Macros and Assessing Long Form Writing

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Macros are one of those features that had been on my radar screen for years. I heard about them at some conference and, as an avid (Word) Track Changes user, macros seemed a compelling way to make that even a more efficient process. But they just lay fallow. I never quite got the momentum up to do anything with them. I put them on my summer list this past summer but, again, there they stayed.

So that first wave of papers came in and, as I often do, I found myself writing the same things over and over again: don’t use 1st or 2nd person; don’t use contractions; don’t list examples; be analytical rather than descriptive; etc. Maybe because I was grading the papers earlier than I usually do (don’t worry; they’re still not done); maybe I was looking for a new project (as I always seem to be); or maybe I just got sick of seeing them on my radar screen. Whatever reason, though, I just dove right in.

Just to be clear, a macro is a scripted / personalized keystroke command, i.e. you set a keystroke command (usually a complex one; more on that below), and that keystroke command does something that you program it to (and I don’t mean program in a code sense; again, more on that below).

The process is relatively simple. Begin in Word’s Tools menu. At the bottom is a Macros option. Choose from that Record New Macro. Give the macro a name and then click the ‘Keyboard’ button below in the ‘Assign macro to’ button-board. Then click ok. (If you don’t ‘Assign’ the macro (in the button-board) it will create the macro but doesn’t give you as many instructions. I’m guessing that it records the same as it would otherwise but I prefer to go through all of the steps.) And in the next step you’ll actually set the keystroke (and that’s all you’ll do, despite the preponderance of text boxes). Enter the keystroke you wan to use (usually a two step process with the first being the activator or trigger keystroke (in my case, shift-control-command-c) and the second being the individual key / macro). The ‘Currently assigned to:’ readout below the ‘Press new keyboard shortcut’ tells you if that combo has already been used. (You can replace existing shortcuts but might not want to.)

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What sold me on macros, when I really understood their potential, was when I set the set-up macro. When I open a student’s paper, I save it as a corrected version (usually just be appending Corr to the existing file name), I blow it up to 150%, and turn on Track Changes, itself a few-step process. Now, I simply hit shift-control-command-C and then K. That’s the keystroke I set to do all of these things (after saving). From five individual steps to one step I’m ready to grade the paper.

Similarly, I have one macro in Excel. For my assignments with a more structured grade, I like to use Excel for a grade sheet. I can input the number grade and include comments and Excel adds or averages the different grades to yield the final grade. The problem with Excel is that it is difficult (or at least I don’t know how) to duplicate a form in a page-by-page format (I know I can copy and paste but it’d be nice to have a form approach where it automatically makes something a new page; this is when I miss AppleWorks and FileMaker Pro, old school databases rather than spreadsheets). With this assignment, I started using separate sheets within a workbook for each student; this makes it better, but making a new sheet is a multi-step process. A macro, however, makes this a one step process. The macro copies the first sheet, pastes it into a new one, and erases the data from the old sheet. All I have to do now (where before I did a separate step for each of those things) is the macro and changing the name of the sheet.

Some downsides to macros. First and foremost, the keystrokes. Because Word already uses so many defaul keystrokes, you essentially have to be able to play finger Twister on the keyboard to activate the keystroke. (Shift-control-command-C itself takes some dexterity; I first discovered the need for such dexterity when I learned the screen shot keystrokes, especially the addition of option to the keystroke to copy the screenshot right to the clipboard. But it’s not quite as difficult as it sounds after some practice.)

Second, simply remembering them. I’ll admit it. I went a little crazy with recording macros and recorded probably a few (maybe more than a few) too many. But I do tend to remember the ones I use most commonly, and I suspect I will remember more as I use them more; I’ve only graded 10 or 15 papers with them.

Finally, input vs output or the efficiency factor. Many of my first macros were relatively short (awkward phrasing, unnecessary, etc.) but I realized quickly that typing these was pretty much as fast as activating the macro. My later macros took advantage of the macro to include information I might not type, especially repeatedly, as the paper progresses. Now with a single, albeit complex, keystroke I can include a full line or two comment detailing not only the issue but also an explanation of why it is less preferable.

Macros take some work on the front end to be sure. But especially with the onus of the sheer number of papers to be read / graded, they can help you move through that pile more quickly and, more important, potentially include more substantive information in your comments.

I’ve included the Evernote reference page I made to remember them (and, yes, I do toggle over to Evernote fairly frequently to check / confirm) so you can both see the kinds of comments I make and to make fun of how many macros I made (and how few I actually remember…).

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Colleen Ritzer and Twitter

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As I’m sure most if not all of you know, a local teacher was killed, allegedly by one of her students. Few real details beyond the basics have come out but a fuzzy picture of Colleen Ritzer is beginning to emerge. I am not naive enough to try to make sense of such tragedy, nor will I pretend to know someone that I most definitely did not. But a friend of mine here in Worcester on the School Committee (@cascadingwaters) retweeted one of her tweets. I had read about how part of her emerging profile is based on her social media presence, so I checked out her Twitter page.

Wow. Without the sentimentality attached to tragic and premature death (my visit to her page notwithstanding), this was a compelling glimpse into what I suspect is the natural mode of communication and connection of a younger generation of teachers, a mode that I in turn admire and am wary of. But it seems clear from Ritzer’s Twitter page that she was able to balance the natural connections facilitated by Twitter and the more practical side of Twitter that allowed her to use it for pedagogical purposes.

I’d say between 75 and 90 percent of her tweets were school-related. And the majority of these were homework assignments, divided by what appeared to be class but perhaps by some sort of scheduling distinction (a lot of initials were used, initials I assume stand for classes but could have been letter days, bell schedules, etc.). Sprinkled among these assignments were non-assignment but school-related tweets, many of which, because of the time of year, had to do with PSATs:

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 8.47.24 PM Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 8.48.14 PMI appreciate what appears to be an easy mix of directly-school-related and indirectly-school-related material. It shows what appears to be a young teacher with a preternatural appreciation of the balance needed to both help students and endear them to you (which then of course makes it easier to help them); note the hashtag in the second tweet.

It is also clear that she cared about her students in a way that is natural and genuine. More than once on her feed she responds, either to a direct tweet or unsolicited, to what as best I can tell is a student and some aspect of their personal life: the death of a grandparent, a declaration about the difficulty of junior year.

I am conflicted about the ethics of teacher – student contact via social media. On the one hand, I get it. Adults are responsible and shouldn’t / wouldn’t engage in relationships, online or otherwise, that violate the basic compact of our relationships and our vocation (even though, of course, there are examples of exceptions to this rule). And, though I do not use Facebook and do not use Twitter in an outgoing way (i.e. I rarely Tweet and have never sent out a purely personal Tweet), I understand, and have participated in, non-school contact with students (via email or text message) as part of relationship building, trust building, etc. And those relationships are important to me, and I appreciate them and endorse them as advantageous for both student and teacher. But it is clear that Ritzer understood this tension and was able to walk that line in a way that belies her age. Her Tweets are occasionally personal but never in an obnoxious or trite way. And even some of the personal tweets draw connections to her students: one such Tweet about her devotion to Target prompts, again what I assume is, a student to respond that she is working in the Danvers Target.

So as I wrap this up, a few parting thoughts.

  1. Check out her Twitter page: https://twitter.com/msritzermath. It is tragically now an inert if insightful tribute to what all signs seem to suggest was a teacher with tremendous potential, both realized and, well, potential.
  2. I would love to know more about her use of Twitter as an educator: do her students follow her and so get their assignments from her feed? was it mandatory for students to follow her? was Twitter the only way she disseminated such information or was there a more traditional parallel?
  3. Along with #2, on the one hand I never would have known about her use of Twitter if she hadn’t been killed (that an unfortunate realization in itself), but on the other hand she leaves a tantalizing glimpse into the new generation of educators.
  4. Along with #3, her use of Twitter, and especially the balance she strikes between professional and personal, is emblematic of what teaching is, will, and perhaps even should become, and is emblematic with a comfort level and nativeness (nativity?) that I, and other, older (I’ll just say it) teachers will never possess. Using Twitter for her, I suspect, is as natural as using a dual cassette deck with high speed dubbing to make mix tapes was for me.

I never intended this post to be sentimental or personal, though if it is that I of course have no problem with that. On the other hand, I hope that I have been able to pay some small, professional tribute to one who was clearly already a good teacher who, with her whole career ahead of her, could only become an even better teacher. Ave atque vale.

Taking My First MOOC

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I did some research into MOOCs last year, and it was interesting to see such a different format for learning: mass content delivery, automated grading, peer grading, etc. Especially difficult, I imagine, was tailoring a course that accomplished the instructor’s goals, while still being viable logistically with so many people.

I saw on Coursera’s home page that they were offering a course in the Fundamentals of Online Teaching that is part of a series of courses that could lead to a certificate from UC Irvine. This course seemed not only a good way to first experience a MOOC for myself but also a potential gateway to a certificate that would help me professionally.

I’ve now completed two weeks of the MOOC and I’m not sure I’m impressed / willing to buy in. Part of the lack of buy in is that the certificate requires enrollment in Coursera’s Signature Track (which requires a nominal fee of $39) and an average of over a 90 in the course. And I suppose this is where the problem comes in. The second quiz had an open ended question (I won’t repeat the question here) that required a key word. The first time I took the quiz I included the answer with an explanation (including a colon after the answer). I received no credit for it. Knowing that such questions operate on keywords, I took the quiz again (the course allows you to take quizzes twice) and entered just the answer. Again it was marked wrong (this time I’m not sure why). The point I lost on that quiz left me with an 84 rather than a 94 (or an 8.4 rather than a 9.4), the difference between ‘passing’ for the certificate and not ‘passing’.

Now I realize that I can and probably should email the professor / course, investigate the problem, and solve it such that my grade reflects my knowledge / performance. But, exacerbated by the formal elements of the MOOC, i.e. that I am one of 10,000 students, my investment in the course and my willingness to pursue what is likely a nameless, faceless process is significantly diminished. I’m just not sure I want to be one of thousands of students who might be sending along the same issue (and the issue has already shown up in the discussion board).

So I’m certainly not willing to write MOOCs off. They can provide engaging content in an egalitarian way that few other resources can. But this experienced has introduced me first hand to the problems, or at least the difficulty, of attaching any kind of credit or mandated performance to a MOOC. I would have no problem with the quiz question if I were taking the course for my own edification. But, if I had in fact signed on for the credit, dealing with that quiz question, forced because my grade determines my progression, would be frustrating and ultimately I suspect not worth it.

Exercising While Teaching: Standing vs. Circulating

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When I first started teaching, group work was a way to kill time in class. Nothing planned? Group work. Life happened the night before? Group work.

One of my goals this year is to experiment more with the flipped classroom. I of course had visions of making videos, delivering content at home, and a dramatic increase in the learning of my students. None of that has happened.

Part of the problem is that I’m still not entirely clear on what a flipped English classroom looks like, or I (and most English teaches) have always been flipping the English classroom. This uncertainty stems from the question of what is the content in an English classroom. Is it the (content of the) text itself (in which case it has always been flipped)? Is it the interpretation of the text (in which case it is not flipped)? It is the skills of interacting with the text (in which case I’m not sure)?

This year I’ve been approaching class itself, if not homework, with the flipped classroom in mind. I’ve been focusing a lot more on group work and work in class with me circulating throughout the classroom. On the one hand, the traditionalist / 20-year teacher in me feels like I’m cheating, that I’m not working hard enough, that I should be before them ‘teaching’. On the other hand, I feel much better about what’s happening in class. Students are engaged. And even if, say, a third of them wander off on their computers away from the assignment while I’m helping someone else, that third is significantly less than how many would wander off if I were in front of the class.

In my English classes, this approach often consists of small writing assignments in class that require some interaction with the text (my goal now is to increase the amount and quality of that interaction with the text). In my Latin class, it consists of translation practice, either Latin to English or English to Latin. But whatever it looks like, I’m answering relevant questions and, more important, students are using their class time more productively than if I were droning on.

So this is a work in progress. But I like it so far.

LA and their iPads: Why Waste (Some of) the Money?

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As I’m sure many of you have heard, Los Angeles has withdrawn a number of their iPads from full circulation because students were able to break the security on them that prevented free web browsing (see here for a recent article). The notion of installing such security on devices for high schoolers notwithstanding (and I don’t know whether the security was intended for only at school or at school and at home), when LA’s commitment to the iPad, both device-wise and financial, was released last spring, my first response was simple and visceral: why waste the money?

Now this is by no means a screed on technology. Obviously I am pro-technology and was thrilled to see a system as vast as LA committing to change and potential innovation. But when it comes to iPads, especially $30 million worth of iPads (soon, as I understand it, to be $1 billion when the program expands to all students), why commit to the unnecessary size and expense of the full-sized iPad? The iPad Mini is by far a more efficient, both device-wise and financial, device for schools.

The iPad Mini has all of the functionality of the full-sized iPad. The only functionality that I minimally (minimally) see a difference between the two is in the watching of video. I attribute this discrepancy, however, to growing accustomed to watching on the full-sized iPad and then shifting to the Mini. On the other hand, both adults and students watch video on considerably smaller devices regularly and happily.

So, LA, why not the Mini? Save yourself (and your taxpayers) a few hundred dollars per device, which across a $30 million or $1 billion outlay is a significant savings, without losing any functionality.