The National Writing Project Radio Show

I had the pleasure a few months back of hosting a radio show with the National Writing Project to share more about my organization, The Graide Network, and the work we're doing around feedback and assessment in the classroom. I was joined by Tanya Baker, the director of the NWP, John Damaso, a high school English teacher from Brophy College Prep, and Sumaiya Qazi, an aspiring teacher and senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  On the show, we dig into a number of topics including:

  • The importance of effective feedback and how to get your students more of it!

  • Feedback best practices, tips, and golden rules

  • Revamping teacher prep programs through increased clinical work


Liz Nell, The Graide Network

Tanya Baker: Welcome listeners. This is NWP Radio, a production of the National Writing Project. Today is February 28, 2017 and tonight we’re talking with The Graide Network. I am your host Tanya Baker at the NWP in Berkeley, California. Tonight we’re talking about the importance of feedback for student learning and achievement and how The Graide Network is creating a new feedback model for K-12 teachers. We’ll also discuss the teacher prep programs and a new landscape of remote field work and online teaching. Tonight we are pleased to have several guests talk with us:

  • Liz Nell from The Graide Network

  • John Damaso, an English teacher and department chair from Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, Arizona, and

  • Sumaiya Qazi, a pre-service teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who’s currently student teaching in Chicago Public Schools.

Thank you all for joining us tonight.

John Damaso: So glad to be here.

Tanya Baker: I’m really glad that you’re all here. I’m really interested in this work and excited to share it with our audience and to learn more about it myself. So, tonight’s show I’m really going to hand over to you Liz. Thank you for being here and introducing the National Writing Project to The Graide Network.

Liz Nell: Absolutely, thanks Tanya for having us. We’re really excited as well. I think it would be helpful to start with a little more background about my organization. The Graide Network really came into being, or started to come into being about three years ago. One of my original co-founders, Chen Liu, was a high school teacher in New York City, and he found himself facing this similar challenge over and over again, every class, every year. What that challenge was, was giving really effective feedback to his students. He found that if he wanted to take the time he needed to give every student really personalized details and specific feedback, it would take him weeks to get an essay or an assignment back to them. And if he wanted to get the work back quickly when it was top-of-mind and students would have the chance to revise it and implement the feedback, he just wasn’t giving them enough to work with. So we realized, hey, there’s a problem there, something’s not working. So, Chen actually left the classroom a few years ago and started training new teachers, focusing on professional development and teacher training. And what he found was that every single teacher he was speaking to, particularly new teachers, had the same exact problem. Feedback was really a challenge, not only, “How do I give great feedback? How do I make sure my feedback is effective?”, but also, “How do I manage my time? How do I do all the super important things that I have to do in my day, and not let feedback fall to the wayside?”. So, with that whole problem in mind, we created The Graide Network. What we built was a web-based platform that allows K-12 teachers, so we primarily work with middle school and high school teachers, 5th to 12th grade, and we connect them with their own personal teaching assistant, who is a remote, on-demand support system that allows them to get help on their grading and feedback. So, these wonderful readers, we call them our Graiders, they are undergraduate and graduate students from colleges and universities from across the country who are all aspiring teachers. They’re either in schools of education or pursuing alternative teaching certifications. All the work is done remote, so you can have a college student at the University of Illinois working with a high school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona and it works seamlessly all online. The responsibility of The Graide Network is to recruit and to train these Graiders to make sure they’re giving really high quality, effective feedback. The goal is for that feedback to really engage students, improve writing and learning outcomes, and to equip teachers and school leaders with the very student-specific classroom-level performance data that they need to really make a difference. So, we’re especially excited to be sharing this over NWP radio because we are really really focused on writing and creating stronger writers. I was having a conversation with one of our school leaders recently and I loved the way she phrased it, she said “Writing is the coin of the realm”. What she meant by that is when you think about what is true college prep work and how do we ensure that we are preparing our students for success in college and beyond; the key is making sure that they are really strong writers. So, The Graide Network exists to help achieve that. The goals of today are really just to dive a bit deeper, talk about feedback, the role it plays in our classroom, and in student writing and learning. I’m really excited to be joined by John Damaso. He is one of the teachers on our platform and also an advisor for The Graide Network, who I was very fortunate to meet at ISTE last summer in Denver. As well as Sumaiya, who is a senior, graduating very soon from the University of Illinois of Chicago. She’s one of our top Graiders and we’re doubly lucky because she’s locally based, so my team has had the pleasure of working with her in person. So John I was just wondering if you’d have a minute just introducing yourself.

John Damaso: Sure, thanks Liz. And hi Sumaiya, I’ve only spoken with you through the platform, so this will be a treat tonight, to dig a little bit deeper. And thanks to Tanya for hosting this conversation. Just a brief biography of my work, I’m in my 13th year teaching here at Brophy College Prep, which is, for contextual purposes, an all-boys Jesuit Catholic high school in Phoenix, and this is my second year as chair. So as we have department meetings, in which we discuss best practices for giving writing feedback, The Graide Network is something I speak about, with some frequency. My background is actually in linguistics, but I think that that hyper-sensitivity to language is what draws me to the fascination with the teaching of writing. In addition to classroom work, I do all sorts of writerly things here, so I’m a particular interest in this program. I’ve worked with the literary and arts magazine, and we have a satire newspaper as well. Then, about two years ago, we started a peer-editing network here on campus, where students give each other writing feedback through our own rudimentary online platform. So, everything sort-of coalesces really well with what The Graide Network is trying to do. I believe so much in iteration, I never thought I would be a teacher, but since everyday is so different in the classroom and I can’t be the same teacher twice in a row, I think that’s what keeps me coming back and I think I iteration is the king of good writing as well. Sumaiya, since I’m just meeting you, for the first time I guess, in this evening’s program, can you tell me a little bit more about your context?

Sumaiya Qazi: Oh, yea, sure. Actually, I’m interested in how you have the linguistics background, I had never mentioned this I think to Liz, but that’s one of the things that got me into teaching because that’s what my mom’s background is as well. She did her masters in linguistics, I would see her teaching at the high school level and at the collegiate level so, I think that’s what has gotten me interested in teaching and that’s why I ended up choosing English because it is so much more universal and versatile, so that’s interesting to learn that about you as well. I think that we also look to integrate technology into the classroom. Just some connections that I noticed. So, I am a senior at University of Illinois at Chicago, as Liz mentioned. I’m currently also a student teacher in Chicago Public Schools, which is one of the largest school districts across the nation. Also, I was born and raised in the suburbs, so the urban setting is different for me. But I’m hoping, now having worked here for several years, observing and doing pre-service teaching, I’m hoping to continue working in the district next year, hopefully. And, I will be graduating in May hopefully with my teaching license in English Language Art and Social Studies and I’m also getting my middle school endorsement. And hopefully, we’ll talk about this more later, but I’m also hoping to teach computer science and The Graide Network was definitely a big part in exposing me to that curriculum. I’m also looking to pursue my masters in instructional technology.

Liz Nell: Awesome, thanks Sumaiya, and thanks John. I think it’s a great group tonight, and John, just kind-of piggy-backing off something that you said, tonight’s program is really talking about feedback and how important good feedback is for students and for their learning growth and their achievement. What you said really stuck with me, that iteration is king, I think that’s so true. One of the most important things, I think we all agree that getting students writing more is so important, but it’s not just writing, it’s getting them that feedback that’s going to allow them to do meaningful revisions so that their next writing shows that growth and shows that improvement we’re looking for. To go a little bit back behind, talking more about the premise again behind the work, so there’s this body of academic research that we basically spent months and months pouring over as we were building up the concept of the company; it’s this body of research around feedback. One name in particular, was sort of our jumping-off base, and that’s the work done by John Hattie through his visible learning studies. And what Hattie did was look at over half a million different research studies. He did a meta-analysis that looked across hundreds of different influences on student achievement, tens of-millions of different students, everything from schools, homes, students, teachers, curriculum, you name it. What he found that feedback had one of, if not the leading impact on student achievement and that effective feedback was able to dramatically accelerate how students grew in a school year.  It was actually shown to be more than twice as effective as the average teaching practice. Later studies have actually found what I think is even more meaningful, is that this the relationship between feedback and student achievement holds true regardless of grade level, race, gender, socioeconomic status, school setting, so it’s really consistent across the board. I think as educators, we all really hit on it and understand how important feedback is and how critical that is for our students. I think there’s a really important distinction, and what that distinction is, is that the feedback has to be effective to really achieve these desired outcomes. So that kind-of led us, at The Graide Network, to our next line of thinking, which is how do we, not only do we have to figure out a way to get more feedback for students and more feedback to teachers, but how do we ensure that the feedback that they’re getting is really high-quality and it’s really effective feedback. So we spent time working with, very closely, with a group of English teachers, curriculum leads, and a few feedback experts. What we developed was, what we think of as, our seven hallmarks of effective feedback. That’s feedback has to be goal-oriented, specific, actionable, and digestible, which is a little a bit of a funny one, but what we basically think of digestible as user-friendly. And then it also needs to be ongoing, consistent, and timely. So I wanted to kind-of pose a question to everyone, John, Sumaiya, Tanya, if you wouldn’t mind picking one or two of these and talking about what that really means to you in practice when you’re giving feedback to students.

John Damaso: I’ll jump in here with that last bullet on timeliness, because that’s probably the one that makes teachers the most insecure when they can’t, like your friend in New York City, give quality feedback in a timely manner. The research that I’ve read pretty much puts one week as the optimal amount of time between the execution of a writing task and the feedback, the actionable feedback going back to the student. So because I have historically never been able to achieve that really, it’s caused me to, like I said earlier, iterate with the types of feedback I give. Later in the show, when we talk about The Graide Network, that’s been a real boon for addressing this timeliness piece.

To another point, the digestibility of the feedback, reminds me of the story of a former classmate of mine, I’m an alumnus of the school where I teach. One day, I was grading a stack of papers, and I think I posted on social media a distant shot of the stack of papers with all my red ink all over it. And I got a note from an alumnus who was my classmate here many years ago, and all he wrote, and this is a guy that got an English degree, he went to the Iowa workshop, got a masters in poetry, and he noticed on one of my student papers I had written in the margins AWKSYN, which means “awkward syntax”. And he wrote, “I didn’t know what it meant then, as a high school student, and I still don’t really know what it means now. Are you guys still writing that in the margins of papers?”.

So that was such an abject lesson to me in digestibility, something that I thought I was very clear about what certain things meant in my feedback. But here’s someone who has a masters in poetry, and he was recalling the days when that was just not digestible feedback whatsoever.

Liz Nell: John that’s awesome That’s a great story and I think that rings so true. Sumaiya, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but one of the things that all of our teachers rant and rave about with your feedback is you’re so good about referencing back to the rubric and giving the students really clear action plans and next steps. So I was hoping you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about that and how you incorporate that when you are evaluating student work.  

Sumaiya Qazi: Okay, great. I was actually looking at those bullet points right now and I definitely agree with Mr. Damaso about timeliness, I think that teachers, but also students, this is when we English teachers get really jealous of the math teachers who can just put all of their grades in the scantron but we actually have stacks of so many essays to grade. I think definitely, we have to be specific. I actually worked with Mr. Damaso on the platform, it was for a AP exam and it was so funny I had actually taken that past AP exam, I don’t remember what year it was, I was just reading through and I’m like “Oh my gosh”. I received feedback from Mr. Damaso I think, as pre-service teachers we’re always learning from these veteran educators how can we provide more effective feedback. Every day, from the various different teachers that I work with, I learn, as you were mentioning Liz, what’s most important is make sure that it’s actionable. Don’t just tell the student that “Oh , okay. Weak conclusion.” What can they do? Maybe give them a sentence, you don’t want to write it out all for them. You want to help them grow as a writer, if it’s English Language Arts. And also being really specific. And I think that using Google Docs is always really helpful for that. More and more teachers are using that, so that’s great to see. But when we’re able to pinpoint a specific sentence, and not, for example, just saying “awkward syntax” , I gotta go back and look at some essays make sure I didn’t say that (Laughs). But being specific, like okay, what’s awkward about it. Usually, I suggest to have the readers read it aloud and that’s when they’re able to catch it. But also, not writing out the sentence for them, but at least starting it off. As a student, I’ve always found that helpful and as a teacher at least able to guide our thinking as opposed to giving us the answers. So with that, that kind of answers what I, as a Graider, but also as a student, find most important when I receive feedback back on any assignments or essays.

Liz Nell: Thanks Sumaiya. I think you just transitioned that super nicely for me, because another thing I wanted to hit on was part of what we do is work really hard to be sure we’re training our Graiders so they know how to give really effective writing feedback and that’s not something that happens once. It’s not like “read this book” or “read this manual” or “watch this five-minute video”, and you’re going to be a feedback pro. It’s actually something that is definitely a learning process, so I’m really glad to hear that as you’re working with teachers you’re learning stuff, and then some of the things that we really focus on, or try to keep these five important rules in place. And you hit on the first two absolutely. So, I think the number one thing is prioritizing feedback. That’s making sure that the feedback that you’re giving is really identifying and diagnosing the most pressing problems that the student’s writing. So, “where should the student be focusing their energy?”. It should be two or three things max. If you list 15 things wrong with the student’s paper, they’re gonna get completely overwhelmed by that list and it’s not gonna be effective. So really asking yourself, “what is the main thing and how do I make sure the student knows how to address it?”. The second thing, which you definitely hit on, is that you’re fixing the writer, and not the writing. Re-writing the student’s paper, rewriting their sentences, it’s not effective for the student, and it’s also definitely not time-effective for you as a teacher. More thinking like a coach, or a tutor, so helping them get started, helping them identify exactly where I know I need to focus on, not revising it for them. The last three things that we remind our Graiders is, to simplify the task for the student, this is a really important one. We like to call it “keeping the feedback bite-sized” so that it’s very easy for the student to know exactly what they need to focus on; really clear next steps, so they’re not overwhelmed, they’re not discouraged, or just totally lost in the weeds. So these are two things that I would be interested to hear, again from John and Sumaiya. And the last two things are don’t praise for obvious things and have high expectations. They go hand-in-hand, but some of the research we’ve read is that, empty praise or praise that isn't specific is actually super de-motivating to students and really frustrating. So it’s important to be positive and also precise, so that it sounds sincere. Also, it’s really important to hold students to high expectations and to not feel bad for maybe giving them a lower grade or giving them some tough things to work on. That’s okay, that’s the goal. So John and Sumaiya, do any of these guidelines really speak to you or anything that you really try to prioritize when you’re giving feedback?

John Damaso: I think simplifying the task is a great challenge for Graiders as well as teachers who have been doing it for a long time. I think we may view our inability to fix everything in the moment as a marker of our own teaching inadequacy. But I think we need to consider your point, as overwhelming and discouraging the writers more than our own ego or sense of self. That it’s okay to not circle everything that you deem a mistake. In fact, circling every one of them may be detrimental to that student’s growth as a writer. So that one really struck me. As well as the fifth one, on high expectations. I think it’s easy to put up a student essay on the screen and dissect it for its failings, but what’s even better is to cherry pick an exemplar that is superb and just spend ten minutes praising its high quality. So if you expect that exemplar of all your students, and you’ve walked through how they created that exemplar, I think that’s preferable than the other direction.

Liz Nell: Yea, that’s great advice.

Sumaiya Qazi: I would definitely agree. One of the other things is mechanics, that’s one of the pitfalls for new teachers or the Graiders on the platform where we’re just looking for the punctuation error over here, or grammatical mistake over there. I think that’s always only one component of the rubric, if it’s a total of five, that’d be 20 percent. We look away from the main idea, the content. How were they presenting the content if it’s an argumentative essay, what’s important is how are they presenting the issue and are they backing it with claims. I think that in general, that’s a common pitfall for Graiders, for sure I would say, but probably even new teachers where we sit with the red pen and we’re only commenting “Oh, you missed a comma here”. I know that some teachers don’t even correct any of the mechanical errors and they simply comment on the substance; that is the essence of writing. Every paper does have some mechanical errors, but it’s important to look at what actually matters, and that’s the content.

Liz Nell: Yea, Sumaiya, that’s a great observation. Just to brag for a second about Sumaiya, Sumaiya won our Graider of the month back in December, which is an honor we like to bestow on some of our most fantastic Graiders who pretty much wow us with their hard work and how well they engage with students and how fantastic their feedback is. I remember in our interview, you mentioned that there are a few “aha moments” when you first started grading, and things that were particularly challenging for you. Would you mind speaking to that for a minute?

Sumaiya Qazi: Sure. I am trying to remember what specifically it was. But I think one of the aha moments in terms of assessment and grading… well I know the first time I was like “Oh my gosh, this is really difficult”, I got to three essays and it had 25 and I just got tired then, and I was like “I don’t know how I am gonna do this”. So the first few training assignments were really difficult, but I think The Graide Network, you guys are very supportive especially to new Graiders. When you have a rubric to work with and the teacher gives specific guidelines, it makes it all the more easier. As future teachers ourselves, on the platform most of us, most of the Graiders, are teacher candidates or preservice teachers. Also reflecting on how would I grade my own students’ assessments? How would I go about doing this? Even keeping some rubrics as future reference that you may want to use or you may want to tweak. I think at first, initially, I was kind-of stressed with how difficult I thought it’d be. I thought, “It’s just grading. It’s no big deal”. And then reality hit me. I think I needed to go through three, four rounds of assignments, and now I’ve got the hang of it. And I’m still learning because every teacher has different expectations, but it also increases my repertoire of different assessment styles, different types of rubrics, what am I focusing on for this time, and so on and so forth.

Effective feedback is absolutely not a one-way street. Feedback is just as important and just as useful for teachers as it is for students.
— Liz Nell, The Graide Network

Liz Nell: Awesome, thanks Sumaiya. I think that that leads nicely into the last thing that we realized about feedback, when my team was doing the research, that effective feedback is absolutely not a one-way street. Feedback is just as important and just as useful for teachers as it is for students. As a self-check, to help guide instruction, to guide lesson planning, it is really the data that they need as educators to plan their next step. On that note, I was hoping that John, you wouldn’t mind, taking lead on the conversation and telling us a little more about your own classroom and your own experience.

John Damaso: Sure, absolutely, happy to do it. As I said before, at Brophy, I’ve been teaching in the English department about 13 years. I’ve taught 9th through 12th grade. But most recently, I’ve been teaching honors sophomore English and AP English Language and Composition. We are in a one-to-one school and we have been for over a decade. We started with tablets, moved to iPads, and now we’re transitioning to MacBook Airs for our students. So that means they can be writing all the time. I thought I would start the conversation and  talk about kind-of my feedback model. What I’ve been trying to do for the last 13 years, I kind-of start with what I know, student-teachers do the same thing, they look up to the teachers that they admire and they might model their own pedagogy on those teachers. I’ve tried to vary my pedagogy, when I go to conferences, I try not to go to the same conference two years in a row whether it’s MTTE or AWP or ISTE or an AP workshop with The College Board, or even getting my professional development through podcast or twitter. But I have a three-ring binder that sits on my shelf in my classroom, and I was a little bit nerdy in high school, so I have every piece of writing assignment that I submitted in the mid-nineties that have, in the margins, feedback left by my English teachers. I can recall very specific comments that were inked there in the margins by those teacher-mentors of mine and I think that’s informing the way that I morph my feedback style. I recall even a specific remark left by a college professor at Georgetown, in which I had submitted a brand new draft instead of a thoughtful revision and she had written in the margin that I had frustrated the method of the workshop. I just remember being so stunned by the candor of it, and also so appreciative of the fact that she had such high expectations, to my point earlier, and such high standards for me. So that’s a roundabout way of kind-of getting the context of where my feedback style might come from. On a day-to-day basis I really try to do everything. I kind of liken it to muscle confusion in the weight room; the idea that by constantly changing your workouts, you can confuse your muscles and increase the stimulation and resulting adaptation of your body. I think that’s what I do with feedback as well. So I rarely give feedback in the same way, in the same grading period.

It makes me think of a website I recently found called, honestly I’m not sure of the originator of it, but it’s a really thoughtful, basic primer for teachers thinking about giving feedback. It talks about the difference between proximate and holistic feedback. Those proximate notes being embedded in the student’s texts or in the margins whereas holistic would be that more comprehensive feedback. As I get deeper into my teaching career, I find myself leaning harder towards the holistic feedback and less to the proximate. But like I said, I’ve done everything. I’ve done the red-ink marginalia, when I heard that was a bad color I switched to purple, then green, blue. I’ve printed out rubrics on colorful paper and stapled those to essays soaked in my ink. And then all these tools started coming online via the web, so we got and I started using their quick-mark and grade-mark tools. I’ve even used audio recording to walk through student’s paper where I narrate feedback. I’ve done screen recordings with Snagit where I will appear as a video talking head, leading a student through a bit of feedback. More lately though, I’ve been really enjoying kind-of what I like to call “love notes”, where I don’t even add marginalia to their papers, I just sort-of compose a narrative to the student, mostly praising the strong work, authentically of course, the strong work that is there, and then offering them challenges for future writing assignments based on the current one.

Many teachers could probably speak to the double-edged sword of peer revision and how we all want it to work perfectly, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe the expectations they have for each other is low. I’ve tried anonymous peer editing where they can only look for one writing feature, peer-editing where they can only leave positive comments. For peer-editing, I sometimes move my feedback strategy to more self-assessment. So at the end of each semester, I have students re-read everything they wrote from the first semester to consider, thoughtfully, the context in which they wrote each of those, to reread all of the feedback, whether that’s a marked-up rubric, or a narrative note, or marginalia, or an audio recording, and then to build a list of strengths and weaknesses based on that. We talked earlier, about acting on feedback, and the first action is to read it, and to consume it, and internalize it, and then maybe make some list of goals for each student. I like for them to do it themselves. I’ve been actually printing them as posters and putting them around the room so they can go check in on how they’re doing with their goals.

In addition, I’ve been trying to leverage some the technologies that have come online recently, No Red Ink, is something, they’ve just developed a writing product that’s going live this Spring. I love sending students to No Red Ink with a particular pathway to practice, whether it’s quote integration, or MLA citation, or parallel structure, I think directing students to act on their feedback with one of those practice tools has been helpful for me. Finally, is a vocabulary trainer we use here. I love pointing out when students have artfully integrated a Membean word into their writing, often that will be a rubric item, the quality of integration of some Membean vocabulary. But I can send them there if their usage needs to be made more accurate or fluid.

Some of the challenges that I’ve faced, the biggest one is to just make sure that, like we’ve been saying, that students consume the feedback, that they understand the feedback, that they’ve internalized it, and that they can act upon it. Then, giving them a place where they can actually do that. I think, often, teachers may return a writing assignment, and then say, the bells rings, and they say “See you later” but I really think it’s important to build in class time to read the feedback first and then to begin making goals toward acting upon it. One of my failings is never having quite enough time to allow for substantial re-writes based on these feedback.

I think the value of feedback really depends on action and improvement. I like for students to be able to name some of the areas that they’re working on based on my feedback and then to write that at the top of subsequent assignments. That way, we can kind-of measure how close they are getting to their goals, and having it be one items or two items, makes it a little less daunting. It’s been mentioned earlier, feedback can be overwhelming for students, if I circle every comma splice, or usage error, or notice a bad transition. Some students, it’s an act of writing and for them it feels like an emotional moment; so they might just read those circles as “You are not good at writing right now”, and that can turn them off from the writing process altogether. It’s hard for me to refrain from giving as much feedback as I would like sometimes, but targeting it as a less-is-more sort-of strategy has been helpful in recent years for me.

Some of the tips that I’ve tried to take now, I guess I’m offering them, is to shape the feedback we give to our particular classroom context, whether it’s online or in person, and if possible, to tailor it to particular student needs. I’ve experienced with giving a menu to students, where they can choose what type of feedback they want: if they want a narrative feedback in a week, check here. If you want substantial marginalia, check here. Putting that power in the hands of students makes them far more engaged in the process. I’ve also tried to really target the feedback, asking them to, for your next assignment, would you consider focusing some editing time on “X”. So not only giving them writing goals but giving them proofreading or revision goals as well.

I also try to learn from my colleagues, on the hall where I teach. Some of their greatest successes, that I get to witness, our one-on-one student conferences. These are always student-lead, the student approaches the teacher with three questions that they have that they want the teacher to address about their draft. Then, the teacher always remains without a pen or pencil in hand as they work through the conference.

Liz Nell: John, I love that. That was so helpful, there were so many great tips. I especially loved what you said about the love notes for students, where it’s all positive and then some challenge items for next time. I think that’s awesome, I might have our Graiders try that, integrating that into assignments. So, I was hoping, I really appreciate that overview that was really helpful, I was hoping you could talk a little about how you use The Graide Network in your classroom last semester.

The Graide Network is just adding to that, and helping to build our efficiency, and what a gift that is for all of us.
— John Damaso, Brophy College Prep

John Damaso: Absolutely. As Sumaiya mentioned, she was one of the four Graiders I got to work with last semester in a pilot for my department; I’m hoping to roll it out at a larger capacity soon. But for that first pilot, I thought it would be useful, for my students and for the Graider, use a known entity as a writing prompt. So, we did a 2014 College Board AP English rhetorical analysis prompt, it’s a 40-minute timed essay. I told my students in advance that these will be graded by Graiders, and here are their profiles, they are studying to become teachers, they are invested in you as writers, they want to help you, they want to help me. So, I kept emphasizing to my students that The Graide Network is just another great layer of feedback.

So whether it’s me, or peer-editing, or Brophy’s peer-editing network, The Graide Network is just adding to that, and helping to build our efficiency, and what a gift that is for all of us. I think my back-and-forth communication with Sumaiya and other Graiders really helped me clarify what my teaching goals were and hopefully, that provided some professional development for her and others. So, as she said, she got to read essays written on an AP prompt that she wrote on some years ago, and it was a letter from Abigail Adams to her son, and students were identifying rhetorical strategies in that particular letter. And I found that she really clearly and concisely pointed out areas of strength. She noted when they did a good job with textual evidence or transitions. She also pointed out areas for improvement, whether it was a lack of specificity in the argumentation, superficial analysis, or an unclear thesis, she did all of that in five minutes per paper, which is pretty remarkable. So I was able to turn these back within 48 hours to my students. That extra layer of attention, I think, gets to the emotional aspect of writing and I think they felt affirmed by that and they were part of something larger, that sort-of intergenerational transmission from student, to student-teacher, to teacher, which I think is one of the hallmarks of The Graide Network. So I’m able to add more practice essays to my set of course expectations, and that benefits my students and then I’m not increasing my grading load, and I’m growing professionally from my interactions with Sumaiya and others. My next goal with The Graide Network is to involve the Graiders with the writing process, not just the end result, for example, of an AP practice essay. So I’d love for that periodic commentary to come from Graiders in a google doc, like Sumaiya said. As my sophomores draft a long research paper next quarter, it would be great for them to have someone, almost like that little annoying paper clip, but not annoying, to assist them as they’re outlining and drafting, not just submitting a final draft for review.

Liz Nell: Absolutely. I think that will be especially helpful with the longer papers, stamina’s always an issue, so knowing that you have somewhere supporting you throughout the writing process and helping you get the paper over the finish line, and I think that will be great. I wanted to ask one question, so you mentioned that your students really bought into this, really liked the special attention, really liked this concept of getting someone else, like their teacher and this other student-teacher to help them. Some of our teachers have told us that their students take assignments a little bit more seriously when they hear that this other person is going to be reading their work and that they often take the feedback, they accept it almost more readily than they’ll accept feedback from their teacher; they’re like “Oh wait. But the Graider told me this” and the teacher’s like “Well, yea. I’ve been telling you that for three months” (Laughter). Was that something that you noticed at all with any of the boys in your class?

John Damaso: I did. In fact, one of my students, he noted that “The Graide Network disagrees with Mr. Damaso and should we discuss this further... (Laughter) You know The Graide Network, they have a logo, they have this great color scheme, they have all these Graiders working for them”. So it was a good writing conference, we actually had to figure out who was interpreting The College Board’s rubric, for that 9-point scale, most accurately. I think it ended up being The Graide Network anyway (Laughter). There is a perceived authority and credibility that is coming with this organization of motivated undergrads for sure.

Liz Nell: Awesome, thank you. Well, that was fantastic, thanks John. So speaking of motivated undergrads, Sumaiya, I wanted to turn it over to you to give a little bit more context. Obviously the work that we’re doing through our organization is student-first, first and foremost, making sure that we are creating a new feedback model that works for our students, and of course for our teachers. But another big concern of ours is our student-teachers, and making sure that these teacher candidates have a professional development experience that is authentic, that is diverse, and that is really relevant to them. Also, given that they’re college students, with very heavy workloads and coursework, also making it very flexible and accessible. So, Sumaiya, I’m excited to turn it over to you to just hear you talk about your experience as a Graider and as a senior and student-teacher.

My mentor teacher also always points out that ‘one of your most positive strengths is your ability to provide effective feedback’ and I definitely have The Graide Network to thank for that.
— Sumaiya Qazi, University of Illinois-Chicago

Sumaiya Qazi: Thanks so much Liz for the brief overview and intro and Mr. Damaso, great to hear the other the end, from a teacher’s perspective. I thought it was really interesting how you also shared the Graider profiles with your students, just so they know that it’s being objectively graded, I don’t know, for example, when I graded your students’ papers, I didn’t know “Is this an A student?”, “Is this a B student?”. So, this was completely objective, I had no idea how they fare as a student. So I think it’s definitely useful to hear it also from a teacher’s perspective, I know I definitely learned a lot.

Liz, as you mentioned, I am currently a student, teaching in the city, and I’m working with freshmen and seniors, so those are two drastically different grade levels. But my mentor teacher also always points out that one of your most positive strengths is your ability to provide effective feedback and I definitely have The Graide Network to thank for that. I can’t even believe how much I’ve grown professionally and personally ever since I’ve started. Initially, I just was “Oh, this is a virtual grading assistant” and I have loved grading since I was young, so I was like “Oh, I should do it”. But ever since I joined last year, so many things have changed. I can just name out a few things and it will sound like, kind-of unbelievable, but it’s actually true. For one, the Regeneration grading, which was for charter schools in Chicago, as I was reading those, I believe it was for 6th or 8th grade, I don’t know, something just hit in me: these students are keep making the same mistake, if I were to teach them about this again or teach a lesson, I would go about it this way, blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, oh my God, I need to tack on a middle school endorsement, and it’s only two courses right now, before the state actually changes those requirements. So, I went, as I was grading I looked up the courses, and now I’m actually taking those two endorsement classes. So, hopefully I’ll be endorsed in that as well in May.

The other big thing, that I wanted to mention, was for computer science. So, Chicago Public Schools is actually one of the first districts to approve computer science as a graduation requirement and it started with this year’s incoming freshman, class of 2020. So, of course, it’s Exploring Computer Science curriculum, and we’ve been grading, the Graiders on The Graide Network, on the platform we’ve been grading, the pre-test, which is basically a diagnostic test to see the students’ current knowledge of computer science. Because I’m in Chicago, and I know there’s a high need for teachers in this field, and I’ve always been passionate about all things technology. I think grading this has exposed me to firstly, the curriculum and I’ve already applied for the professional learning program that they have to offer, so hopefully I’m also looking to start teaching computer science and I would have never been exposed to it if it wasn’t for The Graide Network, so I’m super grateful for that.

But moving on from those two experiences, how is The Graide Network relevant for me, not only just as a pre-service teacher, but as a student-teacher this year, it has been so useful. I tell my friends about it, now they’re student-teaching too, but other teacher candidates I meet, I can’t stress enough how relevant this experience is. And especially for teacher candidates, we don’t have internships like other engineers do, where they can intern for Google or for Twitter. For teachers, it’s a lot more limited to things like tutoring, which would be in any subject, and it’s not focused on anything specific, not like The Graide Network.

As a pre-service teacher, for example, last year, I was really supposed to know the reality of how difficult it can be to grade, not just in terms of how much there is to grade, but what do I focus on? How can I get through to my students? Providing them with the most effective feedback. Again, going back to some of those main points, how do I make it as specific as it can be and how can it be actionable, which is the most important, because you want to make sure the student improves in their writing, not just goes in one ear, out the other. We have training at The Graide Network, so I learned a lot more from the platform than I did in the readings that we were assigned in class, because that’s more theoretical, and here, it’s more practical. And it’s actual student work, this student’s grade, it’s a real thing, it’s not just something being mentioned in this chapter from this text.

So, right now in Illinois, and I believe in 30-35 other states, we have the EdTPA, which is a performance-based assessment for teacher prep programs. I believe it was enacted in September 2015, so it’s only been about a year and a half or so. There are three tasks to that assessment, you cannot get your teaching license without that having passed that. So task one is the planning of your lesson segment, task two is the actual instruction, and task three is the assessment.

A lot of new teachers, Mr. Damaso I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, but most teachers have not heard of it because it’s new, but for teacher candidates this is like the bane of our existence because we’re having to write this almost nearly 20-30 page commentary on the 2-3 specific lesson plans that we’ve had to video tape, we’ve had to show how it’s supported by theory, and so on and so forth during our student-teaching when we have so many responsibilities.

The most useful thing has been, it’s for my third task, which is the assessment, where a lot of what I’ve already done in The Graide Network, for example, providing the class summary reports, like “What were the class strengths? What were the class weaknesses? What was the average?”. Letting the teacher know he or she can address these weaknesses, or can they teach this again because it seems that a lot of students didn’t get this part, that’s exactly what we do in task three of this state assessment. So we actually had a mock EdTPA before student-teaching in one of my courses, and I felt a lot of my peers, they were struggling with that. For me, it was a lot more easier, because I was already a few months in with The Graide Network. I mentioned it also to my professor, “Oh, you might wanna share this with the class”. I think it would be more useful, because we were almost finished, I hadn’t realized that. But, I did give my professor’s contact information to Liz and to Blair, who is the CEO of The Graide Network. So I think it would be really useful. And I know that The Graide Network is actually connecting on a broader level.