Grading a Short Story

Round three has just ended. On Monday my Creative Writing students turned in their third short story. You would think that by this time I would not be daunted by a pile of student writing.

Wrong. I approach that pile with great reluctance.

Writing critiques is not hard for me. If I have any gift as a literary critic, it is to see the potential in any story. I’m not a negative person; I see a glass half empty and order another pitcher. Drinks all around.

Critiquing a story is not the same as grading a story. The comments I write on students’ papers are kind. I point out problems, but I am always encouraging. I see what the story could be, and offer some guidance.

But comments are not what students look at; they scan the paper for the only thing that really matters: the grade.  The story that earns an A will not be revised in any way — what would be the point? There is no higher grade than an A. Even a B will satisfy most students.

The story that earns a D will be crumbled up and tossed in the trash. The idea may be good, but unrealized, mainly summary without a resolution. It may even be a more interesting idea than the story that got a B. It doesn’t matter. A D is a D. That’s all they see.

The only story that might get revised is the one that gets a C. I give a lot of those.

Even the neediest story on Scribophile is in a different universe from most of the stories in my grading folder. I have several hypotheses for this alternate universe theory:

1) Creative Writing is an elective course. In school, everything revolves around testing. If there’s no state exam, it’s not important. Students who show up with a pulse are expected to pass. If I fail too many students, many of those F’s will mysteriously morph into D’s.

2) Though there are always a few budding novelists and poets in the class, there are also quite a few who don’t read. Ever. They CAN read; they just see no reason to. Thus, their entire story-telling experience has been visual, via television and movies. No, they don’t watch Masterpiece Theater or download bootleg copies of Pride and Prejudice. They are steeped in slap-stick, cliche and stereotypes. And bad writing.

3) No one has asked them to write stories before. Essays, yes. The educational system does not value narrative as much as it does information, persuasion, and analysis. My students approach telling a story as if they were writing a text message, but with more words.

4) No one has asked them to write a thousand words before. Five paragraphs (about 400 words) is the most they have written in one go, and some have never done even that. My minimum word count for a passing grade is one thousand, which in a size 12 font is about three and a half pages, double-spaced. Completely unreasonable, I know.

Writing sentences (let alone paragraphs) is becoming a lost art.

After teaching ninth-graders for so many years I ought to be used to bad writing. I am, but it still hurts. Though I can stomach cliches and bad grammar, I still gnash my teeth at scenarios like this:

A woman who is a real cougar and her teenage boyfriend go shopping for a birthday present for the woman’s daughter. Having no money, they decide to rob a bank. Because they are afraid that they will not be successful, they pause for a moment of prayer before they don their ski-masks and enter the bank. And they are successful! But because the author is nearing eight hundred words, we cut right to the birthday party, which is short. The daughter liked the gift, though.

How do I grade this mess? In the past I’ve used rubrics, but lately I’ve found a checklist more useful. If a student turns in a story (= characters + conflict), they get 50%. If they write at least a thousand words, they get 60%, the lowest passing grade. Additional questions draw further lines: characterization, dialogue, point of view. There is less gray area when I’m answering yes-no questions. I’m probably deluding myself, but it feels more objective. (If you want to see my checklist, just ask.)

You may judge me harshly; that is your prerogative. I deal with what I’ve been dealt. My kids exist in an alternate universe of poverty and low expectations. I fashion a role for myself, offering a tiny, keyhole vision of another universe. Maybe a few of these kids will one day have a real story to tell. That’s all I’m looking for.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. April French
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 12:15:43

    The educational system does not value narrative as much as it does information, persuasion, and analysis. My students approach telling a story as if they were writing a text message, but with more words.

    This is intensely true. I have to point it out, though, because in my job, when I write quarterly reports for the Higher Ups, one of the things I am required to do is to make the statistics and pointless b.s. tell a story. Granted, it’s skewed more towards strict cause-and-effect, but it still has to be an interesting narrative, just to make sure that someone will read it.

    And I would be interested in seeing that checklist, actually.


  2. Trackback: Grading a Short Story: A Checklist « edaxicon
  3. Ray "Grizzly" Racobs
    Jan 18, 2011 @ 17:54:19

    I’d like very much to see the checklist you use to grade student’s essay,prose and/or story. I am the youth contest chair for my writing club and have a critique form, but it’s become a labor for me and most of the judges I select to rank youth entries in our yearly writing contest.
    Thanks, so much
    Ray “Grizzly” Racobs


    • escher dax
      Jan 20, 2011 @ 21:46:43

      Here is the link to the checklist. I hope this helps! It is a very detailed list; normally I select a few areas to concentrate rather than trying to hit every item. Good luck!


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