Adventures in Paperless Assessment and Feedback

One of the best parts of going paperless on assignments is the ease of giving feedback digitally. Too many times when I would hand-write comments on student papers, I wound up with drained ink pens, writer’s cramp, and zero correlation between my feedback and improvement in student work habits or skills. It got to the point that I tried everything from highlighter schemes to byzantine coding just to make the effort feel worth the time I put in.  (! for a positive, ? for something confusing, * for…I forget…)

Who was I fooling?

Even those methods weren’t enough to put a dent in making feedback part of learning.  I found myself noticing patterns in the errors and wrote and rewrote much of the same advice as I dutifully marched through each individual paper–to no great effect. As I slaved away writing comment after comment, it frustrated me to know their papers were destined for the deepest, darkest, and most neglected corners of their backpacks or lockers. Students merely looked for a grade and promptly tossed their work and mine.

In the last five years, I have made a shift in my philosophy toward assessment, feedback, and measuring student progress. That shift has meant closer alignment to standards-based grading and a greater internal consistency for assigning grades. I hung a laminated poster of the district grade-scale along with the standards-based language I use in order to help students see the link between the grade and their progress.

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Students consult the assessment guide during a self-assessment activity.

 

Enter Paperless Assignments

This year, our school joined the ranks of Google Apps for Education, and with that giant leap forward came another shift in the way I collect, assess, and give feedback on student work. I keep experimenting with different ideas, but my paper-management past caused issues for my digital-management present. With a stack of papers, I could easily attach a rubric or checklist to the front with a stapler. I couldn’t see a way to do that digitally without altering a student’s document and potentially upsetting a carefully formatted document. Philosophically, I don’t want my grading feedback to overwhelm or intrude on a student’s work, nor do I want to bury it at the bottom of the page or otherwise “spoil” a student’s desire to improve their work with the poison of a numerical grade. Students deserve to have the integrity of their writing assignments respected.

Comment bubbles in the margins have been a great compromise for me. I still get to mark the text and call out features that either need work or are outstanding. Students have the ability to confer with me or ask questions without cluttering up their work with any intrusions that might interfere with the coherence of their writing. Students also have the capability to remove my comments from the margins while still having a record to access at any time. A side benefit of these comment bubbles is the invitation for students to engage with me in conversation. Students rarely skip over these comments without either replying, making the suggested correction, or asking a question of their own. They almost can’t help themselves! Comment bubbles in the margin are great for this kind of on-the-spot feedback, but when it comes to a final holistic snapshot or grade, it didn’t feel like enough.

Enter Autocrat, my new favorite Google script.

Autocrat, Where Have You Been All My Digital-Grading Life?

I was first introduced to Autocrat in a side conversation during a Google Cloud Camp held in our district last November. I was already using gClass Folders, Doctopus, and Goobric (three other tools that have made the switch to paperless much more painless), but I was unfamiliar with the merge tool and couldn’t picture how I might use it other than to correspond.

With a little creative thinking and a post on rubric assessments in spreadsheets by Alice Keeler, inspiration struck.

I began with a spreadsheet populated with my students’ names, email addresses, and the direct link to their documents. I then added columns for feedback scores (based on a 3-2-1 rubric for exceeds expectations, meets expectations, and approaching expectations). After collecting student work and recording their scores and feedback in the spreadsheet, I designed a separate document that would act as my feedback template.

The magic of Autocrat lies in the merge ability. I can design one feedback sheet in a document, insert tags for student names, scores, and customized feedback, and then run the script to merge the grading input from my spreadsheet with the template. Each student receives a personalized email, a pdf attachment to the assessment, and a link to their document with further comments.

Each student.

Timely, appropriate, personalized feedback.

Respect for the integrity of student work.

Efficient use of time, attention, and energy.

Assessment bliss!

This process takes less time and produces a superior output to anything I might have done by hand. I’m looking forward to hearing from my students to see if they like their personal feedback reports and see how they use the feedback to improve.

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T’was the Night Before Testing

And I can’t fall asleep.

My seventh graders take part one of a three part test to see how much I’ve been able to develop 180 days worth of skills as readers and writers crammed into in the first six months of the school year. At one hour per day with each class, that’s not a lot of time.

I’m not worried about the scores that will form part of my evaluations next year and for years to come. Those numbers are of no use to me, coming too late to inform our work. Instead I think of individual students, homogenized as data points for easy consumption and judgment far from my classroom.

I think of the absent students who have missed ten or more hours of instruction due to illness, appointments, or family vacations. I think about students who have made incredible leaps in such a short time, but who struggle to find their confidence in the impersonal drone of “make your mark heavy and dark.” I worry about the high achievers who told me today, “I can’t help it. I’m nervous.” I worry about the anxious students who will panic or freeze and then fear letting me or another adult down.

I hurt for the students who said, “You really can’t help me tomorrow? Really? Not even if I’m stuck?” Not even, kiddo. Especially then.

My desks are in rows; my Writing Tips posters, covered; my boards, clear; my pencils, sharpened; my “Do Not Disturb” sign, hung. All that remains is the impersonal recitation and threatening jargon from the proctor’s manual.

I’ve been doing this since NCLB became law at the start of my career. I know they’ll be fine; we always are. Still, I can’t sleep. There has to be a better way.

Screen Glow

The first message came at 11:09pm.

Then 11:21pm.

The last message, at 11:32pm, was the one that caught my eye. The glow of my cellphone’s screen in the darkness as the “alert ” screen slowly faded to black.

What was so urgent that I was woken from my sleep? A student was replying to feedback I left for him on an assignment in Google Drive.

It’s Sunday night, way past bedtime for this teacher, and truth be told–for my young students as well–but I can’t help but feel bemused.

I’ve been giving feedback on student writing for years. Hours of time. Gallons of ink. (Hyperbole? Perhaps.) So often, once the grade was on the page, the feedback and comments were tossed aside or even straight into the recycling bin.

This late-night, unasked for revision? This was not a reaction I’m used to getting to my feedback. Its mere existence on the document invites action! It’s half of a conversation, waiting for a response. The immediacy and ease of communication, the personal, one-to-one coaching: all of it is so powerful.

Still…to my kiddos…it CAN wait until daylight, ok?

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Lessons Learned from a Social Networking SIM

The Lesson: Part 1

Close reading and the ability to engage with text instead of just letting words flow over eyeballs are skills that I enjoyed developing. I was a voracious reader in middle school and read through complete shelves of books in the school library, one shelf at a time.

When I entered high school, it was my creative writing teacher who introduced me to annotation. I had never before dared to mark in a book or on the pristine margins of a photocopied handout. When I did, it set free a different way of reading. I looked closer, thought harder, questioned and relished more.

You would think with my love for reading and annotation that it would be easy for me to convince my skeptical students to give it a try. Cajoling, begging, demonstrating: none of these approaches seemed to work. After a few random and perfunctory underlines and non sequiturs scrawled here and there out of obligation, I tried a new approach.

The Lesson: Part 2

We talked about their drug of choice: Instagram. I asked my seventh graders to explain to me how social media works on Instagram. They told me how to post and share content, use hashtags to label it, and how to add comments to give feedback. We also talked about meaningful vs. meaningless comments.

Then I made a proposal: Imagine this classroom is a social networking platform called desktop and the poem we read is a piece of shared content. What kinds of comments or hashtags would you add to this poem if you wanted comments or feedback?

The response was instantaneous. They started rereading and marking almost every line of the poem “The Limited” by Sherman Alexie.#noviolence #poetrysaveslives

After they finished, we walked around the room in complete silence using our pens to comment on one another’s desktop posts. Checkmarks for likes, of course.

I have never seen my students so focused, pausing to read and respond over and over. I told them we’d work for seven minutes; they wanted ten.

The Lesson: Part 3

I was part of the conversation, too, and as I scanned the “posts” it became clear how my students position themselves in social media. While there was much thoughtful commentary, there were few connections. Many of the hashtags were appended at random with someone marking #yolo and #swagg on every page, though there was no meaning behind the tag.

Students also tended to bandwagon. There were many comments of: Yes. I agree. Me too. Yup. Good idea. With no extension or challenge to anyone’s thinking. Questions and differing points of view were disregarded altogether.

In one class period, it became a race to see who could garner the most checkmark “likes” on silly tags like #gobyu or #poem.

Conclusions

After the end of the experiment, I led a debrief with each class. They did not fully understand how superficial much of their commentary was.

I was disheartened by the superficiality and their unwillingness to engage in anything that wasn’t trite, cute, or as they put it “double-tap” worthy. (One for a like, one for a repost.) They don’t see social media as a communication genre, but as a self-promotion and posturing venue. Posts are less about the value of the content and more about the analytics: How many likes? How many comments? How many shares?

I think I will try this experiment again, but with more guidance and clearer expectations for communicating thoughtfully.

(Cross-Posted on Sanderling)

Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)

Comments ‘Round the Web, September 5-10

In getting to know my new students, several of them wrote that a goal they have for the year is to “stop hating reading” and to “read for fun and not because [it’s] forced.” I wanted to cry.

I noted the books that each student listed and plopped them into a Shelfari, but I can’t bring myself to “assess” what boils down to compliance with a demand. I did bring up an idea that as a class or as a grade, I’d be happy to help them track the number of books we all read and see just how many books we can finish together in a year.

via Assessment: Formative, Summative, Punitive? « My Island View.

Feynman: Asking Questions, Solving Puzzles

What I cannot create, I do not understand. --Richard Feynman

Found on the chalkboard in physicist Richard Feynman's office after his death in 1988. Image by Jennifer Leung.

A wonderful performance of QED in Mansfield, Massachusetts taught me about physicist Richard Feynman, the beauty of mathematics, and the restless questioning and creating that lead us to find meaning in life.

The primarily one-man show brought to life a man who was more vibrant and chaotic than the particles and quarks he studied. To Feynman, everything was a puzzle, and questions, especially the ones that seem the most simple and have already been answered by “the experts” are the ones most worth exploring.

Among his exploits, this Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped design the atomic bomb also loved appearing in productions at Cal Tech–stealing scenes with small parts just because he could. He successfully picked the locks on every file cabinet and combination safe at Los Alamos just because it was a puzzle to solve. His office was a playground of bongo drums and sketch pads, short stories and theorems. As the show began he explained how collecting stamps as a child led to his desire to visit Tannu Tuva in the USSR by learning Tuvan–a Russian dialect–and scheming ways to enter the remote country.

His mind was agile and curious. He viewed the natural world and its mysteries with appreciation, wonder, and bravado when called for. In short: this was the type of man I would hope education could encourage. He was not a product of education, rather, he never allowed the voice or expertise of another to dissuade him from his many passions or his curiosity. He never took “yes” or “no” for an answer and swore “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

In my own educational experience, I missed the beauty in physics that captivated this man’s imagination and wished my science teachers had shown me how to ask unabashed questions rather than explaining what to memorize and what to know. Through the performance, the actor shared Feynman’s joy–demonstrating how even a simple piece of glass reveals a mystery of the natural world: light as particle and wave, reflection and refraction–but how do the particles know whether to pass through the glass or bounce off its surface? How often do I allow my students to ask questions with no definitive answers–or help them understand that there is a difference in questions others ask them to “prove” they’ve learned the “right” material and asking themselves “I wonder why?”

I found myself alternatively inspired and challenged by this man’s vision and passion. I wondered what he was like in middle school, this man who picked the locks of file cabinets containing military secrets. Are there Feynmans in my classroom who bide their time until they can leave the confining walls of uniform knowledge, doled out in memorizable bites? How will they feed their curiosity? How will they know it’s okay to be in love with an idea? That joy and learning are not impossible sides to the same coin?

Will the obsession with testing crush the next Feynman before he (or she) can create his (or her) own way to question nature?

UPDATE:

GOOD Magazine recently posted this video of Richard Feynman explaining how rubber bands work. I would love to see my students this restless and excited about the world and their understanding of it.