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114: Easily Reduce your Digital Paper Pile

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When I first began teaching, I had no clue when it came to grading. The week before my first term grades were due, my computer crashed, along with all my grade data. The night before my first grade comments were due, I worked on them until three in the morning, despite the fact that I had been working constantly on them in all my free time for days. 

I graded and commented on everything. I designed six different rubrics for creative projects – one for each differentiated project option I had built in. When I graded papers, I tried to fix and comment on every single error, every single time. 
I tried conferencing once, but lost my voice after trying to speed whisper my way through individual meetings for the entire day while my classes worked on drafts. 
It was not great. I did not have a lot of guidance. 

Today, I want to help make sure you don’t make all the same mistakes I did. Because I know that this year, more than ever before, is just not the year to be buried in grading. There are enough other stresses, without adding a monstrous digital paper pile to climb. 

You can listen in on the player below, or on Apple PodcastsSticherBlubrry, or Spotify. Or simply read on for some top takeaways.

#1 Assign Less, Grade Less

This is the first and perhaps most important. It seems obvious, but really, it’s not. You may feel enormous pressure to assign work every day, and then to grade and comment on it. But you don’t have to do that. Especially in this year of strain and overwhelm (but really, every year), give yourself and your students a break by focusing in on consistent, worthwhile in-class activities. Make assignments done outside of class truly meaningful ones, worth the time and effort required for students to do and you to grade. 

Then, with the assignments that you do give, be creative in how you give feedback. 


If your students write a piece after practicing a specific skill, try just commenting on that skill. You can skim the rest. So for example, if they’re practicing argument after a week of crafting arguable theses, you can carefully comment on the quality of every thesis, without correcting every single other writing error on the paper. This way they’re more likely to improve what you’re really working on, and you save time and effort on making a huge quantity of corrections they may not really be able to take in at the moment anyway. 

Another similar option, is to have students choose their strongest work for you to grade – the work that is most representative of their growing skill. This could look like them turning in just one practice paragraph from a series of five. It could look like them starring a paragraph in a paper that they feel best represents their writing, or a skill they are trying to improve, and you commenting carefully only on that paragraph. This could look like them flagging one journal entry out of three for your feedback. There are lots of ways to spin this one, but it makes the feedback process more collaborative and targeted. 

This one was a revelation for me, and I hope it will be helpful to you too! If you do want to give students acknowledgement for the daily work they do that really doesn’t need feedback, stickers are amazing. I was pleasantly stunned by how much my eleventh graders loved the colorful stickers I bought when I first tried this out. These days, you can even drop digital stickers onto their work online. I’ve been making them in Canva and it’s so much fun.



By the way, I’ll be sharing many more digital stickers and teaching you how to make them at the end of Camp Creative, so I hope you signed up already! 

#2 Make Revision a Carefully Guided Process

Revision is one of the great skills for any writer. For a student to produce truly quality writing, it will probably need to go through several rounds of feedback. But that feedback doesn’t all need to come from you. When you grade and comment on their final draft, ideally it will be their very best work, produced after peer feedback and self revision. 

Guided peer editing workshops make a big difference. Give peer editors specific steps and targets as they go through their partner’s papers, otherwise they may just highlight a few spelling errors and call it a day. 

So, too, with self revision. Stations are perfect for this. Either in person or digitally, set up four or five specific tasks you’d like students to accomplish as they edit their own work, and provide resources to help them. For example, a thesis station might ask them to look over quality examples of arguable theses, then read their own and write a counter-statement that proves it could be argued against. If they can’t, they need to rewrite their thesis. 
Here’s an example of four stations I created for editing an argument paper and then made digital. I took the most common issues I found, year after year, in student papers that I graded, and created revision stations and resources for each one. Of course these were also things we discussed in class as we worked on our writing. The stations just create a process for students to go back through their work and level it up before turning it in. 

I’ll also be sharing this complete activity and help for making digital stations of your own inside Camp Creative!

#3 Use Technology to Speed things Up

There are so many tech platforms, add-ons and apps that have been created now to help you speed up your commenting workflow. I suggest you choose a lane, master it, and use it constantly. 

Marking common errors has always been a time saver. I used to do this on paper, by creating a list of fifteen or so common errors and their fixes, then numbering them on student papers. Now you can easily do something very similar with online comment banks. But recently I heard a way to speed this up even more from Dr. Catlin Tucker on the Educational Duct Tape Podcast. Inside your Google Profile, you can actually create your own shortcuts, which means you can add your most common comments incredibly quickly and easily. 



For example, if you constantly type something up for students about how to correctly cite a long quotation, you can create a shortcut that automatically replaces “*long” with a paragraph explaining how to cite this type of quotation. 

Here’s how:

#1 Make sure you’re in the Google Account you use to grade papers online. 

#2 Go to Tools – Preferences – Substitutions. Insert the code word you want to use in the blank box on the left, and the comment you’d like it to make in the blank box on the right. Click OK. Do as many as you want. Then go back into the same place and make sure that they are all checked with that little blue box to make them automatic substitutions. 


#3 Before you begin to grade, go to the box up in the righthand corner of Docs and choose “suggesting” mode. Now when you type in your automatic shortcuts, the comments you’ve inputted will show up in another color to draw students’ attention. 




If you’re not feeling the Google Shortcuts option, I suggest you try out Screencastify or Loom (for screen casting your commentary like a one-sided conference) or Kaizena, which will allow you to do voice comments. 

Screencastify is quite easy to set up as a Chrome extension, and you can put the commentary videos you create into Google Drive. They do take up a TON of space on your desktop, so you’ll probably want to avoid putting them there. In Loom, you can make a screencast video of your feedback, and then send your student the direct link. No storage necessary on your end. 

Kaizena is a Google Add-On you can install to easily add short voice comments wherever you want in a student paper. It’s quite easy, and many teachers find it faster to speak than to type. 

Whichever of these tech options you choose, it’s likely to be faster than sitting down with a flair pen and a giant stack of papers. (Though I do love flair pens). Not to mention that in this strange year, you probably don’t even have that option, so now is a good time to explore how technology can help you speed up your process in an ongoing way. 

So there you have it, three steps to reducing your digital paper pile! Start by cutting back on what you assign and which parts of it you comment on. Then incorporate students carefully into the revision process as peer editors and self-revision pros. Finally, choose a quality tech option to help you speed up your feedback and became a master. 

I hope these small tweaks can help reduce your stress in the new year! What’s your favorite way to reduce the digital paper pile? Please share in the comments below. 

Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!












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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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