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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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.

Peer Review

As an English teacher, I often make my students peer review one another’s essays.  Today happens to be one of those days where my Juniors are editing away, and I observed my mentee’s class which was also peer editing.  All this peer review got me thinking about the value of such an activity.

On it’s surface, it seems so vital.  I always tell my students that in order to grow as writers, they must get feedback from a variety of audiences.  In other words, I cannot be their only audience as a writer.  My goal with peer review is, at least in large part, to increase their audience.  We know that feedback is vital to learning, and mulitple sources of feedback is even better, so peer review of their work seems like a no brainer.
Where I get stumped is just how little they seem to understand the peer review process and how much training it takes on my part.  In my experience, students do not know how to give meaningful feedback, and the writers don’t know what to do with that feedback.  I find it almost disheartening that I have to teach juniors in high school how to give feedback, but even more so that I have to remind the writers to read the feedback.  I have found many times that the editor doesn’t even give the writer the answers to the question!  He keeps the paper himself!  What benefit does that serve?  But it made me wonder how peer review plays out in other classes?
When observing my mentee today, he conducts his peer review sessions in much the same manner that I do, andhe had to remind the class to read the feedback and actually give the feedback to the writer, etc.  If this is the state of peer review, what does that mean?  Are we taking this huge educational opportunity and wasting it?   As educators, are we giving deep thought to why we do it or are we just doing it because it’s what has always been done?  I’d be interested to see what methods other teachers have to increase the audience for their students and gain meaningful feedback.