Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cathy Griner

Revising My Feedback

Have you ever accidentally landed in a group for professional development that you were certain you didn’t sign up for, only to discover a vast body of research and knowledge that could improve student performance and maybe even save you time?  Here I was, a reluctant learner in the assessment PD group, a technology wannabe, reading an article about assessment that would disturb and challenge me to revise my feedback to my students to make them better writers.

Like other writing teachers, I have given feedback often to my sixth and seventh grade writers.  My feedback encouraged them, asked them thoughtful questions about their writing, and helped them interpret the scoring guide.  Toward the end of the quarter, students turned in their papers that I graded according to the scoring guide.  The grade included mostly positive comments and advice on how they could improve their piece.  Students then revised again with the feedback before we moved on to the next writing piece.  Although always ready to find ways to help my students, I was basically pretty satisfied with my system until I read Grant Wiggins’ "7 Keys to Effective Feedback."  Now I am hooked on exploring ways I can make my feedback more effective for my writing students through the wording of my written and verbal comments.

Wiggins defines feedback as “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.”  Effective feedback, according to Wiggins, is not advice, judgment, or praise. After mulling over his disclaimers about feedback, I had to ask myself this question: Did my students understand the learning goal of their writing project--what I was hoping they would learn from their writing?  Yes, they had a scoring guide, but did they really understand why they needed to stay focused on the topic, add supporting details, etc.?  Could a few written or spoken comments tied to the learning goal be helpful to their understanding of the writing process in addition to the scoring guide?

I decided to make some changes in my feedback.   This year every writing project grade includes a comment from me about the writing that is tied to the learning goal.  I am  writing more on their papers than I have before, but I’m also thinking more about each piece of writing that I grade as I try to give one piece of feedback connected to the learning goal.  Here are some examples of teacher feedback I used before and after reading the article:

Before : Work on sentence structure.
After:  Reading the piece aloud will help you improve meaning in your sentences.
Learning goal:  Improved sentence structure

Before:  Stay on the topic.
After:  Adding details about your topic will deepen meaning for your reader.
Learning goal:  Paragraph unity, organization

Before:  Add a conclusion.
After:  Summing up your ideas on your topic will satisfy your reader.
Learning goal:  Summarizing

Was revising my feedback difficult and time-consuming for me?  Yes.  I had to think about the learning goals of the writing and of the writer while the comments seemed to get wordier and wordier.  Was I consistent in my feedback from student to student?  I found myself wanting to revert back to “Good start” and “Keep writing!” comments because they were easy and fit everyone’s writing.  I noticed sometimes my feedback wasn’t really about learning goals or may have sounded like advice but if my feedback was tied to the learning goal, I considered it an improvement over my one-size-fits-many comments accompanied by a specific letter grade.

I was curious to see how my students would respond to my revised feedback when I returned their first quarter writing projects.  As usual, they were excited to get their grades and to read my comments.   Walking around the room, I interpreted my handwriting for some, asked others if they understood my comments, and answered some questions about the grade.   But actually, there was a quietude in the air--the quietude of thinking and tapping computer keys--the quietude of learning.  Later I would ask my students what helped them revise their writing.  Fourteen of twenty-eight students anonymously told me in a survey that the written comments were very helpful for them.

Do I still need to work on my feedback?  Oh my, yes!  Giving feedback tied to the learning goals helps my students and forces me to clarify learning goals to myself so I can express them to my students.  I am continuously searching for the best words in my feedback.

Have I noticed reduced time spent on paper-grading?  Yes and no.  Papers are papers and they still take time to grade. Yet when I focus on the learning goals in the paper, I’m more purposeful as a grader.  In the writing lab my students are more on task because they can get started on their own faster.  I have time to conference with individuals more easily and hopefully give more effective feedback in those conferences.

Here are more ideas for reflection for me from the article: “less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning.”  “. . . helpful feedback is goal-referenced; tangible and transparent; actionable, user-friendly (specific and personalized); timely; ongoing; and consistent.”   The timely part is a rough one for all of us in the writing department.

Some goals I have to increase effective feedback to my writers:

  • Simplify my language and connect the feedback to the individual learning goal for that particular student
  • Develop feedback for the good writer who has achieved the learning goal but needs to work on the next step in his or her writing
  • Increase positive comments connected to the learning goal as well as feedback for improvement in the writing
  • Increase verbal feedback tied to the learning goal.

I graded the second quarter’s writing projects with feedback connected to the learning goal much faster than I did the first quarter’s papers.  Is it my imagination or is there less complaining this year about the grade and more acceptance of the feedback because students are not so defensive if I am referring to learning goals?
Wiggins was very interested in feedback from readers of his article.  Needless to say, I too am interested in any feedback from the ideas presented in this blog.  What language have you found gives effective feedback for your students?

Download the article about 7 Keys to Effective Feedback referenced above here

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jason Becker

Although the actual season is still an underground seed, spring semester has sprung.  I teach high school seniors, and around here, that means it's time for the senior research paper.

Please, contain your enthusiasm.

I have been teaching seniors now for five years, and every year around this time, I am torn between excitement and disgust.  I'm excited because we get to switch gears from literary analysis, which is what we focus heavily on during the first semester.  As much as I love it, myself, it's still a relief to turn from the world of the indeterminate, the suggestive, the world of reaching and grasping for meaning to a world (at least, seemingly) more tangible, more accessible, more empirical.  No more searching for the dim, faraway light of another's mind.  Instead, traditionally, I've let my students choose a topic of their own interest and set out from there, developing a thesis as they find their ways across the endless, sticky web of available information, then arguing and supporting that thesis in a traditional research essay.

But the papers, people.  The papers.  As I contemplated facing one after another dry, uninspired stack of unrelated bits of information . . . I just . . . I couldn't.  No more encyclopaedic recitations about bottlenosed dolphins.  No more tired, predictable arguments against animal cruelty.  No more! 

And that's when it hit me:  No one writes like this.

Even the argument which says, "This is what they'll be asked to do in college" doesn't hold up.  In my college experience, I never once was asked to write a straight-laced academic research paper.  "Find out everything you can about Lou Gherig's Disease and tell it back to me."  It just didn't happen.  The student teacher in my room confirmed my suspicions.  Feel free to disagree, but I fairly firmly believe our adherence to this genre to be a self-perpetuating myth. 

No one writes like this.  Not in a newspaper, not in a book, not in a magazine, not even in a professional journal do readers tolerate that kind of emptiness.  Well, maybe in a professional journal . . . but no one likes reading it there, either.

I received some PD this summer that started me rethinking the type of writing I assign, and while I do believe there is a place for the 5-paragraph, deductive, thesis-driven essay, I am coming to accept that fact that it is not the end-all nor the be-all of the written word.  There should be a twelve-step for us, really.  It's a tough habit to break.

But I plucked up my courage and decided to make a change.

Instead of the stack-of-facts model, I started to cast about for real writing that could serve as a model for my students.  I started here, with the gallery of Pulitzer Prize winning feature stories.  This proved an incredible resource.  I highly recommend it.  Next, I remembered having read this incredible piece piece by Malcom Galdwell, in which he weaves together many apparently different threads to create a personal, compelling, deeply researched argument that never once becomes tedious, predictable, or dry.

This is how real writers write.

I shared this real writing with my students.  Instead of forcing a teacher-designed scoring guide on them, we took the time to study three models of the genre and develop the requirements for the paper together.  We have had hour-long conversations about the leads, the use of vivid imagery, the way the research is woven in with the narrative, how the essays conclude, and the way the authors choose their tone and voice according to their topic and intended audience. 

Finally, I laid it on them: 

Choose a person with an interesting story to tell, and use that narrative to compose a feature story.  In a 4-6 page essay, do all of the following:
---Tell the story, vividly and faithfully.
---Weave in plenty of research over a relevant, broader topic.
---Attend to the conventions of feature writing (see notes):  introduction, body, conclusion, etc.
---Develop a theme (although you need not state it directly).

"Can I tell my OWN story, Mr. Becker?  I've got a GREAT story."

"No, no navel-gazing.  You are amazing, but so is everyone else."

We're in the maelstrom of creation right now, so unfortunately, I can't tell you how the students, in the process of writing this, learned more about how the individuals in their lives fit in with broader topics. I can't tell you how they  worked much harder on this project than they ever did on the traditional research paper, how they responded positively--with gratitude, even--to the personal, personalized nature of the assignment.  I can't tell you about the inspired, authentic, well-researched masterpieces my students crafted.

But they will, won't they?

Won't they?

Spring will come soon, I tell myself, and I watch the underground seeds for signs of new life.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cathy Cartier

Something to Look Forward To
When the new year arrives and the holidays are over, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed.  What is there to look forward to now except serious dieting and the return lines at Target?  We’re back to getting up in the dark when the alarm screams and feeling like zombies by 7:00 p.m.
Fortunately, English teachers everywhere have something to look forward to because the month of January brings with it Poetry Out Loud, a competition for high school students from around the country who study, memorize and recite poems.  Teachers enjoy perusing websites and listening to podcasts along with students, discovering and rediscovering poets and poems, marveling at the perfect word or metaphor in a poem, and always hoping that our passion is contagious. 
This year I have introduced my classes to Seamus Heaney’s “The Underground.”  We have used this poem to illustrate how much easier it is to recite a poem if we look at its parts and discover what the poet is really saying.  Just listening to Heaney read “The Underground” is an experience.   One writer in Newsweek described his vernacular as “muscular language so rich with the tones and smells of earth that you almost expect to find a few crumbs of dirt clinging to his lines.”  As we listen to his recordings on YouTube, we feel as if he is sharing secrets about his life with us; the intimacy is a bit unsettling, yet intriguing.
Something else English teachers can look forward to is watching our students rise to the occasion and surprise us with their sophisticated thinking about literature.  We have spent two days listening to and discussing “The Underground,” trying not to “torture a confession” out of the poem, but looking for important poetic devices that Heaney uses.  After some hints from Heaney himself and a little research, students have recognized the allusions he uses in his poem. 
Explicating the poem together has prepared my students to explicate the poems from the Poetry Out Loud website that they will be reciting next week.  In a paragraph which served as a formative assessment, students drew conclusions about “The Underground” and then about the poem they will recite next week.  Here are two of many that I am excited about and a video of one student’s recitation.
In “The Underground,” Seamus Heaney flawlessly creates the image of a man in love spending time with his newlywed wife by using allusion to guide the narrative.  Her memory is what drives the speaker to recount the tale, and he compares himself to Hansel, following the bread crumbs to find his way home or literally to retrace his steps back to his honeymoon.  The speaker is joyous as he recalls his wife; but as he reveals her death, the tone becomes dark and we are taken to hell.   Orpheus’s task to not look back at Eurydice symbolizes the speaker’s passion for his wife and determination to keep her memory alive.
In Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory”, the speaker uses a shift in tone in order to introduce the honorable characteristics of Richard Cory and also to give more of an impact to the irony of the ending.  The poem starts with an admiring tone, with the speaker saying in the first stanza, “Whenever Richard Cory went down town, / We people on the pavement looked at him” and going on to the third stanza to tell more about Richard, such as “And he was rich – yes richer than a king.”  The line “And he was always human when he talked” shows that although Richard had so much, he wasn’t arrogant, which makes him more admirable.  The tone switches to envious in the third stanza when the speaker states how everyone wanted to be in Richard’s place and have all that he had.  By the end of the fourth stanza, the tone turns blunt and dispassionate.  The speaker is straightforward by clearly saying Richard Cory “put a bullet through his head.”   The sharp twist of the tone gives the reader a shock, and makes him question why someone who had so much and was admired by so many, wouldn’t want to go on living what seemed like a perfect life.
 January can be cold and devoid of the glitter of the holidays.  If you need something to look forward to, join us for our Poetry Out Loud assembly Wednesday, the 16th, when we will snap our fingers in response to the stirring recitations of students who now share our passion for poetry.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sioux Roslawski

Our Students: Movie Directors
          Even young students understand the allure of movies. Even my third graders can grasp the concept that—with their pencil and their imagination—they can recreate the magic that happens on the big screen. But children who are too used to the “traditional” form of telling a story just need to be prodded a bit.
          Too often, students gloss over the big-impact moment of their story and just continue on, failing to utilize the power their story could have. Their dog was given away by their aunt, unbeknownst to them…then they cried and went to bed. Before their car drove away to their new apartment, they said good-bye to their best friend…then they started their new school and started making new friends. Their parents brought home a new puppy…they saw it, and then started taking care of it.
          Showing them how they could slooooow down the saddest part, the happiest part, the most triumphant part of the story is easy. Just choose the right movie.
          I’ve used snippets from several movies with my third graders. The Natural has a sequence towards the beginning when the Robert Redford character is challenged by a star batter he meets on the train. The end of the movie Seabiscuit has a slow-motion sequence at the end. Hoosiers has several spots that would be wonderful models.
          Since I don’t want to lose my job and have to end up working the slurpee machine at Walmart, I only show the excerpt; we don’t want the entire movie. I give minimal background information, and then we watch the minute or two from the film—several times.
          We watch it first to just enjoy the experience. Then, each time it’s replayed, the students jot down things they see, the sounds they hear and the things they imagine the characters are feeling. After watching it four or five times, the whole class comes together and as a group, we “write” that scene down on paper. You could then compare it to a simple—but boring—sentence which says the same thing as the lengthy paragraph the class just created. “The guy threw the ball and struck the batter out.” Or, “The horse won the race.” It’s glaringly obvious to students, when asked which is the most engaging version. They know…
          Of course, the next natural step is having the students highlight a part of their memoir they can rewrite in slow motion. They can then become movie-makers when writing a research report. They’re working on a paper about wolves? After watching some online videos of a wolf pack stalking their prey, they can jot down the details of what they see and draft a rich account. They’re in the process of writing a report on Matthew Henson? They can imagine the pride he felt being the first one to reach the North Pole. Then, that moment can stand in sharp contrast with the disappointment and anger he felt being shoved aside and forgotten by Robert Peary.
          If you haven’t tried it already, transform your classroom into a movie screening room…and watch your students become transformed into movie makers.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The new year brings excitement about fresh starts, fresh ideas, and fresh resolutions.  We find this especially true in our personal lives, but GWP is hoping that we find this true in our professional lives also.  We're always can we be better at what we do?

This space has been created with the idea that we can always learn, grow, and gain by watching our colleagues.  We believe in teachers teaching teachers.  Writing is our passion and by taking down the walls of our classrooms and placing our actions here, we provide an opportunity to reflect on our practices, draw from others' experiences, explode our repertoire of lessons, be inspired, debate, grow, learn, and enjoy the minds of GWP TCs.  Because we may not have the opportunity to teach together, this year, we will be writing without walls.

Our goal this year is to get one TC per week to share what's going on in their classroom and in their heads.  Fifty-two posts.  Now that 's an exciting resolution.

We hope that you not only visit our blog to read, but that you will also consider being one of our writers.  Who hasn't dreamed of being a famous blogger?

If you are interested in writing a blog entry, please email us at so that we can give you a date and log in information.

Happy blogging!