Two Hacks to Make Online Grading WAAAAAAY More Efficient

efficientYou remember the old grade books.

Alternating rows of green and white. Spiral bound. Tiny boxes. Numbers. Here and there, a red check.

On the one hand, it was efficient and elegant. You could grab it from the shelf, flip to a page, scan for a name and quickly enter a grade.

On the other hand, it lacked the functionality of today’s online grade books. You could not enter in-depth notes. After a correction or two, the little box was illegible (remember white-out?). It certainly did not average scores, link directly to assignments, or communicate with students.

I’d say, we’ve made some serious progress.

That said, as I grade papers online, I find that a lot of time is spent not evaluating papers, but in clicking back and forth between the grade books for various classes. Each click requires a few seconds of internet-patience and a visual reorientation, since nothing online stays where you left it.

This clicking, scanning and scrolling ads up. It’s inefficient and fatiguing. What’s the fix?

Tiny little bookmark. BIG TIME HELPFUL.

Tiny little bookmark. BIG TIME HELPFUL.

Solution 1: in your shortcuts bar, make a tiny folder, labelled with a % sign. In that folder, save the webpage of all of your classes.

Before grading anything more than a single assignment, open all three as tabs. Now, you can click back and forth between your gradebook “pages” (like in the good old days) with no need to load a new page.

Solution 2: invest in a secondary monitor. This way, you can drag your grade book to one page, and your student projects (or a second grade book page) open on the other. I’m AMAZED that I’m the only person in my office with a second monitor. Best $100 investment you can make.

tank ii

Me, grading papers with multiple screens.

Solution 3: Purchase DUET on your iPad and have a THIRD monitor! YES! Now, you have one screen for your papers, one for your grade book, and a third for a grade calculator, your students’ portfolio, whatever.


But, like, all pedagogical.

Free Students’ Minds with Free Association

poopedSelf. Text. Theme. Free Your Mind.

My 10th Grade Literature/Sociology students are studying classic texts to understand how the ancient questions are still relevant to their lives, and to “mine and undermine” the original for imagery they can deploy in expressing their own experiences.

Their art, therefore, must contain more than recognizable imagery from the text. It must contain artifacts of their lives.

Last year, however, many students balked at this idea, omitting references to their lives altogether or protesting/resisting/asing “is this ok?” over and over.

Q: How do you get students to include imagery in their art about their most significant relationships: friends, parents, frenemies, enemies, and longed-for love-objects? And to include this imagery in a way which is, on the one hand, authentic, and on the other hand, safe (not requiring them to over-expose their private lives)?

A: Free association

  1. triangleI explained WHY we were about to embark on a journey of free association: “Imagery from your own life might be hard to come up with, or it might feel like oversharing – unless your project uses “symbolic code” to depict the people in your lives.
  2. I told students that at any time, if they wanted to lag behind, skip, backtrack or work ahead, they were free to. And that they could interpret or “intentionally misinterpret” the instructions however they wished – the goal was to produce captivating imagery to symbolize important relationships in their lives.
  3. We turned off the lights. Each student had a piece of paper and a marker. I played the music of Tony Scott: zen flute, zither and clarinet.
  4. Students folded the paper in half, creating a 4-page “booklet” or card.
  5. Students write a name of someone on each page. Prompts included:
    1. Someone you have a good connection with.
    2. Someone you’re in conflict with.
    3. Someone who you WISH you had more of a connection with.
    4. Someone you USED TO have a connection with, but no longer.
  6. Students drew a circle around the first name, with three rays extending from the name.
  7. From each ray, students would write a word or draw “an ugly little symbol” (worded this way to reduce art-inferiority complexes) of:
    1. The first word/object to come to mind when you think of that person.
    2. Something that person wears, owns, hangs on the wall, or keeps on a shelf.
    3. Something that person loves or hates.
  8. Students then “mashed-up” two images or words from each page, creating a new word or new image, no matter how absurd.
  9. Students then imagined that new hybrid-concept “visiting” the classic text. Where would it go? What would it do? Who/what would it interact with — no matter how absurd.


Art is very much about images which stand in for complex subjects, often contradictory in their message and use. While experienced artists are practices in developing meaningful, rich symbology, many people find the practice confusing or overwhelming.

By releasing students from any immediate expectation, they could free their minds to create the imagery that would eventually populate their projects.

At the conclusion, I told students that they could rip up their work or take it home to mine for their projects. At the end of class, indeed, a few scraps of paper sat in the recycling bin. But many more went home with the students.

Tonight, while they sleep, I hope their subconscious creativity will inspire them further.

Teaching About Israel/Palestine During Complicated Times: Using the QOL Wheel

CoexistI teach in a Jewish school. The school is committed to teaching about Israel. The school is also committed to allowing students to form their own connections, ask their own questions, and make their own connections to Israel. This means, to me, confronting the complexities of life there, right now.

The problem: any article, written for public consumption, is biased and has an agenda. And in my Jewish Studies class, while I can devote a bit of time, now and then, to grappling with the situation in Israel, I don’t have the time for a deep dive into “how to be media savvy when reading about Israel.”

Today’s Solution:

Yesterday, we had an all-school performance by the Inside Out Contemporary Ballet company which explored the voices of dancers dealing with life in Israel and Palestine.

I built on this, starting class with the music of Yair Dalal, whose has made music with Israeli and Palestinian musicians together for many years.

We then read a personal reflection by my friend, Tamara Kaplan, wherein she describes life in Israel, and speaks frankly about the tensions and the moments of hope when Israelis and Arabs come face to face in Jerusalem today, in normal – and therefore deeply meaningful – moments. Cabs. Supermarkets.

Sometimes, it’s small talk. Other times, they talk explicitly about “the craziness.”

Says the author:

Taking the risk of being with each other, breathing a sigh of relief when we know we are safe with each other, and then getting on with the business of being normal, nice people — except that for each of us here in Jerusalem right now, every normal, nice interaction that would be forgotten in a second if we were living in normal days — [all this] is now taken into the heart as a little, precious sign that all may not be lost, and that faith between [people] may yet prevail.

QOLStudents listened to Yair Dalal and reflected on the letter, conducting a Quality of Life 360 – a system I have devised for evaluating and articulating how people cope with trauma and enrich their lives.

The prompt: How have Israelis’ and Arabs’ lives been impacted by the current situation? What are everyday people doing to cope? And what are your own thoughts, concerns, hopes and prayers?

facetofaceI was surprised at the students’ ability to empathize with people from different backgrounds, and their ability to use the categories of the Quality of Life Wheel to construct their own language to understand a very scary, overwhelming situation.

We then turned to Facebook (gasp!) and students asked questions, allowing Tamara to IM back. For a few moments, we were connected to a place far away, but very near.

15 minutes later, when every who wished to speak had spoken, we listened to the final words of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “Swords and Plowshares,” sung in Yair Dalal’s Mantra of Peace.

Then, we opened our texts, and we learned about Revelation at Mount Sinai, where God and Human both quake when they come face to face.

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.” -Yehuda Amichai

Ner-Cited: A hybrid of nervous and excited

rabbitduckYou’ve seen the drawing a million times: a duck. A rabbit. A duck. A rabbit.

The brain is amazing thing: it can take ambiguous signals and interpret them in wildly different ways.

So let’s move past rabbit-ducks for a moment and consider this scenario: a teacher, Sunday evening before the first day of school. He charges his laptop, assembles his clothes. Laundered trousers. Polished shoes. Pressed shirt. Lucky tie. Goes to bed and lays awake.

Butterflies in stomach.

A few miles away, a student lays out rows of fresh, new school supplies. Pens and notebooks, a new syncing cable for her smart-phone to replace the second one she lost (one is still in her bunk and camp, and one is under the sofa cushion). She has some new, purple Chuck Tailor Converse, had her hair done, and has a new sweater for the first day of school.

She, too. Butterflies in stomach.

Are they nervous? Excited? Both?

panicThe amygdala and hippocampus, the parts of the brain that encode threatening events into memories, have done their jobs. The student and the teacher have experienced the threats of new social situations enough times to know that stakes are high. Something could go wrong: a class could be unruly. Friends you haven’t seen in three months could be fickle. Then, the unknowns: who will sit next to you in class? Who will sit in the front row? Who will make your year a living hell?

While there is no way to avoid these anxiety-provoking situations on day one, the brain has a few tricks up its grey-matter.

The rabbit can be a duck, by choice.


The feelings one gets before a big test aren’t very different than the feelings one gets before a first date, a rock concert, even opening a gift.

In all these cases: butterflies. But we call this being “excited.” Nervousness saps your energy, weakens your morale, and can spoil your day. Excitement, on the other hand, can be harnessed to accomplish incredible things. It can turn you into a superstar. Night and day. The difference, really, is just a matter of how you look at it.

As summer comes to a close, I’d like to offer the term: ner-cited. I’m nervous, sure. But I prefer to see it as excitement.

How do I feel about the new school year? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about my new classes? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about the new initiatives I’m launching? Ner-cited.

Next time we’re entering into a strange and unknown experience, lets look that rabbit/duck-thing in the eye and shout it out loud: Get down, you adrenaline-raising ambiguous stimuli! We’re ner-cited!

10 Item Checklist for Your First Two Weeks of Class is back from summer vacation with a top-ten list to get your own classes off to a good start.

An effective and positive beginning sets you and your students up for success in three ways.

  1. Logistic

Your students don’t know your system, don’t know your rules, and don’t necessarily know how to use the resources you’re going to make available. Meanwhile, they’re not signed up for the tools you want them to sign up for, you don’t have some critical contact information you’ll later need, and, well, your classroom is not “systems-go.”

2. Thematic

Students might know the name of the class, but they don’t know why they should be psyched for the class. Or what the class has to do with their lives. And if you don’t know the answer to that, well, you won’t be able to transmit it. That’s a missed opportunity to earn “buy-in.”

3. Social/Emotional

If you want the class to be somewhere students are happy to be, you’ll need to invest in the class being somewhere they feel seen, heard, and felt. This begins right at the beginning.

Here are 10 things to take care of in the first two weeks, addressing these 3 areas. Some are easy adaptations, and some you should flag for follow-up if the “ship has launched,” so to speak. There’s always the quarter break.

boringDay 1: Share the theme, get students talking, and get them registered for your preferred modes of communication

While many teachers begin the year with “reading over the syllabus,” I believe the students’ retention of this information is low, and none of our three goals above are achieved. Plus: BORING. Instead, try this:

  1. Open with one of your essential questions: something which any student is both qualified to speak about, and also inherently interested in. My two high-school classes begin with, “Is it a safe world or an unsafe world?” and “What makes life better.” I don’t talk for the first 10 minutes of the first day of class. For more about essential questions, check out this site.
  2. prezoPut together a Google slide-presentation or Prezi that you can reuse and improve from year to year, which includes interesting and amusing video clips, some topics for discussion, and some interactive fun-stuff. I’ve used this Prezi for a few years, and it keeps me on track, includes fun activities, and sets up the theme for a literature course I teach, where I’ve identified “relationships” as the main theme.
  3. At the end of the slideshow, give them homework: to sign up for Remind, to read your class norms and policies, and bring any clarification questions to the next class.

rulesDay 2: Get the students familiarized with your class norms, co-create a covenant, and begin reinforcing your values.

4. Allow students to ask questions about your class norms and policies. Clarify, and as homework, have them review the norms and policies to study for a quiz. Let them know, in advance, that any questions they get wrong they can recover points on by coming to your office with the correct answers located on the document.

Hint: consider this being the introduction to your year-long policy: quizzes can be corrected for credit!

5. Have an open-ended conversation about class values: student-to-student ethic, productivity, and responsible use of technology.

Hint: have students record their ideas on a group Google Doc Covenant like this one and have them sign it.

6. Have the students create homework passes, which look a lot like popsicle sticks with the students’ names. Talk with students about what your goals for homework are, and how you also understand that sometimes life happens – and homework doesn’t get done. That’s what the passes are for. Students can be honest about not having homework done – and the reason why won’t even matter. Twice per quarter.

This reinforces that the rest of the time, it really needs to be done.

dojo7. That evening, add any behaviors the class wants to reinforce to Class Dojo, an excellent tool for increasing positive conduct in the classroom.

Day 3: Jump into your first lesson with something interactive

8. Use Socrative or Poll Everywhere to begin class with a survey, predicting the class results, and discussing the findings. Be sure the topic is connected to the enduring understandings of the unit.

9. Be sure that you plan at least two separate sessions, in the first two weeks, where students tell stories from their lives on a thematically relevant prompt. Students who feel like people are “getting them” are more resilient to critique – both from their teacher and from their peers.

10. Have a meeting with every student who misses / forgets any low-stakes assignment (or shows signs of acting out), early on.  At the meeting, give the clear message that you are never here to judge, you are only here to support. Express how eager you are to clarify and help. Be positive and enthusiastic.

Here’s wishing you a great start to your semester!

I’d love to welcome my readers to suggest their own first-two-weeks checklist items below!

10 Things to Remember at the End of the School Year

  1. endofyearcatYou did not die.
  2. You did not kill any of your students.
  3. You are a better teacher now than you were at the beginning of the year.
  4. Your bad days are better than many other teachers’ good days.
  5. You care about your students – enough that you take your own time to read about teaching. And the students can feel that caring.
  6. Some of what you taught, the students will remember. Most of what you taught, the students will forget. But something you taught might have started a process – a journey – a new way of seeing the world — that stuff you may never know about. But trust that it happened.
  7. Next year will be better than this year.
  8. Nobody ever looked back on their life and regretted their time as a teacher.
  9. There was one student out there who needed you. And you were there for him or her.
  10. As a teacher, you spent the year working on the most important things a person can work on: being a better person, and making the world a better place.

The hardest thing about professional reflection is doing it.

funny-fat-cat-looking-mirror-what-done-with-my-life-depressed-unhappy-picsTwo competing findings in the world of learning:

  1. One becomes a master after 10,000 hours of practice.
  2. Learning requires reflection.

We have a notion in our world that to get good at something, you have to practice, practice, practice. And if you think of your teaching as a craft like any other, then you’ll conclude that it will take a lot of hours in the classroom to reach mastery.

If you teach 4 or 5 hours a day, and your school has 170 or 175 days of instruction per year, you should hit mastery somewhere around year 13 or 14.

That, believe it or not, is the good news.

The bad news is that deeper research shows that it is not sufficient simply to accrue hours in order to learn a  body of knowledge or a skill set. The learner must reflect — that is, turn back, turn in, and ask: what am I doing? What did I do well? What did I do wrong? How do I fix it? And how will I know it is fixed?

And reflection, while important, is not usually fun.

  • It’s easier, after a successful class, to bask in the glory of a job well done.
  • It’s easier, after a class which flops, to forget about it and hope that whatever went wrong never happens again.

carl_cat_red_dot_mirrorBeyond this, the school day is set up not to allow you to reflect. Teachers dash from class to class with barely enough time for the bathroom, let alone five or ten minutes of reflection. And if you do have time, technically, then you also have a pile of other responsibilities to address, all with varying levels of urgency. So you don’t have time.

A beautiful quote from the classic the Mishna (a Jewish text) sums it up: don’t say “When I have time I will learn –” you will never have time.

So, too, for reflection.

The solution of the ancients was to build time for learning into each day. A few minutes, a few hours – whatever it is.

For us, we build time for reflection into our day – or at least our week – and ask: “How did I get here? Do I want to be here? Where do I want to go, and what will it take to get there?”

  • Do this in your head, walking out of class, every day. Jot down one “takeaway” when you get to your desk.
  • Do this over coffee, once a week.
  • Do this with a journal every Sunday evening.
  • Do this with a colleague every other week: take turns reflecting.
  • Do this with your department head once a month.
  • Spend an hour on this at the end of every quarter.

It takes 10,000 hours to become a master.

It takes 10 minutes of reflection to become better than you were.

Projects: make classwork like a little project, and projects like big classwork. But cooler.

kittenthornThere’s a saying: practice like you’ll play, and you’ll play like you’ve practiced. Generally, this is about the need for teams to take their practicing seriously – with discipline and intent – allowing game day to feel like a well-prepared-for challenge – and not a scramble headfirst off a cliff.

In class planning, too often I see (and have written) projects with high stakes based on skills that have never been practiced in class.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be planning awesome projects. One of the five things I remember from High School was a mythology project, wherein I created an epic radio drama. Did it contain computerized music, voices, hilarious non-sequiturs, and scraps of information from class? Yes.

Did I use it to bring learning I’d been doing all semester to the next level?


Here are some guidelines to help your projects be, truly, scaffolded opportunities to “connect-the-dots” and stretch out, creatively – and not, well, hilarious non-sequiturs.

  • porkylolcatDeconstruct the various skills required to complete the suggested project. Can you guarantee that the students will know (or will have learned) how to do those things? If not, you need to build training time into class. Example: I’ve seen classes where a formative assessment is a mock courtroom scenario. I wonder: did the teacher teach how to cross-examine? Or classes where the final project is a website: did the teacher spend time in class on the basics of website design?
  • Notice some of the practices you are habitually working on in class. Is there a way to incorporate that into your project? Example: I teach reflective listening all year long. Only recently have I begun to include an interview project as part of the curriculum – but unlike most interviews where the interviewer is silent, In my class, the student reflects the main kernel of the subjects’ statements. (For more on teaching reflective listening, click here).
  • If you are having trouble composing a project that is truly aligned with the core skills of your class, not to worry. Consider this approach: use the project as a low-stakes (not graded or given a completion grade) venue for creating rich content. Students work together without fear of their project getting a “bad grade.” Students play with materials and content.  Then, after show-and-tell and critique and second drafts, teach a unit on how to interpret and evaluate other students’ work. Students get practice in comparing and contrasting, asking generative questions, and brainstorming improvements or “next steps.”
  • Finally, as a final assessment, in pairs or alone, students write an evaluation of other students’ work – using all the skills they have learned. In other words, the project is the content but the written evaluation is the assessment.

For a deeper dive into classwork as a “pooled resource,” see blog 23.

Morning Rituals for Teachers: Beyond Coffee

coffeecatEverybody has a morning ritual.

For some people, it’s elaborate. Drinking a pressed-kale smoothie, then Yoga, then seeing what’s new on the “cosplay” thread on Reddit.

For others, it’s more bare-bones: get up, fall out of bed, drag comb across head, find way downstairs and drink a cup, look up, notice it’s late. Then, grab coat and hat, make the bus in seconds flat, find way upstairs and have a smoke, etc.

Like that.

The question is not whether you have a ritual, it’s whether your current ritual is a good idea for you as someone with one of the hardest jobs on earth.

On mornings where I adhere to my sacred ritual, I set myself up for a great day.

Does it mean I will have a great day? No. But it might that if the day sucks, it’s partially because I didn’t do my best to get it off to the right start.

calendarcatMy ritual starts the night before:

  • Review tomorrow’s calendar. This will help you mentally step into the flow of the day. When will you rush around? When will you sit at your desk and space out? When are your meetings? Additionally, this will help you catch mistakes: “I thought that meeting was next week” is an excellent thought to have the night before. It’s a very bad thought to have when you realize you’re half an hour late.
  • Put out your outfit. Make sure you love what you wear and you wear what you love. Your outfit should match the intention of the day. For me, I like to wear a black or grey suit on monday with a fan-freakin-tastic tie. Why? Well, do you remember how fun it was to go to school when your mom had just taken you shopping and you had new British Knights and a new pair of Girbauds and couldn’t wait to show them off? Me neither! I shopped at Target. But you get the idea. (For more about the interplay of style and how you feel, visit StyleForDorks.Com)
  • Talk over any worries you have with your spouse, significant other, friend, roommate, or parrot. Tell him or her what’s on your mind. Feel free to share things you’re looking forward to, as well. And if you feel like your significant other is just parroting back to you whatever you’re saying, you might actually be married to a parrot. That’s cool.

boatcatIn the morning:

  • Bath or shower. Make sure you have yummy soap. You should love the way it smells. If you don’t love it, find one you do. I like this oddly shaped sandalwood soap I got from chinatown for 2 bucks.
  • If you drink tea or coffee or yerba mate, do it slowly. Carve out 10 minutes.
  • Listen to music. At least 2 songs.
  • If you can budget the time for a stop at a cafe for coffee and journaling and music, you’re really off to a great start. You need to feel like you have a life outside of your otherwise all-consuming job and your family. I do this little “morning-spa” twice a week.

cocktailAfter Work:

  • Don’t take your stress home with you. See if you can build in a trip to the gym, a cafe, or a pint at the pub. ONE pint.
  • If you’re an introvert, arrange some “hamster-ball time” – even five minutes – with important people waiting for you at home. A five minute buffer to change into comfortable clothes, to sip a cup of tea, to journal about something in your day will make you a better roommate, partner, spouse, or parent.

Partner Learning Logistics Made Easy: The Rolling Roster

One incredibly simple model for getting students into pairs for work – and then keeping them in pairs for work — hit me this year (and it only took me 10 years to come up with it).

The Rolling Roster. Here’s what it looks like.

 How and Why?

Step 1: Give students a task, “First Thing Work:” something to get them focused at the start of class (Journal, a drill, etc.) For examples and more about “First Thing Work,” click the link above.

Step 2: After getting set up and taking attendance, conduct your “Housekeeping” since you might not have a chance to speak to the class again: announcements, deadlines, instructions, homework-heads-up, and the like. For more about “Housekeeping,” click the link above.

Step 3: Give students their assignment. The assignment should have at least two, but no more than four sections. Design the assignment with the following criteria:

  1. The individual can complete the assignment in 10-30 minutes.
  2. The assignment must be somewhat open ended, allowing for multiple perspectives or multiple solutions.
  3. Design the assignment such that students would need or spend about between 10 and 20 minutes discussing.


  • Students might work individually on a complex problem, and then share their findings, comparing and contrast solutions and capturing further questions.
  • Students might write a mini essay or essay outline, and then share their work with a partner. The partners give one another critique or feedback.
  • Students answer a series of interpretive literary questions. They compare their answers and challenge each other to back their interpretations up with text.

Step 4: When each student finishes her independent work, she writes her name on the board (and in some cases, the number of the problem / question / task she worked on. This is how the student indicates that he or she is ready to work with a partner.

Step 5: As soon as a suitable second student puts his or her name on the board, you, the teacher, take a marker and draw a line connecting the names of two students who will work together. Yell out, “Student (name) and Student (name)!” Other students continue working quietly.

Step 6: When the two students are done working together, they get up, erase the line connecting their names, and return to their desks for independent work until they finish the next problem…to put their name back on the board. If they are done, they move on to “anchor work.”

Your task: roam the room, listen in on groups, and keep an eye on the board – for a student who is waiting to be matched with a partner. Use Class Dojo’s randomizer feature to make sure that you visit all students – not just the “problem students” or “advanced students.”


  1. Don’t allow the student to draw their own brackets. Sometimes, you will want to skip over the next appearing name (Student A has already worked with Student C, Student A doesn’t work well with Student C, etc.)
  2. Keep an eye on slower students in an odd-numbered room who might find that they are still working while everyone else has paired up. You might need to ask them to join a twosome even without completing their work.
  3. Keep an eye out for students who might stall in order to work with someone they like – although in the grand scheme of things, even if you overlook this, it’s rarely harmful.
  4. Be sure the anchor work for class is posted and clear. Though the anchor-work between round 1 and 2 would be preparing for round 2.
  5. If you need to start everyone out at the same time, use this fantastic, adjustable randomizer by Mr. Matera, and if you’re using any kind of digital calendar, post that day’s roster for students to check upon arriving to class!
  6. You may want to provide/allow headphones or earplugs for students who would be distracted by the sound of people talking. If headphones are allowed, spend some time at the start of the year talking about expectations with ipods: for example, students must prepare a mix of music for worktime to prevent shuffling and texting during work time.
  7. Students must have “anchor work” to work on, to prevent a student who does not have a partner from distracting others and/or from misusing the computer in class, etc. For more on anchorwork, see:


  1. Students never lose focus: from independent work, to partner work, and around again.
  2. Gives you extended time to collect student data. I recommend using Class Dojo to record target behaviors you have already identified and discussed with students: for example, active listening. (For more on how I teachactive/compassionate listening, see my blog post on


Students operating autonomously will streamline the extent to which you must serve as “logistic-ringmaster.” This conserves your energy, preserves your voice, and should you need to address the class, you will get better attention from the students since you have not been barking orders at them!