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A Teacher Finds a Better, Faster Way to Comment on Student Writing

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

"'The First Essay I'd Like to Show You…': 1:1 Digital Video for Writing Assessment and Reflection" by David Narter in English Journal, January 2018 (Vol. 107, #3, p. 106-109),
In this article in English Journal, teacher/author David Narter (Leyden Schools, Illinois) recalls that ten years ago, a student in his AP Language and Composition class asked him for more feedback on a draft essay he'd already marked up with a great deal of red ink. "My first inclination," says Narter, "was to simply direct her attention to the copious notes I'd already left her - the circled misspelled words, the calls for stronger verbs - but she clearly wanted something more." After they talked, the girl seemed satisfied, which puzzled Narter; what had he added? "I don't know," she said. "When I see the writing all over the paper, it just sounds like you're saying 'you're a bad writer.' But now, I feel like I can actually write this."
Huh? "All I'd done was read the comments back to her," he says, "but somehow, getting the face-to-face affirmation, along with the informal affirmations that are part of casual conversation, completely transformed my message for her." This made Narter reflect on the wisdom of a sentence from an article by Frank Pejeres et al.: "It has now been well established that the beliefs that students hold about their writing capabilities powerfully influence their writing performance."
The obvious takeaway from this experience was that Narter needed to do more one-to-one conferencing with students - but he knew that just wasn't going to happen: "150 students x 15 minutes per essay conference = no life and a sore hand."
After several more years unhappily wrestling with this dilemma, Narter finally found a solution: giving screencast video feedback on students' writing. Here's how it works. Students submit their writing electronically (in-class essays are scanned); Narter pulls up each student's work on his computer screen, reads it quickly, and then uses an app (Movenote, Screencastify, or Snagit) to record his comments; students can use their devices to view their writing and hear his commentary. In this way, says Narter, "I am able to suggest changes, compliment their strengths, present habits of writing in need of improvement in this particular assignment, and contextualize these comments within an understanding of their work overall and the esteem with which I hold them as human beings." And there's more:
- He can change a simple mistake in their writing (they can see this happening), change it back, and note its appearances later in the same piece of writing.
- He can open several of the student's documents at once to compare features and note progress.
- He can refer back to rubrics and exemplar essays to suggest where things might have gone awry and provide clearer pathways to improvement.
He reports that he's able to do all of this much faster than he could with a stack of papers and a pen - about five minutes per student essay.
But it isn't just saving time that makes video feedback better: Narter has found that the quality and tone of his comments are much improved. Video comments have helped him more closely follow these criteria for responding to student writing (authored by Richard Straub):
- Give priority to global concerns of content, organization, and purpose before getting overly involved with style and correctness.
- Limit the scope and number of comments.
- Do not take control of a student's text.
- Make frequent use of praise.
- Select your focus according to the stage in the writing process.
- Gear comments to individual students.
- Turn comments into a conversation.
Narter did a side-by-side comparison of conventional red-pen grading with video feedback on the same student essay. Not only did the traditional grading take him three times longer (15 minutes versus five), but he could see that his red-pen comments were "vague, diagnostic, mechanistic, and… convince kids that they are 'bad writers.' More importantly, they emphasize the notion that writing is about the objective notion of getting it correct."
After several years successfully giving video feedback, Narter realized he was providing only one side of what could be a dialogue: "Here I was talking about their writing when their perceptions are just as, if not more, valuable." So he began asking students to submit brief video portfolios of their written work three times a year. Here's the format students follow:
- Review at least two different assignments.
- Begin with an outline previewing the foci of the screencast, with two strengths and two weaknesses you'll be identifying.
- Choose from a list of foci, such as syntax, handling of source material, and paragraph unit.
- Focus on one complex item (e.g., cohesion) that we've been studying in class.
- Don't simply summarize my video comments.
Narter says these portfolios are the highlight of his year: "I can't wait to hear the students' voices over their videos of their essays as they laugh about this or that stupid mistake they made over and over again on some essays they barely recognize as their own, or proudly present their best sentences, explaining to me why they're good."
This year, Narter added a third innovation: he e-mails incoming students and asks them to submit a brief video introducing themselves and their writing. "I ask them to identify what they feel they do well, what they feel they need to work on, and what they want to learn about in the coming year," he says. "The videos are creative and hilarious, and they remind me, as the school year begins, that the students sitting before me are on a path upon which they have had many successes and many failures, but they are anxious about this next oasis of knowledge and the skills they will acquire. Most importantly, their first communication with me is one in which they fully control the message."

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