traci's lists of ten

Traci's 33rd List of Ten:
Ten Tips for Using Computers to Respond to Drafts

Posted to WPA-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TechRhet on 3/20/01.

As I stated in the previous list, when we use various technologies in our classrooms, they should add to what we're doing, not distract from it. That's particularly the case when we use computers to compose and share text with students. We also have to take special care to ensure that students understand how the technologies that we're using work if we're going to use them as part of our response. Here are some guidelines that I follow:

  1. Be consistent and sensible.
    If you're commenting on drafts that students have turned in electronically, your response should probably come back to students electronically. It doesn't make much sense to return a floppy and a slip of paper with your response. Likewise, if they submit their papers via email, email your response. You might find ways to use other technologies to your advantage. Just be sure that whatever you do makes sense and helps the writer. For instance, you might respond to student texts in HTML format, creating a version of their paper that links specific sentences, words, or passages to a comments page. That type of response makes sense even if students have submitted their papers as regular word processing documents.

  2. Make sure students recognize the purpose of interspersed comments.
    Students used to marginal comments may be confused if you're using an online system (say email) that requires a different way of commenting on their drafts. There are a lot of ways to provide these comments. For instance, all of your comments are in square brackets in caps (e.g., [HERE IS A COMMENT]). Alternately, you can add bracketed numbers (e.g., [1]) that are keyed to a numbered list at the end of the paper. Most students are well-acquainted with writings up and down the margins of their papers. You simply need to explain to your students that your comments are akin to marginal commentary that they might see on a printed paper.

  3. If you avoid or use few interspersed comments, make sure students understand why.
    Some teachers dislike interspersed commentary, especially the kind where bracketed comments interrupt the students' text. If you forego all marginal/interspersed commentary for this or another reason, students accustomed to these comments may not understand why you've gone about a different system. They may not understand why those marginal comments are missing. Some students believe that the marginalia is an indication that the teacher actually took time with the text, reading every page. Make sure that your students understand the system that you're using so that they do not misinterpret the kinds of commenting that you do.

  4. Use tables to create a margin.
    Take a creative look at the word processor that you and your students use. If you're all working with compatible systems (e.g., everyone at your school is using Microsoft Word), one simple way to create a space for marginal commentary is to place the text in a two-columned table. Paste the student's draft in one column and write your commentary in the other. If you prefer, you might place chunks of text in different rows — perhaps a different row for each paragraph or sentence, depending upon the kind of feedback that you're doing. You might also create a three-row table, using the first column for the draft, the second column for global or content comments, and the third column for comments on grammar, punctuation, style, and mechanics.

  5. Take time to demonstrate the technology you're using.
    You might use a system such as adding endnotes or footnotes to the paper that contain your commentary or use a built-in annotation feature such as that available in Microsoft Word. If you're using a system based on one of these tools, be sure that your students know how the tool works — If they don't know how to find your response, they won't be able to read it! Go over the technical information about how to view footnotes or annotations. Be sure that your students know how to print their papers with and without the commentary. Unless they understand how to find the commentary, they can't read your response.

  6. Share models.
    This is another time when samples of graded papers really help. Your students may never have had a teacher respond to a draft electronically. They may only know systems where drafts are submitted on paper, written on by the teacher, and handed back. By showing students what a graded paper looks like you can cut out a lot of confusion. You can explain how to use the different kinds of commentary, show them any technological how-to's that they need to know, and help them understand what to expect when their papers are returned.

  7. Use your virus checker.
    Be sure that you have a good virus checker on your machine. Check regularly for updates. Install them as soon as they're released. You may be fairly confident about the safety of your computer, but you can't begin to know what is happening on every computer that your students use — just thinking about the number of places that a student may open and work on a file should give pause for thought... in their rooms, the library, the open lab, at work, and so on. There are numerable chances for students document files to become infected — and you likely have 20-some students or more in each of your classes. That means the likelihood of your computer becoming infected is increased exponentially when you're working with electronic submissions. It may sound evil, but TRUST NO ONE. Scan every document before you open it to avoid trouble and be sure that you keep up with the latest virus scares so that you know what to watch for.

  8. Be particularly aware of overload.
    Typing comes easy to many of us. I know that I can ramble on at the keyboard for a few pages without even knowing it. Create some guidelines for yourself and revise your commentary if necessary to meet them. The following is probably reasonable, but clearly not absolute rules:

    ~10 words
    — Interspersed comments appearing in the middle of something someone else has written
    These comments interrupt the flow of the primary text of the draft. They should be short and provide as little interruption as possible. The point is to provide a little comment, not to take control of the paragraph.
    ~25-30 words
    — Comments between paragraphs or sections of a draft
    — Endnotes/footnotes
    Remember these are like marginal comments. They're not the "end comment" even if they appear as "endnotes." Since they're not in the middle of the draft in the same way that interspersed comments are, they can be a little longer. But they shouldn't be so long that they distract from the main text.
    ~100 words, up to a screen or a 1/2 page
    — End comments
    Here you're pulling together everything that you have to say about the draft that you've read. The comments should be focused and specific, so you can get most of what you need done in about 100 words. That gives you a couple of inches of screen real estate, measured vertically — a nice chunk, but not overwhelming. This explanation paragraph, for instance, is 95 words long, about the right size for a nice end comment. If you've included excerpts from the draft (e.g., an example of great description), your comment will be a little longer.
  9. Use copy and paste to your advantage.
    When you happen upon a really wonderful sentence, descriptive passage, or well-turned phrase, you can copy the item and include it in your end comment, pointing out why you think that the writer has done a particularly good job. Likewise, you can explain any grammar, punctuation, or mechanics rules by referring to sentences from the students' draft. Using the student's own language can be more helpful than the distant examples from a handbook. Be careful though — don't go about cutting and pasting the same commentary on every paper. See the previous list for ideas on using boilerplate effectively.

  10. Pay attention to mechanical (but important) matters.
    Since you're dealing with electronic files, there are some special considerations to be aware of. If you're returning a word processing file or similar computer file, rename the file so that neither you nor the student accidentally overwrite the earlier version draft when you return it. If possible, you might keep a backup copy available on a network server — be careful about student privacy if you're including grades though. Graded material should not be stored on a public server. If you're sending email, be sure to save a copy for yourself so that you can re-send if the student accidentally deletes the messages. Also be sensitive to the tools that the student you're responding to is using — your students may be using different platforms and different word processors. Be sure that your students can open the files that your return to them. It's usually safe to use Rich Text Format (*.RTF), but you should probably confirm format information with your students ahead of time. One simple method is to give all students a sample RTF file and ask any whose word processor isn't able to open the file to let you know. Then you can work individually with anyone who needs a special file format.

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on March 27, 2001.