Posts Tagged ‘feedback’

So, I’ve been thinking about excellence. The book my class is reading has meant that we have been talking a lot about greatness–what it is, what it isn’t, what we want it to be, what we don’t want it to be, what it’s like to have it or to witness it. As we were talking about it the other day, I was reminded of Ron Berger’s book The Ethic of Excellence that I read many years ago. The sentence (idea really) that I took away from the book is this: excellence is transformative. At 5th grade back to school night, I told my students’ parents and guardians that I wanted that experience of excellence being transformative for each of their students–that I could not hand it out for free, but that I wanted each child to see that potential in him or herself. Then there was dramatic music.I decided this was one of my goals for the year.

I mentioned Ron Berger’s idea that recognizing the potential for excellence in oneself is transformative to my group of seniors this year as we discussed characters struggling with their potential or lack of potential for greatness. They were less than wowed. There was no dramatic music. We moved on.

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on

Then, I corrected tests and decided to read some good answers aloud to the class when I returned the tests. I gave some general comments and mentioned how one of the common challenges was not getting to that big idea, not moving beyond retelling, when answering the more complex questions. I read a few short answers from one student who did in fact get to a big idea every time and a passage analysis by another student who also got to the thematic issues. The class could tell that these were good answers– that they went somewhere and had something to say. The two students puffed up. They were smiling big on the inside, even if they were playing it cool; they weren’t so cool that I was fooled. They felt that power of being recognized by others as excellent. I have to say that I was reminded again that these big, almost-grown people sitting in front of me are not so different from my old 5th graders (in fact sometimes they are those exact 5th graders).

When we broke up into small groups later that period, one of the students whose work I read took a much more active role in the group that usual, leading discussion, engaging with the group. Of course I know that there is no proof of causation here. And, I know both those students left feeling like this is a class where they can be excellent. Same student a few days later mentioned paying extra close attention to a particular grammatical error that I have pointed out too many times. And a few days after that the other student that I had recognized also made a point to break, at least for one quiz, another problematic habit that I have mentioned over and over.




All of this has me thinking about my responsibilities. I am responsible for this experience for as many students as possible, not just these two. Why don’t I read more good work aloud? I have some reasons (they are not necessarily acceptable excuses, just reasons):

  • The 48 minute class period. Where does the time go?!
  • In high school there is just less little stuff that gets turned in.
    • When I taught 5th grade, I had students doing short writing on our blog all the time. And, I could share (or the students could see without me) little examples of good work frequently. Plus, I had control over so much of the day in 5th grade. “My classes” with the students amounted to almost all of the “big stuff”. Now I’m just one of the classes, and I don’t get to say what is most important. (What? This continues to be difficult for me to come to grips with.)
  • How hard am I looking for opportunities to do this? (Probably not hard enough.)
  • I have not valued this enough, and therefore I have not given it time.

So, here’s my plan going forward. As I think about it, there are a bunch of times when I have said things like, “lots of people did a really nice job” or this particular part of the assignment” was really successful for a lot of people.” Why not just read some examples? It’s much more specific feedback and gives those who were not as successful information as well. Between writing the first draft of this post and publishing, I had some old examples all set to read in class. What happened? Well, I was going to do the sharing at the end of class. Then, we ran out of time. Sigh.

There’s not too much time left before exams. However, if I come in with something to share each day (maybe two things), and I manage to get to the sharing half the time, I can make some in roads.

So, I have been thinking about how to help students write effective analytical essays for what seems like forever. Shouldn’t I be better at this by now? The goals are certainly different at different ages; what I expected in 5th grade was different from what I expected in 9th and what I look for in 12th. However, I still see the same old divide between those papers that are about the book (effective summaries) and papers that are about an idea that is discussed by way of the book. Really what it comes down to is how do I move the book report writers into the analytical writers’ camp. Is there a magic wand, pen, saying? Would bribing them with s’mores do the trick? Seriously, I would do whatever it takes.

I’ve been talking with colleagues about this, going to summer workshops, thinking of new and not new ideas. The more I think about it, the more I think that I need to go back to what I know worked in 5th grade. I don’t say this in a mean way or to be insulting. But, for the students who have not found their way to the analytical camp on their own, how can I check in earlier, before they head off down that long, boring summary road.

So what do I know?

In 5th grade I never let students start writing without an approved plan of some sort. As the year progressed, I knew who was ok without a detailed plan and who was not. So there might be students whom I let start writing with what was a very brief plan; however, they were students who had proven themselves to be on the analytical path, which in 5th grade is more like the “having an opinion” path.

In 5th grade I had students do physical things to identify different sentences in a paper. So, I might read aloud a paragraph. One side of the room would stand when the sentence was a retelling or summary sentence. One side would stand if it was the writer’s opinion (which is what analysis starts as in lower school). This turned out to be one of the most effective tactics in helping students even understand what I meant by summary or opinion sentence.

In 5th grade we sometimes wrote papers a paragraph at a time and “discovered” that this might actually be an essay with a bit of introduction and conclusion added to the paragraphs. Sneaking up on the essay was not a bad strategy. Everybody could write a paragraph on Karana’s friendship with Rontu (Island of the Blue Dolphins is still a winner), a paragraph on her friendship with the birds. Oh, look it seems like we are writing about her friendships. Hmmm. What could we say about the community she has or has created? Seems like that would be an interesting conclusion. While we’re adding things, let’s just introduce the book at the beginning. Tada, essay!

In 5th grade I learned that writing gets better writing. It’s like babies and sleep–good naps lead to good betimes, overly tired kids fight sleep. I learned, and was reminded of this fact at my summer workshop this past summer, that I did not need to edit everything, give extensive comments, and have students write many drafts of every assignment. We need to do some of that. We also just need to write. A lot. That is how my class’ blog was born, oh so many years ago

Now, how to take these lessons to some 12th graders.

Plans are totally doable. Shame on me for not making students be more intentional here. Some do a quick list of big point and sub-points and I can tell they are all set. No need to force the issue. However, for those who have proved that they are summarizers, I need to be more forceful. They may be 12th graders, but if I see they need the scaffolding, I should be providing more of it, even students don’t like it.

Standing up and sitting down in class to identify parts of the essay, probably not going to work with high schoolers. However, for those who are not getting to the analysis, insisting that their rough draft have analytical sentences highlighted, totally doable. Again, it is about me insisting.

Sneaky papers. This one I think I might be able to do next semester. I had forgotten about it, but I think it has potential. Again, there are going to be those who do not need this support, and I will need to think about whether everyone does it anyway or some folks do something else. I have time on this one since my current class ends mid-January and I won’t have time to do everything between now and then, but I’m definitely going to move this to a front burner item.

Just writing. I’ve been really trying to do this. My summer workshop reminded me of and reaffirmed my belief in this strategy in addition to convincing me that it would work in high school. My class has been doing a lot of short writing in online forums, in class, wherever. On the recent reflections that the students wrote, many commented on the amount of writing, not always in a complementary way, but many of those same students also said they felt more confident in their writing.

Now if I could just go back to not having to give letter grades, that would be great.

flickr photo by ClevrCat shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

flickr photo by ClevrCat shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and what students struggle to do when they write.

With my new class this year (a section of senior English) I can now say that I have taught Language Arts or English to students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 12. When I first made the move from 5th grade to Upper School and started teaching a section of 9th grade English, I was expecting a big difference in the writing. And to some extent there was a big jump. The sentences were better; the ideas the students were wrestling with were more sophisticated. Yet, in many ways what separated the more and less successful papers was familiar. The more successful essays were about an idea, not the book. They moved easily and built an argument. The less successful essays had too much summary and ended up being more about what happened in the book than the student’s thoughts on an idea. These essays were more awkward and did not flow.

Now, I realize there are a number of theories on what is most important in paper grading. How much should the grade be based on content or form? I fall quite heavily on the content side myself, but even for me, content girl, there is a form threshold below which I find the entire enterprise to be pretty well doomed. Having read the first set of papers in my section of senior English, I am finding many of the old, familiar distinctions between the successful and not successful essays. Certainly, the question I asked my seniors to consider was much more sophisticated than the questions I used to ask my 5th graders. And, the book with which they were considering the question was more complex. Again, as I saw between 5th and 9th, the sentences the seniors wrote generally in better shape than those the 9th graders wrote. In this batch of papers I’m not sure I saw a fragment, maybe few coma splices or run-ons. At the sentence level, most students were in decent shape. The form issues centered around organization, order, and specificity. It came down to having an idea (that answers the prompt) and making a point.

With this in mind, I think I can hone in on some editing shorthand. (I have written about looking for the appropriate feedback to give students several times.) I plan to borrow heavily from Danny Lawrence, the veteran North Carolina teacher who led one of the summer writing sessions I attended. He had 3 comments he used when doing quick, holistic grading:

  • AP–address the prompt
  • BS–be specific
  • So What –need to make a point

While I have a small class and will give some additional feedback as well, I think these three biggies will be my updated version of my 5th grade wavy line (meaning this sentence needs to be rethought) and * (meaning add more detail/specifics here or keep going).

If you have taught at a number of grade levels, what has been your experience with student writing? Have any magic tricks for helping students move away from retelling?


Posted: September 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

 So, I’ve been thinking about how to give compliments to colleagues. Sometimes it’s easy, so I have no problem there. But, what if the compliment has potential to lead to a seriously weird conversation?

Here’s my situation. I noticed that someone I work with was making a real effort in leadership. I noticed serious attention to all sorts of dealings with individuals and groups, an attempt to be clear, to be firm when necessary. I see this person working to lead in a way that is calm and does not become frantic in the midst of a contentious discussion. And, I know how hard many of those things can be, not because I have mastered them. I know because I am working on some of these things myself.

When I am in meetings and can look around, I take a lot of mental notes about who says what, who reacts in what way, who gains attention, who earns respect sometimes begrudgingly. I also watch to see how opinions line up. Depending on who expresses an opposing view point, who piles on, and who holds back, the whole thing can either get nicely wrapped up or get shot to hell. As someone working in EdTech, I am frequently in the position of being seen as the spokesperson for Change or in some peoples opinion the end of education as we know it. I have had to take the long view on more than one occasion. I remind myself that I am playing the long game, and I’ll be back tomorrow. I don’t like to lose. So, I’ll come around from another direction, I’ll find another person to voice some key ideas, I’ll schmooze.

Back to my colleague who has been working hard. I thought about sending an email saying I notice and appreciate this. However, this  is someone with more experience than I have, and there are some confusing lines between our various positions based on my multiple roles. I worried that I would sound somehow supervisor-ish, when I am not, or like I am the voice of experience, which again I am not. Ugh.

Problem solved when my colleague asked for feedback! I then got the chance to say how much I had been thinking about and appreciating all the effort and did not know how to pass that on. However, I am interested in thoughts on how I could have proceeded if I had not had the opening. Any recommendations?


p.s. Already got an email thanking me for the feedback. We are all doing the happy dance, for the moment.

flickr photo by kmadrid shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by kmadrid shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

So, I’ve been thinking about the feedback I give students, particularly the feedback I give on papers. I teach one section of 9th grade English, and the jump in the expectations for analytical paper writing is one of the big shifts for students entering high school.

When I taught 5th grade, I found that students got overwhelmed by the comments that I scrawled wrote carefully on the sides of their papers. There were too many words and the particulars were not something they could usually interpret on their own. If we had individual conferences, students would get more out of my comments, but again it was generally too much information whether text or talk. So, I started just narrowing it down to really 2 notations (other than spelling and run-on type stuff).

First, was the asterisk. Since a big issue in 5th grade writing is not having enough detail about something, I resorted to just putting in an asterisk at any point that I thought needed more. I didn’t go into detail about what was needed, just more. While that may seem vague, it ended up being quite reasonable. It was like a big “keep going” sign.

Second was the highlighted or underlined sentence. The highlight indicated that the particular sentence needed attention, probably it was awkward in some way. I used to try to go into a lot of detail about the particular way it was awkward, but maybe be I was no better in my ability to be clear, because all those words didn’t help. The simple direction to do something different here was clearer. This became the “try it again” sign.

What this gave me was more time to spend actually talking to kids who needed particular assistance, because I didn’t have a lot of students asking for clarification about the comments I did give. What it gave my students was independence.

Now, back to 9th grade. I foolishly thought that 9th grade writing would be a lot different from 5th grade writing. And, in terms of the vocabulary students use and the works they are analyzing it is. However, I see a lot of my old foes–points almost made and awkward sentences. Yet, I think that if I were to apply my old 2 comment strategy, it would not be sophisticated enough. What to do?

Since my students share their drafts with me on google docs, I can leave them lots of comments that are always legible. This takes me a reasonable amount of time, and then I see the kids just resolve, resolve, resolve (which for those non-google docs users is like checking off that comment).

Then, there are the comments that just take too many words to write out. But, when I meet with students, besides the fact that I then have to find time for all those meetings, it’s hard for them to remember all that is said. I decided to give Kaizena another try. Kaizena is a tool that enables audio comments on google docs. I decided for the most part to give the quick grammar or punctuation comment with text on the side and then the more global comments (by paragraph) using the audio. I thought it worked for me, for sure. (I may have gotten a little too casual with a few of the last comments on the last drafts. Room for improvement there.)

When I asked the students what they thought, I heard the following:

  • I had to listen to the comment more than once and think about it. (This was said as a criticism).
  • It takes too long to listen rather than just reading it. I have to slow down. (Again, this was a problem.)
  • I liked it.

I explained what I saw with the resolve, resolve, resolve. I saw some sheepish grins when I said that. I also was very frank in my response to “it’s not quick.” I explained that spending time thinking is fine by me. If you are having trouble understanding, that’s not my goal, but “I had to think”, I don’t see that as a drawback, call me crazy.

The results in terms of final drafts were good. I’ll certainly continue using Kaizena. I will try to improve the quality of my comments and, I will be adding a required reply step, partially thanks to some great ideas from @Allison_Winston. Students will need a substantive text or audio reply to each of my bigger comments before beginning to edit. More on that soon.

What do others do to make sure their comments are useful and used?