Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thinking about our comments...

.....can they be done solely with audio devices?? Maybe!

64 English Journal  101.2 (2011): 64–67 

I wanted my comments to be useful to students as 
they revised, not to serve as a defense of the score. 
Before turning in drafts, students in my class 
reflected on their work and identified the particular 
kind of feedback they wanted on the assignment, 
which is one effective way of ensuring students’ 
purposes for their writing guides the way I read 
their writing. Following Donald M. Murray’s con- 
ference pattern, I focused on each student’s request 
as I read, making little checks or stars on the page 
to indicate where I had a comment or suggestion. 
After reviewing the entire draft, I returned to the 
beginning and opened the voice memos application 
on my iPhone. The methods described here could 
also be undertaken with an inexpensive tape re- 
corder or free recording software such as Audacity. 
To keep my comments organized and to help 
students navigate my response, I wrote numbers in 
the margins of the paper and spoke those numbers 
into the audio recording just before I delivered my 
praise, questions, or suggestions. For this excel- 
lent improvement to my practice, I am grateful to 
Emily, one of the first students to select the audio 
comments option. When I finished my recording, I 
sent the writer an email with an MP3 attachment. 
The student’s draft and a sticky note containing my 
prerecording notes were returned during the fol- 
lowing class period. 
As I experimented with providing student 
feedback via audio comments, I began to survey 
the students who selected this option. I explained 
that using audio comments was an instructional ex- 
periment, and that I was interested in their sugges- 
tions and feedback to make my practice as effective 
A teacher finds using 
software to make audio 
comments on students’ 
writing improves students’ 
understanding of her 
responses and increases 
their willingness to take 
her suggestions for revision 
more seriously. 
Sara Bauer 
When I Stopped Writing 
on Their Papers: 
Accommodating the 
Needs of Student Writers 
with Audio Comments 
his is the story of how, one snowy 
Sunday afternoon, I curled up in the 
corner of my sofa, read one of my 
students’ essays, and refused to pick 
up my pen. Instead, I thought about what I would 
say to this student if we had the luxury of confer- 
encing about his writing. I considered his topic and 
why it excited me, how he got my attention as a 
reader, the questions that persisted after I read, and 
a few suggestions to help him improve the clarity 
of the writing. Then, I picked up my smartphone 
and recorded my thoughts. Talking into my phone 
made me feel like I was in conversation. “Hey, 
Kevin . . . Ms. Bauer here. So I just finished read- 
ing your essay and here’s what I’m thinking . . . .” 
Leaning back into the sofa cushions as I spoke, I felt 
relaxed, yet focused—professional, yet friendly— 
exactly the way I feel on a very good day in my 
classroom. Once I finished, I couldn’t resist the 
temptation to play it back. What I heard convinced 
me that my pens should stay in my school bag until 
Monday morning. 
In the process of recording audio comments, I 
came to a new understanding of my students’ writ- 
ing needs and my responsibilities as their writing 
instructor. I began to offer audio comments as a 
feedback option for early drafts on significant writ- 
ing assignments. The other options were traditional 
handwritten comments and suggestions using the 
Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word. My ob- 
jective was to provide substantial and useful sugges- 
tions for improving a draft that would be submitted 
for evaluation at a later time. Audio comments did 
not accompany a scored piece of writing because I 
EJ_Nov2011_B.indd   64 10/12/11   5:16 PM
65English Journal 
Sara Bauer 
students; with audio comments, the instructor can 
qualify his/her language, adjust volume, use preg- 
nant pauses, etc. in offering the student feedback 
on concerns in a paper. These dynamics help to 
communicate the problems in a student’s writing 
with care and empathy.” 
As a teacher using audio comments to re- 
spond to students’ drafts, I learned that it is easy 
to make a critical remark in the space of a few 
words, but praise is not considered sincere unless 
it is elaborate. Students want to know why the in- 
structor likes their writing 
or what makes a particular 
sentence powerful or effec- 
tive. Not only is this kind 
of information a pleasure 
to receive, it provides the 
writer with a template for 
following one successful 
performance with another 
one in the future. 
Tip: No matter how 
many errors I find in a 
paper, I make a point of 
opening audio comments 
with praise for some aspect 
of the writing and closing 
the recording with words of encouragement for the 
next draft. Even the level of difficulty the student 
has taken on with his or her selection of topic could 
be a source of praise. Beginning and ending with 
praise helps me maintain an empathetic stance to- 
ward the writer throughout the audio commentary. 
After all, it’s the writer’s purpose and effectiveness 
on which I’m commenting, not my own idea of 
what the writing should accomplish. 
Students’ Responses to Audio Feedback: 
The Importance of Specificity 
The students recognized and appreciated that my 
recorded comments referred specifically to their 
method of handling a topic or their strengths and 
challenges as writers, often remarking that the de- 
gree of specificity made the audio recording easy to use 
or easy to understand. 
• “The comment that was most useful was the 
one that told me precisely where I could 
include research in my story.”—Dan 
as possible. After three years of experimentation 
with audio comments, I uncovered several themes 
among student responses. These themes confirm 
the research that has been conducted in the field 
and demonstrate how audio-recorded feedback ac- 
commodates student writers by addressing their 
individual needs. 
Students’ Responses to Audio Feedback: 
Personal Engagement and Confidence 
My students expressed that they felt personally en- 
gaged in the process of receiving feedback with their 
frequent references to their feelings and level of 
confidence. In making audio comments, I was able 
to incorporate many elements of a successful writ- 
ing conference such as making a personal connec- 
tion and getting to know the writer, while avoiding 
the chaos of trying to conduct conferences during 
class time. 
• “Keep making it personal because it really 
• “I feel like they [audio comments] are more 
personal because I am able to hear your opin- 
ion through emotions and more detailed 
• “I liked knowing what aspects of my writing 
you enjoyed. This made me confident in 
those sections or ideas that I previously was 
• “I heard more about what you thought of my 
paper instead of just reading small comments 
on the side of the page.”—Amy 
• “With audio comments, I like how the tone 
of the editor comes into effect. This makes 
the critique less harsh, and easier to 
In her qualitative study of audio vs. hand- 
written instructor comments in three developmen- 
tal college writing classes, Susan Sipple found that 
students perceived audio comments as more moti- 
vating than handwritten ones, which she attributed 
to “an increase in the amount of praise they received 
on papers where they were given audio comments” 
According to Andrew Cavanaugh, who advo- 
cates audio comments at the university level, “Text- 
based comments often ‘sound’ terse when read by 
In making audio 
comments, I was able 
to incorporate many 
elements of a successful 
writing conference such 
as making a personal 
connection and getting 
to know the writer, 
while avoiding the chaos 
of trying to conduct 
conferences during  
class time. 
EJ_Nov2011_B.indd   65 10/12/11   5:16 PM
66 November  2011 
When I Stopped Writing on Their Papers: Accommodating the Needs of Student Writers with Audio Comments 
Students’ Responses to Audio  
Feedback: Comprehension 
The most gratifying responses I received from stu- 
dents were those in which students confirmed their 
understanding of a particular comment I had made 
on the recording or acknowledged that one of my 
suggestions did prove useful in revision. 
• “The suggestion that I should have broken 
my story into different journal entries to 
improve my time usage. My story will flow 
better with multiple entries.”—Erin 
• “After re-reading the ending, I agree that an 
email would have properly put a close to the 
story. It gave me insight on the fact that it is 
important to stick to a style when 
• “Global revisions were the most useful, but 
the explanation of misplaced modifiers will 
keep me from doing it in the future.”—CJ 
The practice of making audio comments goes 
beyond assisting students with revising a particular 
assignment. I was able to target my instruction so 
that students could learn about themselves as writ- 
ers and develop strategies for avoiding common 
pitfalls on future assignments, thereby strengthen- 
ing their writing performance over the year. 
Since students reflected on their experience 
days after listening to audio comments, their rec- 
ollection of specific suggestions indicates that they 
listened carefully and repeatedly, thus maximizing 
the benefit of the feedback and increasing the like- 
lihood that they have internalized advice and will 
be able to access it in future writing situations. 
Most students reported listening to my com- 
ments at least two times as they worked on the next 
draft of the assignment. Noah described his process 
as follows: “I listen, then review my writing. Then 
listen and review what I wrote again. Finally, I re- 
vise my writing and listen once more to see if I can 
catch anything else from the audio comments.” 
Audio recordings are portable and easy to use, 
making them an ideal teaching tool. Former stu- 
dents have told me that they still have my MP3 
recordings on their iPods, and that occasionally, 
when they have the device in shuffle mode, they 
are transported back to sophomore year when they 
hear my voice. Though many traditionalists might 
• “I liked how you marked my page and 
explained the mark in the audio comment. It 
was easier to follow, and it was very specific, 
describing which points needed more elabo- 
ration in order to be convincing.”—Arianna 
• “The part where you specifically suggested a 
segue sentence that would work well.”—Sam 
Haven’t we all been the recipients of generic 
comments running down the margins of a paper? 
“Develop. More details needed.” “Unclear.” These 
messages are frustrating because writers know they 
could apply to any paper. Without a specific context 
in which to apply the comment, students often mis- 
understand such comments or misinterpret them as 
criticism. This is no less true in audio commentary, 
but audio commentary makes it easier to be more 
specific than traditional, writ- 
ten commentary does. 
In his defense of audio 
comments as pedagogically 
sound and ergonomically nec- 
essary, Cavanaugh argues that 
the “thorough narrative that 
the instructor is allowed to pro- 
vide affords the student a rich 
learning experience.” I wish 
I could report that recording 
audio comments significantly 
reduces the amount of time I 
spent on each student paper. It 
doesn’t. However, audio feed- 
back enables my comments to 
become much more developed 
and targeted to the individual 
writer than they had been when 
I confined myself to cryptic and 
cramped notes written in the 
margins. Generally, I remarked on 5 to 15 aspects of 
the writing in a recording of four to twelve minutes 
in length. In the same amount of time, I commented 
on far fewer items in greater depth. 
Tip: When delivering suggestions for revi- 
sion, attempt to indicate several ways the student 
might improve one weak aspect of the writing, 
rather than deliver a single, authoritative sugges- 
tion. In this way, the student learns by weighing 
the alternatives and selecting (or creating) one that 
is most appropriate for the writing situation. 

I wish I could report 
that recording audio 
comments significantly 
reduces the amount of 
time I spent on each 
student paper. It doesn’t. 
However, audio feedback 
enables my comments 
to become much more 
developed and targeted 
to the individual writer 
than they had been 
when I confined myself 
to cryptic and cramped 
notes written  
in the margins. 

I guided students through the process. I think a compelling 
topic, a convincing voice, and well-chosen details 
are more important than writing mechanics. 
When I stopped writing on my students’ pa- 
pers and made use of audio 
comments instead, I discov- 
ered that assessment, which 
I had always regarded as a 
chore, could be a powerful 
teaching tool and a means of 
helping my students com- 
municate their thoughts 
and opinions in effective 
and engaging ways. Re- 
cording audio comments 
has helped me deliver feed- 
back on student work that 
is compatible with my prac- 
tice of student-centered, 
responsive writing instruction. And I think my stu- 
dents can hear the difference. 
Works Cited 
Cavanaugh, Andrew. “Audio Comments in the Online 
Classroom Pedagogically Sound, Ergonomically 
Necessary.” DE Oracle @ UMUC. Center for Support 
of Instruction, University of Maryland. May–June 
2006. Web. 26 Jan. 2011.
Murray, Donald M. A Writer Teaches Writing. Boston: Thom- 
son/Heinle, 2004. Print. 
Sipple, Susan. “Ideas in Practice: Developmental Writers’ 
Attitudes toward Audio and Written Feedback.” 
Journal of Developmental Education 30.3 (2007): 
22–31. Print. 
Sommers, Jeff, and Susan Sipple. “Benefits for Students.”  
A Heterotopic Space. Sue Sipple and Jeff Sommers. 
2005. Web. 3 Feb. 2011.>. 
argue that communication via digital media is im- 
personal, I contend that it offers a means for the 
instructor to interact with the student when and 
where the student feels most comfortable. 
Jeff Sommers and Susan Sipple, who advocate 
digitized audio commentary, state that one impor- 
tant advantage of audio comments is that they “can 
be listened to (again and again) at the student’s 
convenience.” The title of their website, A Hetero- 
topic Space, makes reference to the capacity of digital 
media to help instructors create a space outside the 
traditional classroom—a space in which students 
can consume and respond to comments at their own 
pace and in a comfortable environment. 
Tip: Invite students to discuss how they use 
your audio comments and suggestions during the 
revision process, and devote some instructional 
time to providing strategies for deciding how to 
implement suggestions at the global (revision) and 
local (editing) levels. This instruction may include 
some discussion of the fact that it’s possible to con- 
sider a suggestion and ultimately reject it. After 
all, the objective is to help students become better 
writers, not just to improve the quality of a par- 
ticular assignment or hold up the instructor’s sug- 
gestions as the only means of improvement. I have 
found that using audio comments helps students to 
see that my comments are meant more as suggestions 
than as corrections of their writing. 
When I began my career as a teacher, I thought 
my job was to show students what was wrong with 
their writing and how to fix it. My focus was on 
the product. The skill I held most dear was edit- 
ing. These days, my primary purpose is to convince 
the writer that his or her work is worthy of tak- 
ing through another draft. My focus is on coaching 
Though many 
might argue that 
communication via 
digital media is 
impersonal, I contend 
that it offers a means for 
the instructor to interact 
with the student when 
and where the student 
feels most comfortable. 

Sara Bauer is co-director of The National Writing Project at Rutgers University. She teaches gifted and talented students at Morris Hills Regional District in Rockaway, New Jersey, and instructs graduate courses at Rutgers University. Email her at 

The author shares an innovative approach to responding to student writing.’s “How to Revise 
and Edit” describes strategies for students to begin revising and editing any piece of writing. While revising, the students are asked to “read as a reader,” “read as a writer,” and “read as an editor.” http://www.readwritethink 
EJ_Nov2011_B.indd   67 10/12/11   5:16 PM

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