Returning to the blog to write, as Hemingway recommended, “one true sentence”:
This fall, I am not writing any college recommendations, and I am so glad.
It’s not that I suddenly feel I have loads of free time, of course. But I do remember that at about this time last year, I was spending at least one day every weekend writing college recs–and a significant number of prep periods, lunches and after-school hours. And this year I’m not.
It’s because I didn’t teach juniors last year. I’m not teaching juniors this year, either; for the second year in a row, I have 10th and 12th grade. So next year’s seniors will be students I had as sophomores, and a few of them might ask me to write for them if I also have them as seniors–but it won’t be an onerous number.
Juniors are very rewarding to teach, and I like the AP Lang class–in many ways I think it’s the class I’ve taught best at SA–but it’s also very nice not to be spending October weekends writing letters. (The last two years, the additional hours of sitting really did seem to contribute to flare-ups of the hip problem, as well.)
This is what you should have done a year ago, but you can do it now for next year!
If you knew at the beginning of the junior year which students would be asking you for letters at the beginning of the senior year, you could do this even more effectively, but what it boils down to is: SAVE THE EVIDENCE.
- Write your report card comments in a Word document, if you don’t already, and save the Word document.
- Give at least some feedback electronically and save that, too. The last couple of times I’ve taught the junior AP English Language course, I used a long, complex rubric for the summer reading essay and typed my comments into a comment section at the end. Last year, I also gave typed feedback on a mid-year essay draft. These comments are useful for tracking progress, as well (and for noticing whether a student is actually working on the areas you’ve suggested).
- Have them turn in at least some work electronically so that you can look at it later. I had students email me the final paper of the year, so this fall I could actually look at their final paper while writing their comments. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have remembered most students’ final papers.
- Have them run at least some discussions (I have some Shared Inquiry fans in my department) while you sit back and take notes. You can take notes on the discussion itself, but you can also make notes about how people function in discussion. I have sometimes been surprised by how a student who isn’t perhaps that perceptive on her own can nonetheless facilitate a productive discussion by asking good questions or by successfully inviting other people in. Save these notes.
- Portfolios are good too, but ideally you want the students to keep those. You could certainly tell your juniors that if they ask you for a recommendation, you’re going to require them to bring back the portfolio they assembled with you.
- Save it all in whatever form is easiest for you.
- When you start writing the rec, cut and paste useful chunks of text into the rec letter. This year, I dumped several chunks into each person’s document before starting to write–a report card comment, a paper comment, and a few stray impressions. The Common Application teacher form asks for words that come to mind when you think of the student. I toss those in, too. I wrote about 90% of the words in each rec this fall, but I got the major themes of each recommendation and a number of useful phrases from the paper comments, report card comments, and discussion notes.
- Our school requires students to fill out the Teacher Snapshot form on Naviance, but if you don’t use Naviance, you can make your own form and have students fill it out. The Snapshot asks for memorable papers or projects, favorite parts of the course, related activities outside of class (for example, an English teacher might not know that a student volunteers at the library or keeps a blog), future plans related to the subject, and any areas the student hopes the teacher will highlight in the recommendation. You only get out of this what the student puts into it, but if the student does a good job, you have more to say.
Unfortunately, I can’t use any of my own advice this year, because I’m not teaching juniors (since the Snork Maiden is a junior) and next year I will have either no letters to write, or one or two letters for students who for some reason can’t ask anyone else. (This year, for example, I have one for a new senior.) However, I have just finished my first fourteen letters and I feel the need to share this knowledge with you.
I have two left, but those students have mid-November deadlines and I can take another week or two to write for them.