Now, I still had to assess the papers somehow. They had taken the time to write them, and I needed to let them know how they did. And then it finally hit me. After six years of teaching...perhaps the best way to let a student know how they did, what they need to improve, and what they learned...is to talk to them. Perhaps "grading papers" shouldn't be the purpose at all, but simply giving feedback on the paper instead...and what better way to give someone feedback than by looking at them and talking. The essay is meant to be an academic exercise to challenge and test their writing ability, but once the task is complete, the feedback should be positive, helpful, and absorbed. Red marks on a paper, or comments on a Google Doc won't accomplish that. I need to actually talk with each students for a few minutes, let them know what I saw in their writing, and show them their pros and cons.
So that's what I'm doing. I read through the rest of the essays, writing only a short note at the end of each paper so I would remember which key points to bring up in our conversation. Starting Tuesday, I'm calling each student up one at a time, and walking them through my thought process as I read their work. Combined with the mastery grading in the 3D GameLab, this might just give students the chance to learn something from writing feedback, rather than just flipping to the back page, checking the grade, and pitching the paper. We'll see how it goes; I'm sure they'll have feedback for me as well.