Are we giving good feedback?

I think the title presents a clear question.  I’ve been reading a lot of student writing and drafting lately and providing feedback.  Feedback is one of the elements on our evaluation rubric.  We expect feedback from our school leaders regarding our teaching performance.  Feedback is one of those terms we throw around so much that I’m not so sure we are all using the same definition.

One of my favorite places to turn for educational readings is Grant Wiggins’ blog, and one of my favorite posts of his regards feedback: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/what-feedback-is-and-isnt/

in this article he begins by asking which of these 4 examples is actual feedback:

  1. “Nice job on the project, Sheshona!”

2. “Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”

3. “The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”

4. “You taught about ants, Stefan? I LOVE ants!”

And then promptly points out that none of the 4 is feedback.  This has always stood out to me because I think we often believe we are providing feedback when in reality we are not.  Feedback should indicate to a student where he stands in relation to a goal.  While praise and advice are both worthwhile things in their own right, neither of them is true feedback.  I worry that we are so hung up on providing feedback that we don’t actually focus on whether or not we are providing good feedback.  I would bet in most schools, leaders would view advice as feedback, so teachers provide lots of advice.

The moments that always stand out to me regarding feedback are from my public speaking classes.  In Public Speaking students are required to deliver a sales pitch.  shortly thereafter, I always ask the class who was actually convinced to purchase a product based on the sales pitch.  That is the clearest feedback these students can get regarding the effectiveness of their speech.  If the intended goal is to sell something and people are buying it or not buying, you have all sorts of useful information to determine how well you did.  This is much stronger feedback than anything I could write or say about the speech after the fact.

Feedback is, perhaps surprisingly, a tricky piece of the educational lexicon.  Perhaps it is worth analyzing our own feedback to determine if we are giving good feedback or not.

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Stop saying a C is “average”

Today is a day of grading for me.  All of my classes today are taking assessments which affords me the opportunity to get a lot of grading done.  In fact, I have one set of essays down for the day!  Of course, since they are assessing I’ll be grading more in the future.  I, like most teachers, grade A LOT.  We talk about grades and assessments all the time in schools among teachers and with students.  Like it or not, grades are a tremendously influential piece of the educational system for us.  And as we talk about grades, I constantly hear teachers saying that C is “average.”  It is well past time to change that mindset.  We need to stop saying that to ourselves, among our colleagues and to our students.

I teach upper level students who are used to getting good grades.  In fact many of them are upset at even getting a B.  A C is unfathomable to many, if not most, of them.  I am constantly trying to get them to stop worrying so much about their grades and recognize that the B on their essay is not a bad grade.  It is an uphill battle, but I am very conscientious to make sure that I don’t tell them that a B is “Above average” because that solidifies the idea that C is average.

You see, a C is not the average anymore. I just did some data checking of my grades-and remember I have a reputation for being a hard grader-and both the mean and mode in almost all my classes for the last few years is a B.  And I am willing to bet the same is true for most teachers.  The stereotypical bell curve no longer peaks at a C; the peak is at a B.  There is an argument to be made about grade inflation here, sure, but a C isn’t average anymore.

Secondly, society’s attitude towards grades have changed.  A C was once acceptable for many.  Now it’s not; and it’s not because of this shift.  Ask just about any parent (and there is research available for this): B’s are OK; C’s are not.

Finally, the term average doesn’t belong in our grading vocabulary if we want to call ourselves standards based.  Average is, by definition, a term to be used in a norm referenced model.  Average is about comparing one student to the rest of the class.  If we are attempting to grade based on level of proficiency towards a standard, then average is irrelevant.

Let’s shift our mindset and our vocabulary.  A C isn’t average.

What does “exceeds standard” means

Grades are one area of education that has always intrigued me.  I’ve always felt that grades were about much more than just what a student knows or is able to do.  The latest research in education continues to confirm this.  But even with the push into standards based grading, there is room for a great deal of inaccuracies and subjectivity, and grades are still, at least partially, related to how well the student can “play school.”

I preface this all by saying I am a strong supporter of standards based grading; I believe it is more accurate by far and a better means of communication to the student.  I also strongly believe that grading is not something that can be changed quickly and overnight.  Ideas about grades are simply too deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.  That being said, I come to today’s post from two distinctly different pieces of information.  One is a grading directive here at my school with which I vehemently disagree; the other is an article I read about a school in Maryland reverting back to an A-F scale from what they call “standards based.”  (I question their use of the term standards based here).

In short I am bothered by how we are defining (or not defining) the highest grade.  In the Maryland school district it was called “ES” for “Exceptional.”   (Why ES is beyond me).  In my school a 4 is our top grade and is defined as “exceeding expectations.”  In some way many schools are defining their top grade as such.  But what does exceeding expectations mean?  If meeting our expectations isn’t the top grade, shouldn’t we change what our expectations are?

And there are some standards that are impossible to exceed.  I like Tom Guskey’s analogy about archery.  If the standard is to hit the target from 20 feet, that cannot be exceed.  Moving the archer further away is changing the standard all told.

What makes it even worse is when we can’t even define exceeding expectations on our rubrics.  How am I, as a teacher, supposed to accurately grade a student when the best definition I can give for a grade is, “I’ll know it when I see it”?

“Exceeding expectations” or anything similar is a nonsense term that should be removed from our educational lexicon.

Why am I emailing parents all the time?

I don’t think parents want to know nearly as much as we seem to think they want to know.  Parents claim they want to know everything happening in their child’s school day, and we try to make that happen.  We post our curriculum so parents can see it; we post our weekly lesson plans so parents can see exactly what we are teaching their children.  We post grades in real time so parents can see exactly what is completed and how their children did on it.  Many of my colleagues are constantly sending email updates to their students’ parents.  One of my colleagues even makes this a weekly routine.

And yet, I would bet most (and by most, I mean an extremely high percentage) parents barely even look at any of this.  Maybe it’s cynical of me, but in my experience most parents become interested when their child is doing poorly or something goes wrong.  Do we really believe many parents are carefully reading our class policies when we make them sign it?  Think about it.  A parent with 2 kids in high school would have about 15 different sets of policies to read if we all did this.  My son’s kindergarten teacher kept a blog last year updating parents on what is happening in class.  To be honest, I looked at it maybe 4 times all year.

This is all to say, we bend over backwards to inform parents, but it isn’t really worth all the effort.  Please know that I think the home-school connection is vital; I just don’t think we are going about it the right way.  I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying something new with my summer school students.  I haven’t decided if it works quite yet, though.

Instead of emailing their parents myself, I made my students email their own parents and CC me on it.  The summer session is only 3 weeks long, so on Friday of each week, students have to email their parents telling them what they did this week, any grades they got, and upcoming due dates.   This keeps parents posted, forces communication between the student and his/her parents, makes the practice writing a bit, and saves me the time.

Does it work?  I don’t know yet.  A few students are super resistant to it.  I’m pretty sure one of my students doesn’t actually email his parents-just some sort of dummy account.  Students don’t know how to write appropriate and effective emails either.  In fairness, this is a skill I should probably be teaching them, but summer school doesn’t allow enough time for that really.

I’ll obviously contact parents if I have concerns as the summer session rounds out, but I like the premise of having students send the email instead of me.  I think this is an idea I’ll toy with a bit more during the actual school year.

Warning: Deadlines are closer than they appear

Today is the last day of April break.  Tomorrow starts the down hill slide to graduation and summer break.  This means my juniors have their major essays due in a few weeks, and my seniors are fighting (not hard enough) lustily against senior-itis.  Thinking about the end of the year has me thinking about deadlines and holding students accountable.

There is a general consensus in education circles today that students should not have their grades punished for missing deadlines-that leniency is necessary since it is more important that students complete the work and it doesn’t matter so much when they complete their work.  This has led to much frustration as the theory and practice aren’t aligning nearly as nicely as people would like.  Teachers lament that students believe deadlines don’t mean anything and we aren’t teaching them any sort of accountability.  Isn’t part of our job to teach them responsibility?  Sure, if I don’t turn something into my boss on time, I don’t immediately lose my job, but if I consistently don’t do stuff on time, I do risk losing my job.

These are all very legitimate arguments, but punishing students’ grades is not the answer.  In reflecting on my practice when listening to other teachers, it occurred to me that I don’t have nearly as many issues with students taking advantage of me regarding deadlines.  Part of that is that I teach some A level classes, which are students who are generally responsible and motivated by grades.  But I also have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass; my students-in pretty much all my classes-will tell you that my workload and expectations put them under a great deal of stress.  And yet, very few issues regarding deadlines.

To that end, I’m going to throw out some different strategies I use for managing student deadlines:

  1.  provide sliding deadlines.  I sometimes provide a range for a due date: essays are due Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  You choose.  When I do this, even my most habitual malingerers give me an essay by Friday.
  2. indicate a time when the essay is due and provide a justification.  Somethings are due at the start of class since we will be using them in class.  Some things are due by the end of the day (2:30 to be precise)
  3. let the class decide on a  due date.  I give them a time frame (1 week), lay out what we are doing in class each day that they may have to prepare for, and then the class decides as a whole when they want the thing due.  I find providing this control for them really helps.
  4. let them decide individually.  I generally only due this for my smallest classes, but sometimes when I hand by essay drafts, I ask each kid when conferencing: when can you get me the final draft?  They’re generally pretty reasonable and then they can pace themselves accordingly.  Is it more work to keep track of each kid’s individual due date?  Not really-I just keep a little log going for each day.
  5. remind them that they can turn stuff in early.  I find this helps them pace themselves better and avoid procrastinating.
  6. sometimes I keep a countdown on the board for major assignments.  This keeps it a little fresher in their heads.
  7. move pre-established due dates.  It demonstrates flexibility and kindness on my part.  I often have essays due on Fridays, but then change it to Monday when I realize there is no way I will start grading them over the weekend.
  8. work with kids individually on their time management and deadlines.  This should be a no brainer, but it bears repeating.  If I notice a kid is way behind in major project, I’ll usually sit down with him and set new due dates and goals for him to get caught up.  Letting him sink further into a hole helps no one.

I’m sure there are plenty more great ideas out there.  This is just a quick list to get started.  God speed to all teachers as we head toward the end of the school year.

Writing this makes me a better teacher

Recently a friend posted an article in which the author argues that she is a better writing teacher because she writes frequently.  I merely skimmed the article, but she seemed to primarily focus on how she writes creatively on a regular basis, and as a result of this, she is a better writing teacher.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I tackled any sort of creative writing, and I can only think of a select few assignments that I have given over the years that force students to write creatively.  I love fiction; I don’t consider myself a strong fiction writer, nor do I feel confident in grading students’ fiction writing.

That being said, I do assign a great deal of academic writing ranging from short responses to multi-page research papers that go through many drafts.  I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and as I think about it, I’m not just a better writing teacher because of it, but an all around better teacher because of it.

Writing, though seemingly simple, is actually a difficult task.  When writing, students not only have to flesh out high quality ideas, but they need to communicate them in the most effective way possible, which is, of course, a matter of interpretation.  While there are many writing rules, none of them are truly set in stone, and good writers break them all the time.  Imagine how complicated this must be for students.  As a teacher, when the last thing you wrote was in college, think of how difficult it is to sympathize with what your students are tasked to do.  Even the best writers come to a stand still and get writers’ block, and yet our students are still faced with deadlines that don’t really care about writers’ block.

Writing this blog on a  semi-regular basis helps me sympathize with what my students are forced to do not just in my classes, but in all their classes that require some writing.  I share this with others on social media and receive a great deal of feedback from educators around the country and plenty of non-educators as well.  The comments I have received on this blog via Facebook, twitter, wordpress, etc. have helped me flesh out my ideas more clearly and helped me realize where I lack in communicating those ideas that leads to confusion and misinterpretations.

Pretty much everything I write in here is what I consider first draft writing.  I rarely re-read and edit before posting.  Seeing how people respond has helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer which allow me to understand my students’ struggles more clearly.  I only have anecdotal evidence, but I conference better and provide much better feedback to my students since I have taken up writing this blog.

Not only that, but I am an overall better teacher because I write this blog.  I’m an education nerd.  I love talking shop, and this blog has allowed me to do that and reflect on so many aspects of education.  Educational leaders are constantly reminding us that we should be reflecting on our practice.  This blog allows me to do that, and then allows me to re-read and reconsider my practice.  It also allows me to reflect on policies and trends in education, so that I can figure out how to best implement theory into practice.  This blog has opened up dialogue with my students, my colleagues, to some extent my bosses, as well as people outside of the educational community who offer interesting insight into what education can offer.

I cannot off the top of my head point to particular and specific data that demonstrates growth as a teacher as a result of this blog.  But I can think of how I have taught in the past and my educational philosophies and I can quickly realize that writing this blog has helped me grow as a teacher.

This has been a very self actualizing project for me.  As a teacher, time is perhaps our most precious commodity, and it can be very difficult to find the time to do all that we want nonetheless add another task to our to do list.  And while I have not blogged nearly as frequently as I’d like this past year, I think this may be the best professional development tool available to me on a regular basis.  After all, when we sit in workshops we are not developing professionally; it is when we think about and wrestle with the ideas presented that we actually develop professionally.  That is what this blog allows me to do.

 

Who do I write for?

One of the things we don’t talk about enough when it comes to writing is who we are really writing for.  When I assign my students an essay rarely do I tell them who their intended audience should be, and I’m not so sure that when we are discussing academic writing we have ever truly clarified that.  Often times I hear teachers tell students to write as if their classmates are their audience, but then their classmates rarely actually read the essay.  Sometimes we make up an audience and tell them to pretend they are writing to congress or some such thing.  This sounds great in theory, but then, when we read the essay as the teacher, do we truly view it through the lens of a congressman?  If not, then really their audience is the teacher.

This got me to thinking about who I write this for.  I never had an intended audience in mind; I was just looking to clarify my own thoughts and put it out there.  I guess I assumed only other educators would be interested in what I have to say, but I know there are non-educators who read this as well.

Recently some of my students have found this blog since they seem to enjoy googling my name rather than writing their essays when we go to the computer lab.  In fact, we are going later today, so Hi Tommie, Zack, Matt, James, and Michael, and anyone else in my class who stumbles upon this.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  On one hand there is something almost embarrassing about having my students read and critique/tease me in class about my writing.  Especially when I want them working on something else.

On the other hand, there are some nice benefits too.  I like that they get to see that I write from time to time.  We ask students to write all the time, but we ourselves don’t do it nearly enough.  They can see my style, my voice, and my flaws as a writer.  Ultimately I think this is a good thing.   They also have too much fun picking apart my writing, but there are valuable skills inherent in that.  One of my students found an egregious error in parallel structure in one of my posts.  Since I taught them parallel structure, there is a sense of pride in knowing that he can identify it outside of a worksheet-even if it is in my own writing.

So to go back to the original purpose here: who do I write for?  I still don’t know if I have a good answer for that.  This started as a self reflective practice, but it’s developed beyond that some.  I like that I have colleagues who read this; I like that that I have non-educators who read this; and I think that I like that I have students who have read this.