It’s the plight of every English teacher: bulging bags, full of papers. Once that bag gets emptied, more papers appear to fill it back up again. We give lots of feedback, intent on showing our students what they did well, what needs work, and what needs to be improved for next time.
There are several problems with all of this, though. For the most part, the students give those comments a cursory look, if at all. Once they see the grade at the top of the paper, that’s it. The learning stops and we move on to the next assignment. The other problem is that we are taking all of the responsibility for deciding what is successful and what is not, when it’s our students who should be thinking about what makes quality work. This needs to flip if we want real learning in our classrooms. Teachers in our district have gotten some tips on how to do this from assessment guru, Sandra Herbst, and I thought I’d share some of the experiments I’ve been conducting in my room.
Herbst suggests that if we put more responsibility for the thinking about feedback and assessment in the hands of our students, not only will they learn more, but we will work less. Now, this isn’t about summative assessment — that’s our job. But we can find ways to give our students time to practice and get feedback so they can improve, without spending all of our time at the kitchen table, buried in paper.
So how do we do this?
First of all, we don’t have to be the ones giving all of the feedback. Students can take on some of this work. But before we can give them that responsibility, we need to be very clear in our expectations of what makes good work. We do this by always giving students models of what a successful assignment looks like. Even better, show them multiple examples that represent different levels of achievement. Have students discuss what makes a quality assignment. What is important when you write a good essay? A critical response? What matters when you give a good speech? These discussions give our students the language of success: they know the words and phrases they need to use when giving feedback to each other.
Once students are aware of your expectations, give them time to practice. Above, you can see a group paragraph, written by some of my twelfth graders last week. I’ve written about this activity before, but this time I added another layer: after we discussed what made an effective paragraph on theme, I gave them a rubric and four different colored post-its. Each color corresponded with one of the criteria on the rubric. They had to place the post-it where the other group achieved or attempted to achieve the task required. For example, they had to place the yellow post-it where the group wrote a clear theme statement. Then, they wrote a grade from 1 – 4 on the post it. Finally, they had to write an explanation of their grade choice on the rubric. While they worked on this, I over-heard conversations that were focused on good feedback. One guy pointed out that the quotations were not embedded properly; another said that the group had provided no context so the paragraph was hard to follow. They were giving the very feedback that I would have given.
Once they finished with all of the criteria, they passed the paper back to the group that had written the paragraph. By the end of that class, they had a much better idea of how to write the paragraph — as well as the process of assessing and giving good feedback. Now, I could have taken in those paragraphs and spent two nights getting all thirty of them marked. By the time the students would get them back, they would have forgotten what they had written. This way the feedback is more immediate.
Tomorrow, they will be passing in a paragraph that they are writing on a theme in their independent novels. They have the rubric and these checklists shown above. They need to write down the criteria and highlight the place on their paragraph where they feel they have met — or attempted to meet– the criteria. They will also give themselves a grade. These checklists can be used for peer feedback as well. Because the students have to highlight where the criteria has been met, they can’t just go through the motions of checking off the criteria, like they often do when we give them revision checklists.
These students also got their persuasive essays back last week. They now have to use the feedback they’ve gotten from me to make two significant changes in the essay. They will resubmit on Google Classroom, and will highlight the changes they made. They will also use the comment option to explain why/how they made the changes. When I assess their improvements, I will just have to find the highlighted parts of their essays, rather than reading it all again, looking for improvements. (Read here for the follow-up post).
You’ve heard it before: we shouldn’t be the hardest working people in the room. The kids need to take on more responsibility for the assessment process — especially for doing something with the feedback they receive. Hopefully, as I said above, this will lead to more learning for them, and more relaxing weekends for us!
But wait! There’s another very effective way to jumpstart the learning and cut back on your paperwork: check out my post on using conferences and verbal feedback here.