Interview of the Author - Carol Jago, Papers Papers Papers

“Too many young teachers give both hands to the job, sacrificing their personal lives and even their health to the demands of their classroom.”

Carol Jago, a distinguished English teacher, author, editor, speaker, and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, directly addresses a challenge faced by many teachers today …there is so much important work to do and so little time. When it comes to tactics for managing the “paper load”, or responding to thousands of pages of student writing, Jagol wrote THE book on the topic. Over a decade after its original publication, I found Papers Papers Papers: An English Teacher's Survival Guide to be chock-full of practical, essential, and timeless strategies for teachers and Graiders. Jago is both cheerful and pragmatic about meeting this challenge. She artfully bridges the gap between ideal instructional practice and the resource-constrained reality of meeting 150 students a day. Some of her tips include:

  • Comment, don’t correct. Teachers must overcome a natural urge to edit and rewrite for students in order to accomplish a more pressing goal: producing strong and independent writers. Delivering effective feedback is the true lever on student learning. Editing for students generally results in wasted time on efforts that fail to engage students anyway.

  • Recast peer editing as peer response. While students reviewing each other’s work has its limitations, Jago presents several strategies for making the practice more effective. Jago asks her students to “respond to the content and coherence of one another’s drafts,” not correct errors. The better students learn how to anticipate the reactions of a reader, the better they are able to assess and adapt their own writing.

  • “Feedback cools quickly” so timeliness is paramount. Getting students to perform as requested is no small feat and requires occasional trickery (more on that in the interview below!). Lastly, don’t drop the ball just before the goal line! Without action by students to internalize the feedback, the thought, care, and time poured into responding to student work is wasted.

My favorite aspect of the book is how Jago sprinkles delightful anecdotes of her own interactions with students throughout. She models the difference between good and bad feedback. For example, Jago responds to Alice on her creative writing draft with six actionable pointers, among them:

‘“Knowing full well” is a cliché. What I like is that it suggests how well and deeply he knows you all. Think about how you can say this without the worn phrase.”’

What I like about this feedback is that is clearly explains the issue and provides thoughtful guidance while still leaving plenty of room for the student to creatively resolve it herself.

The quick and informative read is addressed to teachers of all experience levels. Jago calls veteran teachers to action - to openly discuss their struggles with the paper load, collaborate with in-person grading sessions, and to publicize anchor papers to increase common understanding of grading standards. For school leaders, Jago urges funding to be put towards reducing class sizes in writing classes and obtaining critical resources such as tutoring and outside readers.

“Schools don’t need more martyrs. They need professionals who can survive and thrive in a challenging job.”

She acknowledges the toll of the “paper load” is at best demoralizing and at worst allowing for only “triage” in the classroom and costing the profession the attrition of its best and brightest. Yet Jago is steadfast in her encouragement, “We can’t quit. The work is too important.” A good reminder for all of us committed to making a difference in education.

Interview the Author

Because coaching Graiders to provide effective feedback is our modus operandi at The Graide Network, I wanted to interview Jago directly for her thoughts on the state of teaching English today. I hope you enjoy the following interview with the author. Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What has changed since you wrote the book 13 years ago?

What I wish had changed is class size. More than anything else, class size gets in the way of teachers assigning as much writing as students need in order to learn how to write. Also, a lot of research in the intervening years has uncovered the importance of feedback and the difference between descriptive feedback and advice. Teachers are good at giving advice, telling students “try harder”, “be more specific”, or “this is awkward”. But if students knew what that actually meant, they would have already done it! Instead, descriptive feedback tells students what we see. That’s really labor intensive. It speaks to the power of a personal conference with a student, even five minutes, to let the student self-diagnose. If we don’t get to a place where students can themselves see what needs to change, they won’t become strong writers.

Ideally, students need to write a finished paper every two weeks. But this is not humanly possible for teachers. It could be possible if writing was assigned across the student’s six classes to spread out the work - a lab report in science or argumentative papers in social studies. This is commonly known as “writing across the curriculum”. Writing also helps students’ understanding of the content being taught - students remember what they have written about more than what they are assessed about via multiple choice test, for example. Writing across the curriculum doesn’t happen as it should, because it comes down to someone reading the papers.

How have your pedagogical beliefs changed about the teaching of English?

When I taught, a huge percentage of writing would always be about literature. Today, I think we want to expand that. Students should also develop the skill of rhetorical analysis by reading wonderful essays from Montaigne to the opinion page of The New York Times. Students should understand how those writers craft their arguments - this is what the writing portion of redesigned SAT is asking for. We do not want to wait until 11th grade to teach this kind of writing; rather, fourth graders should look at pieces and ask: How is it organized? How does it appeal to the reader’s emotions? What is the argument?

Do you have any new tips for teachers to get their students writing more?

Good teachers are master tricksters. A teacher could first ask his students to write three one-page papers. Then, ask students to select only the best one to be graded and submit it with a note explaining why. Deciding which writing is best for themselves is a good skill for students to develop. Ultimately, teachers need to find ways to multiply themselves.

In the book, you suggest leveraging computer-based tools as one “strategy for survival.” What are the limitations?

The auto-feedback tools are so much more sophisticated now. However, machine-driven tools only work on a pre-set body of work, not if you are teaching an idiosyncratic topic or book. Also, philosophically you think, “Wow, am I teaching kids to write for a machine?” I have taught very smart kids who could memorize, but in the meantime I would rather shoot for the moon, have students take real risks and do things that are extraordinary.

I taught AP Literature forever, and I never focused on teaching how to figure out particular distractors or drilling literature terms. Maybe fewer of my students scored 5s on the exam, but I know that in the end every kid cared about reading. My former students, some of them now in their forties, still keep in touch to tell me that. You could spend 15 years distorting classroom instruction to solely prepare students for tests, but you will never will teach a kid to love to write and read.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

I need to write more! I have been mostly writing articles for professional journals, but maybe I have another book in me. I just need to get started. My first edition of With Rigor for All was about making literature come alive in class. The second edition focused on integrating the Common Core Standards. A third edition would leave a lot of that behind and focus on the importance of reading contemporary works right next to the classics. This is the world we are living in. There is so much evidence that kids are bored to tears with high school. To enliven school, we need to rethink some of the curriculum and the texts we cover in literature. Texts like Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Between the World and Me' do not try to offer simple answers. We have to be willing to bring edgy books into classrooms and create a safe space talk about issues and ideas. 

If you could have any trophy on your mantle, what would it be and why?

World Champion Reader. I do think I have a very good eye for great books. When the best books of the year list by The New York Times comes out, I would say I have read and recommended at least half of them!

Thank you, Carol, for the interview!

This post was written by Blair Pircon, co-founder and CEO of The Graide Network.