Tag Archives: English

Robo Grader Review: ProWritingAid Google Add-on

23 Mar

4:59A computer can give more effective and timely feedback than I can…sometimes. The potential of “robo grading” excites me. In the case of redundancies, clichés, passive voice, sentence variety, and other writing concepts, a focused report generated by an algorithm can do more than I can. I have used Writer’s Workbench in the past, my colleagues have used ETS Criterion, and I want to try White Smoke. Of course, a free option via Google Add-ons has enormous appeal.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wanted to let my students experiment with ProWritingAid, one of the new Add-ons offered in Google Drive. This week students submitted novel analysis essays on The Catcher in the Rye, so I imagined online editing reports could get them started on revision while I mark the essays.

Unfortunately, my students and I are underwhelmed. Now, we need to give ProWritingAid a better chance. These opinions are based on just one test of about 30 minutes. We will try it again very soon, but based on this week’s toe-in-the-water trial the feedback was too clunky and abstract to be of much use:

Our feedback on ProWritingAid’s feedback:

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Battle of the Gods: Introduction to Mythology Lesson

9 Feb

Deus-RaFor the past few weeks, my grade 6 students and I have been sailing the Nile in a felucca, learning about powerful Egyptian pharaohs by exploring monuments of the ancient world. I cannot take credit for these excellent lessons, though. They come from the History Alive! curriculum we have adopted this year, and I am over-the-moon impressed with these engaging resources.

I teach the same students in humanities and English, so I wanted to develop lessons on Egyptian mythology that connected to our humanities work. I came up with a simple idea that worked out beautifully.

The students spent a portion of two class periods researching a couple Egyptian gods, filled out a “playing card” for each god to synthesize their learning, and then mercilessly tried to destroy their classmates with their newfound knowledge, reducing their peers to whimpering sycophants in awe of an obviously superior, juicy brain.

O.K. I may be getting a tad melodramatic there.

But, the lesson proved to be very entertaining and effective, while putting the majority of the heavy mental lifting on the students. Also, I can easily adapt this lesson for Greek and Roman mythology, which we will begin in another week or so.

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No Dead Fish: Teaching Students to Write Effective Introductions

12 Jan

Dead Fish Handshakes are a huge pet peeve of mine. You offer your hand in greeting and the other person returns a grip that is downright soggy, their hand flopping in yours like a lifeless cod. It’s not a huge offense in the grand scheme of things, but it also seems like such an easy thing to avoid. Just get a grip, people. Of course, pedestrian, soulless introductory paragraphs are much more difficult to avoid. Teachers of writing will instantly recognize these “dead fish” beginnings. We are all too familiar with them. I have, however, had considerable success using the following strategy to help students write more lively, effective introductory paragraphs.

I use a fairly common symbol to articulate the role of an introductory paragraph. This handout is probably something you have seen before, an inverted triangle (or funnel) that reminds students to begin broadly with a HOOK, narrow the focus of the essay with a few sentences that act as a BRIDGE, and then end the paragraph with a clear THESIS. Of course, this is not the only way to write an effective introduction, but it is an excellent model for most situations, especially for young writers.

(Yes, old writers can benefit from it too. You are a clever little monkey and have figured out that the introductory paragraph to this post follows the same format. Well done.)

I find that the portion of this model that flummoxes students the most is the BRIDGE. Beginning writers often need considerable practice to smoothly transition from one idea to the next. I try, then, to give my students more chances to work out this middle part.

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Recap: 2013

2 Jan

2013 sparklersLooking back at my blogging for 2013 I wish, as always, I had been able to write more. I try to publish one post per week, but I can’t always make that happen. Of course, that minor shortcoming isn’t so important. Far more significant is the act of carving time out each day (well…almost every day) to reflect on my teaching, scribble some words on a page, and share something with my readers. Overall, I am very proud of these posts. “Putting my stuff out there” is always an energizing act, especially when I receive feedback, so special thanks to those who took the time to respond to this work, either on the blog or in person. I hope you found at least one these posts useful, and I look forward to sharing more in 2014. In case you missed any of these, here are the five most popular posts in 2013 (and not all of them were even written this past year):

1. #Flipclass with Membean: A Vocabulary System that Works

2. Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

3. Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

4. Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading

5. Mini-essays: Go Small to Get Big Results

What to Read Next? Reading Recommendation Platforms

22 Dec

bless my sponge bathThe good folks at goodreads.com sent me a not-so-good year-in-review email this week. They congratulated me on reading seven books in 2013. I’m not sure why, but they have it wrong. I read 31.

I looked up my actual number in the good-old-fashioned-analog book journal I have been keeping for about four years now. And, like every year, these books have varied in topic, genre, and style…to a degree. I typically read a smattering of non-fiction and poetry; try on the most recent Pulitzer and a few other major works of fiction; and wash this down with a healthy chug of fantasy/sci-fi.

Increasingly, I am drawn to piles and piles of YA. Technically, I need to read this writing for my job. I take pride in staying up-to-date on recommendations for the young adults I teach. But, I will also admit that I love the stuff. I take no shame, ladies and gentleman, in sharing similar tastes with thirteen-year-old girls. OK. I feel some shame when writing that line. Amendment: I take no shame in sharing similar tastes with bookish thirteen-year-old girls who know Twilight is rubbish and turn away in a huff from any book with glitter on its cover.

Of course, not everyone shares my reading tastes, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? There are plenty of books for every reader out there. In the classroom, I—like you—give students recommendations, and they—like yours—regularly suggest titles to one another. However, I also use some online resources to help students find books they want to read next:

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Teaching Metaphors and Similes: Make a Game of It

14 Dec

For students, learning about metaphors and similes can sometimes feel like doing taxes on April 14. Or taking your daily dose of cod liver oil poured over bran flakes. Or picking blueberries under a sweltering summer sun while wearing a corduroy three piece suit. Admit it. We English teachers can sometimes beat the joy right out of the most wonderful, playful topics.

I am 99.9% certain that at some point, in every English classroom around the globe, the definitions of metaphors and similes get taught in some fashion. Certainly, no reader can effectively glean understanding from texts without having at least an intuitive sense for the different functions of literal and figurative language. Learning to appreciate and evaluate language of comparison is a key part of any reader’s journey. Why, then, do so many students struggle to move beyond the most cursory understanding of these particular aspects of language? I think we must shoulder a hefty load of culpability here. Too often we teach these concepts in a basic manner, only assessing students’ ability to define and identify figurative devices.

One way I move beyond simple definitions of these terms is by playing a game that helps students understand the power of comparison and why using it well adds such style, life, and efficiency to our writing.

The game is a simple one. Pair students and give them two random nouns to compare. They have five minutes to list as many similarities as they can. After the five minutes, we share the results, and I award prizes for clever or copious responses.

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Putting It Out There: Take the Time to Publish

5 Dec

commaJust a short anecdote from an English 9 class that gives me a boost and reminds me why it is worth our time to make the extra effort to publish online. I have written before about how I use macros and AutoText to save time when giving feedback on writing. In a recent essay, one of my students was making a chronic comma error, one that I dub The Most Common Comma Error in the World. My AutoText comment to her was, “Remember our quick lesson on the most common comma error in the world? You make it time and time again, but it’s easy to fix.  Hint: the comma in that last sentence is a clue as to what mistake you’re making.” One problem. I never taught her class anything about this topic. Obviously, I thought I had.

Yet, it was not really a problem. She just Googled the phrase “The Most Common Comma Error in the World” and watched the video I had posted on this same topic years earlier. She viewed the video and made her changes.

It was a microscopic moment of flipped teaching, but it was one that reminds why I take the extra effort to share my work online: Continue reading

Happy to Share this Magical World with Maggie Smith, Maya Angelou, and You

16 Nov

Maya Angelou GraffittiLike you, I wish Hogwarts was real. Magic should be a part of this world. If it were, I know in the deepest marrow of my bones, I would get sorted into Gryffindor, make the Quidditch team, and somehow—through some combination of my compassionate heart, ignitable passion, and deft mastery of transfiguration—earn a wry, approving smile from Professor Minerva McGonagall. Of course, this probably won’t ever happen. Probably.

Luckily, we do experience other forms of magic in our everyday lives, and I am thankful for the glimpses behind the veil I receive, those bright flashes of magic of a different ilk.

When I was first asked to teach grade 6, I was terrified. I had never dealt with a student under the age of 15, and I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to do with an 11 year-old. I needn’t have worried. Younger students can be quite hilarious, and they do just about anything you ask them to do. They have not yet forgotten how to play, and that mindset can lead to some very authentic, effective learning. I really love teaching this age group (and I am also happy that some of my classes are with older students, too).

As one of the opening activities in the grade 6 poetry unit, I started class by handing out textbooks-the-size-of-tombstones and saying, “OK, kiddos. You have ten minutes. Thumb through these books and find a poem that interests you.” After a brief lesson on how to use the Table of Contents to find poems quickly, the students dove in. Continue reading

Quizlet: Crowdsourcing Vocabulary

7 Nov

quizletI am jealous of my computer; it never feels stress. I do…way too often. And, way too often my stress is related to my inefficiency at providing timely, specific feedback to my students. Don’t get me wrong, I know I give meaningful feedback, but I wish it was all I ever did.

I am excited, then, when technology can help me out. When teachers outsource instantaneous feedback to a computer, the effect can be powerful, especially in areas like vocabulary acquisition. Language teachers understand that vocabulary expansion can be a grand equalizer, helping students rapidly improve other skills. Wide-ranging, free choice reading is my favorite way to help students acquire new vocabulary, but I also use some excellent web tools.

I am currently enamored with Membean (an online vocabulary system.) This post, however, is about an older love: Quizlet.

Both systems are effective ways to let technology offer timely and plentiful feedback. Each system also allows for students to engage in individualized and constructivist learning while freeing the teacher to offer differentiated, data-driven support. Continue reading

Meaningful, Effective Peer Revision

28 Sep

working togetherPeer revision is a gamble. At its best, students offer rich feedback and revision becomes an incredibly rich learning experience for all involved. At its worse, peer responses can be a bit like turning over the cockpit controls to a thirteen year old who is still years away from having even a driver’s permit.

I am always, then, looking for ways to make peer revision more meaningful. Here are a few ideas that have worked for me:

Three Chip Revision: Break out some poker chips. To begin, give every student three chips (or any number of chips you decide). Then, hand them a piece of writing from one of their peers and ask them to spot the mistakes. Each error they find, however, has to be checked by the teacher. If they have found a legitimate error, they get two more chips. If they are mistaken and no error exists, take a chip. The goal is to end the revision period with the most chips.

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