The old piles were paper with staples that snagged, red ink that annoyingly jumped from the margin of page one to just the edge of the page behind it. The new piles are digital: lists of essays to score, paragraphs to mark up, a notification that appears on your device to tell you that you have 30 new items to grade. It's like "You Got Mail!" from hell.
Like many high school English teachers, I often engage the complaint culture and express to my colleagues just how onerous grading and assessing student writing can be. We commiserate. We exaggerate. We go back to our "to do" holes.
We thought that going digital would make assessing and improving student writing faster and more efficient. This thinking, turns out, was wrong, at least for me.
As I sought ways to improve my feedback on student work, I tried everything: audio recordings of myself speaking as quickly as possible; Snagit screencasts of my play-by-play essay reading; annotations in Google Docs; narrative responses sent through email; rubrics uploaded to Turnitin; paper and pen.
And then something happened.
At ISTE 2016, I met one of the co-founders of The Graide Network, which "connect[s] middle and high school teachers with qualified teaching assistants to grade and provide feedback on student work." This semester I was determined to pilot their service in my AP English Language & Composition classes. I teach two sections.
When the service launched in September, I posted to The Graide Network an assignment for two periods of English: an upcoming 40-minute rhetorical analysis essay based on a prompt from a previous College Board administration of the AP exam. I uploaded the prompt, the rubric, essays already scored by the College Board with score rationales, and my notes to the Graiders ("Please spend 5 minutes on each essay, note two areas of strength and two areas for improvement"). The Graide Network offers packages of 20, 50, and 100 hours that could be distributed, for example, among members of an English Department. I figured this first double-set of essays would take around 5 hours or so. It did.
The Graiders, undergraduate students who might read and evaluate my students' work, post mini-resumes, so you can seek a Graider who is interested in becoming a teacher in your content area. The Graide Network can also use its matching formula to pair you off with a Graider, too. Within a day or two, I was matched with a Graider for each section of my course. Five minutes. Two positives. Two negatives. By Tuesday, please and thank you.
On a Thursday, my students handwrote essay responses to the prompt. That afternoon the copy center took each stack of essays and scanned them into single PDFs. I uploaded these PDFs on a Thursday afternoon. By Monday morning, I had reports from my two Graiders that were astonishing in detail, accuracy, and care for my students. One Graider generated a Google Sheets report in which each student had a dedicated tab of feedback.
The other Graider wrote 25 invididual letters to my students. The effect here was intimate and direct. Narrative feedback shows care for each writer's development.
Here is one letter my student received. I anonymize essays using student IDs for student privacy.
REVIEW: My first experience with The Graide Network was very positive. The feedback was of high quality; it matched my expectations and specifications; it was way more timely than I have ever been with feedback on writing; and it showed my students how many people are invested in the shared mission of education.
My plan is to use The Graide Network once per quarter for two AP sections. I may run out of my 20 hours of allotted time, but the money in my view is well spent. Students can write more and receive more (and varied) feedback, and I can spend a bit more time planning great lessons. The Graide Network is no panacea for the great woes that overflow the English teacher's digital tote bag, but it provides another layer of feedback and some relief from that grading grind.