I worry my middle name might be Sisyphus. Despite my best efforts, the inevitable piles of essays that are a part of my working life too often feel like boulders to move from here to there. I desperately want to see each essay as another rich opportunity, a chance to help a budding writer find her voice. At my best, I find this state of mind. Yet, the amount of time required to respond to student work always leaves me with one nagging question: “Is all of this really working?” Thankfully, my tendency to despair about question the effectiveness of my feedback can lead to fruitful reflection.
Lately I have explored how to ensure my time (and my students’ time) is spent most effectively. For the past two years, my fellow English teachers and I set a departmental goal of improving the efficacy of our feedback. This year a few of us tackled John Hattie’s and Helen Timperley’s “The Power of Feedback,” a very extensive review of educational research on what really works in regard to teacher feedback on student work. This 2007 white paper deals with big data, reviewing hundreds of studies sampling thousands (maybe millions?) of students. The paper is dense and technical and big…but it is also illuminating and practical and useful. If you have the time, the study is worth a read. Of course, you probably don’t and just want somebody to give a summary…so keep reading.
Go to any grocery store parking lot in Germany, and you will never…and I mean never…see any stray shopping carts rattling along in the wind or parked in the hedges. Every carriage is always tucked back in the rack, sometimes in color coded rows. In the United States I always put my cart back where it belonged, and I secretly enjoyed rounding up any strays I came across. Imposing order on this chaotic world, even in small doses, soothes my fastidious soul. My fellow countrymen, however, do not share my O.C.D. Most people leave carts wherever they damn well please.
Yet, the difference in national shopping cart parking habits does not reveal some great divide between American and German gentility. Germans do not return their carts out of an altruistic urge to avoid scratching their neighbors’ Audis. Instead, grocery stores in Germany simply engineer order into their systems. To get a cart, you have to unlock it from the rack with a coin. When you’re done, you can’t get your money back until you return the cart and secure it to its mates. It’s a simple system that works beautifully.
The Student Scribe system works in much the same way; it’s a simple system, that once implemented, works with minimal effort on the teacher’s part. I first learned about the idea from Darren Kuropatwa, and I found his blog posts on student scribes very useful when setting up my scribe system for the first time.
On most days, one student takes communal notes and then posts these to a class wiki. Each post ends with the current student choosing the next scribe. Here are the directions I give my students regarding scribe posts:
I have one finely honed skill that serves me better in the classroom than all the rest: I know when I should steal a great idea. Well, I am not really stealing an idea if I give credit, and the person who originated the idea is sharing it freely.
No single teacher can always be the perfect creative force who whips up an appropriate and effective solution to every teaching dilemma. We educators work best when we work together…or we at least share. At its core, sharing is what this blog is all about, so here is a great idea for your next parent/teacher conference. I just finished mine.
Thankfully, at my school we really hold parent/teacher/student conferences; the student does most of the talking. In the past, I have always been a bit flummoxed as to how to get every student to talk precisely and honestly about his or her class work. My excelling students spoke articulately about their work, but my struggling students…well…struggled to pinpoint what they needed to do to improve.
This last time around, however, I stole an idea from my colleague that worked perfectly. You should steal it, too. Here is the explanation video he sent to us: Continue reading
A 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:
As an English teacher I must sometimes act as a gatekeeper. I care deeply about engendering a love of reading in my students, and I work diligently toward that end…but I also create situations where I just try to determine a very basic answer to a very basic question, “Did you read it or not?”
This step seems obvious, but many teachers leave this fundamental question to chance. They believe their students will read because they were told to read, but I argue that this kind of trust is actually a disservice to the learners in our classrooms. I am a very optimistic man who believes in second chances and basic human decency, but as an English teacher I am also a crusty, pragmatic troll guarding a bridge. If you didn’t read the book, you’re not getting by me. Let me explain…
I always give a reading quiz the day before I want to discuss the book. This simple step allows me time to determine who has read, and it gives unprepared students a bit of time to catch up. With these quizzes I check for basic reading completion one of three ways:
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.
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!)
Recently my uncle came out of retirement to become a classroom teacher. He worked as a vocational instructor for many years in the prison system, but he was, understandably, pretty nervous about teaching a roomful of teenagers. They can have that affect on the best of us. He will be fine, of course. When I asked him why he decided to take the job, he said, “I really care about the kids who struggle to learn. I was one of those kids, and I told my classes on the first day, ‘I’ll never embarrass any of you. If you don’t understand something, I’ll work with you whenever and wherever you want…and if I don’t know how to help, I’ll find somebody that can help me help you.” He’s going to be great, isn’t he?
He will take care of his students and they will take care of him. Teenagers’ reputation is unfounded. In my time in the classroom I’ve always found them to be some of the loveliest people I know. Teens have abundant optimism, honesty, and a sense of fair play, and we can tap into these wonderful qualities when establishing a set of classroom rules.
Here are some of the structures I use to establish a safe, fair, and productive classroom. They are a conglomeration of methods I learned from mentors and students.
I would tell you how I incorporate vocabulary in my English classes, but I’m betting you already know. Chances are we pretty much do the same thing. This spring I did something different. Flipping a classroom is not really about turning lectures into videos, it’s about freeing up class time for more one-on-one interaction with students. Here’s one way I’ve done this.
Replacing a whole class vocabulary list with Membean.com was the most successful experiment of the school year. My students learned at least twice as many words, and they learned these words more effectively. I saw the language appear in their writing and speaking with more frequency and accuracy, and the students felt more prepared for standardized tests. I loved the free trial so much, I convinced my colleagues to use it, and next year we will pay for a school-wide subscription, which will cost us a little less than last year’s workbooks.
Membean is an engaging, self-paced online learning environment that allows for multiple modes of learning. It gives students more control over and accountability for their learning, and it provides teachers rich data that more accurately gauges mastery than any weekly vocabulary quiz ever could.
I know, I know…I sounds like they are paying me, but they’re not. I just know this product works really, really well, and I want a bumper new crop of logophiles out there.
As I finish my fifteenth year in an English classroom, I’m seriously thinking about tattooing the following phrase across my belly in Old English lettering ala Tupac: “Students will write more; teachers will grade less.” I once started to calculate how many hours I have spent writing feedback on student writing, but I quickly abandoned that sadistic calculation. The number was impressive. And depressing. And not at all meaningful. Any instructor of writing who lasts for any length of time has to embrace two concepts very quickly: acceptance and efficiency.
I now accept that it takes me 20-30 minutes to write comprehensive feedback on an individual essay, and in a future post I promise to break down my system. In this post, I share some of the things my colleagues and I have done to become more efficient with our feedback.