Ali Knowles makes sure that if you visit her office at Southview, you get candy. The Reese’s peanut butter cup I choose just adds to the comfort of the office and the band room it joins. Ali’s work space reflects the stereotypical chaos of an artist, with stacks of papers, digital paraphernalia, and a colorful miscellany of musical equipment, but what’s going on inside is anything but disorganized. In fact, Ali is assessing her students’ musical performances through a process that is expertly structured, a process that is a model of effective digital grading.
As Ali sits at her desk, she examines video recordings of her sixth grade band students for assessment and feedback. She bounces back and forth between two windows on her screen. One displays the video of the student in a Quicktime player; the other shows Ali’s spreadsheet in Google Drive. Ali watches the video, pausing and rewinding as necessary, typing scores and comments into the spreadsheet as she goes. If she were merely to stand next to them, Ali would powerless to pause her eleven year-old students, but that power is hers through video. Using video instead of live performance gives her the ability to examine the student’s skills in much greater detail than a live viewing, and the resulting feedback is that much richer.
Once finished with the feedback, sharing these results with students would be a challenge to many teachers. After all, how does a teacher share individual rows on a spreadsheet with individual students? Copy them to a grade sheet? Hardly efficient. Cut them into strips? What a mess! Instead of those ludicrous options, Ali uses a mail merge to automatically plug the row data in an individualized email sent to each student. This all happens through an application called Yet Another Mail Merge (YAMM) that plugs into Google Sheets. Basically, YAMM looks at the spreadsheet, which includes student email addresses, and plugs the grade and feedback information into a template that Ali wrote. Each student receives an email discussing their grade with the data from the sheet Ali used while watching the video. The beauty of this? Once Ali mastered YAMM, she could send the entire batch of those customized emails with only a few clicks.
So, students open their email accounts to read a report from Ali that provides scores in various areas of assessment as well as comments on strengths and weaknesses. That structure and content of that report was not generated by an automated service, though. Ali made it herself, and since she did that, the report reflects her class objectives and learning process perfectly. Ali tailored the technology to her students’ needs, not the other way around. The end result? Speed and rich feedback. Ali quickly runs through each video, enters scores and comments, moves through the entire roster, and then uses YAMM to send the results with a few clicks. This may sound complicated, but if you asked Ali if it’s tough, she’d give a slight shrug and shake her head.
But how did Ali get to this point? This office, however comfortable and candy-laden it may be, is still a small room, isolated from students. Ali is not wading into a sea of sixth graders in a band room to accomplish this grading, but it does start there. Let’s check out this lesson through the story of an eighth grade band day at Timberstone.
About a minute after the bell rings, eighth graders excitedly filter into the band room, gather their instruments, and check out the directions on the SmartBoard, chattering all the while. Ali calls them together and completes the first two activities of the day, a listening activity to identify major and minor chords and a warm up with slurs. Then, she dismisses three pairs of students to band practice rooms with flip cameras. While Ali turns back to rehearsing a piece with the rest of the band, these few students will record each other completing “Technique 2a.”
Nick, a trombone player, and Ethan, a baritone player, enter the first room and set to work immediately. Nick practices the technique and then watches Ethan do the same. Once warmed up, Ethan picks up the flip camera and aims it at Nick. Nick runs through the technique, performing much better than his warm up. Smiling in satisfaction, he trades places with Ethan, who performs his own pass.
Ali’s training is obvious with these boys, just as it is with Abby and Lauren in the next room, or Madison and Abby in the last. Each pair efficiently records each other and then exits the practice room to rejoin the band. Another series of pairs takes their place.
Throughout the recording, Ali continues to rehearse with the rest of the band. She explains that she loves this approach’s ability to leave her working with the main group throughout the period. She can rely on her students to record efficiently, and she will be able to “sit” with each one of them once she returns to her office.
Ali’s process has used digital technology to orchestrate the learning of a band full of students at the same time. By recording performances, she can be in two places at once, giving direction to the entire band and valuable feedback to each student individually. The mail merge makes that feedback instantly and permanently available to the students. What’s better is that each recording of each student stays in a digital folder that they can review as they progress through each stage of learning. And that means that Ali has refined a process by which each student receives more attention, clearer direction, and continuous reflection. Truly, her work at assessment is exceptional.