Students with stories to tell: Inclusive marking

I ran my eye along the desk.  It’s not a big or beautiful desk. The space for planning and mark making with paper, pens and pencils is now occupied by anonymous technology. This desk and space is part of the identity of being a teacher. It provides a degree of stability, security and structure to a teacher’s day. Perhaps even a psychological safe place. I know who and what I am in this space. It’s where I generally live as a teacher when not in the classroom. It’s a shared space, a social space, a dialogic space. A space for conversations, co-existing, collaboration, thinking and reflection. The Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus is said to once demand of a friend whose house had burnt to the ground, “If you really understand what governs the universe, how can you yearn for bits of stone and pretty rock?” I appreciate that the scale and magnitude isn’t comparable but sometimes after the classroom my desk space speaks of serenity, a restorative space just to be. Continue reading

MARKING – Walking with students

I think in riffs, playing with ideas, events, moments, turning them round and round, connecting and dis-connecting until I’m ready to write. Right about now I’m ignoring an almost ‘Garden size – Jenga’ stack of multi-coloured folders, accompanied by pages of empty boxes desperately seeking numbers.

There’s no two ways about it, marking student writing is work!

A word about marking: I love reading student writing. To my mind, marking is part of a much larger landscape of pedagogical practice and as I’m writing this, I’m beginning to understand why I’m procrastinating. I’m feeling disconnected, un-coupled from learning conversations, from the students and from my soul and being as a teacher. It’s visceral, as captured by R.S. Thomas in his poem ‘Here’

“I have nowhere to go.

The swift satellites show

The clock of my whole being is slow…”

I need to walk! Walking is part of who I am; paradoxically it both empties and fills my thinking, pushing me on a little further, higher. I’m taken back to a poem by R. Graves; “There was this road, and it led up-hill, and it led down-hill. And round and in and out…Resolutely nowhere in both directions…The doubt unchained them; they had run in twenty puddles before I regained them…” He was of course talking about legs, the poem title.

At various times I’ve turned to my bookshelf, my notebooks now awash with scratchy quotes, names, page numbers, but nothing leapt out from the pages to hug me. I recall Festinger’s description of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and it helps me understand my current feelings of disconnection and loss. Whilst engaged in the monologue activity that is marking, in ‘non-splendid isolation’ I feel the loss of the dynamic shared space where meanings, understandings and contexts may be interrupted, perhaps transformed. My individual accountability to the student feels diminished compared to the ‘machinery’ of assessment. Heidegger describes leaping ahead, taking over, dominating; and this is how it feels.

Crikey, where do I go from here?

Bruner says ‘…for there to be a story, something unforeseen has to happen…new possibilities…’ My new possibility was Lauren, an abstract artist, exhibiting her paintings and floor (more about this a little later) at the Dean Clough Galleries: Summer Exhibitions.  I admit to having an infinitesimal knowledge of art and painting and felt a lot like Jess in ‘The Icarus Girl’ when she explains why she was scared “…once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it…they’ll be jumping around your mind…holding it up to the light…” Well, I needn’t have worried, Lauren walked and talked with me, she spoke of her system; often not knowing what’s going to happen when she starts painting at the edges of her canvas. Of how her first paintings were lines and circles interrupting space, but now she paints rectangles, sometimes quickly, very quickly it seems, and sometimes with a slower pace. She tells me that you can see ‘pace’ in a painting, and demonstrated her slower pace in one painting. And, I did see it! There’s a painting which doesn’t feel like hers and one that covers others she’s dissatisfied with. Her paintings have no labels or ‘For Sale – prices’, and she told me of her difficulties finding a way of labelling them, as titles confer meanings, they have connotations, which also bring dis-connotations. I understand, as I’m struggling to unearth what it is about our conversation that has become a memory for what is good and positive about life.

Virginia Woolf to the rescue, “…happily my thoughts were now given another turn…”

In the ‘twinkling of an eye’ I get it; the authentic self. Lauren’s conversation comes from ‘who she is…an artist.’ My procrastination, my cognitive dissonance is due to my loss of authenticity, the loss of who I am as  a teacher. I dream of talking with students about their writing, just as Lauren talked with me about her painting. I need to break out of the isolated, solitary marking monologue and walk with the students, just as Lauren walked with me.

What brought about my loss of authenticity was an assessment architecture which clashed with my pedagogical practice. Ah! I get it now! I see why Lauren created an artwork covering the floor of her exhibition room. She ‘hated the blue lino,’ but it was more than this, it’s about her authenticity as an artist, and as one visitor said ‘she’s pulled off a blinder!’

What have I learnt? That marking is and should be relational! Are we ready to have the conversation with students to make it possible?

To see more of Lauren’s art: http://laureniredale.com

Virginia Woolf’s: A Room of One’s Own