36 Codes, an OWL, a Pitch Counter, and a Headset: Nontraditional Tools for Nontraditional Feedback

Just like many educators, I am always working towards improvement, and my incessant quests for enhanced teaching and professional practices usually stem from a desire for one thing: quality feedback for my students. Obviously, to reach this goal on a daily basis, efficiency is paramount. Whether I am speed-reading a stack of e-mail, tweeting out class reminders for our new E.P.I.C.C. Academy, or creating online content to facilitate personalized learning, the goal of efficiency (and, as always, creativity) is at the root of my daily practices. Likewise, I am constantly experimenting.
One such experiment these past six weeks has led me to a newer, more efficient mode of assessing students’ essays. Yep, it may sound a bit eclectic at first, but the only tools I currently use to provide valuable, timely feedback for my students’ writings are 36 codes, an Owl, a baseball pitch counter, and a headset.

36 Codes and an OWL

Call me a slow learner if you want, but I grew tired and frustrated after many years of crafting thoughtful paragraphs of feedback on my students’ papers only to watch them get trashed after their numerical grades were ascertained. This disappointment led me to develop an ever-evolving spreadsheet of grading codes and relevant links.
These thirty-six codes have worked very well for the thousands of essays I have graded the last few years, but the effectiveness of these one-to-three character codes was taken to another level when our district recently did something amazing…students were given Google Drive accounts. This breakthrough, along with knowledge gained from this blog post from Catlin Tucker and the availability of Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), has totally transformed my process for assessing students’ work. Take a look at the process here.

A Pitch Counter

To be even more efficient, I borrowed an idea from my days of playing and coaching baseball. A baseball pitch counter, which is obviously used by coaches to protect their players from overthrowing, can come in very handy when trying to quantify any particular area of focus when grading students’ essays. Sometimes I click and click to get an understanding of how students struggle with sentence fragments, run-ons, or comma splices, while other times I search for the number of ideas that support the students’ well-crafted thesis statements. Whatever it may be, the little gadget that cost me a mere $8 is oh so valuable.

A Headset

I remember using Audacity and a pile of students’ flash drives about five years ago to “voice grade” a set of AP Language essays. My colleague and I decided to give it a try, and the results were overwhelming. Students said the feedback via .mp4 audio files was some of the best they ever received. Since it did not take nearly as long for us to articulate our criticism as it did to write those same thoughts, we were relatively efficient. However, we encountered two problems: 1. Managing a multitude of students’ jump drives 2. Not having an effective technique for highlighting key areas within the pupils’ essays.
Flash forward to 2013.
Thanks to Jen Roberts, I learned how to add voice comments through Google Drive. This particular site, 121Writing, is now Kaizena. This powerful site has been revamped to accommodate teachers’ wishes and to make every aspect of assessment more efficient. From the ability to record multiple comments and send them all at once to the ease of underlining text or submitting written feedback, Kaizena is a teacher’s dream. Here it is in action.

Who knows what the future holds for teacher assessment. Maybe years from now I’ll look back at these grading tools, laugh at their assumed improbability, and discuss the presently unimaginable gadgets that line my feedback toolbox.
For now, however, I’ll stick with 36 codes, an OWL, a pitch counter, and a headset.

John Hardison

John Hardison is an interactive facilitator of learning and blended learning specialist at East Hall High School (Studio 113 & EPiCC).

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Dave Guymon

John, you're never one to relax in your comfort zone. I would be surprised if I ever heard you say that you've finally figured it all out. That's because you model learning and adaptability daily for me and your students. Thank you for this post and for the resources that you share here. As always, I love reading what you write.

John Hardison

Thanks for the comment, my Idaho brother. It's rather easy to be unsatisfied in my comfort zone because I am always challenged to wriggle free and shake off the shackles of complacent thinking by educational innovators like you.


Thank you for the great information! I will share with my teachers!

John Hardison

Thanks, Candace. Glad it helped. Please let us know how it works for you and your colleagues.


Thanks for sharing this. I've tried a rudimentary version of this kind of thing, but I like how you've linked to the relevant OWL pages. I expect this procedure to be very helpful for both me and my students.

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