackled to a stack of papers to grade). But what if we're missing something when we assume that articles of the week necessitate extra hours of grading each week? What if our decision to grade AoWs in the same way we would grade summative writing assignments is misguided?
Here's the reality:
Most weeks I spend about 4 seconds grading each article of the week response
Sounds like malpractice, right? But if it's malpractice, I'm in good company. In a recent interview with Kelly Gallagher, I asked him how long he spends grading each AoW. His answer:
“This may come as a surprise or a shock or a disappointment, but I spend very little time assessing those AoWs. Whether I put an A or a B or 20 points or 16 points for me is really, really not the impetus behind giving that assignment. What's important to me is that the kids are doing the reading and the kids are doing the reflecting…. I may look at each paper for a grand total of four seconds. It's really not a grading issue for me. I think teachers get way, way too hung up on grading. For me, I just want the kids to be doing the work. I give them enough points to keep them going, and occasionally when they start to slide, I'll pick two or three that are really good ones, and then bring it out and ask the kids, ‘Why is this a 20? Why is this a 20?' But I actually don't score them in front of the kids because I do them at a hundred miles an hour.”
—from a recent interview with Kelly for the Teaching with Articles Workshop 
Here's the number one thing I draw from Kelly's comments:
Purpose dictates grading.
Remember: the primary purpose of AoWs is to help our kids know more about the world than our curricula will cover. AoWs are one way we try flooding our students with opportunities to read, write, and think. Too often, we lose sight of the “why” behind an assignment or an instructional move, and this causes us hours of wasted effort. Anything done with a lack of clear purpose is bound to collect problems like a snowball collects snow on its way down a mountain.
So how does “purpose dictates grading” make rapid AoW grading an acceptable strategy? A few reasons:
- Because this assignment is meant to inform, to help our students “know stuff so they can read stuff” as Mr. Gallagher often puts it. If that's our primary purpose, then the only purpose-driven, time-intensive way to grade these would be to grade for whether or not the student demonstrates an adequate understanding of the article they were asked to read. But that's not realistic…
- Because quick grading is the only way to make AoWs humanly possible, especially if you plan to, you know, teach the texts and concepts that are actually in your curriculum.
- Because slow grading doesn't necessarily make writers better. Gallagher points out that Nancy Atwell, winner of the first Global Teaching Prize, writes in her latest edition of In the Middle that she has “never graded individual pieces of writing” (300, as cited by Gallagher in this article).
- Because modeling and feedback are far better at moving writers than nitpicky grading. My students improve their writing far more through my use of several solid student examples from last week's AoW than they do through my nitpicky comments. Feedback doesn't always need to be individualized to be effective.
- Because it's the only way the assignment is humanly possible to manage as a teacher. At least, it's the only way if you plan to have your students do any other writing for your class.
- Because otherwise your kids won't ever read and write enough. As Kelly puts it, “If your kids aren't reading way more, aren't writing way more, than any teacher can grade, I can guarantee you they're not [reading or] writing enough.”
Permission to grade smarter
The point here isn't to refuse to grade things;  the point is to grade purposefully.
Grading must serve our long-term purposes, and our long-term purposes must not be circumvented by our own guilt-inducing misconceptions about grading (or our misconceptions about what things will and won't motivate our students to work hard).
Here's what is certainly not the l0ng-term purpose of the article of the week assignment: turning teachers into crazy people who define “relaxing” as sitting on the couch, “watching” TV and grading a stack of AoW reflections each week. #That'sDoingItWrong
I hope this lifts a burden for you.
- Kelly has written much more on grading in his popular blog post, “Moving Beyond the 4×4 Classroom.”
- While that would be nice, it's not the norm in my district and it's not a hill I'm willing to die on.