Grading with a timer!

I struggle with assessing writing in a timely way. Frequently, I feel guilt for letting my students' writing assignments pile up in my digital inbox. I'm always trying to find ways to increase my efficiency as a grader.

Today I tried something new. I stumbled upon the the (free) Online Meditation Timer and used it to pace myself while reading and responding to ten pieces of student writing that I was trying to finish within a prep period today at school.

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MEDIA APPEARANCE: National Writing Project Radio discussion with The Graide Network

Last spring I was part of a discussion related to effective writing feedback in the high school classroom. I joined host Tanya Parker along with The Graide Network's co-founder, Liz Nell, and one of their Graiders, Sumaiya Qazi, an undergraduate who -- through TGN -- assisted my students in their writing development through speedy and actionable feedback on their essays.

The 56-minute show is available through National Writing Project's website, and the transcript appears on The Graide Network's blog.

REVIEW: The Graide Network

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.

 Google Classroom announces that your students are "done," so now it's time to digitally grade their work.

Google Classroom announces that your students are "done," so now it's time to digitally grade their work.

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.

 Canvas wants you to know these items are STILL ungraded. 

Canvas wants you to know these items are STILL ungraded. 

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.

 The Graide Network teacher dashboard.

The Graide Network teacher dashboard.

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 Graide Network allows a teacher to post an assignment, provide explanatory context and protocols for grading (including rubrics and points of interest), and specify the amount of time the Graider should spend on each student work. Here I asked the Graiders to use the College Board 9-pt. scale to evaluate a 40-minute timed rhetorical analysis essay.

The Graide Network allows a teacher to post an assignment, provide explanatory context and protocols for grading (including rubrics and points of interest), and specify the amount of time the Graider should spend on each student work. Here I asked the Graiders to use the College Board 9-pt. scale to evaluate a 40-minute timed rhetorical analysis essay.

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.

 My notes and instructions for the Graider along with supporting documentation.

My notes and instructions for the Graider along with supporting documentation.

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 Graider's macro comments on the entire class helped guide my future direct instruction.

The Graider's macro comments on the entire class helped guide my future direct instruction.

 This view allowed me to quickly scroll through student performance and the Graiders' individual comments.

This view allowed me to quickly scroll through student performance and the Graiders' individual comments.

 This invidual student report could be easily printed and distributed to the writer. I attached this to the handwritten essay and returned it to the writer just two class periods after he wrote it.

This invidual student report could be easily printed and distributed to the writer. I attached this to the handwritten essay and returned it to the writer just two class periods after he wrote it.

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.

 This Graider began with statistics and then introduced some trends across all student writers.

This Graider began with statistics and then introduced some trends across all student writers.

Here is one letter my student received. I anonymize essays using student IDs for student privacy.

 The individual letters of feedback lead to silence in the room while students entered into a moment of introspection while reading the specific and actionable feedback from the Graider.

The individual letters of feedback lead to silence in the room while students entered into a moment of introspection while reading the specific and actionable feedback from the Graider.

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.

25 Tech Tools for English Teachers

These edtech tools (apps and sites), grouped by category but not ranked, may assist in the teaching and assessing of reading and writing in the ELA courses of secondary education teachers. Most are free. Those which require payment for "premium" versions are accompanied by a dollar sign ($). Click each name to learn more.

  1. I Write Like

  2. Hemingwayapp

  3. Draftback

  4. Expresso

  5. Grammarly ($)

  6. SAS Writing Adviser

  7. new MLA Style

  8. The Graide Network ($)

  9. NoRedInk ($)

  10. ProLogo English Verb Flowchart

  11. CommonLit

  12. Books That Grow ($)

  13. Safari Reader

  14. Librivox

  15. Genius

  16. Goodreads

  17. Call Me Ishmael

  18. Podcasts (Serial, Revisionist History)

  19. TED Ed

  20. Lynda ($)

  21. PollEv

  22. TodaysMeet

  23. Kahoot!

  24. Quizziz

  25. Quizlet Live

Top 10 ISTE takeaways for English teachers

ISTE always overwhelms me by its size and scope, and in Denver, I wanted to come home with tools and resources specific to teaching English and Language Arts.  Here are ten edtech tools and resources I think English teachers can leverage to increase engagement and deepen learning.  #1-2 are whimsical, #3-5 relate to classroom interaction, #6-7 deal with reading, and #8-10 help with writing and writing feedback.

1. Call Me Ishmael

Students brainstorm a book that's challenged or delighted them. They call a phone number. They leave a voicemail reflecting on the book's effect on them. These voicemails get turned into typewriter animations by the site's curator. Here's an example from a reader who was moved by The Catcher in the Rye.

2. Vocabulary Size Test

This 50-question vocabulary quiz of synonyms and antonyms attempts to gauge the overall size of a user's English lexicon. Students could complete this in 5-10 minutes as a reminder that our vocabularies will always grow with reading and speaking daily. I might use this as a precursor to Membean's diagnostic tool. Other free sites include Test Your Vocab and My Vocabulary Size. (Each varies in its methodology.)

 The author's results.

The author's results.

3. Docent EDU

This tool allows teachers to assign any reading passage (from a website) and interpose comprehension and reflection questions. Requires a subscription.

4. Quizizz

Much like Kahoot! and Quizlet Live, Quizizz is a game platform that allows a classroom of students in real time to answer questions on their devices. Quizizz would make for a great prelection tool. Teachers could create, say, a ten-question quiz on a newly introduced era of American Literature, and students would -- at their own rate -- complete the Quizizz. Teachers get real-time data (Excel spreadsheet of results) and students compete to ascend the leaderboard.

 A sample Quizizz that could be used as a pre- or post-test activity.

A sample Quizizz that could be used as a pre- or post-test activity.

5. TeachersPick (iOS app)

I've been using DecideNow to spin a wheel and randomly call on students during class discussions. TeachersPick is a digital popsicle-stick picker that does the same but with the ability to track who's been called on and who hasn't as well as add emojis to gauge engagement.

6. Books that Grow

If you have a struggling reader who might abandon a reading passage on account of its difficulty, and you had the opportunity to give her the same passage at incrementally easier reading levels, might you try it? Books that Grow take public domain works and scale their reading levels to engage all readers.  This webapp allows students to read MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," for example, in four versions, from level 2 to 4 to 6 to 8. The subscription model allows teachers to create classes and deploy reading assignments within classes. Students might start reading something at a Level 7 and then reread it at Level 9. The goal, it seems, is to get students invested in the content on the path to eventually engaging the primary source text.

 Screenshot from BooksThatGrow's Level 4 rendition of MLK's famous letter.

Screenshot from BooksThatGrow's Level 4 rendition of MLK's famous letter.

7. Common Lit

CommonLit.org is a free repository of texts grouped by theme or genre that can be distributed by teachers to students or read online. Each text has a contextual background preface, footnotes for challenging vocabulary, text-dependent comprehension questions for students to answer, and discussion prompts. I've seen quality fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and primary documents in the collection.

 Screenshot from the "Lady of Shalott" page on CommonLit.org. Notice the mouse-over footnotes, the gray box with the contextual background info, and the questions on the right.

Screenshot from the "Lady of Shalott" page on CommonLit.org. Notice the mouse-over footnotes, the gray box with the contextual background info, and the questions on the right.

8. StoryDice (iOS app) and Rory's Story Cubes (iOS app)

Both priced at $1.99, these apps gamify creative writing tasks.  Students roll the digital StoryDice to get icons representing characters, setting, and plot. Rory's version presents players with nine dice and up to 10 million combinations of scenarios to inspire creative quick writes or impromptu oral stories.

 Screenshot from the StoryDice app. Create a story from the face-up icons.

Screenshot from the StoryDice app. Create a story from the face-up icons.

 Screenshot from the Rory's Story Cubes app. Keep a few static and roll the rest for a plot twist or character revelation.

Screenshot from the Rory's Story Cubes app. Keep a few static and roll the rest for a plot twist or character revelation.

9. SAS Writing Reviser

This Google Docs add-on gives student writers a small suite of revising tools.  Perhaps your student is struggling to embrace the active voice. Maybe your students begin every sentence with a Subject-Verb opener.  Dangling modifiers? Lack of parallelism? SAS Writing Reviser highlights within a student's text in Google Docs areas for revision: economy, variety, power, and clarity. If you have students with Chromebooks, this is a great add-on.  SAS Writing Reviser is part of a larger application that works on iPads, too, called SAS Writing Navigator.

 Screenshot of a Google Doc with the SAS Writing Reviser add-on to the right. This student began most sentences with the Subject-verb opening. By highlighting these openings, SAS gives the student a visualization of the impact of monotonous syntax.

Screenshot of a Google Doc with the SAS Writing Reviser add-on to the right. This student began most sentences with the Subject-verb opening. By highlighting these openings, SAS gives the student a visualization of the impact of monotonous syntax.

10. The Graide Network

Imagine an undergraduate student who wants to become a teacher. That student volunteers to be your virtual teaching assistant who will grade student work according to your assignment protocols and your assessment rubric. The Graide Network provides teachers the ability to add another layer of substantive feedback to student writing. I imagine using this for early drafts of major writing assignments.

 Screenshot from the results of The Graide Network's end-of-year teacher survey.

Screenshot from the results of The Graide Network's end-of-year teacher survey.

How to help students with how to ask for a college recommendation letter

If you've been in education in the last ten years, then you've received the subject-less email lacking a greeting and demanding "What I miss in class?" category of emails from students. A colleague of mine got an email once with no body but just the subject "About my D."

Truly we need to help students with the various modes of communication essential to life success and the ways to use them appropriately.  Initial emails should be complete and formal with clear subject headings, progressional greetings and end salutations, and standard paragraphing. From there forward, follow the lead of the teacher, I tell students. If she responds without intro or outro salutations, then mirror that in your response. If she remains formal with "Dear X" and "Sincerely Y," then stay formal and follow her example.

Last week I got a half-dozen emails requesting college letters of recommendation for rising seniors. They were smart to ask early (before the end of their junior year!), but a couple never saw me in person, and one basically sent a text under the guise of an email: "Would you write a positive letter of recommendation for me? Sent from iPhone." 

A quick Google search reveals countless templates for how to ask for a recommendation letter. After all, students may not have ever asked for something like this before and they may not realize the time it takes for teachers to write one well. Yes, it is the professional duty of high school teachers to write these letters when appropriate, but helping students to ask properly now will save them grief when they ask college professors for professional references or former bosses for a work referral. 

To help students meet teachers halfway, I designed a Google Form that asks a requesting student to reflect on his time in my classroom. It's my way of saying, Yes, I will write a good affirming letter on your behalf, and I want it to reflect the specific ways you are a strong writer, reader, thinker. The questions require narrative replies in the form of specific stories from their class experience.  These responses jog my memory and help me sort the 135 student experiences I shared during the previous year. I wonder if anyone else uses a form like this or has ways I could enhance it.