Over the course of my career as a middle school ELA teacher, I’ve graded more writing pieces than I can count. I’ve graded late into the night, on plane trips and car rides, while watching volleyball practices, and on my lunch breaks. If you’re a teacher, you’ve been there. You relate.


I’ve always been a meticulous grader, too. Especially during my first few years of teaching, I would try to catch every misspelling, capital, and comma splice. It was important for me to show my students that I was checking their work carefully. I didn’t want them thinking it was okay for them to be sloppy or rushed. I was going to be a paragon of effort and detail.


After a few years, though, I found myself on the brink of burnout. I was frustrated—at myself, for not being more “present” with my family because of my grade-a-holism, but more dangerously, at my students for not caring about the (ridiculous) amount of work I had put into grading their papers.


Why, I wondered, did they make the same mistakes over and over? I was correcting the same errors for the same students. I was repeating the same written feedback on my carefully-constructed rubrics. And they were not getting it!


It’s not unusual that grading writing is difficult and time-consuming. As ELA teachers, we tackle what is arguably the most complicated set of skills we present to young learners. The article “Assigning More Writing—With Less Grading” by Matthew M. Johnson states that “strong writing requires a mastery of 28, 34, or 47 distinct skills. The fact that researchers can’t even agree on how many traits go into writing illustrates just how complicated it is. That makes the teaching of writing really complicated—writing teachers need to understand this complex skill and find a way to pass it on to 140 or more students, each with his or her own blend of prior knowledge, writing ability, and motivation.” Eek. What a task!


I thought this was doable, and my egotistical belief meant countless hours of non-instructional time was spent on Google Docs or slashing up papers.


My come-to-Jesus moment happened when I dusted off Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. Old book, brilliant educator, timeless principles.


As I devoured the book (I had read it as a new teacher but had forgotten its brilliance), I was reminded of the power of the conference. Every moment sitting next to a student to discuss their writing was worth more than a hundred strokes of the correcting pen. Having a private, thoughtful, concise discussion with a student was a far better use of my time…and my student’s! A page of corrections is all fine and dandy but join these sentences or this is vague doesn’t always point a learner in the right direction for what they need to do for next time.


Once I chose to carve out space and time to conference, my teaching changed profoundly. I felt freer, more effective, and less enslaved to my desk. I don’t think it was a coincidence that my students’ growth as readers and writers started to skyrocket too. For many of you, this sounds so basic, I’m sure. I had been told this. I just hadn’t taken my precious class time to do it.


Many years later, I am of the opinion that a one-on-one conference is where the most powerful pedagogy takes place. Having a great conversation with a student about their next steps as a learner is the most valuable way a writing teacher could spend a class period.


Check out the download below to see all of my tips and tricks for effective conferencing and summative assessment!


I hope you find them as useful and enlightening as I did. 




Carmel McDonald has taught middle school ELA in both British Columbia and Michigan, and has learned that tweens are tween-ish everywhere. She digs that. In 2019, Carmel was named Jackson Magazine’s Teacher of the Year. Carmel has nineteen adventurous years behind her as an educator, and is enjoying year twenty.