Archive for March, 2012

4 More Reasons I’ll Always Use GoogleDocs for Essays

It’s taken a few years and several relapses into pen-and-paper, but now there’s no going back for me. For every tangible, tactile sensation that is lost, the digital process makes up for it with a practical benefit. And besides, why do we English teachers get so weepy about saying goodbye to grading papers with a pen? It’s grading papers – the bane of our existence. Why do we romanticize the things that drive us crazy?

Anyway, here are some things that went well with this last round of 9th grade essays.

1. Real time support for a larger number of students

Armed with detailed outlines (or at least that was the plan), I brought my students to the computer lab for a full session of typing. Once they were all going, I opened up a few papers at a time to take a look and see if I could give a quick tip to redirect a student who was veering off course. I’ve written about this before, but I’m still amazed by how this lets me help so many students in one class session. Using the chat sidebar feels comfortable for a lot of students, so I find that more of them are willing to ask for help, which is often the biggest hangup for kids when it comes to writing.

Instead of using the chat sidebar, sometimes I’ll just add a few comments. I’ll do this if I want to point the student to a specific  sentence – or a part of a sentence. I’ll also use a specific color highlighter so show them where there is a punctuation problem, then give more details on how to fix it in the sidebar if I think they need it.

That first comment in the above screenshot also speaks to the fact that some students think this kind of communication is actually fun. Which could be a second subheading here.

2. It’s kind of fun

Here’s another exchange with that same student.

3. Students adding comments on their own papers

I hadn’t realized the potential here, but it’s interesting. For starters, several of my students added comments to something they had written or revised when they weren’t sure they were doing it right. Like this example below, which she wrote from home. I didn’t see the comment until later when I actually graded it, but it was nice for me to have a sense that she wasn’t confident about that sentence, that she was thinking about it, and that she just didn’t know how to write it any differently.

I feel bad about my harsh (and late) response. But this did get me thinking that I could require some sort of reflective work like this from my students when they turn things in. One of the hardest parts of writing instruction is trying to distinguish ability from effort, and I think this could help.

This student also added a lengthy comment in the margin of her conclusion, explaining why she started talking about Freedom Writers. I think she knows that this is not something I recommend doing in a conclusion to an essay, but she felt strongly about it, so she took the opportunity to explain herself.

That made me think about asking students to annotate their own essays. I could have them identify their strongest sections, their weakest sections, and I could have them explain what they’re thinking by writing without the mental freeze that worrying about “essay writing” often brings.

4. Thanks!

I couldn’t find screenshots of them because I think they were all in chat windows, but several times in class that day, after helping students get back on track, they’d type something like “ok, thanks – that helps a lot.” Or, “ahhh, that makes sense now – thank you!” I wish I had the proof because I know how unbelievable it sounds that a 9th grader would say that, but it happened. Not only that, I actually had a student come up to me the next day and say to my face: “I saw those comments you wrote on my essay and I wanted to thank you because they really helped me revise it.” I could hardly respond since my jaw was on the floor.

But don’t worry, you sentimental traditionalists. Even if you use GoogleDocs, it’s still grading papers, so you’ll still want to tear your hair out at the end of the day.

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NoRedInk might actually make grammar fun

Teaching grammar is kind of the worst. I’ve never come up with an engaging way to teach comma placement. I’m not quite sure how I learned it myself. I feel like I learned most of my grammar in 6th grade, when I had a charismatic teacher (Ellen Friedman) and an eagerness to learn anything.

NoRedInk is a new site that gives me some hope for my own students. It’s brand new, and I think there’s more to come with regard to writing instruction, but here are two things about it that I like:

1. The interface for changing punctuation and capitalization is super-intuitive. It makes so much sense that it’s surprising we haven’t seen more programs like this. Here’s a screencast of me playing with it.

2. As soon as you sign up, you get to choose some of your interests, and NoRedInk then uses your choices to generate the names for people in the sentences it gives you for quizzes. So, having clicked on things like hip hop and Harry Potter, you’ll see Jay-Z and Lucius Malfoy on your quiz. You can even enter in names of your friends or have the site pull names from your Facebook friends. To me, this is an ingenious little way to keep kids engaged in an otherwise dreadful affair.

Best part? It’s free right now.

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