Teaches Language Arts at St. Joseph's Catholic School
Josh Fitkin teaches 7th grade Language Arts in Des Moines, Iowa or as he likes to call it an International Language class. His language arts class went international this past year with a pen pal program between his class at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Iowa and a school with the same name in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. With a personal connection to the Canadian town, Josh reached out to the school and asked if any fellow 7th-grade teachers would like to start a pen pal program. With the Canadian teacher on board, they started exchanging both emails and written letters. Soon the idea of pen pals expanded to doing more than just writing letters.
The Learning Curve
Josh first learned about Peergrade at the Iowa 1:1 Conference in a session on classroom tech and apps. The conference took place on Thursday and by Monday he had a Peergrade course up and running in his Language Arts class. In previous years Josh had used collaborative storytelling, where groups of 4 to 5 students each take a turn writing one chapter of a short story. After learning about Peergrade he decided to take his pen pals to the next level. Again, Josh reached out to his Canadian counterpart, who although new to the edtech scene was ready to give Peergrade and collaborative storytelling a try!
For 3 weeks the class worked 2 days a week on the writing process. Of course, there were some frustrations for students with their creative counterparts residing in another country but the technology was there to help out again. Josh allowed students to start Facetiming their Canadian peers so they could meet and have more personal discussions. At the end of the collaborative writing project, students uploaded their stories to Peergrade for peer review, this is also where Josh started to learn more about the feedback and Peergrade process. Josh started using Peergrade shortly after learning about it so he also used this opportunity to help his students hand in and learn how the student interface works. One of the biggest things Josh learned was that uploads to Peergrade should be done more frequently and in shorter amounts. In his class students had to read and give feedback to a 6 chapter story, which can be a bit daunting.
Getting more from Feedback
The students in Josh’s class loved the anonymity of Peergrade. As Josh explained it to his students, in Peergrade you don’t know who is your friend and who is your enemy. His students could feel free, to be honest without worrying about what their friends might say.
Before Peergrade, he had used the “pass the paper” technique for feedback and then transitioned to commenting on Google Docs. There were two problems with these methods, the first being students would give basic and general feedback such as “good job”. The other problem was that students would often just mark comments as resolved on Google Docs without actually reading and internalizing the feedback. With Peergrade Josh not only started to see his students give each other the type of helpful and honest feedback they need but he could hold students accountable for the feedback they had given and received. At anytime Josh can go back into the course on Peergrade and see all the feedback a student has received and given.
One way he accomplished this was to help students understand the feedback process. This included explaining how students should look for positive aspects of the writing as well as aspects that needed to be improved. While using pass the paper and Google Docs, Josh would hand out a list of points that students should focus on for giving feedback, such as character development and proper punctuation. It was a fairly easy transition to start using rubrics for both Josh and his students to give feedback.
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