March 2016 - Room 213

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Give students just-in-time feedback so the learning process continues after the essay.
I preach to my students all the time that the whole writing process is a waste if they don't read and react to feedback.  They get the spiel every time I pass back an assignment; some of them even act on it.

But that's not what this post is about.  This time I'm putting the spotlight on me, and how I respond to the feedback I get.  I'm not referring to actual feedback on my teaching (which is important to seek) but the feedback I get every time I assess student work - and how I use it to give just-in-time feedback.

Give students just-in-time feedback so the learning process continues after the essay.One of the ways I "relaxed" over my break was to finish up the essays my IB students wrote. They had to write a 1200-1500 word essay on Macbeth, on a topic of their choice.  It had to be narrow and focused on Shakespeare's purpose and one technique he used to achieve that purpose.  They chaffed at the "one technique" requirement, sure they couldn't get enough detail for only one.  I was sure they could. We've been working on idea development and focus since the semester changed, and it was time for them to show me their stuff.

For the most part, I was happy with what I saw.  They have the basics down pat. Every essay was focused on a thesis; most were dealing with technique and not summarizing the plot. That was a big win.

However, I saw that a number of them were struggling to really flesh out their ideas and rather than digging deeply into the play, they just repeated themselves.  Many wrote about how elements of the play support the belief in Divine Right of Kings.  Some used pathetic fallacy as the technique; others used the clothing motif.  Most gave a very surface brushing.

As I marked their work, I kept a notebook by my side to keep track of where my students need more instruction, and designed my lessons for next week based on what I found.

1. I've asked two students who did really well to send me their papers electronically. I'm going to select each one's best paragraph and put them together on a handout for students.  They will work in pairs with pens and highlighters to identify the things that make each one a good piece of analytical writing.

2.  I will write my own version of one of the repetitive paragraphs (so I don't have to ID particular students).  Students will work in pairs again, to identify repetitive areas and then to come up with ways to replace those sentences with better evidence from the play.

3. I'm going to write  to illustrate the belief in the Divine Right of Kings at the top of a piece of chart paper and get students to take turns writing other ways to say this underneath (I'll come up with some other repetitive phrases too--there were lots to choose from!).

My first thought when I started thinking about this was that I didn't have time; we need to move on.  However, I talked myself out of that.  I'm giving them feedback that I want them to use now; if I race off to the next thing without giving them the opportunity to fix the things that need fixing, I'm not walking the walk. Let's see how it goes.



"I'm searching for life balance as a high school English teacher."

These are the words of the teacher in the video below.  He seems like he's found a way to balance giving great feedback without over-loading himself with papers to take home. Watch the video to see how he conferences with his students in class and puts more responsibility on them:



My Pre-IB's are finishing up their readers' workshop; after the break we'll start a full-class novel.  The last few days we were discussing the various ways that authors develop their messages, and today we wrapped it up with a group activity that helped them make connections between texts. It worked well, so I thought I'd share.

The kids were to arrive to class with notes on theme development in their novels.  Then, I used the following slides to guide them toward a theme statement:

 Once they'd done some thinking about the themes in the books they had read individually, I had them to gather in groups of five to share their work with each other. Then, they had to work together to come up with an over-riding theme that could tie together all of their novels.

They had some really good discussions about their texts and great debate about the best way to form an umbrella statement.  When I questioned them after, they said it was much easier to do for their own books and that it was difficult to find one statement that could apply to all. So I asked, "Then why did I ask you to do it?"

"'Cause you wanted us to think," was the reply, in unison.  I've got them well trained!



Last week, I had to do a presentation to my department on "descriptive feedback" and most of my colleagues came feeling that they give lots of it. After all, we English teachers are masters of the pen, especially the red one.  Our pens--regardless of colour-- circle, highlight, underline and scribble notes in margins like: Use stronger verbs, Needs more detail, Lacks focus. These are all valid observations about a piece of writing, but what if students don't know how to focus or add more detail? What if they don't know the difference between a strong and a weak verb? We know --we're the supposed experts. But our students are not.  Yes, we taught the lessons. Yes, they have handouts in their binders. Yes, they should know that stuff by now.

Yet some of them still don't know what to do.

What we need to do is give our students feedback that actually feeds forward, information that gives them next steps and/or where to go for help.  For example, if I have a student who passed in an essay with a weak introduction, I could write "weak lead" or "weak thesis".  That may justify why she got a poor mark for that part of the assignment, but if she doesn't know how to write a good lead and thesis, it isn't effective feedback. Instead, I could tell her:

Your opening doesn't lead logically into your thesis (see handout on introductions; extra help is on Tuesday at noon)

Your thesis is in the correct place, but it's not persuasive (see website link on writing a thesis; extra help is on Tuesday at noon)

These statements give very focused information that the student can use to improve her skills and also provides guidance on where to go for help.

I know what you're thinking: who's got time for that?  Feedback like this would take forever, and we're already overwhelmed when it comes to assessment.  So very true. However, there are some strategies that you can use to make feedback easier for you to give and for your students to use.

1. Create some checklists that include the feedback you would normally give to your students for particular assignments. (Think about those phrases you write over and over again in the margins) Make sure the comments are short and in "student" language, not educational lingo. Those long, carefully crafted rubrics are wonder-ful, but let's face it.  Very few students actually read them.

Creating checklists will take time up front, but once you have a bank of comments ready to go, you can quickly tweak checklists for various assignments.  You will have to write a lot fewer comments on student writing, and you'll find the marking process so much faster.  

2. Have you gone digital? This youtube video is an excellent tutorial on how you can provide feedback electronically, using Google Docs and Forms:

Regardless of the method you use to provide good, descriptive feedback, the whole process is a total waste if the kids don't read it.  Unfortunately most are only interested in the mark at the top.  If you want them to use your advice to improve, there are several things you can do to aid that process:

1. Record the mark in your files but don't put it on top of the assignment.  Then, require students to do a short written reflection on your feedback before you show them their mark.

2. Let students do more of the work -- and the thinking. I wrote about this method before and I like it so much it bears repeating: highlight areas of strength in one colour and areas that need work in another.  Students will need to tell you why you highlighted each section.  I recently did this on Google Docs. Students had to write a response to something we'd discussed in class.  I told them I would only assess their idea development. Once I was done, they responded on the doc.  It worked beautifully! It was very quick for me to do and almost all of them responded with the perfect fix for their issue.

Using Google Docs for descriptive feedback and formative assessment

3. Have students evaluate themselves.  Ultimately, they need to know how to revise and edit their work.  If they don't reflect on their progress, our feedback is just empty words. This week I had assignments coming in from one class and going back to another.  The students who were passing in a lit essay on Macbeth passed in a short reflection that you can see below.  They were pretty accurate!  As you can see I added comments to the reflection -- because I don't have a checklist done for this assignment yet.

Use good descriptive feedback and engage in conversations with your students about their work.
 After my tenth grade class got their essays back, I gave them the sheets below. Their homework that night was to fill in the reflection.  That way I know that they actually read my feedback.  The sheet has room for future assignments, too, so they can keep an ongoing record throughout the semester. You can grab it HERE.
Use good descriptive feedback and engage in conversations with your students about their work.
My biggest area of growth as a teacher has been in assessment.  It's always an issue for English teachers: how do we give them good feedback without spending hours and hours grading? I don't think anyone has found "the" answer yet, but I know that using these strategies to provide more descriptive feedback has made my life easier and my students' writing improve.


Mentor Sentences from Independent Reading

I want my students to find mentor sentences from their independent reading texts, ones they can use as models for their own writing. Last week, I told them to be on the lookout for beautiful language in the novels they are reading.  We talked about the concept: what makes language beautiful? Is it the words? The ideas? Both? I gave them no parameters, just the instruction to record three sentences that spoke to them, for whatever reason.

Tomorrow, they are coming to class with their chosen sentences.  The first thing they will do is reflect on their choices and why they made them. I've made up a slide show to guide the activity.  Feel free to grab the images here.
Using mentor sentences from independent novels

Using mentor sentences from independent novels

After the initial reflection, they will look more specifically at the language choices the author made:
Using mentor sentences from independent novels
Next, I'm going to put them in groups of four - five and have them share their sentences and why they chose them. Finally, they will use them as mentor sentences and mimic the style in their journals. Later in the week, they will choose one of them as an opening to a short descriptive or narrative  piece of writing.
Using mentor sentences from independent novels

I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with tomorrow. 



Last week, my IB students started their study of Night.  It's one of the texts from the Works in Translation part of the course, and they began with one group of students doing an interactive oral, a presentation on the cultural and contextual aspects of the work.  I was proud of the students who presented; they've come a long way in the last year.

hot topic discussion stations build speaking and listening skills

Their prowess as speakers has been due in large part to their hard work, but also to the fact that I've put more emphasis on the speaking and listening strands of our curriculum. I'm very lucky to teach pre-IB as well, so I have most of these students for a year and a half. Right now, I have them right now, and we're spending the semester getting them ready for next year. After several years of tweaking, I now spend a lot more class time on speaking skills, not just because they need them for major assessments, but also because I've come to realize what an essential part of the learning process speaking is. Many of us use talk to explore ideas--we need to speak and hear to work through complex problems.  It's no different when it comes to formal learning.

hot topic discussion stations build speaking and listening skillsMany students are intimidated when it comes to speaking in front of the class, and yet too often we just throw them into speaking situations without cultivating the skills and confidence they need to speak in front of a large group of people. Small group discussions give them the chance to do something that may be uncomfortable in a safer environment.

My tenth grade class has been involved in a great deal of whole class discussion already, but I decided it was time to get more focused, and to start giving them feedback on their speaking and listening skills. Because they've been enjoying my other learning stations, I decided to create some for small group discussion.

Each of the discussion stations focused on a "hot topic" and included a sheet of instructions for the group leader.  The leader began the discussion by asking students to do a quick write and to share their initial thoughts on the topic. Then, they watched a short youtube clip and listened to the leader read them some facts that represented both sides of the issue.  Heated discussion ensued. After fifteen minutes or so, they filled out a peer assessment checklist, and then they all moved clockwise to the next station.

hot topic discussion stations build speaking and listening skills

Time ran out before we could finish them all, and they begged me to finish up on Monday.  It was an easy thing to agree to after seeing how much they enjoyed them.

Learning stations make grammar fun
I used another station activity earlier in the week too, but not because I had planned to. Monday, before class, I was marking their persuasive essays, finding A LOT of pronoun errors.  So, I dug out my pronoun errors learning stations and quickly started moving desks together. Luckily, the photocopier was free. What followed was very interesting: instead of seeing kids quietly working on the stations, I heard heated discussions about pronoun use.  Many of them (sadly, and surprisingly) were seeing these rules for the first time. I didn't do a full class lesson on any of the rules before hand, so they were working through them together. It was pretty neat, and emphasized something I know to be true, but don't always do: kids learn more when they dive into it on their own.



My tenth grade students have been immersed in the writing process this week. Their task is to complete a persuasive research essay, but we took our time, focusing on the steps writers can take to revise their essays.  They started with an outline and a draft, and then each day I presented mini-lessons on things like using transitions, varying sentence lengths, word choice, etc.

Learning stations slow students down and make for far more effective revisionToday, they came to class with a hard copy of their latest drafts and spent that class at revision stations. I numbered the students off and sent them to their first station (order didn't matter). At each station, they found various task cards that instructed them to focus on a different area of their essays. I also provided post-it notes that they could chose to use if they needed more room to write. In these photos, you can see students working on embedding quotations, sentence variety, strong verbs and sentence openings. 

My plan was to give them ten minutes at each station, and then have each group move clockwise to the next station. I soon found that not everyone was ready to move at the same time, so they just moved on their own, whenever they had finished their tasks. I was very proud of the focus I saw. The students took their tasks seriously and made many notes to themselves about revisions they will make at home later.  They loved that the stations slowed the process down, allowing them to focus on one element of their writing at a time. It was also a wonderful opportunity for differentiated learning, as I could sit with individual kids and instruct them in the areas they needed to work on (I answered a lot of questions about in-text citations!)

Learning stations are perfect for peer revision
Once every one had spent time at each station (it took about 40 minutes), I asked them to decide which station represented an area where they felt they needed to do the most work -- Were they unsure if their topic sentences were focused enough? Did their writing flow? Were they using the best words? Once they decided, I asked them to go back to that station, and to get a partner to read their essay, focusing on that particular element for feedback. The discussions that followed were amazing: focused, detailed and very constructive. We repeated the process with a second element.

All in all, it was a great day.  The students left with lots of work to do before they create their good copies, and I left with high hopes for some engaging reading next week when they come in.

You can check out my stations HERE.

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