Friday, April 18, 2014 · 4:04 a.m.
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On the way back from Thanksgiving in New Jersey, Charlie takes in the view at the Vietnam War Memorial in Cumberland, Md. (Photo: Maggie Behringer)

A week after our national eat-off, I am faced with a daunting task for which I am most certainly not grateful: grading finals.

During the semester, students in each English 101 section write four major papers. Instructors critique the papers not with letter grades but with feedback on what was successful and what needed attention.

Next Monday, my students will turn in their final portfolios—the culmination of their writing for the entire semester, which for the vast majority of them has been their first college writing.

The plan in place after they submit the folders, complete with 30 pages of material, is for me to read them and assign the work a letter grade. The portfolio accounts for 70 percent of their course grade.

As my anxiety level begins edging up past a six (out of 10) already, the series of events is likely to unfold with hair pulling, reading and rereading passages, and prolonged bouts of rolling on the floor.

I want all of my students to receive an A; and I can imagine the scenarios I will dream up about how a low grade could negatively impact their transcripts, GPAs, graduation schedule, confidence in their writing and/or LIVES FOREVER.

Perhaps the last potential implication of a poor grade in my singular class is slightly exaggerated.

Thankfully, WVU has a forgiving repeat policy: Students are allowed to retake courses in which they earned less than a C average; and the second grade completely replaces the first, both on a student’s transcript and in his or her GPA.

One second-year teacher—a veteran in grading—also offered a simplified approach. She awards A's to students who incorporated revisions beyond her suggestions, those students who seriously engaged in the writing process and whose work grew because of that involvement.

B's are for students who followed her advice and accomplished strong papers, but did not take the risks or time to discover possibilities beyond her feedback.

C's go to students who simply resubmitted their first drafts sans changes. Those portfolios may meet the requirements in terms of items, page length and presentation but lack the fundamental connection between better writing and revision.

D's and F's are for those who failed to meet the basic checklist of unit papers, informal writing and reflective memos, as well as disregard for individual paper’s assignment guidelines.

So it seems I have on the one hand the boom and gloom of possibly doing a student a disservice and, on the other, a possibly fail-proof approach to surviving this first round of finals.

Anticipating the intense hours I’ll spend reading over my students' work, I am genuinely and acutely aware of the power I hold as someone who will place a mark on their transcripts.

And it’s scary.

I have taught them for a full semester. They have listened to me or at least started at me for 50 minutes, three times a week. They have shared deeply personal stories with me. The majority of them have done what I asked them to do.

And yet, I do not want to gloss over mistakes, cripple them as writers and students with inaccurate praise and pass them along to someone else.

I don’t as of yet have a crystal-clear sense of that balance. I hope to have one by next Monday.

In the meantime, there are five concepts with which I am trying to make peace:

—Some students are perfectly happy with a C.

—Some students will never take another English class beyond this and its sister 102 course.

—Most students did not read the thoughtful and funny comments I carefully labored over when reading their first drafts.

—Most students will not make significant revisions for their final portfolios.

—A few students will surprise me and make up for the rest.

Because Charlie Barley Behringer could not simply disappear from Nooga.com, Mountain to Mountain will follow her and her mother's adventures, dispatch-style, in Morgantown as they tackle graduate school, first-year teaching and living in West by-God Virginia. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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