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Complete Sentences, Please

I admire the efficiencies of some of my colleagues. There’s a teacher down the hall who can get students in and out of groups of two, three, or four in near silence all under 20 seconds. Another coworker wishes students into uniform just by looking at them. I admire their ability to do things that don’t come as naturally to me that I often spend a lot of time planning or executing in the classroom.

Recently I was admiring a colleague’s ability to grade tests. I watched as she zipped through narrow slips of paper that contained student’s multiple choice responses, quickly counting up the correct answers and making note of the raw score. Then she flipped to the students’ short-answer responses and noted the raw score before grading their short responses.

She explained that over the years she’s tried to increase the speed with which she’s able to grade while decreasing the amount of paper she uses. It requires organization and planning to be that efficient with time and materials. “Multiple-choice scoring goes faster,” she told me. “The long part is the short responses.”

I flipped through some of the short-response booklets and looked at some of the student answers. “They’re doing much better this year,” she told me. “Same test, students are scoring much higher.” “Why?” I asked.

“I just wrote ‘answer in complete sentences’ after each question,” she replied. “Before, when they’d answer a question, they’d often just write down related vocabulary words. … I never knew if they were guessing, if they understood, what they didn’t understand. Now it’s pretty clear.”

My colleague added four words of instruction and got a whole new level of value to her assessment. “Now I have a much better idea of what they get,” she told me. “If they’re not getting it, I have a much better idea why. It forces them to think.”

I love the simple elegance of her request: Please write in complete sentences. She’s telling her students: Before you answer, think this through. The more I observe the little tips and tricks of my colleagues (and develop a toolkit of my own) the more master teaching becomes the summation of hundreds of tiny elegant requests working together.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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