Category Archives: English 10 Course

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)?

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.

5 To-Do List Apps Head-to-Head

There nothing more satisfying than checking items of a to-do list.  Or perhaps there is: trying out a new to-do list app.

This week, I have had problems with my go-to to-do list app, Wunderlist, which has not been syncing across devices (thought there was a quick and easy fix).  Wunderlist is a beautiful and feature rich free app, and it’s been working very well.  However, the syncing problems are, apparently, the result of the company switching its syncing process, but sitting in car pool today provided me with the opportunity to try out some other to-do apps.  The five apps are now installed on as many devices/ platforms as the apps allow and I own: iPhone, iPad, desktop, Chrome, and Gmail plugin.  All accounts are the free versions.

WunderlistScreen Shot 2014-07-02 at 11.29.40 AM

  • Arguably, Wunderlist has the most attractive interface (there are a handful of simple backgrounds; I have chosen a stunning photo of Berlin – it is a German company);
  • You can add notes, photos, comments and files to list items in the free version.  (This is particularly helpful when shopping for an item and you need a visual reminder of what you are looking for);
  • You can add list item reminders: you will be sent an email when the item is due.


  • The company seems to have periodic syncing issues: this recent one dates from May of 2014, but they apparently had a similar issue last year.  Simple communication could fix this as the solution to the issue was merely logging out of all devices then back in again;
  • The Chrome extension only adds the current webpage to a list: it does not allow you to manage lists or add other items;
  • Similarly, the Gmail plugin only adds the email to a list.  Moreover, the plugin is slower than both and Todoist; its occasional (5 second?) pause to load is a deterrent to using this feature. Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 11.38.01 AM

  • The decent Gmail plugin allows you to add list items from emails as well as to see what is coming up.  It even automatically adds a bar at the end of emails asking “What’s next?”
  • List items can repeat for recurring tasks;
  • There are plenty of options for reminders;
  • It has a clean and simple interface.


  • Though you can add sub-tasks, there is no option to add photos or files to list items;
  • No iPad app (how is this possible?!)
  • The interface is a little too sparse;
  • There is apparently no sidebar for jumping quickly between various lists.


TodoistScreen Shot 2014-07-02 at 11.27.35 AM

  • Simple and clean interface;
  • Very nice welcome email which provided details of apps for every possible platform
  • This is the best Gmail plugin.  Not only does the pop up window appear immediately, and allows you to add a list item, but it also provides access to all your other list items in a pop-up similar to the Chrome extension.


  • Adding notes, photos, files, voice messages to list items is a premium feature ($28.99/ year)

Google KeepScreen Shot 2014-07-02 at 12.04.10 PM


      • Simple, colorful tiled interface;
      • Reminders can be set for all tasks


      • No native iPhone/ iPad app.  There are some third party apps, but they are slow.
      • These are just like Post-It notes: there is no sidebar to jump between lists.
      • No Gmail plugin.

Google Tasks (added through Gmail)Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 12.02.44 PM

      • Tasks is integrated automatically into Gmail and a small bar or window can be kept open at all times.
      • It is also integrated with Google calendar and can be kept open in the right sidebar at all times.
      • You can make any Gmail a task to-do item by clicking the “More” button


      • Again, there is no native iOS app.  The third party app GoTasks, however, works well, though it is not one of the most attractive interfaces.
      • You can add notes, but not photos to list items.
      • Jumping between lists is through a single button; the lack of sidebar sometimes leads me to forget about other list categories.
      • The interface is rather basic.


Clearly, personal preference, priorities, and the available platforms are important in choosing a to-do list.  Personally, while I really enjoy the simplicity  and ease-of-use of both Keep and Tasks, the lack of iOS apps rules both of them out.  The lack of an iPad app is one reason for ruling out, but I also find it a little too sparse, and the inability to add photos makes my time in Home Depot even more difficult.  So, it’s down to Todoist and Wunderlist, and while I love Todoist’s Gmail plugin, Wunderlist is the victor because of the ability to add photos and notes to the freemium version.  And since I resolved the synching issue, it has been working brilliantly.