Throwing Away Student Work

It's summertime, and I've gathered together a couple binders full of papers that I've accumulated over my first three years of teaching (a year of student teaching and two years of paid teaching). That includes a fair amount of student work: Although I generally pass students' work back to them, at times I've ended up keeping various assignments.

my binders—not that bad for
three years' teaching, right?
I'm a person who loves collecting information, so there's part of me that wants to hold on to old student essays and projects. If I'm a historian, after all, why shouldn't I keep some source material from my classroom?

Well, I think I do a fine job of preserving my teaching history in other ways: I have all my lesson plans, daily notes, assignments, and even pictures of information from the white board all stored on my computer and external hard drive. Plus, I don't delete emails either, and a fair amount of students' work for me now has been done through emails and Google documents. If I want to know what I was doing at school on most any day in the last three years, I can probably find the answer at my fingertips.

What's more, I think it's worthwhile to consider what the real value of any given school assignment is. How many students have thoughts like "I really wish I'd saved that poster," or "I wish my teacher had returned that paper so I could read it now"? There might be a few—I saved high school papers for a few years myself—but most students throw away school work very quickly. In fact, I don't expect most students remember more than a few individual assignments from their whole school careers, especially after a few years. I know I've forgotten most all of those details.

What's useful about school assignments, then, if they'll just be thrown away and forgotten? Perhaps it's most useful to consider a variation on the old truism that it's the journey that matters, not the destination:

It's the process that matters, not the final product.

It doesn't really matter that I hold on to student essays or that students keep and treasure old projects or anything like that. What matters to students' education are not assignments themselves, but the processes of thinking and creating that the students have to go through.

I may not remember any reading responses I did in my English classes, or essays in my history classes, or problems in my math classes, but those activities helped me process ideas and practice skills that stay with me to this day. Even if a student throws away every paper I ever give them, I can bet that in a year of class with me they've been exposed to many new concepts and given opportunities to enhance many different skills. Even if they walk out of school carrying nothing, I can bet their brain has taken away a lot.

I expect I'll throw away most of the papers in my binders, and all that "evidence" of student work will be gone. Still, I can trust the lessons I've taught and the time I've spent with students has all made a lasting impact.

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