Poking the Sacred Cow

by Guest Blogger
December 30th, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

It’s day six of my holiday break and I have finally acknowledged the large stack of paper on the floor next to my desk. I had been ignoring it, hoping it would magically grade itself, but alas, this has not been the case. It’s still there, still huge, still daunting. In the meantime, I have cleaned the entire house, gone to the dump twice, moved our furniture around, stacked another cord of wood, winterized the chicken tractor, and killed seven mice in the attic, but now, it’s time. Time to grade the mid-year writing assessments.

While I was completing all of these other acts of procrastination, I was mentally composing another essay for an upcoming deadline, a piece has been freaking me out, both as a writer and a teacher. In order to be successful in this piece, I must come clean about my homework practices. For non-teachers, that may sound like an easy task, but it’s not. Homework is a time-honored tradition among teachers, a sacred cow best left undisturbed to chew its cud in the median. We go about our daily business in its shadow, so used to its presence right there in the middle of things that we don’t even see it anymore. Even discussed delicately, teacher-to-teacher, it elicits fight-or-flight defensiveness in some and outright anger in others.

But it’s good to sharpen your Ticonderoga #2 and poke that cow from time to time, isn’t it? Otherwise, how  do you know if it’s just resting or if it’s been dead for a while and you just had not noticed?

As I am writing about homework elsewhere, I am taking on another sacred cow at my school over here – the writing assessment. These assessments make up the giant pile of menace stacked next to my desk, and as I don’t want to get around to grading them, I thought I’d spend some time poking them with a proverbial stick.

Twice a year, we give the students a prompt, two days to prepare an outline, two class periods to write a four-paragraph essay. Based on the responses I have read so far, this year’s questions went fairly well, and I actually like reading these essays once I am into the groove, but it’s an endless task. So, if I have to question why I give homework, I also have to question why I spend four full days a year of class time and hours at home spent grading on these writing assessments.

The students don’t enjoy writing them, I hate grading them…so what’s the point?

In order to answer that question, I went over to my office and pulled out a couple of my student’s files. Because we give these assessments every year from the third grade on up, I can spread a students’ entire writing education out in one place. I can see how handwriting, vocabulary, and syntax evolve over the entire length of one student’s education. Most importantly, I can see their individual voices evolve as thinking becomes more complex, more sophisticated. It’s fun to pull these files out when a student is frustrated with the slow pace of his or her learning, or an apparent backsliding in skills, and show them how far they have come in such a short time.

One of my favorite things about my job is the strategizing I get to do behind the scenes. As I teach my students for three straight years in Latin and/or English, I have the opportunity to do some real long-term planning for the future. I taught high school English before I moved to middle school, so I know what will be expected of them in a few short years. Many of them will go on to attend the very school I used to teach in, so I have very specific goals about where they need to be in terms of independence, organization and self-advocacy by the time they head off to high school.

In sixth grade, we coddle them as we ease them into the relative chaos of middle school class transitions and increased homework load. In seventh grade, however, I ease off a bit. I give them a little bit more rope and see what happens when they are expected to plan ahead or stay on top of a long-range assignment. In eighth grade, I really let them have their heads, and expect that they will know how to take charge of their education when no one else is looking out for them. Writing assessments are part of that process. I hand them the prompt and directions, and they are expected to prepare their notes or outline, find supporting evidence and plan their writing. I give them no other guidance than the prompt itself. Timed writing assignments will become a fact of life for them in the coming years, and it’s fascinating to see their progress as they master the task.

When I was first hired at my school, I was informed that the writing assessment was simply a part of what I did in English class, and I was too overwhelmed with the details of a my new position (including my first year teaching Latin, twenty years since I last cracked open a Latin text) to question any reasoning behind the tradition. But now, long settled-in and armed with perspective and experience, I think it’s good to question what I do the things I do. This week’s re-evaluation of my homework practices has been really enlightening - I have dropped some of the less effective assignments and shored up my reasoning behind the better ones. So much of what I do, particularly the most subjective aspects such as grading and assessments, leave me feeling uneasy at times, unsure of my standards, perspective, or reasoning.

In the end, some of those cows were long dead and really needed to get rolled out of the road, but I am quite fond of the ones that remain. When I return to school in the New Year, the students will notice a change. I will be more confident in my choices, and the road ahead will be much less congested. True, the writing assessments will remain, lying placidly in the middle of that road, but at least I will be able to explain why they are there.


  1. Jess,

    A good piece offering, for me, many fond memories of my days in the classroom.

    A simple word of advice on procrastination: DON’T.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 31, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  2. Save this essay, Jessica. Put a copy in your personnel file. This piece says more about your value as a teacher than any administrator’s evaluation. If this work were all I knew about you professionally, I’d hire you on the spot and put you at the top of the salary schedule. Would that I could. Your essay is a blueprint displaying the attitude, outlook, and self-motivation all teachers should have. Brava, Jessica, brava!

    Comment by Fred Strine — December 31, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

  3. Do your students do real research papers? Yes, in 6th grade…real research papers vs the [bizarre] four/five paragraph “writing”? Just curious? If they are not doing them in 6th grade when do they start research papers in your district?

    Comment by tim-10-ber — January 1, 2012 @ 7:34 am

  4. @Paul Hoss: Don’t worry, poetic license. Procrastination is not my thing. Hasn’t really been my thing since I had kids. Too much to do.

    @Fred Strine: Um….wow. Thank you. I appreciate the kind words, particularly as I work on this week’s lesson plans and attempt to get the students out of vacation mode and back into work mode.

    @tim-10-ber: We most certainly do real research papers, formal ones, with all the trimmings. I am a fan of the [not bizarre, in fact] expository papers that ask students to defend a thesis with evidence. From thesis formation, to sentence outline, to reflection, I really believe these papers help them figure out how to persuade through language, and that’s a skill they will need no matter what they do in life. My students also do some descriptive writing, straight-up persuasive rhetorical pieces, personal narrative, and as I mentioned above, both research for traditional research papers and research for creative nonfiction character-driven pieces. Oh, and in November, about 60% of my middle school participates in YWP’s NaNoWriMo – novels of about 15k words in 30 days.

    Comment by Jess — January 1, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  5. good blog.

    Comment by MG — January 2, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

  6. [...] A clergyman used her mangle to reassess a vital duty both she and her students dislike. (Core Knowledge) [...]

    Pingback by Remainders: A roundup of 2011 roundups and 2012 predictions | My Blog — January 4, 2012 @ 12:54 am

  7. Very interesting article. Questioning why we do what we do as teachers, I agree, is beneficial for clearing out those perverbial cobwebs that do build up over time skewing the reasons for investing our personal time, energy and sometimes mental health for outcomes we rarely get to see to a productive conclusion. How rare it is to be able to track student progress beyond a year in the classroom and to see the final product we hoped to be a part of.

    Comment by RLH — January 23, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

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