I, like most teachers, struggle at times with responding to students’ essays. Forget the hours it takes to read, digest, and thoughtfully respond to anywhere between 60 to 100 students, each writing four to six pages– the bigger question is: how can my comments make this student a better writer? What skills can I convey to the student that the student can take with him or her on to other classes?

Like many budding graduate students in a pedagogy class for the first time, I read Nancy Sommers groundbreaking essay “Responding to Student Writing” which is has revisited after years and “tons” of essays she has researched. Teaching in Higher Ed has a great review of Sommer’s new book that tackles the subject. What Sommers and her team found when they asked students about their best writing and commenting experiences was that:

 “two overriding characteristics emerged” in the answers. First, students valued “the opportunity to write about something that matters” to them. Second, they valued “the opportunity to engage with an instructor through written comments.” Sommers concludes that “teachers’ comments play a much larger role than we might expect” (p. xiii).

I wholeheartedly agree with Paul Corrigan in his assessment when he states that the most important point he got from the book was that:
The “ministry” of responding “is not just to the words, but to the person who wrote the words” (x). This quote speaks to the shift from responding to student writing to responding to student writers in Sommers’ titles. For me, this statement by Zinsser is one of those that instantly flip everything I’m used to thinking on its head; it is so obviously true that I wonder why I never thought of it before. Even if I had at least in part practiced the principle behind the statement, I had never understood or articulated it in just that way. What our students write does not dictate how we respond. What our students need does.
We cannot forget that students are unique and come to writing with varying levels of experience and interest and knowledge, so, of course, we need to address the students– not specifically the writing. I try. I do. I try to use questions when I leave comments because I want students to think of their writing process as a dialogue and conversation with me. Also, I want students to realize that I hold no definitive answers. I believe that they need to realize that good writing might have some basic outlines: use a strong, arguable thesis statement to guide the essay, organize paragraphs logically and neatly, use strong verbs, try to stay clear and concise, but other than those few, general ideas to keep in mind, writing is, as so many point out referring to Montaigne, “an attempt.” One could follow all those “rules” and still not produce an interesting, worth-while essay. My comments, then, try to point towards goals, and try to get students to think about their writing deeply– no easy fixes (well, not too many anyways). Rather, I want students to grapple with ideas and how to convey them.
I realize I need to step back on my commenting and focus it more. As Corrigan points out in his analysis of Sommers’ “one lesson rule,” we should be focusing on the one thing that the student can grasp and learn now:
when we follow the one lesson rule, teaching becomes our purpose. Commenting is not a clerical duty; it is an act of pedagogy. We do not help balance any cosmic scales by commenting on something just becomes it “needs” to be commented on. We should not respond just because students have written, because they have written well, or because they have written poorly. Instead, we should respond because we want to teach them something that—as best we can tell from reading their work—they need and are ready to learn.
Moving forward, I will try to stick to the one lesson rule (I might throw in a second, quick and easy grammar lesson if need be). And since good teaching, I believe is good stealing, I will post Corrigan’s linked video as well, stealing all his good ideas for my purposes! (Full disclosure, I went to grad school with Paul, where we sat in a few of the same classes; if you haven’t already, click the links above to his valuable information on pedagogy)
Red Ink