Paul Moffitt’s junior American Literature students have been exploring some of the most intriguing and challenging literature in American history over the last semester. Faulkner. Kesey. Melville. Krakauer. Thoreau. Hawthorne. Emerson. Now, with the reading finished, Paul is challenging his students to connect with those ideas. This means crafting and defending a creative synthesis claim regarding an individual’s relationship to society, using these authors as the support. Too many big words? It means these juniors must come up with their own idea for the essay, rather than responding dutifully to a teacher-written prompt. The result will be a synthesis essay driven by each student’s engagement with the literature. It’s an assignment that treats these Southview students like educated and critical adults, offering a precious opportunity to question their world.
But today, it’s all about one of the most crucial skills of a good writer: revision. The students have written an introduction and two body paragraphs, and Paul would like to help them revise that writing, but not in the traditional manner. Rather, he has recognized the available tools of the day and focused on one in particular: Paper Rater. This free online paper revision service will help these juniors find weaknesses in their drafts and offer suggestions for revision. Yes, it sounds like a traditional grammar checker, but it’s something more than that, and Paul is using it to help his students become stronger, more reflective writers.
Students walk into first period around 9:30 AM due to a rare December fog delay and sit at table desks arranged in groups with Chromebooks waiting. From the SmartBoard, Paul discusses the course of the assignment and the feedback they’ve received so far on the essay development. Eventually, he addresses a link on Google Classroom that will take the students to Paper Rater. After explaining the service and its relation to older grammar check utilities, Paul walks them through the process.
Paper Rater begins with a text window into which students paste their writing. Below that window lie a few drop-down menus where students identify their level (11th grade), their paper type (research paper), and their choice on plagiarism checking (yes). They accept the terms and run the checker, which cycles for a bit as it works. The students do this conscientiously, some pulling ahead and one or two drifting off. Even the drifters come back quickly, though, and Paul continues his direct instruction in the utility. Soon, everyone is examining a customized results report.
That report reveals what you might expect: spelling errors, grammar errors, plagiarism alerts. But when examining the word choice, style, and vocabulary sections, Paul notes how this utility is a bit different from the traditional grammar check. Microsoft Word never checked grammar based on the identity and purpose of the writer, but Paper Rater does. When students identified themselves through the drop-down menus, Paper Rater checked the writing based on that identity. As a result, the word choice report informs the student on how their word choice measures up to other junior students, giving a “Bad Phrase Score.” The style section helps students see where they can use more transition words and provides graphs showing statistical data on their sentence length variety. It even identifies simple sentence starts that should be revised to increase variety. Finally, the vocabulary section identifies the scholarly vocabulary the student has used and rates their performance compared to others at their junior level. These reports provide some of the richest and most instructive data that students could hope to receive. Each one helps guide a student into an area of revision that will not only improve this paper, but also give differentiated support for developing revision mastery.
No grammar check utility is ever foolproof, and Paul reminds his students that using Paper Rater does not take the burden of re-reading off their shoulders. Using it as a regular resource, though, can build in students a control of their writing that the best writers hold. Thankfully, the utility will do that for even the most struggling writer through its ease of use and clarity of reports. As Paul explains, “I like the fact that I can show them these tools for checking before they turn in the paper. They can know about word choice and plagiarism and many other points.” It’s a bit like having a teacher conference with them on their papers individually, but the conference happens whenever, wherever, and however many times the student wishes.
The shortened period ends much too quickly. Students have just begun to digest the feedback their reports have given them. Paul has altered the timeline a bit, though, so each student will be able to expand and polish their exploration into the individual’s relationship to society extensively. The fact that six students stay after the bell rings to discuss their papers hints that many will do just that. Thanks to Paul, they now have more power to do so.
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