Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Connecting the Dots with Screencasts

by Kamilah Cummings

The old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” carries little weight in my life. I often find myself on miniquests to improve something, anything for that matter. It can range from my favorite turkey burger recipe to my inexplicably pathetic gardening skills. These miniquests are not limited to my personal dalliances with improving food or my garden. Like most of my colleagues, I am always in pursuit of ways to improve the learning experience for my students. Last quarter, this pursuit led me to experiment with using screencasts to provide feedback on writing assignments.

While participating in a workshop, I saw a screencast that was created using Jing software to provide feedback for a student. Screencasts are short videos that allow users to capture and record the content and activity on a computer screen. Depending on the software used to create the screencast, the user can record audio as well. Given my penchant for improvement, my interest was immediately piqued. I had already started using audio to supplement written feedback. That yielded positive feedback and better revisions from my students. I thought if my audio feedback improved the learning experience for students, why not try audiovisual feedback?

Like the example I saw, I used Jing software to create my screencasts. Jing is free software that allows users to record 5-minute videos. According to the software maker’s site, the 5-minute limit is intended to assist users in creating “focused communication.” I found that this 5-minute limit challenged me to be even more focused and concise with my feedback. After having to redo a few videos because I exceeded the time limit, I had an increased awareness of the major areas where I needed to give feedback and focused on limiting my narrative to those specific areas. In doing this, I realized that I can actually say a lot more in five minutes than I can write.

Although the ability to record audio as I reviewed a student’s paper was great, I did not rely solely on screencasts for my feedback. As was the case with my audio feedback, I used screencasts to supplement my written feedback. Therefore, I followed my usual approach of first reviewing student papers in Word and inserting comments. Afterward, I used Jing to create a screencast where I recorded a narrative that summarized and further explained my comments as I moved through the paper.  Reviewing the papers in Word first required some additional work. However, this method works best for me at the moment because it connects my written and oral comments. With that being said, I will probably improve this method over time to make it more efficient.  By my third round of screencasts, I could already see my process becoming quicker because of the reciprocal nature of this method. Focusing my feedback to five minutes for the screencasts made me rethink what was most important to address in the written feedback before I even recorded the screencast video. For example, I found myself leaving the more complex, detailed comments for the audio portion of the screencast because I felt I could explain them better orally than with my written comments.

Recording the screencasts allowed me to review my written feedback. I was able to explain corrections and offer solutions in real time with the screencast. It allowed me to interact with the student and the paper in a different way. The audiovisual aspect of screencasts felt as if I was reviewing the paper with the student. I was able to provide a more thorough explanation of my feedback. As a result, I found that students did a better job of applying the screencast feedback to their revisions in every area from content development to grammar. In a recent study where screencasts were used to provide feedback, researchers found that, “Many students implied that the auditory explanations, coupled with the visual representation of their essay, gave them enough information to make meaningful revisions and apply feedback” (Thompson and Lee). Several of my students told me that the audio personalized the feedback for them and that they found it more helpful than written feedback alone.

Student response to the screencast feedback was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I cannot remember the last time students were so enthusiastic about feedback. Although Jing and similar screencasting software have been available for a few years, none of my students reported ever receiving screencast feedback. Several students told me that they even shared the link to their screencasts with family, friends, and co-workers so that they could see how it worked. While the newness of the technology brought with it a certain wow factor, it did not negate the impact on the student learning experience. I received several unsolicited emails from students extolling the screencasts.  One of my students wrote, “Amazing work with the feedback. This was very helpful in connecting your comments with actual commentary analysis.  This tool was powerful because of the multiple learning theories you applied in your feedback.  Thank you very much, and please continue this type of feedback.” Another student wrote, “I just saw your feedback. It was fantastic! Thank you so much.  The Jing feature on the feedback was extremely helpful.”
I noticed that students who were previously apprehensive or sensitive about feedback seemed more at ease with the screencasts. Some students told me that it felt as if I was talking to them when they viewed the screencast. They commented that they felt better about the feedback and less intimidated than with written comments alone. Thompson and Lee assert, “The feedback may be perceived as friendly because students can hear tone of voice, recognizing that we as teachers are encouraging them and not criticizing them. We surmise that students may be gaining a way into the conversation because they hear us talking with them about writing, not preaching or using teacherly discourse” (Thompson and Lee).

Although my barking dogs ruined a few recordings, the overall screencasting experience was positive. It can require more time to create a screencast. However, as one perfects the process, it becomes less time consuming. In the end, I think the positive impact on student learning is worth it. Screencasts can be used in any discipline or field because they can be used to provide feedback on anything that can be viewed on a computer screen. They also offer an opportunity for feedback to become a conversation between students and teachers because students can download Jing or similar software and record a 5-minute video explaining their work or responding to the feedback. In fact, I just might experiment with adding this as an option for students next quarter. As I see it, there’s always room for improvement.

For examples of screencast feedback provided by The Transparent Teacher blog, visit

For more on Jing software, visit

Works Cited

Thompson, Riki and Meredith J Lee. "Talking with Students through Screencasting: Experimentations with Video Feedback to Improve Student Learning." The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 1 (2012).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Summer Writers' Conference at Northwestern

Registration is still open for the Northwestern University Summer Writers' Conference, which takes place August 1-3 at Northwestern's downtown campus. Participants may register for one, two, or three days, and manuscript consultations are available for an additional fee. 

The program features workshops and panels led by over two dozen authors and publishers, including DePaul LAS faculty members Miles Harvey and Christine Sneed. 

Click here for a day-by-day schedule and online registration.   

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Author and SNL Alum Rita Leganski on Publishing

In 2011, we ran a post announcing the forthcoming publication of SNL alum and instructor Rita Leganski's debut novel, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow. Two years later, Bonaventure is on the shelves, and Rita was willing to share her experience getting it there.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

And no one knows for sure who said that—could have been Somerset Maugham, Oscar Wilde, Bret Hart, Mark Twain, or that prolific writer, Anonymous. Whoever it was, most days I agree with him. Getting published is another story. There are definitely some rules about that, and they have to do with polishing your manuscript and securing a literary agent. (Yes, even in these days of self-publishing, you’re still better off with an agent.) I was successful in not only getting an agent but also in having my manuscript acquired by HarperCollins. Here’s how it happened:

In May of 2009, my last assignment in grad school was to write a short story. I turned in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow; it was thirteen pages long. I graduated and got on with my life. I also got on with the story. New characters came along and brought new situations, and when I had about eighty-five pages I thought I was on my way to Noveldom. When I thought I had actually produced a real live book, I set to work on a query letter—a letter in which you have a single page to convince an agent to read your manuscript. I knew I would only get one chance at an agency actually reading my query, so I spent a lot of time on it. In February of 2010, I began to submit to literary agencies and didn’t stop until I’d sent out seventy-one.

Responses began to arrive—some rejections, some wanting to see more. I’d heard that an author will receive seventy-five rejections before the first acceptance, so I saw each one as bringing me closer to my goal. I’m lucky anyone wanted to look at my submission, since in the query letter I had proudly stated: “Complete at 47,000 words…” Little did I know there’s a rule of thumb in publishing that a novel should be at least 65,000 words to merit attention. Luckily, some of those agencies I’d submitted to read the included excerpt anyway. Six of them asked to see the entire manuscript.

During the first week in May, I got a phone call from a literary agent. She asked for an exclusive for one week, which means an agent wants time to review the manuscript before the author submits it to other agents. At the end of that week, I signed with her agency. My agent’s first words: it needs to be longer. So over the next several months we workshopped the manuscript through phone calls and emails. By November, it was about 68,000 words and ready to be shopped around to publishers. There was enthusiasm for it but no takers. The consensus was that it lacked a good dramatic through-line. Back to the drawing board. I secured the services of a well-respected professional editor to perform a conceptual edit, and she gave me wonderful advice. Onward.

I came up with that dramatic through-line, but then I had to weave it through the story from beginning to end—painstaking, to say the least. My agent started to shop the book again after the Christmas holidays.

In March of 2011 (ten months after signing with the literary agency), an editor at HarperCollins contacted my agent, who set up a phone call. When we spoke, the editor said she would "get with her team” and that she looked forward to working with me. At Harper (and perhaps at all publishing houses), a book must be approved unanimously for acceptance by a team. There were three people on my potential team who had doubts. They insisted that I address such things as characterization, plot points, plot resolutions, and how I would strengthen that dramatic through-line. They wanted more suspense. I put my nose to the grindstone and gave them what they asked for. It was finally accepted. On April 11, 2011 (four weeks after that initial call from the interested editor), Harper officially acquired my work for release in 2013. Imagine my dismay at the thought of such a long wait. Little did I know that the real work was about to begin. I got through another conceptual edit and several revisions, always improving the work. It took months.

By November of 2012, the book had grown to over 97,000 words and was nearly in its final state. But the editing continued: another conceptual edit; grammar, punctuation and usage edits; concision and cohesion edits; a copy edit; an edit by a person well-versed in all things southern (the story takes place in and around New Orleans); as well as a proofread and another edit, this one conducted by someone well-versed in Catholicism (a key element in the story). My work got the fine-tooth-comb treatment. Here’s an example: In the story, I have a character referencing a Bible quote. I’m Catholic and used my own Bible to obtain the quote, which ended in “said the Lord.” The editor wrote in the margin: “Author—the character referencing this quote is a Southern Evangelical and would have used a King James Bible. The quote should end in ‘saith the Lord.’” Yes, ma’am.

The revising continued. After the final proofread, I was told there would be what's known as a P.S. Section added to the book, which required me to provide acknowledgments, a piece about how I, a northerner, came to write a story that takes place in the South, and recommendations for further reading. I was also asked to supply an author photo.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow was released on February 26, 2013, nearly two years after it had been acquired by HarperCollins. Can I get an Amen?

If you ever decide you need your own agent, here are the steps you need to take:

1.   Identify your genre.

2.   Write a concise synopsis of your novel—something appropriate for the book jacket. If it's literary fiction, you should point out its theme or message. Find a plot point in your own work and describe it. Here’s an example:

Atticus Finch's appointment to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl, was a mere formality; the verdict had been reached before the trial even began. However, Atticus chose to give his client the best defense he could—an act of courage in 1930s Alabama.

3.   The query letter may be the most important document you’ll ever write, so make it your best effort. (I’m happy to share mine with anyone who is interested.)

4.   Agents accept submissions electronically. The next step is to consult a publication that lists them. Subscribe to (there's a fee but it's very reasonable).  It's the on-line version of what used to be a hard copy book. There are definite advantages to it: the site is constantly updated (the book was obsolete before you left the store with it), you can sort through the site to get to agencies that represent your genre, and you can easily track your submissions. The site is very user friendly. First, you give the parameters of your search; then, clicking on a name will take you to an agency's entry. After that, it's a matter of going to their individual websites (a link is provided in the entry) and finding out exactly how to submit to them. Some of them ask for the query and a synopsis, some for the query + 10 pages, some for the query + a chapter, etc. DO NOT SEND THEM MORE THAN THEY ASK FOR. I always tailored my query to address specifics the agency gave in its listing. I sent out multiple submissions without waiting to hear back from one agency before sending to another. That would take forever. In my opinion, if an agency refuses to be part of multiple submissions, skip it.