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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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Valentine’s Day Misogyny

A 9th grader walked into class with this taped to his chest today.

In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have directed so much of my anger at him. I happen to snap at this boy pretty much every day, which didn’t help my feeble efforts at restraint. But the sign made me angry, and he had no idea why. I told him I’d explain to everyone once the bell rang. He didn’t want that, and maybe he’s right, maybe I embarrassed him too much. But I feel like he needed to hear from the girls in the class (who I knew would speak up) for the message to have a chance at sinking in.

So I explained a little bit about how objectification works. One girl called it degrading and we talked about that word. We talked about the problems with equating value with “babe” status, and what message that sends to “non babes.” One girl said, “That’s what causes girls to become bulimic.” Or worse. We didn’t even touch on the economics of the thing.

Then there’s the homophobic bit thrown in at the end. He got very defensive about that one, understandably. But I still felt like I had to voice the message that a gay student would internalize after seeing that.

As we were talking, I realized I was inadvertently making this boy feel responsible for every teen suicide. So once I calmed down, I did my best to make the point that it’s not really his fault, that we are subject to a nonstop onslaught of these types of messages so of course we think they’re okay.

The boy pretty much checked out for the rest of class, so I had some repair work to do afterward. And while I feel bad about demonizing him, I do think  – and I do hope – that this lesson made a bigger impact on my students than the pronoun one that followed.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Cleanliness is next to appropriateness

I love this extension for Chrome: clea.nr. It cleans up Youtube entirely – no related videos, no comments, just the video I want to show my class.

Once it’s installed, youtube.com looks like this:

And this is what it looks like when a video is playing:

Those recommended videos in the sidebar can be terribly distracting. This makes a Youtube video feel so much more appropriate for classroom use. Especially when watching something that leads Youtube to make terrible suggestions, like videos of what a “jerkline skinner” does to better understand Of Mice and Men. 

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5 ways I’m using Edmodo now

I started this school year excited about using Edmodo, but I all but abandoned it around the end of the first quarter. I was getting less than 50% completion on any online homework assignment, and I always had a few students in each class who said they did not have computers or reliable internet access at home. Much like Jennie Magiera writes about in this great article on EdWeek Teacher, though for different reasons, I decided to stop, reflect, and reassess what I was doing.

So as second semester started, I realized something simple: I was getting less than 50% homework on pen & paper assignments, too. Also, all students have at least one 99-minute study period during which they can go to the computer lab if they need to. I realized that I really wanted to bring the online component back into my instruction, and that merely 10 minutes of homework could accomplish this. My novel units were feeling so much duller than I remember them feeling. Part of this is because of how much actual reading I feel like we have to do in class. Remember that homework problem I mentioned? I don’t know if it’s school culture or what, but assigning reading for homework definitely goes nowhere. Still, there were things I was doing on Moodle back in my 1:1 days that added some richness and continuity to a novel unit.

So I’m having another go at it. I think the online component of the course will only work the way I want it to work if students get in the habit of checking it regularly, and for that to happen I have to be consistent with it. Here are some ways I’ve been using it this week.

1. Exit tickets to find best questions

I’m excited about this idea. I want my students to have some sort of threaded discussion online, but I’ve always had two major problems with it: bad discussions questions and late discussion questions (when students would rotate roles as discussion leader).

After reading a chapter in class together (but without having time to discuss it), I had all students write down their best discussion question on an index card as an exit ticket. I told them I’d pick the three best questions and post them on Edmodo. If I chose your question, your homework is already done and you earn full credit. Everyone else has to respond to one of them. I was able to scan the questions and post the three best ones in less than 10 minutes right after the bell rang.

2. Image searching homework

The opening scene of Of Mice and Men is filled with Steinbeck’s rich and vivid descriptions of the clearing by the Salinas river that proves so pivotal to the story’s ending. I want my students to really picture it (before we see the movie). In this assignment, I asked them to search for an image inspired by a specific phrase from the opening pages. Unfortunately, you can’t embed the actual image in an Edmodo post, but I was able to click on all of these during class and show them what their classmates had found – beautiful images of rivers that are “deep and green” and “sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs.”

3. Getting kids to be more themselves, while also looking closely at the text

That was my intention with this assignment for seniors reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. Trust me that the students who wrote these first few comments do not speak this openly (or do not speak at all) in class.

4. Quick Polls

5. Checking in

My hope is that if I stay consistent in using it and keep varying the tasks like this, I’ll start getting more than 50% completion. Updates to come.

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The Golden Ticket

I have this foundational belief that technology can make the job of teaching easier in ways we can’t imagine. It’s not such a strange thought. This laptop I’m typing on has pushed the job of “publishing my writing to a disparate audience of readers from my couch” from laughably impossible to laughably easy.

So why shouldn’t new developments in edtech change the job of, say, teaching English from “rewarding but necessitating a martyr complex” to simply “rewarding”?

It will happen. Here’s how.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is holding a contest. (Doesn’t this feel Willie-Wonka-dramatic?) They’ll be awarding $100K to “the designers of software that can reliably automate the grading of essays for state tests,” according to their press release, which I read about in EdSurge. There will be a demonstration from a bunch of vendors who already make this kind of software to see how good it is, then they’ll open it up to the public to develop the best essay-grading software and win the prize money.

It’s a joint project with Tom Vander Ark’s Open Education Solutions. I like what he writes about it here.

Basically, our data-hungry, standards-driven attitude has pushed us to embrace inadequate multiple choice tests just because they give us easy data. I’m guilty of this at my current school. We have a professional learning team (PLT) of 9th grade English teachers, and we work very hard to develop a common assessment so we can review data together. But it’s a Scantron, and even though I’m to blame since I had input into the creation of the test, I don’t think it’s a great assessment. This year we added a writing component, so I feel better about the semester final we just gave, but it was hard to score those before grades were stored at noon yesterday.

From the press release:

“Better tests support better learning,” says Barbara Chow, Education Program Director at the Hewlett Foundation. “Rapid and accurate automated essay scoring will encourage states to include more writing in their state assessments. And the more we can use essays to assess what students have learned, the greater the likelihood they’ll master important academic content, critical thinking, and effective communication.”

While a “greater likelihood” might not sound like a sure thing, that’s quite a payoff, given what business we’re in.

I know English teachers will scoff at the idea of essay-grading software for a long time. How could a program possibly assess the subtleties of argument the way I can? How can it assess a writer’s voice or style or depth of analytical insight the way I can? How can it see how much a particular student has grown as a writer the way I can?

And while I have no idea how the magicians who write code will do it, I know they will. Of course they will! Especially if there are more incentives in the marketplace like the kind this competition is creating. Look at Watson. Look at Google. I remember when those things would have sounded impossible, and I’m not even very old.

Speaking of Watson, that reminds me of Ken Jennings’s brilliant take on Kent Brockman:

As an English teacher, I also welcome our new computer overlords. If they free up some time for me so I can work on an exciting new lesson (or spend time with my family) instead of grading papers, great! If they allow standardized tests to evolve into the kinds of assessments that we wouldn’t feel horrible about preparing students to take, great! Welcome to Earth!

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3 *really* simple things I do with Word

That first few days back in the classroom  after a two-week break sure are a rust-fest. I feel like a rusty teacher, trying to work with rusty lesson plans. The students are completely encrusted with the rust of two weeks, which for teenagers translates to about three months, more or less.

Blogging feels rusty, too, so I’ll just write about something I do all the time in my classroom. It’s probably the last thing that comes to mind when we think of innovative ed-tech, but it’s everywhere. Word.

No, that’s what I’m writing about: Microsoft Word.

I gave my 9th graders a practice exam and then projected the document to go over the answers. In going over the answers, I manipulated the text of the study guide to show correct answers and added notes.

This really is so much of what I do every day in the classroom. And while it’s not particularly techy, I think it’s the kind of technology usage that really helps me teach. I basically use Word instead of writing on the board. Even if my handwriting didn’t happen to be indecipherable, I’d still think this was a good idea. I can post my notes for the day on Edmodo, and, while it does entail more sitting at my desk than I would like, it keeps me from having to turn my back on the students to write on the board. I think all teachers hate that.

Here are three simple things I do when projecting Word documents that I find easy for me and useful for students.

1. Increase text size:   command+shift+> (mac)  ctrl+shift+> (pc)    

and decrease…              command+shift+<                ctrl+shift+< 

I do this so much I forget that it’s anything until I see someone highlight text maneuver the cursor all the way up the toolbar to change the size of the text. It might seem silly to think these precious seconds being wasted are really so precious, but here’s why I think they are (aside from the obvious reason that every second we have with out students is precious).

When we’re doing something as potentially boring as taking notes, we need to keep our students engaged. And while watching some highlighted text quickly increase in size may not be the most riveting theater, it’s better than watching a teacher try to locate the size menu at the top of the screen and click on a different point sizes until it looks right. I got bored just writing that sentence.

It’s also a really easy way to add emphasis, of course, so it can help students realize what’s most important. If I’m writing a lot on the board, I might end up having to cram something important into a small space.

2. Highlight

(I always show my formatting toolbar.)

It’s a pretty obvious ways to add emphasis, but I think it can be really effective if you can do it quickly. Again, it can keep kids engaged and it can make the notes clearer.

I also like how dramatic highlighting the correct answer can be. I’ll ask the question, hear various answers and rationales for each answer from around the room, wait until more students are actually curious to find out if they are right, and then show them. It’s like a magician’s great reveal, just slightly less exciting.

3. Change text color

These antecedent questions require some complicated (and boring) explanations. But I think the concept clicked (or re-clicked) for a lot of kids when I did this, judging simply from their reactions and the questions they were asking (quantitative data to come). I used the formatting tools to illustrate my thinking process when reading a question like this. First I find the pronouns – and make them red – then I determine which one is the singular pronoun (and strikethrough it). Then I read the sentence again to find what word that pronoun is taking the place of.

I conducted an informal interview with my students on how this went. I asked how other teachers go over handouts. Apparently some teachers never do that.

There are also plenty who project the Word document directly onto the whiteboard and have students come up to the board with a marker to show the class the right answer. I like doing that, too, but with so many examples to go over on this review, I didn’t want to engage in the constant erasing and repositioning that method necessitates. When I asked for feedback on this overall process, though, several students spoke up about preferring to go over handouts that way. It’s not hard to see why – they get to stand up.

Many students spoke about being “visual” people, and needing to see the answers like this to get them. They complained about teachers who simply read the right answers aloud. They said they can’t absorb those, or even really listen.

To be sure, there are much more engaging and flashy ways to do these kinds of things, whether by using interactive whiteboards or some flashier gadget or application. But we don’t all have access to those things in our classrooms. And I assume we’re all pretty comfortable with Word already, which is no small thing.

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The good kind of chatting in class

More on how I used GoogleDocs last week:

I’m afraid that what I’m about to share sounds like the worst idea ever, but I actually think it worked pretty well for some students.

They were all working on laptops in my classroom (I had reserved a mobile lab for the day), and they were finishing their research papers. Some were putting on finishing touches, some were still drafting, some, somehow, were still researching.

Here’s what I did: I opened three or four student papers on my own computer (they had all shared them with me). I announced to the class whose papers I had open at any given time so that they could chat me in the sidebar that GoogleDocs has.

Those students would then chat me a few questions, asking me to look at their conclusion or a specific quote they used, asking for help on how to start a particular sentence or if their formatting was right. I could answer them in the chat sidebar or type directly into their document in a different color if that seemed like an easier way to explain something.

Sometimes, when I’d type some complicated feedback, I’d see a kid reading it, struggling to make sense of it. Then I’d call out from my desk, “Hey Katie, does that make sense?” And they’d assure me that they did, or, after a few minutes, they’d chat me a follow-up question. Or they’d make some edits, then ask me – via chat – to take a look at it again and see if it’s better.

On one level, this sounds absurd to me. It’s like the stories you hear of parents texting their kids to come down to dinner (apparently, this happens a lot). I definitely value face-to-face interaction. If a student wants me to show me an early draft of a paper, I always insist they come sit down with me so we could talk about it.

But there were a few things that made this experiment seem worthwhile to me.

1. I could help more students.

I think I was able to look at more papers this way than if I had been sitting down at various students’ desks with them. When I do that, I think I tend to spend too much time at that one desk. I get drawn into reading the whole paper, and I end up ignoring much of the rest of the class. Most importantly, I usually end up only bouncing around the desks of the students who ask for help. In my experiment, I systematically opened a few documents at a time, working my way “around” the entire classroom. And we all know that the kids who don’t ask for help are often the ones who need the most.

2. I was less intimdating.

I don’t consider myself an intimidating person. Most of my freshmen are taller than me. But still, I’m a teacher, so plenty of kids will freeze up and not ask the questions on their minds when I’m crouched down at their desk or reading over their shoulders. Through chat, I think a lot of kids are more comfortable. They might be more willing to admit what they don’t understand. They even seemed more willing to say things like “thank you.” Which was nice.

3. They had more time to process

When working one-on-one with a student, I often find myself talking a lot, giving tons of writing advice to a silently nodding person. I ask for reassurance that they understand, which is often greeted with a hesitant “…yeah, I think I get it…” When those students go home to revise their work, they might forget what I had said or realize that they really didn’t get it. During these chat sessions, since I was leaving each document open for 5-10 minutes while looking at the other two or three, that first student then had time to look over my comments, process them, think about what they didn’t understand, and ask a question to help cement their own understanding. This seemed valuable, and it seemed like something that couldn’t happen in a face-to-face interaction, especially with a student who processes information at a slower speed.

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2 things I did with GoogleDocs this week

My students will sometimes complain about it, and so will my colleagues. Sometimes GoogleDocs just works really slowly at school, and no one likes the wait-a-minute-to-see-what-letter-you-just-typed game. Some students have told me that they can’t type on GoogleDocs from their home computers. I’m not really sure what’s going on there.

But, all things considered, it’s still awesome. (Here are 10 reasons why, from Jeff Utecht at The Thinking Stick.)

I “collected” final drafts from my seniors yesterday, and I loved not having to deal with all the printing sob stories. A couple of students who have listening problems (not hearing problems, mind you) brought their printed papers. When they confusedly handed them to me, noticing that no one else was doing the same, they said things like, “Wait, did we not have to print it out? When we ‘shared’ it with you, was that turning it in?” They then went on to tell me the printing sob story anyway, to ensure I knew how hard it was for them to print it out. I can’t win, sometimes.

So here are two things:

1. Super-commenting on a draft

I was doing some evening edtech reading, like I do, and I came across an Audrey Waters piece on the issue of banning cell phones. (She linked to it in the text messaging installment of her “top ed-tech trends of 2011 series” on Hack Education.)

Anyway, I have a freshman doing his research paper on that issue, and I know he’s been struggling to find good articles in the library databases. So I pulled up his draft in GoogleDocs and typed a note to him at the top of his paper, with the link. (Don’t worry, I changed his name in the picture below).

When he decides to work on his draft later tonight (ha! sorry, too cynical?), he’ll see that note, click the link, then delete that from his paper, hopefully.

2. Public In-Class Editing Session

I’ve done this a few times, and students have told me it was very helpful for them. I make a speech kind of like this.

Okay, I’d like to make a proposition to you all and ask for a volunteer. I want to pull up one of your drafts right now on my computer, project it in front of all of you, and edit it. I’m going to tear it apart, so you have to be okay with that. I’ll point out what’s good, but I’ll also point out everything you need to revise, and I’ll write comments in the margins explaining all this. I want to do this to show you how closely I’m going to read your papers. I want you to see the things I’m going to be looking for when I’m reading them. If I end up using your essay, you’re basically getting a free one-on-one editing session without having to come in on your own time, after school or during lunch.

That’s usually when a couple of hands shoot up, if they haven’t already. If I have a few volunteers, I pick one whose essay I can guess will be slightly above average. A superstar’s draft won’t give me enough to comment on in terms of revisions, and part of the goal here is to jolt them awake to how much work they have left to do. In other words, I want to scare them. And a below-average paper just isn’t a model I want to show them, plus it could be too embarrassing for the author.

When we have a volunteer, I ask for a round of applause. I then do just what I promised – pick it apart, write tons of comments in the margins (using the “add comment” feature, whose keyboard shortcut, ctrl-alt-M, is a must-learn), both positive and constructive. I highlight all the typos and spelling mistakes in bright green or blue, which usually does a good job of helping them visualize how crappy a non-proofread essay will read.

While I’m doing this, I ask students to take notes on the kinds of things I’m writing down in the comments. I tell them not to write down everything I say, of course, but to watch and listen for some comment that they know I might end up making on their draft. Basically, make notes to yourself on what you need to fix. I think this kind of task makes students feel respected in that they’re not being asked to merely copy down everything I say even if it doesn’t apply to them.

They’ve also told me that the “behind-the-scenes” view of how their paper is going to get graded is especially helpful. I do give them rubrics, but, you know, they don’t all look at them. I think the public viewing of something that is normally very private and hidden is part of what makes this work.

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Smartphones are great, I think

My seniors were supposed to have a printed draft of an essay in class today. Right. Anyway, I had a peer review activity for those who were prepared, and I told those who weren’t to simply work on their essays however they could until we could get down to the computer lab for the second half of class.

Most of the unprepared students wasted that time, but a few who had smartphones did not.

That’s a girl typing on GoogleDocs with her phone.

I understand why those without a smartphone chose to do nothing. They all already had a draft or a partial draft on GoogleDocs, so trying to write out a concluding paragraph on paper, for example, would probably be a waste of time anyway.

I love how proud some kids of are of this, too. While giving some instruction to the group, I asked one kid, “Do you need to have your phone out?” He got that very defensive and pride-filled tone in his voice when answering, “Yeah, I’m typing my essay! I actually am! Look!” And when I rolled by his desk a little later he made me stop to look at how much he had typed on his phone.

And then, in talking about this with a group of them, several students made a point of showing me their antiquated, non-smart phones. So it’s not like this is something a teacher can count on all kids being able to do. But for those who can, I think it’s a great option.

Also, my own phone didn’t have enough battery at this point in the day, so I couldn’t take a photo of that girl typing. But, luckily, her neighbor had a nice phone and promptly emailed me the photo he took.

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