Why I Secretly Like Writing Report Card Comments, or, Why I Don’t Use AI to Write My Report Card Comments

I am wordy. There’s not denying it. I am rarely at a loss for words, words flow from me, words are my artistic medium. This is what I usually tell people when I admit to them that I like writing report card comments.

To be fair, writing 75-85 short paragraphs isn’t easy, and it can feel like Groundhog Day to keep churning out a repeated comment structure that has some repetitiveness to it. Despite all this, I do like writing them.

First, report card comments have a real audience. We talk all the time about giving students authentic audiences for their work, and any of us who have had our students share their writing with families, a writing competition, or the community, you can attest that the writing is better when real eyeballs other than yours are on it. I’d argue the writing is better because the students engage with it more. They care.

Thus it is for me. I care when I write these comments. I know that as a parent, I read my own kids’ comments very closely, often two or three times. I can assume that my students’ parents are also reading them like this.

Of course, some may be thinking that not every parent is reading the comments that closely, if at all. But the chance that even a handful of parents read them makes them meaningful. I also don’t have any reason not to believe that parents who don’t read the comments are the exception, not the rule. At the lunch table yesterday, more than one teacher told the story of a parent quoting their report card comment back to the teacher in a conference.

I also don’t often get the opportunity to talk about a kid like this, in a written form, without interruption. Most times when we talk about kids, it’s a conversation, or perhaps an email, with interruptions and back and forths. But report card comments are my chance to boil down my thoughts and impressions of a kid and their work into an uninterrupted little nugget of text. There’s room for me to think, write, re-read, and revise. I would liken report card comments to a thank you card or a note delivered to someone on a special occasion. Those are meaningful notes, and they usually contain the kinds of things that don’t get said on a daily basis.

My comment writing process is my own, and I know every teacher has one. My husband, David, writes the rough and the final draft all in one go. He doesn’t stand up from the computer until the kid’s comment is done, perfect and ready to be turned in. I, on the other hand, write a messy first draft in a tornado of key strokes. I sit down and compose wildly, without re-reading. Of course, I have a rough structure that I use for each comment, so it’s not a total chaotic mess. I also write with correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in the first draft. Typos will inevitably slip in, but it’s not an untamed mess.

Then, I let the comments go cold, which is writer speak for I don’t look at them for a day or two. Then, I re-read. I can usually spot any problems right away. If I can, I take another break from them and then return to paste them into our online gradebook system. That’s my last chance to read each one over and make sure the tone is right and no mistakes lingered.

I often take things away in the final re-read and paste. I usually have a line with a bit too much emotion that doesn’t belong. I let myself keep it in the early drafts as a little gift to myself. I can usually tell on that third re-read if the wording is off or I’m straying from the objective and constructive. To err is human.

Just yesterday I submitted final report card comments for 72 students, totally 7,943 words. And I wrote every single one of those words. I did not use predictive text, AI, chatbots, or Grammarly. I didn’t even use a comment bank. I wrote and revised each of those 7,943 words with no more than spellcheck.

This year, I had to refer 6 students to our administration for academic dishonesty, specifically for using AI to write part or all of an assignments for them. The consequences were wide-ranging based on how many times the student has plagiarized in the past, but some of the consequences were severe and had a real impact on their educational trajectory.

To me, my statement about my own comment writing and the students I have caught using AI are of a piece. It’s been a rough year for cheating and academic dishonesty. I’ve spent hours documenting and investigating what a student did, using Chrome attachments that can play a document history like a movie, AI checkers, TurnItIn reports, and good old fashioned “this doesn’t sound like a 17 year old wrote it.” I’ve sat down for conversations where I had to ask a student to explain very sophisticated vocabulary or a reference that I’ve never seen a high school student use.

It’s been demoralizing. It undermines not only the educational goals of the classes I teach, but it also touches on some core beliefs I have as a person about the power of writing, of voice, of expression.

So how could I ask a robot to write a comment about a kid I spent the last 10 months with? How could a Large Language Model understand the challenges a kid faced as a second language learner, or the anxiety a junior felt in an individual oral exam, or the way a freshmen dug deep into an academic journal article about Plato’s Symposium? What does a bot know of joy, triumph, frustration, or tears?

I can hear Taylor Mali telling me what teachers “make” in my head right now, “I can make a C+ feel like a congressional medal of honor and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face.” Has Gemini or QuillBot ever spent an afternoon extra help session helping a kid identify personification, symbols, metaphors? Sure, it can scrape the internet for other writers’ ideas about poetic devices, but has it sat and read Juliet’s soliloquy before her suicide, in a room full of teenagers, and sifted through the iambic pentameter to find how odd and thrilling it is to contemplate her use of the word “rust” as she uses an apostrophe to speak to the dagger she will plunge into her chest: “there rust and let me die”? Has ChatGPT listened as your teacher tells you that until the 20th century there was a censoring of that word rust. The Victorians found it too graphic for a lady, so they changed it to “rest” and that revision of Shakespeare lasted until the 1960’s, when scholars decided to restore the original word, discomfort and grotesque imagery and all. And how when this teacher went home from college after the Shakespeare course she took, she found her mother’s old college copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare on the shelf, fanned through the collected works to find Juliet in Act 5, and there, would you believe it, is Juliet telling the dagger to calmly “rest” in her chest. And isn’t that just a moment to pause and think about the power of the original words. The power of the choice that Shakespeare made, even if it’s odd or perplexing (does she imagine her hot blood will rust the dagger, or that the dagger will stay in her chest for eternity?), but that is what Shakespeare intended. And Shakespeare, like all of us, was just a human being–a talented human being, but a quirky, imperfect one even still.

I know that AI is alluring. Even just to plug in your first draft, as I had students do this year, into a bot that can correct your grammar, smooth out your word choice, and amp up your sentence construction. No more agonizing over where to put the period, or if (gasp!) perhaps a semi-colon is needed, if you can manage to remember the rules for using a semicolon. Writing is hard. And the world is judging your writing. You just want it to look and sound good. Short cuts can sound appealing when the work is hard and the pressure is on.

Let’s put it another way. Would I want my child’s teacher to use AI to write my child’s comments? Would I want to read that? The simple answer is no. Ezra Klein, the writer and host of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, has described it as a lack of friction. When he writes to a friend, a real human, there’s friction. He wants the person he is writing to to like him. To think he’s witty, or funny, or interesting. He is invested in what that person thinks of him. He’s tried to create bots that he can converse with and he said he usually ends up dropping the conversation because there’s no friction. There’s no person on the other end to be invested in. (Listen to a brilliant conversation about this here.) If my children’s comments were written by a bot, would I want to read them? What is real there? What is it actually telling me about my child? Something generic that could be said about any 4th or 6th grader? I know what the generic child of that age is like. I want to know what it’s been like to teach my child.

Or, perhaps, consider if your current employer wrote a letter of reference for you using AI. Would you want that letter? When this question has been posed to me and other teachers, the answer is a pretty quick no. I wonder what answer I would get if I asked a student who plagiarized using ChatGPT that same question. Would you be okay if I wrote your college recommendation letter using a bot? I’m not sure what their answer would be, and I’m afraid to ask. Perhaps all they care about is getting admitted, because they’ve been trained to place their entire sense of self worth in their college acceptances. Maybe the scenario I offer is a speech at their wedding in some imagined future. Would you be okay if your best friend got up to give a toast about you and they hadn’t written it themselves?

What am I doing here? If I used AI to do my writing, what is this job I’ve devoted my life to? If it isn’t about working with kids and teaching them to express themselves, what’s the point? I didn’t become a teacher to teach kids to sit in a room and prompt a Large Language Model to give them work that will be grammatically and technically perfect, but devoid of any real thought or experience.

But the time! The time! It saves so much time! You know what would also save me time writing comments? Not being a teacher. I would have 100% of my comment writing time back. I would have zero minutes of teaching another human to use a comma after starting a sentence with a subordinating conjunction. I would spend no time of my day explaining how sentence variety is like different parts of the song that keep your piece from feeling repetitive and mind-numbing. I could leave teaching! I have colleagues who are choosing to change careers.

There’s another angle that is maybe too far, but maybe just right. I don’t think I need to collaborate with the bots in my own obsolescence. By that, I mean that I don’t need to embrace technology that some are already arguing will eventually replace me. Remember when American jobs were getting “outsourced” and “off-shored” to low-paid workers in other countries, and they made the people getting fired train their replacements? That’s depressing. Do I have to go along with it, just because it’s here? Do I really need to “get with it” and “be cool” and embrace it? Kids are vaping a lot too, should we just give them a room where they can do it so they don’t hide in the bathrooms? Okay, maybe that’s a false equivalency.

Why am I here if kids are just going to have AI barf up some amalgamation of an Internet’s worth of words by real people, both paid and unpaid, who struggled through the writing process? Am I training highway robbers or thinkers? Am I training lip-syncers or composers? I have no interest in training copy-pasters. If there’s one thing that makes me seriously think about leaving the field, it’s AI. And I say that with a pang of absolute despair in my chest. Absolute despair. I love this job. I’ve worked so hard for the last 17 years of teaching and 2 years of graduate school before that to be good at this job.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but for now, I will be writing my own comments. What is more worthy of my time and effort, than to write a little note for parents about the child they love, that is aging and growing away from them with every passing day? What is more worthy of my time and effort, than leaving students with a final thought, a word of encouragement, a declaration of admiration and respect for the 180 days they have just spent with me?

Happy comment writing, y’all.

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