What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.
What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? Some people think that simply having “cameras on” is the answer to student engagement. However, engagement comes when students are cognitively involved, emotionally connected, and participating actively.
Join Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks as they model strategies for building relationships with learners, implementing writing-to-learn strategies, and prompting breakout room activities with effective protocols for discussion, collaboration, and accountability.
During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.
You would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative.
Even from the founding of our major professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, we have been concerned with (or simply complaining about) the overwhelming amount of writing that we need to grade and provide feedback upon.
Even then, we knew that the work for English teachers was immense. And, 100+ years later, it remains so. Reading and responding to dozens, if not hundreds, of student compositions on any given week remains a consistent challenge for educators at all levels, from kindergarten through college.
Fast forward from Hopkins’ blunt assessment of how well any one English teacher could actually keep up with the volume of writing he or she must manage, and we land in 1966. It is at this moment when Ellis B. Page proposed in the pages of The Phi Delta Kappan that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have astonishing impact on the educational world” (emphasis in original).
There is more history to unpack here, which I hope to do in future blog posts, yet the mid-century pivot in which one former English teacher turned educational psychologist, Page, set the stage for a debate that would still be under discussion fifty years later is clear. English people started taking sides in the computer scoring game. And, to be fair, it seems as though this was mission-driven work for Page, as he concluded that “[a]s for the classroom teacher, the computer grading of essays might considerably humanize his [sic] job.”
Tracing My Own History with Automated Essay Scoring
Over the decades, as Wikipedia describes it, “automated essay scoring” has moved in many directions, with both proponents and critics. These are a few angles I hope to explore in my posts this year for the “Ahead of the Code” project. As a middle school language arts educator, I never had opportunity to use systems for automated feedback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a college composition teacher in the mid-2000s, I eschewed plagiarism detection services and scoffed at the grammar-checkers built into word processing programs. This carries me to my more recent history, and I want to touch on the two ways in which I have, recently, been critiquing and connecting with automated essay scoring, with hopes that this year’s project will continue to move my thinking in new directions.
With that, there are two stories to tell.
Story 1: It was in early 2013 that I was approached to be part of the committee that ultimately produced NCTE’s “Position Statement on Machine Scoring.” Released on April 20, 2013, and followed by a press release from NCTE itself and an article in Inside Higher Ed, the statement was more of an outright critique than a deep analysis of the research literature. Perhaps we could have done better work. And, to be honest, I am not quite clear on what the additional response to this statement was (as its Google Scholar page here in 2020 shows only four citations). Still, it planted NCTE’s flag in the battle on computer scoring (and, in addition to outright scoring, much of this stemmed from an NCTE constituent group’s major concern about plagiarism detection and retention of student writing).
Still, I know that I felt strongly at the time that our conclusion: “[f]or a fraction of the cost in time and money of building a new generation of machine assessments, we can invest in rigorous assessment and teaching processes that enrich, rather than interrupt, high-quality instruction.” And, in many ways, I still do. My experience with NWP’s Analytic Writing Continuum (and the professional learning that surrounds it), as well as the work that I do with dozens of writers each year (from middle schoolers in a virtual summer camp last July to my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students I am teaching right now) suggests to me that talking with writers and engaging my colleagues in substantive dialogue about student writing still matters. Computers still cannot replace a thoughtful teacher.
Story 2: It was later in 2013, and I had recently met Heidi Perry through her work with Subtext (now part of Renaissance Learning). This was an annotation tool, and I was curious about it in the context of working on my research related to Connected Reading. She and I talked a bit here and there over the years. The conversation rekindled in 2016, when Heidi and her team had moved on from Subtext and were founding a new company, Writable. Soon after, I became their academic advisor and wrote a white paper about the power of peer feedback. While Heidi, the Writable team, and I have had robust conversations about if and how there should be automated feedback and other writing assistance technologies into their product, I ultimately do not make the decisions; I only advise. (For full disclosure: I do earn consulting fees from Writable, though I am not directly employed by the company, and Writable has been a sponsor of NWP-related events.)
One of my main contributions to the early development of Writable was the addition of “comment stems” for peer reviewers. While not automated feedback?—?in fact, somewhat the opposite of it?—?the goal for asking students to provide peer review responses with the scaffolded support of sentence stems was so they would, indeed, engage more intently with their classmates’ writing… with a little help. In the early stages of Writable, we actually focused quite intently on self-, peer-, and teacher-review.
To do so, I worked with them to build out comment stems, which still play a major role in the product. As shown in the screenshot below, when a student clicks on a “star rating” to offer his or her peer a rubric score, an additional link appears, offering the responder the opportunity to “Add Comment.” Once they there, as the Writable help desk article notes, “Students should click on a comment stem (or “No thanks, I’ll write my own”) and complete the comment.” This is where the instructional magic happens.
Instead of simply offering the star rating (the online equivalent of a face-to-face “good job,” or “I like it”), the responder needs to elaborate on his or her thoughts about the piece of writing. For instance, in the screenshot below, we see stems that prompt the responder to be more specific, with suggestions for adding comments about, in this case, the writer’s conclusion such as “You could reflect the content event more clearly if you say something about…” as well as “Your conclusion was insightful because you…” These stems prompt the kind of peer feedback as ethical practice, that I have described with my colleagues Derek Miller and Susan Golab.
Screenshot of the “comment stems” that appear in Writable’s peer response interface (Image courtesy of Writable)
And, though in the past few years the Writable team has (for market-based reasons) moved in the direction of adding Revision Aid (and other writing assistance technologies), I can’t argue with them. It does make good business sense and?—?as they have convinced me more and more?—?writing assistance technologies can help teachers and students. My thoughts on all of this continue to evolve, as my recent podcast interview with the founder of Ecree, Jamey Heit, demonstrates. In short, looking at how I have changed since 2013, I am beginning to think that there is room for these technologies in writing instruction.
Back to the Future of Automated Essay Scoring
So, as I try to capture my thoughts related to writing assistance technologies, here at the beginning of the 2020–21 academic year, I use the oft-cited relationship status from our (least?) favorite social media company: “It’s complicated.”
Do I agree with Hopkins, who believes that teaching English and responding to writing is still unsustainable. Yes, and…
Do I agree with Page, who suggests that automated scoring can be humanizing (for the teacher, and perhaps the student)? Yes, and…
Do I still feel that writing assistance technologies can interrupt instruction and cause a rift in the teacher/student relationship? Yes, and…
Do I think that integrating peer response stems and automated revision aid into Writable are both valuable? Yes, and…
Do I think that all of this is problematic? Yes, and…
I am still learning. And, yes, you would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative of having tools that would alleviate the workload. So, why the resistance? I want to understand more about why, both by exploring the history of writing assistance technologies as well as what it looks like, what it feels like, for teachers and students.
As part of the work this year, I will be using Writable with my Chippewa River Writing Project colleagues and, later this semester, my own students at Central Michigan University. In that process, I hope to have more substantive answers to these questions, and to push myself to better articulate when, why, and how I will employ writing assistance technologies?—?and when I will not. Like any writer making an authorial decision, I want to make the best choice possible, given my audience, purpose, and context.
And, in the process, perhaps, I will give up on some of the previous concerns about writing assistance technologies. In doing so, I will learn to be just a little bit more appreciative as I keep moving forward, hoping to remain ahead of the code.
Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro
Last winter, a group of colleagues, led by @teachkate, created & developed this pledge in a small effort to promote greater inclusivity among and w/in education conferences, panels, & other similar events.
Second, in addition to taking up this pledge, I will begin sessions — even virtual ones — with an indigenous land acknowledgement like this one from my employer, Central Michigan University, and read the introduction from this NCTE blog post, “Being an Anti-Racist Educator Is a Verb.” These two actions will take only moments, yet will continually reaffirm my commitment to social justice education and a stance of anti-racism.
Third, I have signed on to our CMU Faculty Association’s call to commit to anti-racism, led by my English Department colleagues Carlin Borsheim-Black and April Burke. Both of these educators were schedule to deliver talks at a Chippewa River Writing Project (CRWP) event this spring, which was cancelled due to COVID closures, and I will work to get them reconnected with our site’s work as soon as possible.
We all have work to do, and I need to get started. This morning is our first CRWP event now that I have taken this pledge, and I need to prepare my opening words before we begin writing into the day.
This past week, I was able to cap off a summer whirlwind of PD at CMU’s Biological Station, facilitating what we are calling our first Beaver Island Institute. The six-day event brought together middle school science and ELA teachers for an opportunity to engage in scientific inquiry, explore argument writing in science, and understand aspects of disciplinary literacy. I was fortunate enough to work with two other facilitators, one graduate student, and 16 teachers as they began to develop units of study that connect the Next Generation Science Standards, the Common Core Literacy Standards, and the ISTE Technology Standards. Our main focus was on thinking about how students can pose questions, gather data, analyze that data and refine it into useful evidence, and then make scientific arguments.
Among the many great opportunities that happened, we explored three technologies to support digital writing: infographics (using Piktochart), graphic designs (using Canva), and something new (for me), a tool called StoryMap JS (not to be confused with Story Maps or MapStory, though those both look interesting, too) as a tool for creating presentations that blend map coordinates, images, videos, and text into a coherent “story map” that, indeed, has the map at the center of the story. StoryMapJS is open source, and many news organizations have used it to tell visual stories.
As you will see in the sample Story Map that I created below, the cover/title slide is a map that contains all the subsequent points on the map. If you made a story map that was as small as one block in a town, it would zoom in that close; similarly, you could have multiple points represented all over the world with a much wider map in the opening.
The additional slides in the presentation included a space for entering an additional location, uploading (or linking to) an image, and also entering some text. In this space, students could write just about anything — a narrative that moves characters from one location to the next, a poem that describes the location, an informational piece that describes the cultural or scientific value of a particular location, or even evidence for a longer argument (as we discussed this week). The story map, then, can be shared and embedded.
Screenshot from StoryMap JS Interface
One additional tool that we used to help identify and, quite literally, pinpoint locations was GaiaGPS. Using their map tool, you can search for points of interest, zoom in and out to find other locations, and even drop pins to get exact GPS locations. I also learned from one of the participants that you can take GPS coordinates out of a Google Map, as seen in the close up of the URL bar below.
Close-Up of a Google Map Address Showing GPS Coordinates
One idea that I was imagining was that students could, while out taking pictures and videos of a space, be sure to record their location with GPS coordinates (or enable location services in the mobile app) and then have those exact spots. They could create walking tours of their communities, of natural areas, of historical sites, or — as one participant shared with me this week — they could capitalize on the Pokemon Go craze and make a series of geocaches for others to discover… or historical markers tagged with a QR code or Aurasma augmented reality.
This entire week has been valuable for me in many ways, especially as I was invited to think about connections between science and literacy. My hope is that the teachers who were involved in the institute will carry many new ideas back to their classroom this fall and, in turn, engage their own students in scientific inquiry and building arguments with evidence, evidence that they themselves have collected and analyzed.
StoryMap JS, with the opportunities it affords, could be one innovative platform for students to then share their work. Here is just a brief sample of one story map that I created as a model for the teachers.
Last night, my friend, colleague, and co-author — Dawn Reed — and I were featured on the National Writing Project’s weekly podcast, NWP Radio. Enjoy this episode in which we discuss the interwoven themes of reading, writing, and technology through a conversation about our book, Research Writing Rewired.
Digital Writing Assignment Created by Elizabeth Gates (Front Page)
During the month of May, my friend and Chippewa River Writing Project colleague Beth Gates has been working with her 11th grade students on a digital writing assignment. Many years ago, she began teaching a digital essay based on an idea from Jim Burke and shared on the English Companion Ning. I featured Beth’s work — as well as that of her students — in my book, Crafting Digital Writing and you can find two sample essays that her students created as an analysis of Death of a Salesman on the companion wiki.
This year, Beth has worked to develop an extensive assignment that leads students, first, though a MMAPS planning document that will help them identify their audience, purpose, and specific uses of media. She then asks them to identify a mentor text and to complete a Google Form that will help them see different traits in the digital writing they are analyzing. She has also created a rubric for the entire project that features categories such as genre, audience, purpose, structure, structure, digital elements, and conventions.
One of the challenges that Beth’s work is trying to address involves quantifying the work her students need to do. Through an email exchange earlier this spring, we discussed some of the potential areas that she could have her students focus upon including the balance between written words, embedded features that utilize existing resources, and additional media that she would ask students to create. Here are some components of the assignment worth noting:
Minimum 500 words in the form of written, alphabetic text. This writing will take
the form of actual sentences and paragraphs.
Minimum of 10 innovative features (created by you or copy/pasted from sources) including hyperlinks, multimedia links, embedded notes, discussion platforms, definition links, text-to-speak options, additional search extensions, infographics, images, sound, video clips, and other interactive elements.
Students would also need to create an additional piece of digital writing. This can take one of three forms:
Option 1: Using digital audio or video, you can prepare a script and record a radio-style story, an interview, a digital story, or other audio/video mode.
Option 2: Using at least 3 of your own original drawings or photos, you can use digital imaging tools such as Photoshop to manipulate these images and present them with your written text.
Option 3: Using a tool such as Piktochart or Infogr.am, you can create an infographic which includes an analysis of numerical data.
Beth’s work to design this assignment as one that is academically rigorous and still personally meaningful for students is laudable. In fact, I really appreciate the way that she built in the distinction for students surrounding “innovative features” (essentially linking to someone else’s work or asking for audience interaction, both reasonable expectations of digital writing) and also asking students to create an additional piece of digital writing in the form of audio/video, image, or infographic. More than just copying someone else’s work (or linking to it) or asking their peers to respond to that work, Beth is having her students compose digital writing that moves beyond alphabetic text, and to do so in an academically appropriate manner.
My one concern — and I recognize that this comes straight from my position in the ivory tower — is that asking students to quantify everything in their digital writing leads down a slippery slope. As Kristen Turner and I have argued in “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait,”
Setting a minimum number of slides, images, transitions, links, or other digital elements in student projects does little to improve digital literacy. In much the same way that some of the most reductive writing pedagogy has created patterns (five paragraphs of five sentences each, for instance), we now see similar trends happening with slide shows, websites, digital stories, and other types of digital writing projects. Rather than focusing on content—and developing an appropriate message—the assignments focus on the most basic elements of form: the things that can be counted. (60)
So, on the surface, it would appear that I would not be in favor of Beth’s assignment design. After all, she is counting words and innovative features.
Still, I recognize the dilemma that she is — and all K-12 teachers are — in as we shift into data-driven decision making in schools. We have to count something.
In this case, then, I can see what Beth is doing as a step (or two, or ten) in the right direction because she isn’t just handing students an assignment sheet and asking them to write 500 words and include 10 innovative features and then to make a podcast, photo essay, or infographic. She is scaffolding them through the entire process. Here is a description of her month-long unit that she shared with me:
April 27-28: Writing Notebook work on Writing Territories, short writes, topics, and playing with ideas.
April 29: Introduce the MMAPSS and model it
May 2-3: Students work individually on their own MMAPSS Planning Guide (Due May 3)
May 4: Students commit to a topic, genre, purpose, and audience. They use remaining time to explore different Media ideas (see MMAPSS)
May 5-6: Introduce and model a mentor text study using two different genres–share student projects from previous years
May 9-13: Students must complete 4-6 Mentor Text Study Sheets (differing number because of team-taught kids). Due on Monday, May 16
May 16-18: Writing a rough draft. Individual conferences with all students at least 1-2 times (some more).
May 19: Introduce digital elements as (1) Required–reader needs for comprehension, think of like a footnote; (2) Extended–reader has the option to delve deeper into the topic or idea through additional information or ideas on the topic; (3) Optional–author considers the needs of an unintended audience or a small segment of the audience. This wouldn’t be needed for most.
May 20: Peer to peer and teacher to student conferencing (with a few to finish on Monday)
May 23: Introduce bibliography vs. Work Cited and tools such as Easybib, Knight Cite, Citation Machine, etc.
May 24-May 27: Continue revision and conferencing with students. Final Product due on May 27
While she is still in the process of having students submit their final products, she has shared some of the MMAPS planning guides from a number of students: Lauren, Noah, Adrienne, Gabe, Mattie, Kyle. Their choices in mode/genre range from informational texts to fantasy stories, and they will use a variety of media including blogs, websites, and existing fan fiction sites. Their critical, careful evaluation of audience, purpose, and situation suggests that they will, indeed, craft very effective pieces of digital writing.
All in all, I appreciate Beth’s work with her students and recognize the pinch that she is in, both needing to demonstrate connections to standards and also making assessment manageable. I will be curious to see how her students’ work turns out and to continue reflecting on the project with her in the weeks ahead. In the mean time, the assignment resources she provides on her wiki page are robust and will provide us all with plenty to read as we think about designing our own digital writing tasks.
The past two days (and into tomorrow), I’ve had the good fortune to be in Austin, TX, amongst a group of dedicated National Writing Project colleagues. As with all NWP events, it has been intellectually challenging and emotionally rewarding, inviting us to think about what it means for us — as site leaders who have each traveled our own unique path to this position — to think about new ways that we can support teachers in our post-NCLB/RTTT world (which also happened to defund the NWP).
We are at the point in the retreat where we have been asked to reflect on two days of conversations, brainstorming sessions, interactive panel discussions, tweeting, post-it noting, gallery walking, and, of course, eating. While there are many themes to reflect upon, I want to zero in on two that made their way to my post it notes this afternoon: effective models for online professional development and recruiting and supporting teachers as they grow into leadership roles.
For the first component, it is fortuitous that I am teaching my first online doctoral course — EDU 807, “Learning Tools in Education Technology” — and that has kicked off this week while I am here at the retreat. There are multiple tensions that I feel need to be balanced:
The “magic” that happens in the summer institute being face-to-face vs. the kinds of alternative experiences we can offer online.
The pervading idea that we can “deliver” a great deal of “content” through online courses/PD vs. the kinds of participation and growth that can happen online.
The dizzying array of ed tech tools that we could employ vs. the values we hold dear about teaching, learning, and the NWP core beliefs.
The balance between teaching writing (alphabetic text, academic conventions) vs. digital writing with multiple forms of media.
The fine line between creating and then offering resources and experiences in a free, open source manner vs. the traditional university ideas about ownership and intellectual property.
There are more, to be sure, but these are the few that have come to mind today.
The second major idea that is on my mind comes in the form of how we can continue supporting teachers as they grow into leadership roles, assuming that we are able to find and develop these teachers in the first place. It is no accident that the NWP model has been compared to minor league baseball’s “farm system.” Noticing and inviting teachers who showed promise as leaders was (and still is) one of the main goals of our work. The challenge is that we don’t have the immersive summer institute experience (or, at the very least, not the same system that we used to have).
Additionally, in many states, teachers are no longer rewarded — in prestige or with pay — to be truly outstanding in the sense that they actively seek out professional learning above and beyond the basics offered in their districts. For instance, in Michigan as in many other states, it is now possible for teachers to get their certificates renewed using “district sponsored” PD hours. Teachers will not be recognized or rewarded for doing more. One teacher with whom I have worked extensively, for instance, doesn’t even share info with department members about the presentations at professional conferences or publications on which we have collaborated. Neither the incentive structure in her school nor the culture of professionalism in the school invites it.
In short, my mind is full, but I admit that my heart is heavy.
This is challenging work and — while I am not afraid to tackle it — I am afraid that, despite our best efforts, we are going to lose some of the magic that is the life-changing NWP experience (with or without summer institutes). This is not to say that we can’t continue to do good work, to reach out to new teachers, and to develop exciting, enriching programs. We have already. We will in the future.
It’s just to say that the “new” pathways to leadership are going to continue to be difficult for us, as existing leaders to forge, and for the next generation of leaders to find. I know we will continue, yet I am anxious to figure out exactly how we will do so.
We are in the middle of week three of our Chippewa River Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute, and I am sitting in the late afternoon calm of writing time.
At this moment, eight of the seventeen of us are here composing various pieces, including our digital stories. The rest are scattered around our building, or around campus, doing the same. Teacher writers who have found some time, space, and stillness to do meaningful work, both personally and professionally.
For me, it is digital storytelling — the recursive process of writing words, finding images, recording our voices, and repeating each of these steps over and over again — that makes for the most compelling type of writing that we do each summer. I am continually fascinated by the ways in which teachers work on this multimodal composing process.
Some begin with a hint of an idea for a story; others have a strong lead with a clear picture of the story they want to tell. Some begin with their own pictures, digital or digitized, and are able to easily form them into a timeline. Others are stumped, searching the web for countless images that will fit with their vision. Narration is scripted, recorded, revised, and re-recorded.
Finding and clarifying what a story is really about isn’t easy. It’s a journey in which a storyteller’s insight or wisdom can evolve, even revealing an unexpected outcome. Helping storytellers find and own their deepest insights is the part of the journey we enjoy the most. (10)
Image by Casey Fyfe from Unsplash
We don’t often talk about how to gain insight from our writing processes, at least not in school. This is the joy and opportunity that we find in the summer institute.
All of these intangible elements combine to allow us to take risks, be creative, and open ourselves up to discovery. This is the space in which digital stories are born, are nourished, are revised, and, eventually, published and shared with the world.
This afternoon, we took some time to talk about revision, too, and it was interesting to hear how many of us talked about revising our digital pieces, especially our digital stories. Changing one word, just one small element of a script can result in an alteration of the entire timeline. The exact moment when a picture should appear, timed with our own voices or a sound effect, can make or break a digital story.
Digital storytelling, unlike any other form of writing, is a recursive process of discovery, a process that I continue to enjoy as a teacher, teacher educator, and storyteller myself. I look forward to sharing my next story soon.
Earlier this evening, I participated in a wonderful closing discussion as part of the sixth and final webinar in KQED’s TeachDoNow series. The archived video as well as a summary of my tweets with links from the conversation are below. Broadly, our conversation centered on this big question: How do you manage learners, tasks, resources, and assessment in a connected learning environment?
I’ve gathered all those videos up and posted them on a page of the book’s companion wiki. All in all, I’ve had some great conversations with some amazing educators, and I hope that you find them as useful to listen to as I found them when I was participating in them.
Also, in the past two weeks, I have had to-coauthored journal articles released, both available for free online. :
Then, last week, I was out in Colorado presenting at the Conference on English Education summer gathering. It was great to talk with other English educators about the power of my professional writing group and some of the research I am working on right now. Needless to say, it’s been a busy summer so far!
Then, next week, I work my way down to the Discovery Education near DC to present at their Common Core Academy with a stop on my way home in Charlottesville, VA, to work with teachers at Albemarle County Public Schools on creating their digital writing workshop. In fact, we had a virtual meeting today to start our conversation, and they came up with a great list of topics for us to pursue next week:
Digging in deeper to smart assessment practices and building useful rubrics
Among their PLC, creating a repository of digital mentor texts and teaching resources
Exploring the affordances and constraints of different forums for students to write and comment on each others’ writing
Discussing ways to help parents who may be hesitant letting their students use digital writing tools feel more comfortable about why and how we are teaching with web-based technology
As I reflect on the summer so far, I have been impressed with the willingness and dedication of teachers, all working to understand the Common Core and implications for digital writing with their students. Most of these conversations have been positive, despite the negative political rhetoric surrounding the CCSS right now. I am still not an outright fan of CCSS, but I am confident that many teachers are thinking about how to use these standards in thoughtful, generative, and — dare I say it — even creative ways, not reductive ones. Let’s hope that we can keep the positive momentum going, focusing on how to help students craft digital writing.
One last note — please join in the book’s G+ community and feel free to post. I need to get back in there and stir up some conversation, yet always welcome comments, questions, and insights from you, too.