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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Latest update: Support for iPad Pages documents!

Getting any file off of an iPad and out into the world can be a challenge, but Pages makes life more difficult because it uses a unique document format that is not very compatible with other programs. We've been able to overcome both obstacles. Here's how.

Apple's Pages word processor iPad app does make it easy to create some really nice-looking documents. But my praise for Pages stops there because it's such a pain to deal with Pages documents. What good is a beautiful word processor if you can't do anything with the resulting documents?!

Thanks to our just-released Google apps and Google Drive account integration, we can now get Pages documents off of students' iPads and submit them directly to EssayTagger.

Step-by-step instructions
First you'll need to enable Google integration for your course. Instructions can be found here. Your students will also need Pages (obviously) and the Google Drive app.

The Google Drive app works with Pages to export your document into a Word DOC file and then upload it to your Drive account. This conversion and upload to Drive is the key to this process.

Here's the test essay I'll be working with:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Where we're headed: school-wide data unification

EssayTagger was initially developed as a tool to help individual teachers. Now we're taking aim at unifying all writing assessment data across an entire school or district. Here's why this is valuable and here's how we'll do it.

The problem: Disparate writing assessments
In a typical school there's a wide array of teachers who assess writing throughout the year. And with the increasing emphasis on "reading and writing across the curriculum," those numbers are growing. English and Social Studies teachers are busy as ever grading essays, but now there are Math teachers who are assigning reflection paragraphs. PE teachers are assigning sportsmanship essays.

Unfortunately writing assessments are almost always isolated within the confines of each individual classroom. The History teacher knows that his students are struggling with using evidence in their writing, but he has no idea that his students' English teacher is frustrated with the same problem. There simply aren't any lines of communication across departments to share this information and collaborate on a solution.

But the worst offenders are the district writing assessments. Many schools will do a school-wide writing assessment that is scored on a standardized rubric which is then coded into a database so that administrators can pore over the results. These district writing assessments exist outside of the normal curriculum (e.g. in the middle of the Huck Finn unit the sophomores will be asked to write about texting while driving). Worse, the students rarely ever see the results and almost never receive any feedback. They're writing into a black hole. And, oddly enough, teachers often don't even see the results. They might see some bullet points on an institute day slideshow or get the data second-hand from their department head.

Disparate writing assessments are pure silliness.

Writing--and assessing--across the curriculum
We've bought into the value of writing across the curriculum and now it's time to unify assessment data across the curriculum.

Every writing assessment tells us more about each student and our school's overall trends. Assessment data shouldn't be cloistered within the walls of each classroom, but rather should be contributing to a rich web of highly interconnected data. This is the "web-ification" of the school structure; teachers need to think of themselves as part of a network instead of individual sovereign islands.

When Bobby's English teacher grades his essay, his History teacher should be able to see the results down to each individual skill being assessed. The district writing assessments should add to this pool of information and provide more insight to all of Bobby's teachers. The Culinary Arts teacher should know what strengths and weaknesses to expect when she assigns a research paper on launching your own restaurant. The school's writing center or peer tutors could benefit from a detailed skills profile for  each student that comes for help.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

How to enable Google integration in EssayTagger

Student sign-in via Google apps accounts and Google Drive integration were released today as "beta" features that are ready for broader, real-world testing. If you'd like to try it out with your students, follow these simple instructions.

Google integration has passed all of our internal testing, but there's nothing like hordes of actual students to find the flaws or weak points in any new feature.

We'd love your help to test it out. I'd suggest trying it out on a small, mostly inconsequential assignment. Something like a one-paragraph journal entry or a short reflection on the day's reading would be ideal. That way if any students do run into problems signing in or linking their Drive accounts, it's not the end of the world.

Enabling Google integration
Google integration is configured at the course level. Log in to your EssayTagger account and scroll to the bottom of the Instructor Home screen to see your list of courses. Click on the "edit" link next to the desired course.

Latest update: Google apps and Drive integration is here!!

Today's major new release enables student sign-in via Google apps accounts and integration with Google Drive!

Just about every school I talk to has jumped onto the Google apps bandwagon. It's really a no-brainer. It is the best platform on the planet and it's free for schools. Insane.

I'm super-excited to announce that as of today students will be able to sign in to EssayTagger using their Google apps accounts.

Google sign-in simplifies the process for both students and teachers while increasing reliability and security. This is already a huge win, but there's more!

Google account sign-in opens the door to integrating with Google Drive. Now students can link their Drive account and pull their assignments directly out of Drive:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Check out grmr.me and stop endlessly re-teaching grammar!

EssayTagger is all about helping teachers give efficient, targeted feedback to their students. However, the feedback you give and the remediation methods you employ are still all up to you.

So I was thrilled to discover grmr.me via a blog post by Mark Isero.

Grmr.me is a series of well-crafted, targeted lessons by tech-savvy English teacher Kevin Brookhouser that address the most common grammar errors students make--comma splices, pronoun disagreement, there/their/they're, etc.

So rather than re-teaching each of these aggravating grammar issues, just direct students to Kevin's lessons and mini-quizzes. This is essentially a stripped-down version of Khan Academy for grammar remediation.

Using grmr.me
Each lesson has a super-short URL to make it easy to reference when needed.

If there's an issue with, say, passive voice, just write grmr.me/psv in the margin and the student can type that into a browser address bar and immediately watch a remediation lesson on passive voice.

Very cool.

Yep, we really are global!

I have a handful of friends who speak Arabic so we'll see what they have to say about this blog post. But, needless to say, I find it pretty dang cool!

Something I created was noticed on the other side of the world!

Link: http://go4learning.blogspot.com/2012/01/blog-post.html

Friday, February 1, 2013

Using EssayTagger to coordinate PLT assessments, pt2

Part 1: PLTs must have common assignments and common assessments
Part 2: How to coordinate PLTs with EssayTagger
Part 3: Analyzing the data reports (coming soon)

In part two we show you a simple way to increase PLT coordination while maintaining each teacher's individual voice and personal flair.

Let's assume you're onboard with the idea that PLTs need to have a few common assignments that have common assessments in order to gauge the PLT's progress and effectiveness (if not, check out part 1).

Now how do we do this? I closed part 1 by sharing how much I hate common assessments because they are never in my voice and seem like an alien or foreign presence in my classroom. Education reformers would be wise to note that jarring students out of the environment they're used to isn't the best way to assess the effectiveness of that environment!

Producing uniform PLT assessment data seems incompatible with preserving the unique flair and character of each teacher's classroom.

EssayTagger provides a way around that conundrum.

Shared rubrics
Rubrics are at the heart of how teachers assess written work in EssayTagger. And they are EssayTagger's secret weapon to solving the problem at hand.

Have your PLT agree upon a shared assignment. Let's say all of the Sophomore English teachers will be teaching "The Tempest". We can agree upon a few key goals for our Tempest unit and develop a summative essay assignment for the end of the unit.

Collaborate on the rubric
Now have one teacher log into her EssayTagger account (or jump to our free Common Core Rubric Creation Tool) while the PLT discusses what they'd like to see in the rubric for this shared assignment. Consider the PLT's goals for the unit and begin building the rubric in EssayTagger. Again, we only need one transcriber to create the rubric.

Using EssayTagger to coordinate PLT assessments, pt1

It's becoming more and more important to coordinate curriculum and assessment within PLT teacher teams. In part one we'll briefly discuss PLTs, motivate why coordination is so important, and discuss some of the challenges. Part two will discuss how to use EssayTagger to enhance that PLT coordination without stifling teachers' individual voices and strengths. Part three will look at how the resulting data can help each individual teacher and the PLT as a whole.

Part 1: PLTs must have common assignments and common assessments
Part 3: Analyzing the data reports (coming soon)

PLTs are in
Most schools seem to be moving toward the PLT--Professional Learning Team--model where, for example, all of the Sophomore English teachers would meet regularly, plan team goals, share resources and exercises, and hopefully develop a few common assignments and assessments.

However, I've been in schools that still operated with each teacher as his or her own island. In this sort of environment the PLT concept will likely be met with significant resistance. There will always be the I've-been-doing-it-my-way-for-35-years holdouts but even the most progressive-thinking teachers will worry about the constricting nature of making their classes more uniform and perhaps less unique.

On the flip side, I've been in schools that had weak or ineffective PLTs, despite significant administrator emphasis on them. Simply meeting every other week is not enough. We would talk about what each of us were doing, but there'd be no central focus or plan. It has to be more than just check-in-and-share time.

Sadly, teacher prep programs aren't taking a lead on this. I'm disappointed that my M.Ed. program didn't train us to collaborate with our peers. PLTs weren't even mentioned once during my two year program. We're supposed to be the new guard, the fresh blood bringing a modern approach to education. But too many Schools of Education are themselves stuck in old-guard or outdated modes of thinking and practices.

So I feel like I have a pretty strong grasp of many of the challenges and pitfalls when it comes to PLTs. And it's no surprise that transitioning to a team approach can often be a difficult process when a culture of collaboration or direct experience with PLTs is lacking. But as you'll see in part two, there is hope. Incremental change and increased coordination is possible and can be facilitated by some 21st-century technology.

Coordination is king
A PLT has to have a set of common goals for their class sections. If a PLT doesn't have a common vision for student outcomes, you don't really have a PLT; you just have a bunch of individual teachers sitting in the same room. Common goals matter. My Sophomore English students have to be just as prepared to enter their Junior English class as the students from any other Sophomore English section. And the Junior English teachers should have a reliable set of expectations for what they'll get from their incoming juniors each year.

But just setting common goals isn't enough. We need to know if those goals are being met. Did our sophomores really get to where we wanted to get them? And how did my specific crop of sophomores do vis-à-vis the rest of the PLT's students? Did my kids see particular gains or struggles versus their peers? This isn't about outing a bad teacher or competing against my teammates. It's about being able to identify what is and is not working in my class and across all of our classes.