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How Doug Stark Maintains Boundaries with a Large English Language Arts Teaching Load

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Several weeks ago, I wrote “Constraints Make Us Better.” In that post, I mentioned the following:

Down the hallway from me, my colleague Doug Stark (author of the Mechanics Instruction that Sticks books) has for years made a point to leave school by 3:30pm (at the latest) each day in order to pick his children up from school. Because he teaches about 100 students in his open-enrollment AP Lang courses, Doug does take papers home periodically, but this isn’t his norm. Despite — or perhaps because of? — these limitations, Doug’s student writing gains are some of the best I’ve ever seen. This isn’t because there is some magic in leaving at 3:30pm, but rather it’s because Doug Stark is relentlessly focused on making better student writers while also placing strict limits on the time he makes available for achieving those results.

Holly's Question

Shortly after, Doug received this email from longtime reader and friend Holly in Maryland:

Dear Doug,

I follow Dave Stuart and also teach MITS (thank you! I love it and more importantly, my students thank me frequently, esp[ecially] after taking the ACT/SAT.)

Anyway, Dave wrote in a recent post that you go home at 3:30pm and rarely take home papers, though you have 100 AP English students. I would love to be there, too, but how do you manage to give kids meaningful feedback on their written work? If I'm assigning enough writing, I simply can't grade it all… or at least I can't do more than literally slap a grade on it — no comments for sure.

I asked Dave about this and he said he's still struggling, but it sounds as if maybe you have found a solution?


How Doug Does It

Here was Doug's response, which I've published with his permission:

Dave might have exaggerated a bit. Here's what I do:

1. I spend a good amount of time during the summer preparing for the upcoming year. I do it in such a way that I'm not interfering with my family time (early mornings before the kids are up, when I have alone time). This saves me from having to work too much on curriculum during the school year.

2. I get to school pretty early in the morning (usually between 6:00 – 6:30) and treat those 60 to 90 minutes as prep time.

3. I spend the majority of my prep time grading papers. When I say “grading papers,” I truly mean “grading papers.” (My AP Language and Composition students write about 20 essays [4-5 paragraphs in length], along with about 30-40 one-paragraph compositions.) I don't waste any time grading homework assignments. All of that grading can take place during the class period.

Most of the one-paragraph compositions receive a quick homework grade. I desk check these assignments for completion at the start of the hour (usually while the students are reading a self-chosen book of literary merit). My AP students start the semester with a 100 point homework grade. Each homework assignment is worth 4 points. Their grade goes down from 100.

If we have a quiz, we peer grade it in class. The only papers I ever take home are longer essays. However, I try to grade as many of these essays as possible during the school day. I always return essays within a one-week time frame, so I generally have to grade about 15-20 per day. Generally speaking, this means I take some papers home over the weekend (maybe 20-30 on most weekends).

4. I don't volunteer for committees. In fact, you would have to threaten me with extreme physical violence to get me to do any type of school improvement work. I figure the best way for me to help my school improve is for me to worry about my classroom (not the classrooms of my colleagues).

5. Our last class ends at 2:32. My rule is that I stay no later than 3:30. After my sixth hour ends, I go through my end-of-the-day checklist and complete any tasks that I didn't have time to finish during the school day. If no students stop by for assistance, I leave when I'm ready. Sometimes this means I leave at 2:50; sometimes this means 3:30.

6. Basically, I say NO quite a bit (not to students, but to colleagues). My family comes first, my classroom second, building / district level issues and committee meetings come a distant 4357th (behind anything else that I can possibly find to do with my time).

I hope this helps,

Doug Stark

Thank you to Holly for the great question and to Doug for the classic response. May we all be wise enough to determine what tasks come in at 4357th on our to-do lists.

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3 Responses to How Doug Stark Maintains Boundaries with a Large English Language Arts Teaching Load

  1. Melissa December 27, 2016 at 8:11 pm #

    This is great, but it leaves me with two burning questions.
    A. Are you so well prepared for the year that you already know how many homework assignments you will have so that each is 4 points and adds up to 100? If so, I am even more impressed. (And I was impressed before I got to that point!)
    B. What is your end of the day checklist? I’m just curious.

    And finally, it’s nice to read that you say NO a lot. For most of my life, I’ve been a YES person, and I’ve been working very hard at saying NO – it got much easier after having children.

    • davestuartjr January 7, 2017 at 7:51 pm #

      Hi Melissa,
      Doug also says “No” to being online all that much, so I’ll hazard a guess at an answer to A and ask him the next time I see him to share his checklist. I don’t think all of his assignments add up to 100 — he just uses that as a number to subtract from. But still, he’s impressive 🙂

  2. semslibrarylady December 31, 2016 at 3:02 pm #

    Dave, have you read Deep Work by Cal Newport yet? There’s an anecdote about Richard Feynman that sounds very much like what your colleague Doug does. I think you’d enjoy the book (unless you’re already read and blogged about it and I missed it!) I am anti-committee as well, unless you can show me a committee that is getting things done!



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