Monday, September 17, 2007

Return of the Green Pen

Every semester, I look forward with a mixture of dread and curiosity to the first set of essays I get from my students. Particularly in Eng Comp 101, the essays can reveal personal tidbits about the students’ lives. I am frequently saddened, and sometimes even shocked, by some of the circumstances these young people are dealing with.

So, I have now finished grading the first essay for the semester. I always use writing prompts—for several reasons. First, if I do a good job crafting the prompt, it makes it far less likely that the student can find a ready made essay to hand in as his own. Second, if all the students are writing about generally the same topic, I have a greater opportunity to evaluate them fairly in comparison to their peers.

The first writing prompt was to write a NARRATIVE or a DESCRIPTIVE paper on one of two topics: personal body modifications OR fasting for a personal reason.

Once I get this first set of papers, I brace myself. What odd word errors am I going to read? And how tainted will my own writing be after reading these freshmen essays? On this second issue, I frequently find myself making simple elementary errors after I grade a set of essays. An example would be confusing where to place an apostrophe to make a noun possessive. Students ALWAYS have trouble with making nouns plural, and then making plural nouns possessive. Is it the students’ papers or the student’s papers? Well, of course, you know it depends on context—did you mean the papers of all the students? Or all the papers of the student.

Perhaps the most common error I come upon is confusion in homophones. You know what a homophone is even if you don’t know the term. Simply, “Homophones are words of the same language that are pronounced alike even if they differ in spelling, meaning”

I do get some very amusing homophones. The most common ones are words like NO and KNOW. Or THEIR, THERE, and THEY’RE.

Here are a few of my favorites.

This isn’t exactly a homophone, but it was a near one.
So students writing about body alterations were actually using the word “altercation.” A bit of a different meaning.

In addition to bracing myself for these word confusions, I always steel myself for some of the more problematic details I will encounter. Clearly, eighteen year olds today view body modifications as very much the norm. They write about multiple piercings, or getting a second or third tattoo. I really cringe when a student writes about tongue-splitting. (I do get a small modicum of revenge when we start a discussion unit of clothing and body adornments around the world. I use photographs of some of the examples of stretched necks, or plate-sized lips, or ear-lobes elongated down to the shoulders. Students are always stunned to see photos of foot-binding. Then I innocently ask—well, what’s the difference between that and some of the body modifications you make?)

Occasionally, I have a student who sees beyond the obvious on this topic, and writes refreshingly on his experience. One student wrote about trying to decide what to do about premature balding. I loved the essay. Another student wrote about getting a military haircut upon enlisting in the Army. He understood that the haircut symbolized all that joining the military entails.

For the first time with these papers, I had a fair number of students selecting the fasting topic. In the past, I have had one or two students a semester use this topic. This set of essays there were about a dozen, including one student who is a Jain and talked about the Paryshuna Festival, which includes fasting, meditation and prayer. Considering I live in central Pennsylvania which is a fairly conservative area, I was pleased to have a student who provided an informative well-thought essay from a different perspective.

Tomorrow will be the weeping day. I return the essays with all my green marks (I eschew using a red pen, and choose a green one instead). I also include a grading matrix. But, no matter how objectively I might have tried to be in relaying the issues with a student’s writing, students who expected higher grades are dashed. I find returning these first essays as the watershed mark—students will either hang in with me, trying to improve their writing, or they will blow off the whole course.


Jean said...

To me, the green pen speaks a lot about your caring for students. Red pens are so "out there" and dreaded:)

So "their" is my comment, Teacher. Give me a green:)

Mary said...

Ha! Good one, Jean!

Donna, I always enjoy hearing about your English 101 students. Sitting in your classroom would be a treat for me and I don't think I'd mind your green pen at all.

It's coincidental that I'm including a bit of talk about writing and grammar in my next post. Get your green pen ready! LOL!

Anvilcloud said...

When your realize how little they look at those remarks if at all, it makes you wonder.

Ruth said...

Homophones slip through computer spell checks. You probably have seen the little poems like "Spell Czecher" that make fun of the inadequacies of computers for grammar and spelling.

cat59 said...

It must be the time of year for thoughts on grammar (see Mary's post). It saddens me that the errors these students make at the college level are quite basic. Is it that they've never been exposed to proper punctuation or life before spell check (I know that is true)or is it a lack of pride in their work? I wonder if they simply write something and turn it in without ever proofreading? Has anyone heard of proofreading anymore? BTW, what if a student has no experience with either of your topics. I would have a hard time writing about body alteration or fasting. (Please feel free to get out the green pen!)

Rhonda said...

Ah, yes! But there was a time when you used the dreaded RED pen. And many times I was the recipient of such marking across some memo I'd written. Glad to see you have "softened" in your "eld" age and gone green.

mon@rch said...

I hope you don't bring my green pen over to my blog! My grammar is the worse!

RuthieJ said...

Having a bit of a background in publications and also addicted to finding misspellings, I was intrigued reading this post, Donna. The spelling skills I have, but grammar is the area where I'm really weak (as this sentence just proves!)

Anonymous said...

As usual Donna, touché! Another grammar mistake: personal pronouns subject or object! Eg. “He gave it to my wife and I.” “I’m glad you learnd grama as she should be spoke and wrote.”

And too (not to or two): Thank you to all your other Comment contributors. I got a chuckle out of all of them.

Love, Father "C"

Climenheise said...

I enjoy these school stories as well. I start my students off nice and easy. Interaction papers in which they get credit for responding to the reading, regardless of how well. (Sentence fragments allowed!) I mark in red -- submitted online, and corrections entered in red font, and returned online.

Later on I get a bit tougher. It's vs. its, and all the rest. Some write brilliantly (using the word the way someone from Zimbabwe might; most make silly mistakes. It's a bit discouraging soemtimes to remember that they are doing master's level work!

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

What happened to the classic "What I did last summer." topic.

LauraHinNJ said...

I could really use a lesson on making plural nouns possessive - I always foul that up!

Even though I teach reading, I also use a writing sample on the first night of class as a diagnostic tool.

As a student, I always disliked writing prompts, so rarely use them. Instead I like to give an open-ended sort of question for students to respond to. Prompts are too vague for me and always found myself obsessing over what the teacher wanted me to say!

What did your Mac and Cheese student write about?

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