An innovative educator scales a writing solution gleaned from experience with his students.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
After teaching high school English for 8 years and grading 15,000 papers, Jeff Scheur created NoRedInk to help his students improve their writing skills. Now, he’s helping millions of students in grades 5-12 improve their writing with an adaptive curriculum that engages them through their personal interests, boosts their skills through targeted practice exercises, and guides them through each stage of the writing process in a way that only a veteran English teacher would know. A National Board Certified Teacher, former debate director, and speaker on education innovation, Jeff is intent on improving the feedback loop in classrooms and empowering students to become skilled, creative, and confident writers. He holds an MA in Education from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a BA from Oberlin College. In this Q&A, Jeff shares a bit of his own backstory in developing a solution for common struggles he witnessed as a high school English teacher, and he provides tips and guidance on how educators can improve student writing scores and bridge the achievement gap at their school – remotely and in the classroom.
What experiences or highlights from your past inform your current approach?
I taught high school English for eight years and had as many as 170 students per day. Even when I spent only 15 minutes per paper, it took 40-50 hours to give my students feedback on each assignment, and when I passed papers back, I realized that my kids didn’t know what to do with the feedback. If they could read it, they often couldn’t understand it, and there was nowhere for them to practice the skills I wanted them to work on and no way for me to track whether or not they were improving over time. Most papers I handed back quickly made their way to the trash.
In my second year, I began recording all the areas where my students needed more support and created a writing manual to help me tag and explain the most common issues in more detail. Even when I required students to submit multiple revisions of their work, it was obvious that they needed much more practice and actionable feedback than I could provide on my own. I hired an engineer on Craigslist and began building a website that guided students through the writing process and allowed them to practice specific skills while receiving immediate feedback. My students voted on the name “NoRedInk” for the program, and nine weeks after I made the website public, 15,000 students and teachers were using it. The writing platform is now being used by 60% of middle and high schools in the US.
‘In my second year, I began recording all the areas where my students needed more support and created a writing manual to help me tag and explain the most common issues in more detail.’
What are some of the challenges schools face relative to their students struggling to meet grade-level writing standards during these times?
Even before the pandemic, teachers were often so overwhelmed that they limited the number of writing assignments they gave students in order to reduce the grading load. There are more than two times as many ELA standards in writing as there are in reading, but very little class time is spent on deliberate writing instruction. For kids to significantly improve their writing skills, they need a continuous loop of modeling, practice, and feedback. Remote learning and social distancing have further stretched teachers’ time, making it much harder to build relationships with students and give one-on-one instruction to those who need the most help. Many kids are considerably less engaged while learning remotely, and some don’t even have reliable internet access, so schools are having a lot of trouble moving the needle on students’ writing skills.
Considering the pandemic, what can you say about current achievement gaps?
Low-income families and those in rural communities have long had less home access to computer devices and stable internet than affluent suburban and urban families and that disparity has been compounded with so many schools needing to rely on distance learning. Lower-income families are also especially likely to be facing financial difficulties right now, and worries about necessities like housing, food, and family health make focusing on school work challenging. Another critical factor is that teachers have less time with each student in a remote learning environment, and some parents are much better positioned to compensate for that time loss than others are.
Why is student engagement and student voice critical to boosting writing skills and bridging the achievement gap?
Writing a lot is the best way to improve one’s writing skills, and students write much more when they’re deeply engaged in their learning. Once we awaken a kid’s desire to reflect on and question her world, and once we help her build the confidence to put her thoughts to paper, we can then begin helping her unlock her potential as a writer.
‘Writing a lot is the best way to improve one’s writing skills, and students write much more when they’re deeply engaged in their learning.’
Broadly now, what is the state of education today? What is technology’s role in education?
Schools and districts are fighting a very difficult battle right now. They’re trying to redefine what instruction looks like with limited resources, tremendous public pressure, and lots of uncertainty about how to best support America’s students and keep them safe. It’s a very hard time to be an educator, and yet teachers and administrators have always been incredibly resourceful, tenacious, and focused on meeting their kids’ needs in the best way they can. Many of the problems that schools have faced are amplified by the pandemic, but a silver lining is that schools are making better use of the best edtech tools. There is no better alternative for curricular resources that meet students where they are and keep them engaged.
I think the futility of relying on textbooks and print workbooks to help kids learn is pretty clear. They’re boring. They don’t adapt to students’ needs. They don’t offer feedback. They don’t give teachers any information about students’ skills or progress. They’re massively expensive and most of the cost goes to ink, paper, and shipping instead of designing optimal learning experiences for kids.
At their best, edtech tools give teachers tremendous leverage. They help teachers quickly gauge strengths and weaknesses in each class, personalize and differentiate instruction for students with a wide array of backgrounds and needs, give more actionable and frequent feedback, track student progress, and maximize their time with the kids who need the most help. In the pandemic, most schools can’t operate without using instructional technology. Online tools that are flexible enough to allow teachers and students to move seamlessly between remote, hybrid, and in-person models make it possible to put together effective lessons in difficult circumstances. With so many teachers struggling to keep their students focused and engaged from afar, web-based curricula that personalize practice and make learning interactive offer enormous advantages.
Can you highlight some of the ways NoRedInk can be leveraged right now—both in school and remotely?
Teachers in over 60% of US middle and high schools are using NoRedInk to get kids excited about writing, give them personalized skill practice, and help them craft powerful essays with guided support. As students sign up, they choose their favorite movies, musicians, athletes, authors, games, celebrities, etc., and the program generates personalized practice exercises on the skills teachers want them to learn. The site also has hundreds of assignable writing prompts that range from everyday journaling exercises to full-length formal essays.
The practice exercises on the site are deeply interactive. Students drag in commas, rearrange the order of words in sentences, highlight claims, reasoning, and evidence, and get immediate hints and feedback as the program adjusts in difficulty. And as their exercises progress in complexity from sentences to paragraphs to passages, they experience playing with language in increasingly authentic contexts.
Schools use NoRedInk to help students work through the entire writing process. The program helps them structure their essays, compose first drafts, and use peer review and self-review processes to make revisions. We give them just-in-time modeling and support on skills like hooking a reader’s interest, making their thesis statements more controversial, and weaving evidence into their arguments. They also learn a methodology for assessing their own work and the work of their peers, allowing teachers to provide help to those who need it the most without being a bottleneck to students getting more practice and feedback. Teachers use a robust set of tracking tools to gauge students’ understanding of concepts and schools and districts use instant online reports to monitor student usage and growth.
Any tips for school leaders on how they can inspire, empower, and challenge all students as critical thinkers, readers, writers, and communicators during these times?
Schools can serve students best by addressing this moment head-on. Engage students with questions about how they’re processing all that’s transpired this year. Share readings from different perspectives and backgrounds, and use them as an entry point for discussing complex topics, sharing personal experiences, and grappling with the dilemmas of our time.
‘Schools can serve students best by addressing this moment head-on. Engage students with questions about how they’re processing all that’s transpired this year. Share readings from different perspectives and backgrounds, and use them as an entry point for discussing complex topics, sharing personal experiences, and grappling with the dilemmas of our time.’
NoRedInk offers teachers many such assignments that elicit student reflection and inquiry on current events. In a time of isolation for most kids, writing assignments not only help students improve their communication skills, they give them a very important outlet to share what’s going on in their worlds and make meaning of their thoughts and ideas.
The Learning Agency Lab just published a study showing that students don’t spend enough time writing, contributing to lack of improvement in writing outcomes. How can your solutions help schools make those improvements?
Getting students to write enough can be a struggle when students don’t have enough opportunity or motivation to write frequently. Teachers can use NoRedInk’s Quick Writes to give students high-interest and highly relevant daily prompts. These short writing assignments lower the stakes for students, helping them build writing fluency and develop confidence. This gives teachers a chance to learn more about their students’ interests and skills and provide encouragement and feedback.
NoRedInk’s Guided Drafts support can also prevent students from becoming overwhelmed and shutting down when tackling longer writing assignments. The timely tips, lessons, and examples help kids feel more confident and motivated when writing gets hard.
Anything else you’d like to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, or anything else for that matter?
Just that we owe teachers and administrators a massive “thank you.” It’s challenging enough for families to navigate COVID-19 with their own kids, and educators are working overtime to help everyone’s kids get through a very complicated and unprecedented time.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org