I’ve been grading the AP English exam this week.
For anyone who hasn’t done a massive normed grading of an exam before, the process of reading well over a thousand handwritten student essays in a is a brutal experience: many essays are bad, and by the end of the week, nothing seems new or fresh anymore. And yet, for each student writer, his or her essay is in fact unique—it’s the first time considering the idea, a unique instance of putting pen to paper to write the idea down, the first foray of the piece of writing out into the world.
One aspect of the training we receive that I particularly appreciate and that I hope to communicate to my TAs this fall is about the angle of approach we take to student writing.
Two of the Niyamas of yoga are Ahimsa (nonharming) and Satya (truthfulness). Ideally, the two are in balance; truthfulness is not an excuse for cruelty, but fear of causing upset doesn’t get in the way of honesty.
Though I’m not sure the College Board has thought about AP exam scoring in precisely these terms, they usefully remind graders to look for what the student has done well.
This fall, I hope to impart a similar idea to my TAs, encouraging them to come to each essay they grade with the initial instinct to look for what a student has achieved, rather than how the student has disappointed them. Indeed, even if the student’s achievement is relatively modest, those of us who write regularly no that the simple act of showing up and trying is worthy of some notice.
And so we who teach and evaluate do act as warriors, playing both sides of combat for our students. On the one hand, we wield the sword of truthfulness, letting our students know how they might improve, habits that need correcting. But on the other hand, we should also hold the shield for our students, protecting them from unnecessary harm as they too engage in the brave act that is sitting down and putting words to page.