The dangers of multi-tasking

Earlier today I was correcting a pile of essays written by a group of young learners. Essays isn't actually the appropriate word - it was more of a project piece of work in which the students were encouraged to use coloured pens, highlighters, stickers, pictures, 3-D embellishments etc. When teaching writing, I always allow my students to start with very short stretches of text and lots of visuals, and as they become older and more proficient in English, I require more words and fewer images. 

The theme of the assignment I was correcting was My Family. The purpose of the writing task was to get the students to use new vocabulary and grammar items they had encountered in the previous lessons centred around the given topic. Family is always a sensitive subject; I never know how the kids feel during the personalization stage, when they are asked to talk about their own families, using words such as divorced, single-parent, step-mother, old people's home, and so on. So I tread very carefully when setting a group discussion or when eliciting questions from the class. I'm always surprised how open the kids are and I feel truly relieved when I hear that they love their step-sisters or that their parents got divorced yet they're good friends and everything's fine.

I had lots of fun when correcting the projects. This is a great group and they're really good at English, and amazingly creative. So apart from real people, their family members were ghosts, animals, even coconuts. I should stress that I always allow my students to write about imaginary, invented characters if they want to. This evokes their imagination and boosts their creativity and also allows for more variety in vocabulary. More importantly, it enables them to circumvent matters they don't wish to talk about openly. This time, however, most of them chose to describe their own family members and came with really honest and detailed descriptions. Judging by their enthusiasm and the creative spirit radiating from every word, I would say that the kids find writing enjoyable. 

Obviously, apart from enjoying the content and adding smiley faces all around the project, I feel obliged to provide some sort of formal feedback too. In other words, I also need to concentrate on accuracy. Although it was generally a nice read, I must admit that gradually it got somewhat monotonous for me to plough through the endless lists of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, their dates of birth and names of pets they own. Thus, in a rather robotic manner, using a pencil or an inconspicuously coloured pen, I added articles, changed the word order, corrected spelling and underlined inappropriate vocabulary items. 

It amazes me that how automatic I sometimes become. Although I do have fun when reading my students' written production, I think that on a very subconscious level, I still perceive the text as a piece of assignment which needs to be corrected and marked. With a simple piece of writing like this you don't really need to pay too much attention. And after so many years of experience, I'm really good at multi-tasking; I can talk to my colleague, drink coffee and think about lots of other things, not just about the assignments I'm grading. 

You can imagine how tricky this approach can get with such a personal topic. To put it simply, the consequence of my multi-tasking is that my pencil is sometimes quicker than my compassion. So while reading this bit My parents were got divorced when I was a baby. My mother died two years before ago. Now I'm live with my father, my step-mother and my two step-sisters I automatically correct the errors and a second later it strikes me how insensitive I can be. In other words, the realization of the seriousness of the message comes a second after the realization of the incorrectness of the sentence. 

At such a moment I always ponder my role as a teacher. I wonder what I should do in a situation like this. It would be odd to leave the bit uncorrected while I correct the other parts normally. This is the language this particular student will probably need and use a lot in the future because it describes her life - it's the reality she may want to communicate to people around her. I may well avoid dealing with these sensitive matters in class completely but again - this would ultimately mean avoiding topics some students consider important. Why demonize something the student doesn't see that way at all? 

PS.: What I did was that I finally corrected the wrong grammar but I also added a comment: I'm sorry :-( to show sympathy; to show that apart from noticing the errors, I received the message. I felt her honesty simply deserved some genuine reaction...