urnA few years ago, my best teacher friend and I decided the entire population of the world could be dived into two kinds of people: spreadsheet people and stack people. Spreadsheet people sort and file. They label and color-code. Their organizational world is akin to the beloved spreadsheet after which they are named and on which they craft everything from to-do lists to data sheets. Stack people, on the other hand,…well, they make a bunch of stacks.

I am most definitely a stack person.

Now one should not automatically assume that stack people are completely unorganized. For example, I can tell you exactly what is in each and every one of my stacks, and I rarely lose a paper. But still, to be completely honest, the stacks were getting overwhelming, especially with about 175 students turning in essays on a regular basis. They were a constant reminder of the mountains of work I’m always struggling to keep on top of. Every night I’d schlep home a stack and find that it seemed the same size after an hour of grading and feedback. My school bag was full and my back and brain were tired.

I needed a new system…one with fewer stacks.

I first looked to my spreadsheet people whose desks were perpetually clear of clutter. I learned of their clipboards and filing methods, and I tried to replicate them. However, slowly but surely, the piles crept back, and I realized I needed something different entirely.

Not long before this realization, my district purchased a subscription to Turnitin.com, a website to monitor for plagiarism, which I was using. It was a beautiful thing; students would upload essays before handing in a paper copy. No more Googling quotes from suspect papers and printing proof. I was already saving time. But then a colleague pointed out that we could grade and give feedback on the site as well. It seemed I had the beginnings of a new system.

I figured it would be simple. They were uploading the papers anyway, so I would just tell them not to print a final draft. Bam.

So I took my first step toward paperless, thinking all my problems were solved. Fewer stacks, typed feedback, a point-and-click rubric, and a time stamp on submitted assignments-what more could I ask for?

Apparently what I didn’t realize is that in addition to reducing my number of stacks, Turnitin.com had the added bonus of bringing my attention to a glaring problem in my practice. My students submitted their first essay and I scored it, all the while patting myself on the back for problem solving and being open to change. When they were finished, I looked forward to the next day when I could tell my classes that no one would have wait for me to work slowly and tediously through the stacks. The essays were scored and ready to go, and all they had to do was log in at home to read my feedback. I felt awesome.

The next week when Turnitin.com told me that only five students had actually logged in to read, I felt a whole lot less awesome.

What I realized was that while when I handed back a physical copy, students would immediately spend a couple of minutes reading over my notes, they would not take the step to log in outside of class, highlighting not just an abundance of teenage… Click To Tweet

So my new system now required a new system.

What I needed was to utilize more feedback throughout the writing process instead of at the end. My students needed both opportunity and incentive to internalize and utilize my feedback before the final product was due. This meant more drafts, more coaching, and more work. It also meant trying to book more time in a computer lab that was perpetually closed for testing. Suddenly this wonderful technology that was supposed to help me clean up and streamline my process was doing the exact opposite. I wondered how I could manage it.

It was not terribly long before I was given my answer. As part of a new textbook adoption, my district purchased class sets of Chromebooks for all the English classrooms in my building. If I didn’t need to rely on an overbooked computer lab, I could use technology to help solve the problem. So with my new little friends at the ready, I was able to move to the next step in my adventure: navigating digital feedback.

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