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.

Why Gymnasts and Flipped-Class Teachers Need a Spotter

The flipped-class method, sometimes referred to as the “Fisch flip” (or reverse instruction), is a way to reorder the elements involved in teaching class material. In theory, students view a vodcast lecture or presentation screencast at home and the next day in class the student will practice or apply what was taught the night before. The flip refers to the swap between traditional uses of class time (lecture) and homework.

"Jake" image courtesy of xac on Flickr.

There are many reasons why this flip works for students and teachers among them:

  1. Unlike live lecture, students can pause, rewind, or review the recorded content any time in class or on their own.
  2. Teachers can ensure all sections of all courses hear the same explanations. No more worries about class interruptions for fire drills, assemblies cutting class short, teacher or student sick days–the content remains the same.
  3. In a mastery environment, students can work ahead or take more time. Learning becomes self-paced instead of teacher-paced.
  4. Teachers and students take advantage of class time for experimentation, exploration, practice, and clarification.

I don’t doubt the benefits for many teachers and students, but I am concerned about how reversed instruction may be applied. Planning for and creating vodcasts or screencasts requires a certain amount of technical skill along with presentation skills. Enthusiasm for the flip is not enough without understanding what makes it work well.

Gymnasts and Their Spotters

In order to learn and develop the strength, flexibility and muscle memory necessary to execute backflips, handsprings, and other tumbling, a gymnast requires dedicated, focused practice. In order to learn effectively, gymnasts begin with a spotter who can help them develop their skill as they learn a new technique. Spotters are experienced guides who don’t take control away from the gymnast, but provide the support necessary to ensure the gymnast’s safety, encourage proper form, and prevent injury. Just because a child is naturally athletic and taught herself how to do a back handspring in the backyard doesn’t mean she’s ready to complete a series of back handsprings down a balance beam in competition.

Spotting the Flipped Class Teacher

In education, we’re fond of throwing around terms for educational practices and we expect when we use these terms that everyone knows what we mean by them: formative assessment, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, the flipped classroom. In practice, misunderstandings and misapplication of methods that work well in the cutting-edge classrooms lead some late adopters and critics to decry these methods because they’ve missed what’s under the hood. It’s easy to read blog posts and Twitter testimonials and get excited (or critical) about a new method but without understanding how it ought to be applied. For example, my first flipped class experience was for an online Masters degree course. The lecture consisted of a cram-packed PowerPoint presentation and a muffled audio recording of the professor reading the slide information while occasionally interjecting additional points that weren’t already on the slides. It was difficult to pay attention to the recording because I could read the content faster than it could be read to me. Just because the lecture and notes were pre-recorded didn’t mean this was a successful flip. It was an attempt, and like a gymnast who falls and fails to complete a tumbling pass, my instructor needed coaching and practice. In other words: what if my professor had a spotter to help him refine his presentation or give him feedback?

Innovation and trying something new are key elements to keeping education vital and helping students meet 21st Century Learning outcomes. In the process, though, it’s important to remember we don’t have to do it alone–and we’re better for it. Before I embark on a flipped-class venture, I plan to seek out my own spotters and coaches to help me avoid making mistakes that will impair learning in my classroom. What are some of these mistakes that need spotting?

  1. Creating presentations that allow students to merely watch passively.
  2. Replicating textbook content and replacing reading with viewing.
  3. Ignoring issues of recording quality and clarity.
  4. Conflating pizazz and technical showmanship with instruction.
  5. Expecting too little of my students.

QCK Coaches Code of Conduct image courtesy of Rick McCharles on Flickr

For more information and examples of a flipped classroom in action, visit the Flipped Class Blog by flipped class innovators Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron  Sams or ask questions using the #flipclass hashtag on Twitter.

And the teachers were people. Reflection on Asimov’s “The Fun They Had”

My sixth grade language arts teacher told us we were welcome to take as many copies of the classroom set of magazines as we wanted. It was the end of the school year, and of course, that meant it was time to clear the shelves and close the room for summer cleaning.

We’d only managed to read a few READ magazines in class. The rest, with their mini plays, writing prompts, and stories, were shrink-wrapped gifts, waiting to be opened. I don’t remember how many students took her up on the offer, but I was there, poised like a yard-sale bargain-hunter, examining the literary buffet spread across the table in the back of our classroom, waiting for the moment I could get my hands on them. I took one of each, clutching a fist full of those pulpy paper magazines and slipping them into my deep, purple back pack on the last day of school.

The unclaimed copies probably wound their way to the landfill. 1992 was still too early for a dedicated paper recycling program in my elementary school, though we’d been intoning “reduce-reuse-recycle” for two years.

READ magazine covers, as I remember them.

I don’t recall a single story or poem from any so-called literature book I read in grade school, but I do remember the stories, poems, and ideas from READ, even long after the tissue-thin pages of the issues I brought home had fallen apart. The stories were provocative in ways our regular classroom reading wasn’t. These stories were suspenseful, witty, and sometimes dark, but always challenged my view of the world and myself. They were stories that kept unfolding and presenting me with new ideas that seemed to lie between the lines and beyond the pages.

In Stephen King’s “Battleground” a man fought to the death against a murderous army of sentient G.I. Joe-style toys. Donald E. Westlake’s story “The Winner” forced me to contemplate power and powerlessness, torture, human dignity, and the cost of doing the right thing in the face of oppression or authoritarian rule. A dramatization of the events at Pearl Harbor led me to ask questions about war and suffering in situations that had seemed so cut and dried in social studies class. Hardly fluff fiction.

My one of my favorite stories, and the one that sent me straight to the public library to mine the shelves for more, has been on my mind more and more as I approach the end of my first decade as a teacher. The story, by Isaac Asimov, is called “The Fun They Had.”

“The Fun They Had”: Imagining the Future of Education

Asimov’s story was first published in 1951 when computers were the size of rooms and a computer bug could quite literally be an unfortunate moth or spider that crawled across the circuitry and shorted something out among vacuum tubes, lit bulbs and relays. Yet in less than 1,100 words, Asimov predicted personal computers, ebook readers, the death of print (though not the end of hand writing), one-to-one computer-based education, differentiated instruction and Khan Academy.

The story (set in the distant year 2157) focuses on Margie and her friend Tommy, who finds a yellowed and crumbling bound book. Margie is fascinated at the sight of a printed book where the words stand still and don’t vanish when a page is turned. when she learns the book is about school, she wrinkles her nose in disdain and wonders why anyone would want to write about something as boring as school. For Margie, school is torturous. She goes to the school room in her home five days per week and a faceless machine delivers instruction. Margie listens, completes assignments, and inserts them into the teacher-machine for instant grading. The reader learns, however, that Margie’s teacher is broken and requires a checkup from the local inspector who adjusts the teacher to Margie’s level of readiness.

Tommy explains to Margie that long ago, schools were places where children gathered to learn from one another and teachers were men. Margie exclaims:

“A man? How could a man be a teacher?”

“Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.”

“A man isn’t smart enough.”

“Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.”

“He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.”

“He knows almost as much, I betcha.”

In Margie’s world, people don’t teach, machines do. Students work in isolation, though their progress is monitored closely through frequent computerized assessments. Margie longs for the old days and imagines how much fun it must have been.

All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people…

The Transformation Generation

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the shift in classrooms, culture, and information. In elementary school, I still visited the public library and made ten-cent photocopies of pages from the encyclopedia to use in school reports. I was taught to use our school library’s physical card catalog and to use a book’s index to find topic-specific information. I hauled piles of books onto broad tables, bookmarking and making index card outlines. By the time I was a sophomore in high school I was accessing the Internet but didn’t really use it for research. By 1998, I used my savings from birthday money and babysitting to purchase my first internet-ready personal computer to ensure I would be ready for college.

As the gap closes between Asimov’s world in 1951 and his imagined future in “The Fun They Had” I find myself a little breathless to be part of the Transformation Generation who have lived through the changes as students. My students have never known a world without the “net.” They don’t remember all the innovative leaps from floppy disks and 3.5 inch disks to zip drives and thumb drives to the cloud. For them, photographs have always been digital and subject to manipulation. Their PDFs are editable; I still used a typewriter and correction fluid to complete my college applications. I got my first cell phone after college–and it was an insurance policy, not a ubiquitous mini-computer.

I think about this narrowing gap and the adults who have lived the adventure, now in our 30’s. We have a unique perspective on this slice of history as the landscape has shifted beneath and around us. I feel personally compelled to defend my profession against attempts to turn teaching into fact-cramming, where people are robots and education is nothing more than a series of inputs and outputs.  Asimov’s caution is still relevant if our culture is willing to heed it. In his story, children like Margie create nothing, design nothing, question nothing. They merely receive instruction and give back what is expected to the computer “teacher.”

There is more to teaching and learning than knowing facts and passing exams. I refuse to let go of the art of teaching and submit to the data wall; I don’t want the children of 2157 to look back on 2011 and wonder how we could let education reform go so terribly wrong.

Click here for the full text of “The Fun They Had”.