Tag Archives: Google

Setting Fire to NealEnglish

14 May

Flame_of_fireCompletely by accident, I just set fire to four years of work. My classroom YouTube account (NealEnglish) no longer exists. Vanishing with this account are all the tutorials and examples of student work I have collected. My old work email was deleted, and with the removal of that Gmail account, the YouTube account went with it.

This accident was completely my own fault. When switching jobs, I knew I needed to transfer necessary information, and I thought I had taken care of all the necessary steps. Yet, in the chaos and daily grind of a big move, I did not notice that my NealEnglish YouTube channel was linked to my work email…so poof.

I doubt I can do anything to recover this work. I’m exploring all options (so share an idea if you have one), but I am not hopeful. Of course, I am sick about the loss, but I am also trying to take a more enlightened, objective view.

I am happy that I had work to lose in the first place. For many years I have been methodical about carving out time from a busy schedule to write and curate and capture. I have developed work habits that help me share classroom work that really matters, so I now just need to put in the time, little by little, to rebuild.

If you navigate this blog, you are will hit many dead video links (for a while). I apologize. It will take me some time to restore the important videos, but I will. And, as I do this I will try to improve each one (and ensure I safely store them in such a way that I don’t lose such a massive amount of work again). I am going to treat this re-doing of work as a meditation of sorts, and hopefully something more meaningful will rise from the ashes.

Occam’s Razor, Summer Reading Essays, and Google Docs

1 Oct

I am ashamed. Why do simple solutions often elude me? I have been using Google Docs for five or six years now, and one of the main beefs I have with the system is the highlighting tool. It seems like such a small thing, but there is not a way to leave the highlighting tool “on.” I want—desperately—to sweep my cursor across the page, highlighting text as if I had a physical highlighter in hand. Word allows this. Google Docs, however, requires several clicks and menu choices to highlight something, and the process slows things down considerably, especially for an English teacher who reads hundreds of essays in a year and is always on the hunt for ways to shave seconds off the feedback process.

Just last week I realized I have been ignoring a simple solution. I can simply use the comments keyboard shortcut [Option+COMMAND+M] to save considerable time. Now, I highlight my selection, hit a few keys, and then type a quick note: “error #.” It’s so much simpler…and I am a bit sickened by the time I have wasted.

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Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

3 Sep

Here is the skeleton in every writing teacher’s closet: grading essays is soul sucking, mind-breaking work. After fifteen years of dedicating obscene chunks of personal time to the task, I wish I could reveal some cure-all that makes grading fast and euphoric. I can’t. Of course, I find many moments of joy, but the bone-weary reality of the life of an English teacher is that it takes considerable time and significant effort to create meaningful feedback. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to write comments on an essay in less than fifteen minutes. Realistically, it often takes more time. I have experimented with many methods of feedback, but when I need to leave a healthy dose of ink, I use a hybrid approach of handwritten feedback and computer editing tools known as macros. This method doesn’t help me grade more quickly, but it does ensure that I maximize my time. Here’s my basic structure for working through a stack of essays: 

  • Students turn in two copies of an essay, one printed and one electronic copy via Google Docs.
  • I write more quickly on a piece of paper than I can highlight on a computer screen (I have timed each activity), so I go “old school” and leave marks on the page. The two to five minutes I save on each essay quickly add up. I also use a set of symbols to speed this marking process along.
  • I type longer comments that I later print and attach to the essay. I use macros (more on this step below) for common comments, but I also individualize feedback. I always limit myself to one page of typed comments per essay.
  • When finished, I photocopy the completed scoring rubric (which I will use during the revision process), print the one page of typed comments, and then staple the typed comments, the marked essay, and the scoring guide into one packet.
  • I give students at least one week to revise based on my feedback. I require a revision of every major essay, and I use the electronic copy in Google Docs to track the changes. The revision history in Google Docs feature shows me when and where changes were made. Because I made a photocopy of the scoring guide before handing back the essays, I simply look through the revision history on the computer and make changes to the photocopied scoring guide (another time-saver). I do NOT write any additional comments, as the students will not revise this draft, and I am not a glutton for punishment (even though this post may make you think that!)

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How To Make Video Tutorials For Free

25 Jan

Self-Portrait uploaded to Flickr by Scott Kinmartin

Making professional looking online tutorials does not require any fancy equipment. In fact, anyone can make slick screencasts using Jing and a presentation program such as PowerPoint or Google Presentations. Planning, revision, and aesthetics are far more important than any particular tool.

Here is an example of a recent video I made. After you watch it, I’ll explain how I made it:

The finished product you see is a result of many, many takes. I planned out the presentation ahead of time, and then I messed up…over and over again. The willingness to redo work is perhaps the most important tool.

Getting to the nitty gritty, here is how I created the video:

I hope you find this instruction useful. Better yet, I hope you make your own online tutorials and share the links with me. As you work, you might find the following points useful:

  • Download the free version of Jing first. I used it for years before moving to JingPro (at the whopping price tag of 15 dollars per year)
  • JingPro does allow me to quickly upload videos to YouTube, and I can now quickly save videos in a mp4 format which works with iMovie. (The free version of Jing saves videos in .swf format. Not a tragedy because you can embed Jings easily.)
  • Use a dark background with light lettering. The high contrast looks good.
  • You will need to add an Embed button to the free version of Jing.
  • If you don’t know how to Embed something on your blog, wiki, or website, I show you the basics here.
  • BE PREPARED TO MESS UP, and then just do it over until you get it right. The first video will take you a long time. You’ll get faster.

Making Grammar Sticky With Google Docs

10 Jan


I spent many hours in elementary school diagramming sentences, parsing parts of speech on spidery branches of sentence trees. I must admit, though, I never found this procedure painful. For me the activity compartmentalized language. The parts of a sentence worked like Lego bricks, and once I understood the various “shapes” of grammar, I found enjoyment in rearranging them.

As an English teacher, then, I’ve always felt palpable guilt about the way I teach grammar…or more accurately the way I don’t. I teach it every year in every class, but my students don’t seem to do a very good job learning it. I was never satisfied with my approach or my students’ mastery of basic language rules…until I used Google Docs to have my students keep grammar journals. I leveraged technology to make students more accountable for their grammar work, but this technique could be adapted in any subject to keep an error analysis log.

The set-up of this classroom practice is simple. In the beginning of the year, I asked students to start a new Google Doc and then make at least one entry per week, on their own. I spent a portion of a class period leading a discussion on why grammar might be important to them, and I framed my expectations with this assignment description.

I walked students through the description, but I also used their own writing to guide this initial work. Prior to class, I had gone through the first writing assignment of the year and highlighted any grammar errors I found, limiting myself to ten.

Using the master list in the assignment description and their highlighted essays, each student made a bulleted list of grammar errors they were making. Using the comments features in Google Docs, I asked them to identify each error. They did NOT to fix the error; they simply labeled it. I imposed an “Ask Three Before Me” rule at this stage. They first had to ask themselves what the error might be. If they were unsure, they asked the student to their left and their right for help. If there was still confusion, they would call me over.

During the labeling of their errors, I was able to give feedback to each student multiple times, clarifying misunderstandings and formatively assessing each students writing skills. After the students completed their master lists, they chose two HOT BUTTON grammar issues, the two aspects of their writing that—if mastered—would have immediate and noticeable impact on their work. I had made notes as to which errors were made and which issues I considered the most pressing. The exit slip for that day’s class was to confirm with me which two HOT BUTTON grammar issues they had selected. I used this final check-in to ensure that each student was clear as to what he or she should work on.

I had finally realized that I needed to think of ways to put the burden of learning more squarely on the students’ shoulders. I needed a way to differentiate grammar instruction but still easily document the learning. The grammar journals via Google Docs proved invaluable.

I spent the rest of the school year teaching grammar as I most often do…using a hybrid of whole class instruction, online tutorials, and individual feedback. But, each week they were required to make at least one entry in their grammar journals. The entries were meant to be specific, personal, and honest….They did not, however, need to be long. I expected one entry to take between 20-30 minutes from start to finish, including research time.

I seldom wrote feedback. Instead, I completed quick face-to-face check-ins during class. While students were doing something else, I’d call up individuals and offer critique. I would offer suggestions for other sources and methods as well. Students also completed periodic self-assessments.

By using student-directed grammar journals, grammar concepts became “stickier.” In other words, by taking a more proactive approach, the students’ mastery of language increased. Also, because I set up multiple resources and activities, the students used varied modes to learn. They could come back to a tricky concept like parallelism many times in many ways. Through this differentiation, I found myself, less often, making repeated comments on essays throughout the year.

Because the use of Google Docs effectively organized their work and allowed me (and peers) to easily give feedback, I was more likely to come back to grammar every week. Grammar instruction stopped being a chore that we all agreed to avoid.

Student response was overwhelmingly positive. Even my most reluctant, disorganized students—the ones that always seemed to be missing or rushing their entries—eventually began to realize the value of patient, independent practice…and their writing improved as a result.

Sample Grammar Journal

Grammar Journal Assignment Description

BCDS Grammar Ning

NOTE: This post original appeared at EdSocialMedia.com

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