Teaching Students to Use Feedback

When I first started teaching, it would take me forty minutes to mark a 4-page essay. Ten minutes a page. Twelve years later I’ve cut that time in half to twenty minutes. Marking takes a lot of time, and I’ve often felt like it wasn’t a valuable use of my time. Students received their work, looked at their marks and either shoved the papers into their binders (ignoring my comments) or headed over to my desk to ask about their grade (again ignoring my comments).  My students were not gaining anything valuable from the process, and I was draining myself of the time and energy that I needed to put into my daily teaching.

I think there is a better way. Assessing work and giving feedback will always be a time-consuming task, so I’m not saying that I’ve found the solution to the stack of papers sitting on your desk.  However, I’ve found what I learned helped me to increase the impact of the precious time  I spend looking at student work by prioritizing writing workshop conferences. I will add a post about the timing of these conferences and how they can fit into the flow of your semester, but for now, I want to offer what I’ve learned about making conferences work in my classroom.

Tip #1: Conference in small groups when possible

Even after a cursory glance at student work, I can usually spot similar issues that students are having. I’ve had small groups of students who struggle with supporting details and other groups that just seem to love run-on sentences. Instead of spending my evening editing and commenting on their papers, I spend my time sorting their work into piles so that I can hold small conferences the next day. Each group receives a mini-lesson as the rest of the class works on their writing. This type of conferencing is precise and targeted. It is feedback that they can immediately put into practice.

Tip#2: Use conferences even if you haven’t had time to read the student’s work before you talk to them.

You may not have time to look at student work outside of class everytime you want to give feedback. This does not have to be an obstacle to using conferences.

Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, suggests having students read their work out loud during a conference so you can hear how they intended the reader to engage with the piece. This allows the teacher to talk to the student about the discrepancy between how the student wants it to sound, and how it actually sounds based on the writing conventions the student has used. Sometimes if I read the student’s work first and make a list of revisions, it leads me to tell the student what to do, rather than show them what they have done and help them decide where to go next. When students are working on longer pieces of writing, I ask them to identify an area of struggle so that we can focus on that and then they can apply our discussion to the rest of their work.

Brian Weishar, a ministry consultant and classroom teacher, taught me that the purpose of a conference is really for the teacher to ask students questions about their work. I needed to stop doing their thinking for them. Yesterday, I was working with a student who was struggling to organize her ideas. I could see that many of her ideas fell into similar categories. My pre-Brian-self wanted to tell her which ideas to group together. Instead, I asked her which ideas she thought could be consolidated. I then ground my teeth for five minutes resisting the urge to give her the answer while she looked at her work, but then she did it. Two important things happened. She learned something about grouping ideas, and I was able to observe her ability to sort and organize ideas (Overall Writing Expectation #1!).

Tip #3 Students will value feedback when they see that you expect them to respond to the feedback, and after they see the results of responding.

When students ignore teacher comments on their work, some teachers assume that it means that students do not value their feedback. Quite often students receive this feedback at the same time they receive a grade. The grade becomes a distraction to further learning. Whenever I want students to respond to feedback, I only give suggestions. There are no grades, no levels, no checkmarks- just questions for consideration and recommendations for next steps.

When I finally evaluate a finished product, I use a one-point rubric with suggestions for improvement built into the rubric. At this point, students should be well aware of the issues in their writing so they will understand the feedback checked off on the rubric.  I’ve included a downloadable copy of a one-point rubric that I use for my students’ article of the week blog posts. Constructing the rubric can take some time, but it saves time when you are in the evaluation phase of a writing project.

I also require students to track the feedback they’ve received, and they continuously write down their goals and next steps for their writing. My teaching partner Pam and I  even turned this idea into an exam for our students in our ENG 3U courses. You can take a look at the exam, and I may address it further in a future post. A word of caution here: Students need to be taught how to reflect deeply. If this exam is given without a lot of reflection throughout the year, you will receive answers with limited depth.

Tip#4 You will think that you don’t have time to conference, but you do. 

We don’t have time not to conference.

If students are writing, the teacher can be conferencing. Conferences do not have to be lengthy. Either use the method of grouping students with like issues together or give each student five minutes during a writing workshop. You will not get to every student every day, but over time you will be able to have conversations that move students forward.  Last year I was conferencing with a student, and she said, “Miss I feel like I’m learning something.” I laughed and said, “I actually feel like I’m teaching you something.” Not only did my students’ work improve, but I got to know my students and their skills more deeply than ever before.

Tip #5 Establish a classroom routine for conference periods

I’m going to write an additional short post about this, but the routine is important. Before starting conferences, start with a 10-15 minute mini-lesson using a mentor text, your own writing, or a student’s writing. I’ve been surprised by how many students are willing to have the class look at their writing. Starting with reading and talking as writers will encourage students to be productive in the limited time you have.

If you use conferencing in your classroom, feel free to leave additional tips below.

Happy Friday!

Why Would You Want to Answer Someone Else’s Question?

This week’s post comes from a conversation I had with an amazing teacher and critical thinker, Carolyn.  A couple of years ago, we were talking about inquiry and how to encourage students to ask questions, and Carolyn made the point that often our classroom inquiries revolve around teacher-generated questions. “Why would you want to answer someone else’s question?” she asked. That comment sent me on an inquiry about how to help students generate questions that they actually want to answer.

Although I tried the strategies below in all my classes, I decided to take the most significant risk with my ENG 4U course. On their exam, students were given a short story, and then they were told to ask themselves a question about the story. Then they had to answer it. I was so nervous about how this exam would go that I threw on my own question just in case they didn’t ask questions that would take up a two hour exam period. For every single student, the question I asked was answered with the least depth and support when compared to the question they asked themselves.  I think they rushed to get to my question because so many of them had so much to say about their own questions. I’ve never enjoyed marking an exam as much as this one. It provided substantial evidence for my students’ abilities, and I learned a lot about the short story.

Of course, this didn’t happen without a lot of preparation in advance of the exam. My students were very nervous about the quality and validity of their own questions, so it took some time to build their confidence and capacity. Also, I had a lot to learn about my own practice as I tried to let go of my control over their thinking.

I started by heavily relying on Q-Charts. We would read something, and I would hand out these giant poster-sized Q-Charts and stacks of sticky notes (in hindsight the Q-Chart does not need to be the size of four desks. It kind of gets in the way!). Students were asked to generate questions about our reading. I then asked them to rank their questions in order of complexity.  Each group submitted a question to the blackboard, and we ended up with six questions that required a lot of deep thinking. Initially, instead of answering the questions, we talked about the qualities of a great question and what would be needed to answer the questions. We made an anchor chart about questions for future reference, and everyone picked one question to answer. The lesson then moved from asking questions to supporting an answer.

Another strategy I find useful is the Causal Model, an approach I learned from the I-Think team at the Rotman School of Business. One of my favourite teacher learning partners, Jen, used it in a class that was studying the Hunger Games. Together they asked, “What caused Katniss to win the Hunger Games?” Their thinking went in all kinds of neat directions, but they ultimately landed on the death of Katniss’s father as one of the leading causes of her survival. They looked past all the surface level reasons for her survival and found this turning point moment- a moment that actually happens before the novel even begins. Inspired, by Jen’s success, I use this model all the time with our big questions about the texts we read. Together we decide the question, and we go down the causal model path. I’m always surprised at where it takes us.  If you’re interested, you can see  Jason, yet another amazing teacher (and my go-to guy for book recommendations), use this strategy in his class here.

I found these exercises particularly productive when I was strategic about the texts I use for the activities.  I have to use a text that I haven’t had time to consider in depth. When I first tried it, I used my favourite short story, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I love how students react to this story. I think the story is warning about what happens when we don’t ask questions about systems and traditions. However, I recognized the irony when I heavily guided my students’ questions to the point where they were more about my ideas and questions than theirs. I was trying to teach them that asking questions is important, but I was still teaching them that my questions and ideas were more important.

So I had to start reading. A lot. I’m continually searching for new short stories and poems, so feel free to leave any recommendations in the comments!

I started reading new texts so that I could put away the ones that I could quote verbatim. As a result, I let students talk and ask questions more, and I learned so much about these new texts. In one class, we read Richard Wagmese’s Indian Horse. Of course, I read it before I taught it, but I didn’t know it like I know other novels that I’ve taught ten times or more. We learned some amazing things about this novel. One student traced a single word-“glory” throughout the novel. I hadn’t even noticed the word! Another student noticed that hockey is an escape for Saul, the main character until he starts playing hockey indoors rather than outdoors. This led us to look at the role of nature in the novel.

I really enjoyed teaching the novel this way. Now I need to think of a way to avoid heavily guiding my next class that reads this novel; my department can’t buy new texts every year. I’m sure this challenge will turn into another post.

Out of one conversation with another teacher, I’ve learned to talk less and listen more. I’ve also learned to be comfortable with not knowing everything there is to know about the text. It’s uncomfortable when a student asks me something I can’t answer, but I think it’s my job to help them learn to find their own answers rather than give them the answer (and sometimes tell them the exact page number where they can locate support).  Of course, inquiries really don’t end, so now I have other questions about student voice and choice. But, we’ll save that for another Friday.

Leveraging Conversations: Article of the Week

I thought I would start my tentative foray into blogging by posting the activity that I am most often contacted about by other educators. It’s also the activity that initiated the shift in the way I thought about teaching English. The initial idea came from Kelly Gallagher’s book Write Like This. If you decide to follow my blog at all, you will be reading about Kelly Gallagher a lot. He uses an activity that he calls Article of the Week to help students fill in the gaps of their background knowledge. It also exposes students to a variety of real-world forms of writing. The version of Article of the Week that I use is a modified version of Gallagher’s idea that I developed with my fantastic teaching partner Pam.

The reason I love Article of the Week so much is that it gives me an assessment opportunity for every English strand, (Oral Communication, Reading, Writing, and Media) every Friday.  This activity helps me to know my students. In other words, Fridays are good days.

The Article of the Week is essentially a period where small groups discuss an article. It sounds simple, but a lot of teaching and student reflection goes into making this work. The process starts on Mondays when I post the article (either teacher or student selected) that everyone needs to read by Friday. Half of the posts are articles students have to read, and the other half are videos (commercials, news, PSAs, movie trailers, etc.). The expectation is that everyone will come to class with notes on the article/video and questions to discuss with their groups. The first week I model what those questions could look like, and we play around with Q-Charts in class so that they become comfortable generating their own questions. I also explicitly teach the characteristics of productive conversations. If you are looking for a place to start talking about conversations,  check out Celeste Headlee’s 10 Ways to a Better Conversation.

The first round of Article of the Week is a diagnostic for me and a practice round for my students. As students discuss the article in their groups, I sit at their tables and furiously take notes on who is talking, who is asking questions, and who is trying their best to hide. I turn these notes into feedback that I give to students before the next round of conversations. I almost always have to discuss with someone about dominating conversations. Many students believe that talking a lot = a high mark. We have to work hard in the first couple of weeks to frame what good conversations look like and sound like.

Once students have had their conversations on Friday, they are expected to write a blog post over the weekend to capture their thinking. These posts are perfect for students to explore voice in their writing. They post throughout the semester, and their blog turns into their culminating project for the course.

Let me reassure you- I do not mark every single blog post.  That wouldn’t be fair to my students or me. My students need the time and space to practice and improve, and I need to eat, sleep, raise my children, and maybe read a book every once in awhile!

I read the first blog post and give feedback, and then I provide additional feedback during writing conferences throughout the semester. These conferences are student directed. I ask them to show me two posts: one they consider a success and one they want to improve. Together we pick an area of focus (voice, organization, word choice, etc.) and we look at the posts with that focus in mind. Students need to write more than we can read and assess because it will take time for them to establish themselves as writers. I need them to have some writing volume so that we can find areas of consistent need and make a plan for improvement.   I also expect them to refer to their feedback when they reflect before and after an evaluation so that I know they are thinking about their growth as writers.

I formally evaluate this whole process before midterms and finals. By then I have multiple rounds of assessment observations, conversations, and products from which to generate a mark.  This wealth of information gives me confidence in my assessment of my students’ strengths and weaknesses. It also gives me a lot of information about where I need to go next with my instruction.  Stay tuned for a future blog post about assessment and evaluation if you’re interested in thinking about this some more.

If you are interested in trying Article of the Week, I would recommend telling your colleagues about your idea so they can send interesting articles your way. Many of the articles I used were sent to me by other teachers, especially the teacher librarian (Thanks, Anne!).  A great starting place for senior classes is Desmond Cole’s article “The Skin I’m In”. This article never fails to start conversations. For junior readers or struggling readers, I recommend using the site Newsela where you can select articles and then change the Lexile level to suit your audience.

I would love to hear your feedback on this process. Feel free to ask questions and leave comments.

Happy Friday!