Friday, 31 January 2014

Making My Mark

What could be more rewarding than seeing knowledge and skills you’ve imparted upon your young charges recalled, regurgitated and reinterpreted on crisp white sheaves of high-quality cartridge paper in flowing, cursive script? Nothing, one would imagine. Such a thing would be the pinnacle of achievement for me, after which I could retire to my smallholding on the Cornish coast to see out my days subsidising my pension selling homemade chutney at boutique farmers’ markets.

The reality, of course, is that I am obliged to mark vast reams of less-than-wonderful work, providing meaningful, instructive and purposeful feedback which will help transform prosaic prose into something magical and turn cursory analysis into deep and meaningful discussions over the minutiae over a writer’s every utterance. And it’s a struggle.

It’s a struggle for reasons you only too familiar with: struggling to comprehend what Sammy’s writing says, at a loss as to what Kai means, baffled that they haven’t turned all the excellent ideas they had in class into excellent writing in their books, exasperated that Richard still gives capital letters to every single noun in his work despite you telling him every single lesson that he must STOPDOINGTHISORYOUAREGOINGTORIPHISTEETHOUTTHROUGHTTHEBACKOFHISSKULL!

Most irritating of all, however, is just how long it takes.

I’ve experimented with all sorts of marking systems and practises. Some have been successful, others less so. Some work with specific classes, others do not. Some have been epic failures, some merely silly. 

I cracked Y7 early on. I have a tiny class of fifteen low ability students who write very limited amounts. I mark everything they do in class – usually as they do it. I have a verbal feedback stamp which is applied to their book when I speak to them about their work, I tick, correct and advise as I go along. They constantly redraft and rework things using a purple pen so I can see their improvemnts. It means every lesson is differentiated for every pupil, I’m constantly aware of their needs and, brilliantly, I don’t ever have a marking hangover.

Sadly, in larger classes I struggle to get around everyone in the same way. They generally write more in terms of volume and depth, making assessing and feeding back to 30+ pupils a bit too laborious. Tips I’ve picked up from various excellent blogger/teachers (bleachers?) have helped enormously, but none have had quite the impact of Mark Miller’s excellent idea to use Microsoft Word’s ‘mail merge’ function.

Mark’s blogged about it here, but having fooled around and adapted the system, here’s how I’m employing it to allow me to 30 pieces of work in little more than an hour…

When marking, I set up an Excel spreadsheet. Strengths, targets and comments are recorded for each pupil as I assess their work – as below.
Initially, this seems to save no time at all. But after a few cells have been filled something miraculous begins to happen: pupils have the same strengths/targets. At this point, simply cut and paste them into the appropriate area. Eventually, you’ll have a fully completed document which, contrary to the normal state of affairs, actually speeds up the closer you get to the end. And you don’t get RSI from repeatedly writing the same thing in their books. 

Better is to come, however. Once your Excel doc is completed, open a Word document too. Make a little table for just one pupil – like this:
Now go to the menu bar at the top of Word and select ‘Mailings’ and then ‘Start Mail Merge’.
From the drop down menu select ‘Letters’ and then ‘Step-by-Step Mail Merge Wizard’. A new panel appears, from which you must follow the instructions in the bottom right corner of the screen. These are: ‘Next: Starting Document’; highlight ‘Use the current document’ then click ‘Next: Select Recipients’. Finally, click on ‘Browse’ and find the spreadsheet where you initially logged your feedback.

A new pop-up like (as below) will appear. Simply click ‘OK’.

Then, select ‘Insert Merge Field’ from the toolbar. This allows you to select which of your Excel fields you would like to add to the table you created in Word. Have a fiddle, position things where you want them, and then marvel at the little template you’ve created.

At this point, it seems you’ve achieved very little. But you haven’t yet waved magic wand. Go to ‘Finish & Merge’ on the right side of the toolbar. Select  it and press ‘Edit Individual Documents’. Like magic, your initial table has turned into a table for each of your class with specific feedback for them and them only. Delete any white space between the tables, print them, guillotine them, distribute them, feel smug and self-satisfied. 

This process seems convoluted, but run through it once or twice and it soon becomes second nature. And you can tailor it to your needs – I keep every Excel sheet I complete so I have a constantly updated record of any feedback my pupils receive, enabling me to spot trends or gaps easily. I’m sure you could think of a thousand other ways to use them.

Learning how to do this took a while and, whisper it, I think I’ve made the process more explicit than Mark Miller did, but please don’t address any technical questions to me. I am not an IT technician and I don’t have the answers. But do give it a try – it really is worth it.