Surviving the Black Hole of Grading

I don’t know about you, but I began the school year with such good intentions. I wrote a two blog posts that were quite well-received (one on switching back to Evernote from OneNote, and one on Google Classroom). I felt so good about this that the day before classes started, I determined that either writing 500 words or reading 25 pages of an life-improving book every day was a reasonable goal.

I managed four days, and then the first wave of grading came in: personal essays and reflections on the summer reading (otherwise known as proof-you-did-the-summer-reading), and I missed my goal one day, two, then ten.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 9.48.49 PM

During last year, I had tried various methods to streamline my feedback on student writing – rubrics, color-coded feedback, text expanders – but I have found that there is no substitute for personalized comments and strategies for improvements. I will continue to explore these strategies and others, but I cannot help but add personalized comments to student work.

I grade before school starts, I grade between classes and at lunchtime, I grade after school, in the evenings, and on weekend mornings, sometimes afternoons, and furiously on Sunday evening to meet my grading goals. (It has become a little sad that my main professional goal, week in, week out, has been to get through the pile of grading in as swift and conscientious manner as possible.)

When colleagues or former students drop into my classroom, I am torn between gratitude for their friendship and the loss of productive grading time. I do my best to stay present, but my brain pings notifications, warning me that I’m not going to get through the ten papers I promised myself I would do before going home.

And then there’s the drudgery; as much as I value each of my students as a unique individual and want to celebrate their achievements, the enthusiasm does begin to wane when reading the 38th of 51 papers about roughly the same topic.

So, I’ve come up with three strategies to weather the storm, to evade the black hole, to mix the metaphor:

– Give my students greater choice not only in the content of their work but also in the media in which they communicate. Clearly this is mutually beneficial: the students have choice (and hopefully intrinsic motivation) and I have variety;
– Try to be less stressed about getting through a pile of grading at school, and instead take the time to enjoy talking to colleagues and students; I will grade a little longer into the evening, and it is probably OK to take a day longer to return work.
– Use the Pomodoro method: grade intensively for 25 minutes at a time with a set goal in mind, then take 5 minutes to play Candy Crush, get a coffee, watch a YouTube. Then back to another 25 goal-oriented minutes.

So this is where I am. I am confident these new school year’s resolutions will last a little longer than my writing/reading fantasy because I know that grading is my reality for the next ten months and I really have no options.

How do you do it? How do you manage the workload and still have time to speak to your friends and loved ones? How do you provide meaningful feedback, while still fulfilling your non-grading dreams (if such things exist)?

From Evernote to OneNote and Back

After being an Evernote Premium user for three years, I was a little dismayed by the recent dramatic price increase for this elegant digital notebook. Moreover, the new device limitations for the freemium service (which I have occasionally used) seemed a little draconic. So, last month I took this opportunity to weigh my options and look for a new note taking app.

 

Evernote to OneNote
Montage by David Doherty. Source images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Evernote does everything I need from a digital notebook including the ability to quickly create and edit notes, clip text from websites or emails, convert photos of documents into digital files with searchable text, and edit notes across all my devices (somehow, I have nine!) My new note taking app would need to match these actions, and my research across my favorite tech sites (notably Lifehacker) all pointed in one direction: Microsoft Office’s OneNote.

 

However, I had not used Office products for more than four years: after a decade or so of using Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote, I was tired of Microsoft’s clunky cloud backup service, the overly-complicated menus, and the somewhat messy UI. However, the recommendations for OneNote were glowing, and moreover it is free, so I took the leap. After downloading OneNote on several devices and using their note importing tool which was designed specifically to lure Evernote users like myself, I was ready for the switch to OneNote.

 

The import process was straightforward, and I was soon ready to access and edit my 1,279 Evernotes filed into 49 notebooks. However, in my use of OneNote over the past three weeks, I have been aware of small issues that I never had with Evernote. (Disclaimer: since ease-of-use was one of my primary criteria in selecting a note taking app, I spent limited time trying to fix the issues I came across in OneNote; I presume that most of these issues have work-arounds!)

 

  • Signing into to OneNote on a new device (iPad, iPhone etc.) is not sufficient to get started: you then need to connect to/ open individual Notebooks on each device. This process can be a little fiddly; signing in to Evernote on a new device instantly gives you access to all your notebooks.
  • Formatting is less slick on OneNote than OneNote particularly when copying and pasting text: pasted text in Evernote tends to stay close to the formatting of the original text. In OneNote, pasted text is sometimes re-formatted;
  • Opening OneNote is generally slower than Evernote particularly on the iPhone (on average, Evernote opened a second quicker than OneNote). Similarly, in my experience, Evernote’s web clipper is faster than OneNote’s;
  • The iPhone app for OneNote has a few quirks: when viewing a screenshot/ text pdf, touching the screen can bring up a large circle with a four-way arrow in the middle that can obscure text.
  • The web-clipper is less intuitive on OneNote than the Evernote clipper: I never did figure out how to clip pages, articles or text to a specific location on OneNote – everything had to be clipped to a web clips folder in a notebook I didn’t use and couldn’t see how to change. With the Evernote web clipper, it is a simple and easy process to clip to any notebook;
  • For my personal taste, Evernote’s UI is cleaner than OneNote’s. Evernote’s is also more customizable: it does not appear to be possible to change the purple header in OneNote. (The Evernote green is a much more soothing color!)
So, when I found the Evernote was offering its users a free month of Premium (I can only assume that the price hike has lost the company market share), I switched back with a new appreciation for Evernote’s clean design and pleasant user experience. When the month is up, I will need to evaluate whether I am willing to pay the $70/ year. More realistically, I am hoping that Evernote will offer a significant discount to bring the price down to a more palatable $50. With regard to my students, I’m not sure I can recommend that they switch from their familiar OneNote to Evernote until Evernote reverts to allowing free users to access their notes on all devices.

Google Classroom: One Killer Feature and 5 Perfectly Nice Functions

I’ve been using Google Classroom for two years now, and I highly recommend it for the following reasons:
  • My students love the simplicity of this platform: it is very easy to navigate, there are no files to upload, and it integrates with their Google Drive, Calendar and Gmail;
  • Using a very simple menu, you can add an assignment, pose a question or announcement, or re-use a post;
  • Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 9.07.27 PMEverything is one click away (unlike some classroom management systems!)
  • Everything is backed up on Google’s servers rather than significantly more unreliable local servers;
  • It is an integral part of Google Apps.

The Killer Feature
However, the most powerful feature of Classroom is that it does what the revered Doctopus add-on script used to do. (Sidebar: I sat next to Doctopus creator Andrew Stillman at a Google Classroom demo at ISTE 2014, and he seemed to be all onboard with Classroom). Using the “Make a copy for each student” option when you create an assignment, Classroom distributes individualized copies of this document for each student. Moreover, the Doc is added both to the student’s individual Drive, and a folder containing all the students’ Docs will be added to your Drive. (However, you can also access all the Docs in Classroom).

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That’s it. Classroom emails the students their individual copies of the Doc (or they can open it from Classroom), they write their paper/ answer the questions/ create an image/ edit it, then simply press the “Turn In” button in the top right corner to submit it. Classroom will show which students have submitted their Docs, and you can then grade/edit the Doc and adds comments; they will see your edits but not the comments until your “return” the Doc to them. (I will often put the grade in a comment so I can control when they see the grade).

Aside from eliminating the need to upload documents, share docs, or track multiple versions of a document, the most powerful aspect of this feature is that you can include almost anything on your template: detailed instructions, drawings, rubrics – anything you could possibly add to a Doc. You can use the document distribution feature for almost anything: I use it to write my college recommendations, communicate with an athletic team I coach, and to lead technology training sessions.

Nice Feature 1
You can easily add other teachers to a course Classroom by using the “Invite teacher” button on the About tab. Other teachers can then edit anything on your course or merely audit it. Once again, this process is simpler than on some other course management systems.

Nice Feature 2
The course header is easy to edit/ customize. I usually take panoramic pictures of the students in my class (a long and narrow image is necessary), and use this as the header for the Classroom course.

Nice Feature 3
Add students either by inviting them through email or giving them the class code. As ever, this is a one-step process with a minimum of clicks.

Nice Feature 4
All assignments are automatically added to your Google Calendar (which then can be added to student calendars if you share it with them).Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 8.59.15 PM

Nice Feature 5
Using the “Question” option, you can create quick surveys/ exit tickets for your students: Classroom provides charts of the results immediately.

 

Clearly, Classroom is (not yet?) a fully-fledged course management system: it can record grades for each assessment, but there’s no grade book as such. However, in tandem with a grade book, Classroom provides a powerful and highly streamlined document and resource management system that eliminates a lot of wasted time clicking through menus and uploading documents.

 

How to Create and Edit Google Drawings

Google Drawings, part of the suite of Google Apps, is a versatile visual media editor. It is straightforward to use, and all Drawings are automatically saved to your Google Drive. Using drawings, you can:

  • Create infographics
  • Edit and annotate images
  • Create collages/ montages
  • Easily search for and insert copyright-free images
  • Insert your Drawing into Docs, Slides, or other Apps

The infographic below is a Google Drawing: text boxes and arrows were layered on top of screenshots to display the functions available in this app.

Google Drawings- A Guide

I’ve met the future, and her name is Alexa.

“Alexa, play John Coltrane.”Alexa

“Alexa, what is the weather like tomorrow?”

“Alexa, what’s today’s news?”

Two weeks ago, an Amazon Echo came into my possession. I had seen this device on the internet, and though I was somewhat interested in this voice-activated speaker and internet-connected device, $180 seemed a little steep. After all, voice activation technology is not new: I have been using Siri to play music from my phone and Google to search the web for at least a year.

However, after a couple of weeks with this device, I have to say that this black cylinder is offering a fresh and addictive experience. What’s more, both my own grade school children and my high school students just love it.

The big difference between “Alexa” (the name you use to ‘wake up’ the Amazon Echo) and other current voice activation technologies is that Alexa really is hands-free. The cylinder sits in your kitchen/ living room/ classroom, and when you want something, you just say “Alexa” and then speak your request. You don’t need to press any button, turn it on, or search for a remote control. However, my iPhone 6 with iOS 9 does now have this technology for Siri but only when the phone is charging.

For now, the cylinder sits in the kitchen, and when we arrive home, Alexa will play music on request, answer questions, and even turn on and off our WeMo connected lights. The sound from this device is at least as good as higher end Bluetooth speakers, and Alexa will answer probing questions to the amusement of my children. In fact, the fifty or so people whom I have seen interact with this device have all delighted in even asking Alexa to turn the music up.

This is a great device for right now in late October 2015 (game 3 of the World Series), but every other device is going to catch up really quickly. In fact, the iPhone 6s already has this technology, and according to this New York Times article, this “ambient computing” is the future and the defining feature of Apple’s newest phone.

So, the future’s name may not actually be “Alexa”, but for right now, this innovative device is paving the way to “a future in which robotic assistants are always on hand to answer questions, take notes, take orders or otherwise function as auxiliary brains to whom you might offload many of your chores” (Manjoo).

Work Cited

Manjoo, Farhad. “iPhone 6s’s Hands-Free Siri Is an Omen of the Future”. The New York Times. New York. Sept. 22, 2015. Web. October 30, 2015.

Apple Watch – Ten First Impressions

I am an early adopter; my long-suffering wife is a late adopter. And this works well, mostly. She prevents me from some very expensive impulse buys, and I have dragged her out of the world of flip phones and rabbit ears on the TV. I test out the new devices, and she can see whether she wants one or not. (Mostly, she eventually does).

 

The Apple Watch, however, is a very new kind of device, and while I very Watch 1much enjoyed my
first weekend with my “Aluminum” Lime Green 38mm watch, this device has perhaps elicited more eye rolling than previous purchases. When I say “I can do this on my Watch!” her expression communicates, “Why would you want to do that on your Watch?”

 

Anyway, here are ten first impressions of my watch.

 

1. Texting: on the first evening I had the Watch, the kids and I were sitting in the car waiting for my wife who had run into a store for some emergency supplies. She texted me to ask if I wanted Chimay Dubbel or Tripel. There was a small ‘ding’ and a little tap on the wrist to let me know the text had come in. When I hit reply, the first reply options the watch were “Dubbel” or “Tripel” (before more standard options like “OK”, “Thank you” Absolutely” and “Talk Later”). The Watch is able to understand the texts and suggest relevant replies. You cannot type on the Apple Watch, but you can dictate text. This has worked well for me so far, but unfamiliar words might be a little jumbled: “Affligem” became “Affleck him”. In short, I was able to text at least as quickly as on my phone without taking it out of my pocket which can be a pain to do when you are sitting in the driver’s seat.Watch 2

 

My wife has also notes that I am more polite when texting by dictation – I am more often use please and thank you than in ham fisted typed texts.

 

2. Internet of Things: Though my wife rolls her eyes quite a lot at this one, I can now turn the lights in the living room on and off with my watch. These lights are connected to a WeMo; a switch that is connected in to the house’s wifi. Using the “If this then that” DO app, I can connect to the WeMo switch from my watch. The kids like this one a lot, as does this big kid.

 

3. TV Remote: I’ve now figured how to control the Apple TV from the watch which I hope will be useful when we lose the very small Apple remote (which is twice a day). The kids and I all think that this is just fantastic: it is really easy to use, much quicker than using the Remote app on my iPhone, and the swipe feature is fun to use.

 

4. Running: Watch ActivityThis is one of the primary reasons I bought the watch. I am attempting to run 2015
miles for Parkinson’s disease this year, and I need to track my miles. I’ve been wearing my iPhone in a velcro case on my arm for the last 725 miles, and I’ve got some very dry skin there now. Today, I ran with just the watch, and it was a great improvement in this regard. However, I could not get the Nike+ app to work: wheel of death followed by crash, so I used the native Activity app which worked OK, though it overestimated my distance by 10%. I will need to keep fiddling with this. I initially though that the Watch had no step counter, but I found it today. This one was a worry because it would have been a feature that my wife’s FitBit had that the Watch didn’t have, and that would have led to laughing and pointing.

 

5. Listening to music: not everything has been intuitive on the watch. Listening to music using my Bluetooth headphones took a little fiddling, and then a little Googling. My Bluetooth headphones were already Watch Musicconnected, so they were picking up the music from this source. After forgetting this connection, I was able to connect the headphones to the watch, but when I pressed play, the music seemed very quiet until I realized that it was playing on
my iPhone in my pocket. Googling revealed that you need to use Force Touch on the Watch’s Music app to select the source of music as the Watch (and after syncing some music to the watch). Then it worked perfectly, but I had just three minutes to listen before picking the kids up from swimming).

 

6. Health: Although I’d read about this feature, I was a little
surprised on the first night when sitting in front of the tv to get a little tap on the wrist to stand up. It does this several times a day to move you to the goal of standing for 12 hours a day (doesn’t this seem like a lot?) I’ve managed the 12 hours on both weekend days, but this might be more of a struggle tomorrow at work. I’ve not used the heart rate monitor much yet, but I enjoyed the calorie and step counter on our hike tdau.

 

7. Presenting: The nerd factor here is high, but I am in my late forties, so what am I clinging to? I have a public presentation on Thursday and will use the Keynote remote control on the watch to control the slides
Watch Weather

 

8. Weather: The weather glances is very nicely developed: when checking it, I could quickly see that there were going to be thunderstorms at around 2pm. This is handy, because the watch is not waterproof.

 

9.Battery Life: despite the scorn I received from a student of mine who has a Pebble Watch, the battery has held up both days just fine despite heavy use. It also looks way better than his e-ink!

 

10. Time: Yes, it also does this. I like that the watch face only lights up when I tilt my wrist to view the watch. However, I’ve also used it for timing both the length of the kids’ piano lessons as well as cooking time when grilling steak. Again, it is both quicker than taking my iPhone out of my pocket and finding the timer app on the iPhone.

 

So, I’ve really enjoyed the Watch so far and I am finding that the more I get to know it that the more useful it will become. My wife is not yet convinced, but she has two years until she gets the Watch when I buy the Apple Watch 3.