Getting Closer to a Self-Grading English Class


There are even more mutually beneficial reasons to automate an English class than you might think, especially now.  

In addition to simply using time-savers to prevent teacher burnout, we know that instant feedback - especially for formative assessment - is better for student learning. Letting go of grading certain tasks also frees me up to be a better teacher elsewhere; I'd rather pour my energy into giving better feedback on their writing than lose time on certain kinds of tasks. 

But three other unique scenarios recently happened to me, too. 

  1. Some teachers are working harder than they have to in a school year that's already hard enough. I've met some justified teachers who are so desperate to be away from their screens (and return their students to paper-based activities) that they aren't willing or able to optimize their processes or their time. Likewise, some teachers right now are so understandably overwhelmed with meeting digital learning demands that they're converting their norms to a screen without being able to pause and ask if there's another option. 
  2. We have to be even more ready to let a substitute teacher take over. First, I was told that I needed to have at least 2 weeks of DIGITAL substitute teacher plans ready to use in a moment's notice, just in case I got COVID. Then, my school had a tough time acquiring a substitute teacher for my maternity leave for this spring. Therefore, my sub plans had to not only be hybrid-learning ready... but I needed students to complete legitimate, authentic tasks in my absence that a non-English teacher could possibly assess. (No pressure.) 
  3. I've accepted how pervasive it is for other kinds of teachers to have help. In other grade levels outside of secondary English, there are varying levels of help with grading, prep, or other elements of teaching: professors have TAs, and lucky primary teachers sometimes have parent helpers or paraprofessionals who can help with anything from bulletin boards to grading to preparing materials. Why is it inherently acceptable for other educators to receive help, but secondary ones feel the need to shoulder so much alone? This realization has made me feel even more comfortable embracing digital "helpers" in the form of a well-used program or app. 

Even if or when education fully returns back to "normal," our new normal will still allow (if not require) technology, and teaching is never going to be easier. Just because English teachers knew there would be lots of grading when we signed up for this job doesn't mean we have to constantly pour burnout levels of feedback onto everything that's turned in, especially when not every assignment weighs equally in our gradebooks. 

So, what kinds of websites, software, tools, or best practices are aiding student learning in my absence? What can we all do to reorganize how we spend our time to be better teachers and more balanced humans? 

Here are a few of my favorites, divided into categories!

Non-Tech Strategies

Before we dive into tech, here's a brief review of some commonly-advised strategies to reduce a grading pile:

1. Can students present during class (or via video)? Depending on your safety protocols and how you might be using videos (like pre-recorded student speeches), some presentations are 100% worth all the days spent presenting in class. My all-time favorites are the real-world "15 Minutes of Fame" project, my Debate Unit, a poetry slam, or dramatic readings of famous poems and speeches?

2. Does it have to be an essay? Can literary analysis happen through a group presentation instead of individual essays? Can students create an infographic? Can the unit occur through a game board format and be broken up into smaller steps? 

3. Write Now, Grade Later: Not every piece of writing has to be graded. Why not assign a diagnostic essay or a benchmark narrative that students can save for later (and compare/contrast with the writing they create after your instruction)? Then you can assess two pieces of writing at once with the same or less time!

4. Let Someone Else Judge: I sometimes beg real-world judges to come give feedback on student writing. They're not grading FOR me, but they're possibly giving faster feedback (before or during the time I will be grading). Try an introduction to newspapers PBL unit or this choice writing project in which students choose the contest to which they will submit. 

5. Let Students Teach: I've used this project before to let students be the ones to make an instructional video instead of me, for grammar and other topics. You'd be surprised at what students can learn (and how they pay attention to their peers) when taking on the role of teacher for a specific purpose!

6. Things you WANT to grade or read: Wait, hear me out! My all-time-favorite piece of writing to grade is when students turn in the reports of their Random Acts of Kindness project. (Talk about heart-melting!)

7. Change up reading assessments: Why not let students pick and present the article of the week, or grade public speaking and reading simultaneously through book talks

8. Can students grade themselves? ... not likely, but they CAN self-assess their work harder before turning it in, and they CAN track their own progress. Try these free self-assessment forms for public speaking (or adapt them to another area of ELA). 

Self-Grading Google Forms

Google Forms are the single most essential tool that I use to speed up the teaching and learning cycle, but I recently discovered that there are many teachers who automatically assume, "Since my school uses *THIS* website instead, I can't use Google Forms/Apps." 

Technically, you don't need to be a Google School, have Chromebooks, or even have student Google/Gmail accounts to still make and use a self-grading Google Form assessment! Using Google Forms for quizzes, diagnostic tests, and sometimes even the tests themselves are single-handedly saving my school year. 

I also had one pleasant surprise this school year. I experimented with having students (remote learning and in-person) complete tests for me on Google Docs versus Google Forms. In my small sample size, I did not see a statistically significant difference with test scores in one App or the other. Writing good directions (i.e. specifying exactly how long a short answer response should be) mattered much more than which medium was used.

TRY: We have been (or soon will be) using Google Forms in my room for things like...

  1. My entire grammar program - every single unit I've taught this year to 7th and 8th has been facilitated through Google Forms, whether it was the self-grading diagnostic test or any of the unit quizzes and tests
  2. Classic short stories - I teach this set of stories as very specific prep for the stories that they'll read in the next grade level. You can grab my unit OR take the concept to make your own by making the self-grading quizzes for other short stories of your choosing!
  3. Research skills - I pre-assess their understanding of MLA, credible sources, media bias, using Google search results, and more in my research diagnostic test before we commence our first epic research project. 
  4. Voting on poems - I'm going to celebrate National Poetry Month soon with the (FREE) Poetry Madness Bracket I used when COVID first started. It was a big hit with exposing students to poems and poets that they didn't already know, and getting to vote on favorites took a lot of the dread out of reading the list. 
  5. Vocabulary and Roots: Digitizing vocabulary assessments has been essential for faster feedback, both for my vocabulary program and the Greek and Latin roots I teach.

Grading 50/50: Websites to Try (Free & Paid)

This is NOT a sponsored post. All product opinions are my own.

What if a website can "meet you in the middle" by doing a bulk of the marking, so that you just have to decide what grade to put on it (such as a rubric)? Here are the top 5 websites that have been game-changers for me in the past two years. 

1. Edpuzzle: I admittedly use the most basic functions of this site instead of all the bells and whistles. I upload my instructional videos here so that I can track which students have (not) watched it. However, if you take the time to embed questions into the videos, it becomes a self-grading assessment to confirm if students "got it"!

2. FlipGrid: This one isn't entirely self-grading, BUT I love that FlipGrid now allows text OR video replies to student video submissions - meaning that classmates or I can leave feedback asynchronously and with less pressure to have a camera on ourselves. 

3. Though the paid version has its advantages, there are MANY ways that a teacher and students can use a majority of the website for free. I almost exclusively have students play The Challenge, and then I use a rubric (FREE) to assess their progress quarterly. (I set a minimum number of words they need to master in a quarter, and this minimum is sometimes raised or customized. A majority of my students LIKE enough, and enjoy the leaderboard/competition, that they blast this minimum goal out of the water.) 

4. IXL - Though pricey (and paid for by the school), I opted for this website instead of alternatives (like NoRedInk) in part because it covers more than just grammar (like vocabulary, MLA citations, writing strategies and reading), but I also like the types of data I get when students practice (almost overwhelming). It's not free, but my school felt that it was worth the investment for the topics and the instant feedback to students. We vary how IXL is used - required vs. suggested, homework vs. in-class, minutes spent vs. SmartPoints earned, etc. - but there's nothing like it in terms of no-prep and no-grading practice. 

5. Quizlet (paid Teacher Version): I love being able to see which students have (not) studied with my provided Quizlet sets and which study methods or games the students used to prepare. 

6. CommonLit: We opted for this (instead of Newsela) in part because it also included poems, speeches, short stories, and more commonly-taught texts in addition to articles on more contemporary topics. I also liked that they group texts by theme, by Social Studies/History units, by genre, and even by texts that pair well with novels. 

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