Providing Customized Feedback through Writing Portfolios
Peter Frengel, English Teacher
With Turnitin's ability to store student work digitally, Peter Frengel has been leveraging the online portfolio to provide customized instruction, promote student reflection of their writing, and create efficient in-class workshops where students can quickly pull up their comments.
Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series! Joining me today is Peter Frengel, an English teacher at Harrisburg Academy and a Grading & Feedback Honorable Mention for the Turnitin All-Stars Award Program. Welcome Peter, thanks for joining us today.
Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
P.F.: Sure. My name is Peter Frengel, and I teach ninth and eleventh grade English at Harrisburg Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Turnitin: Personally for you, what features of Turnitin are most helpful when you’re giving feedback and for students who receive that feedback?
P.F.: Yeah, the part I really like best is the feedback aspect, because I drop and drag comments right from the GradeMark window. When I first saw that--I’m like, oh-- that’s pretty cool. And I started using it more and more, and it became like, “Why am I even going to bother grading these by hand with a pen?” Because I can say more in the comments. I can have customized comments especially, and I can really give them detailed feedback. I can post a website, for example, if they’re not embedding quotations properly in the paper. I might post a link right there in the window for them.
It’s been really useful in my grading and adding comments. I can add comments very quickly. It really takes me three or four days, and then I’ll have them look at it in class, and if I have any questions I can go around and brush up with the kids in class as they hop on the laptops and go to Turnitin.com--it’ll be my feedback, and that way if they are confused by anything, I can go over it with them and discuss it.
Turnitin: Could you expand on the in-class workshops idea? What compelled you to focus your instruction in this way?
P.F.: I have them go through each little comment. I do what’s called “focused correctionaries.” And what you do is you choose one item for the student to focus on for the upcoming essay. For one student, it might be to avoid run-on sentences or develop your paragraphs in more detail. So then that student will go in and that’s what I’m actually looking for when they write that essay. I’m looking at other things too, but then I try to find one area to improve for the following essay. So each essay is cumulative--where they actually continue to build upon a skill.
So the workshopping involves me going around and saying, “Let me see how this paragraph is better developed. That’s what I want to see, good job. That’s why you got an A. For your next assignment, make sure you have sentence variety.”
Turnitin: What are some of the most common points of weakness in student writing?
P.F.: The most common errors in high school are run-ons, fragments, subject-verb agreement errors, and also what I call usage errors which are, for example: “then” and “than;” “you’re” versus “your;” “there-their-they’re;” “to” and “too.” These are the most common errors that I’m seeing in their writing, and they’re the ones I’m very strict about the students fixing right away. Those are the most common grammatical errors.
The second most common problem I see in student writing is development. They write very sketchy essays. They stay general instead of being specific. I always tell them that specificity is what makes the reader truly understand what your thought is, because general ideas tend to be vague. So developing detail is the second thing that I see student writers need the most.
The third is organization, and what this comes from is the approach--I told you before--in which students just want to sit down and start writing. They just want to get it done. And so they don’t do any pre-writing and planning. Once a student learns to pre-write and plan, the essay has a cohesive shape from the very beginning. Once they know exactly what details they want to add before they start acting, you can feel the cohesion and the difference in the cohesion once the essay is finished and in the unity of the paragraph.
Finally, of course, reflection is the last part--is the need to edit and revise. A lot of students, once they hit that final period, they want to submit the paper and not reflect upon it. So that’s part of the writing process and that’s part of our workshopping as well--is to get them to honestly admit to look that they do edit and they do revise.
Turnitin: Do you think Turnitin is effective as a system of record or as a feedback tool that can help your student improve on their weakness?
P.F.: Well, absolutely. That’s where I really love Turnitin.com, because all their essays are stored in the database, so I can open up the student’s name and see each essay that he or she has written. I typically have a class period set aside once everything’s graded and all the comments have been made in which the students will open their essay up again. They’ll review all of my comments. I’m there to clarify any comments that they don’t understand.
I then give them a page which has the most frequent issues, and they check off with a tick mark, for example, how many times they had a problem with commas or how many times, and then I collect those pages from the students. I do a quick conference, because I have a very small class. I can conference with each of my students in a single period, and within five minutes I can make sure that they see exactly what the issue is, the most common issues.
I open my notebook, I show them what their focus is going to be for the next set of essays, and make sure that they understand how to incorporate that in their own writing so that they know how to address any issues that they’re having. Then in the next set of essays, I typically will have them--even at the top of their essay--put what is your focus for this essay? Have them at the very top say, “I need to work on my paragraphing.” So they’re aware--even as they’re writing their next draft of the next essay--what they need to be trying to adapt.
Turnitin: Why would your students need to have the purpose of writing and their most commonly-made errors at the top of their mind in their next essay?
P.F.: Organization is the key. They need to pre-write. They need to plan. So if they start their essay and they start with the first sentence and they haven’t thought of the essay as a whole, then that becomes evident. So if pre-writing and planning is their focus area, it almost immediately will lock them into that mindset--okay, you need to plan before you write. And then I’ve seen a great improvement in terms of having that reflection first before they begin, because students don’t want to reflect. They just want to start writing that first sentence, that box, and typically that’s where they lack organization. So, it helps them reflect.
Obviously when we look at it again after it’s been graded, we can look right at the page and say, “See, your focus was to be this, how well did you do?” And they can pretty much tell you just by looking at it whether they’ve made that progress or not. The reflection and the planning is all part of the process of them learning.
Turnitin: How do you see Turnitin playing into how you approach instruction? What is that approach and what role does Turnitin play?
P.F.: One of the most popular approaches to teaching writing is the portfolio approach, where students can actually see their progress in front of them. And Turnitin makes that very simple because it’s all laid out in the assignment--you click on the student’s name and all their assignments are there in front of them. With that portfolio approach, of course, you can track progress from one piece to the next and so they’re in chronological order as well.
Over time, I am able to customize and tailor each student’s writing instruction to their specific needs. And so each student begins to get a tailor-made, customized education, based upon what I can see. All their essays are right there on Turnitin.com. It takes two seconds to pull them up and look them over.
The best part of the portfolio approach is I can look at a single page, all the essays are there. I can ask my students, for example, one of my favorite questions in the workshop is “What’s your best piece of writing?” because the kids know what they put work into and time into. And we can pull that one up, and I can find places to praise the student. Often that is more successful at getting results than constantly just the red pen on the sentence of what they haven’t done correctly.
And having all the work there in front of them and having all my comments readily available at any time we need to review them is the beauty of Turnitin.com, because can you imagine the files, the paperwork? Having everything available from home, from work, that to me is what really makes it a great tool for being a successful teacher of writing. As we meet in workshop--between writing assignments--this gives us a vehicle where everything is in one place. We can review every piece of writing the student’s done. We can pick the strongest or weakest pieces from their writing, and we can review my comments online and track those over time and to see the development of each student. And so it’s an ideal vehicle for me to use in my teaching.
Turnitin: What has student feedback been like now that you’ve been having this customized approach with them?
P.F.: I’ve heard great feedback from students and from parents, both of them saying how remarkable it is that these tools exist. I was in one parent conference where the parent didn’t realize that I could find out if this essay was plagiarized right immediately. I could also customize my assessment of the essay, and that these tools were also available for parents to look and see how their student is progressing and to encourage that growth at home as well.
The feedback I get from students is also very positive, because they know they can’t fudge things. They can’t copy papers from online and post them as their own work. It often forces them to reflect upon their own growth with each essay. I’ve seen in seven months remarkable growth in my students in terms of their understanding of what their weaknesses are and what their strengths are.
Turnitin: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’ve been talking to Peter Frengel, English teacher from Harrisburg Academy.