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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

The Techy Teacher / Provide Feedback As They Write

The Techy Teacher / Provide Feedback As They Write- thumbnail
Ask teachers what their least favorite aspect of their job is, and most will groan, "grading." After a long day at school, teachers spend significant amounts of time in the evenings and on weekends grading students' work—especially writing assignments. Keeping up with grading can be exhausting, and it robs us of the time and energy needed to design creative lessons and meaningful assessments.
As a younger teacher, I spent an average of 7–10 minutes on each student essay, correcting mechanical errors, identifying places where stronger evidence was needed, and pointing out underdeveloped analyses. Then I'd fill out a detailed rubric to arrive at a final grade. Yet that investment wasn't rewarding because I was commenting on completed assignments, and students rarely revised their work once they received a grade.

Pulling the Process into the Classroom

Three years ago, I had an epiphany about my approach to providing feedback on my students' writing. Students were just about to start an essay analyzing plot elements that led to the tragic ending in Shakespeare's play Othello. Because the language and plot are complex, this was a challenging assignment. I knew my students would need support during the writing process.
I had the class time to provide that support because I flip my writing instruction. Instead of standing in front of the class and explaining how to write a thesis statement or format a paragraph, I record and publish videos on the different steps of writing an essay. Students watch those videos at home where they can control the pace of their learning. They can pause the video, rewind it, or watch it a few times if they need to review an explanation. Students can then apply what they've learned in the video by writing in class, where they have the support of the subject-area expert—me—and their peers when they put pen to paper or fingers to keys.
I first planned time in class for students to crowdsource textual evidence that they could use in their essays. Students worked in small groups, digging through the play to find evidence that showed how elements of the plot led to the ending. As students worked to identify strong quotes from the play, I invited them to add their quotes to a shared Padlet Wall—a virtual note board. This made the burden of finding strong textual evidence a shared task. As they worked in class, I circulated, answering questions and providing individual support to students who were struggling.
I know many teachers might frown on students sharing evidence in a collaborative prewriting session, but I disagree. The best textual evidence tends to rise to the top. Students learn from one another in these moments. It was fun to hear them discuss particular quotes and bounce around interpretations as they worked. Students learned more from having those conversations about the language in the play, in my opinion, than they would have learned from hunting down textual evidence on their own.

Synchronous Editing

In addition to this collaborative prewriting session, I also reserved the computer lab three days in a row and decided to experiment with editing students' essays as they worked on them. Using Google documents, I was able to jump in and out of students' essays throughout the writing process. This created a level of transparency that I never had when students were composing on paper or Word documents.
The first day we went into the computer lab, I told my students that I was going to stay seated the entire 90-minute period with the goal of commenting on every single document. I explained that if I walked around the room answering questions, I wouldn't be able to provide everyone with the feedback they deserved. If they got stuck or had a question that couldn't wait, I invited them to send me a message through Gmail chat.
The 90-minute block passed in a blur of editing. It was incredible to provide feedback as my students worked. For instance, some students were missing a key element in their thesis statements or failed to format their paragraphs properly, so I copied and pasted links to specific videos I had recorded on these topics and asked them to review the videos and correct the issues. During our synchronous editing session, I also pointed out grammatical errors, misuse of informal language, and homophone mistakes. One student kept typing "loose" when she meant "lose," so I made a note on her document explaining the difference and encouraged her to use the "find and replace" function under her editing tools.
As I made comments on their writing, I'd see their cursors pause and jump to the spot where I had made the suggestion, and then students would correct the error or make the necessary edit. The entire experience was rewarding on a number of levels: It eliminated the lag time that's so common in the feedback cycle, created total transparency, and made editing students' papers feel more like a conversation than an evaluation.

Value the Process, Not the Product

As I walked away from that first session of synchronous editing, exhausted but satisfied with both my students' effort and my own, it hit me. My 9th and 10th grade students are still learning how to write. Most students enter my class without a strong foundation in writing. They are not yet strong enough writers to tackle the complex essay prompts I present without serious support. The time I spend helping my students edit and refine their writing as they write is exponentially more valuable for them than the final comments I leave on their essays.
How could it have taken me 12 years to realize that I needed to put 90 percent of my effort and time into the process and 10 percent into the product? It seems so obvious now. In part, I think my failure to make this connection was really the result of not having the technology that I needed to truly work with students in a collaborative way. It was hard to see the process and identify areas of strength and weakness before Google Apps gave me access to my students' work at all stages of the writing process.
I realized that a writing assignment shouldn't be used as simply an assessment tool. Assigning an essay to be completed at home and then graded in isolation is a missed opportunity. The students miss out on valuable feedback and support as they write, and the teacher collects enormous stacks of paper that must be graded outside the school day. This old model is frustrating and exhausting for everyone.
Why not move writing, and practice of all kinds, back into the classroom? It makes more sense to spend our time and energy providing feedback as students work, instead of waiting until the end products are collected to spend hours editing them. We are fortunate enough to teach in a time when technology is making it easier than ever to collaborate on documents and provide instant feedback, so we can embrace and prioritize the process.

Catlin Tucker is a Google Certified Innovator, bestselling author, international trainer, and keynote speaker. Catlin is currently working as an education consultant and blended learning coach while pursuing her doctorate at Pepperdine University.

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