First I want to differentiate between grades and feedback. A grade is a type of feedback - it’s a snapshot of the quality in reference to an arbitrary scale of letters. And the problem with grades, or one of the many problem with grades, is that what is an A in one class is a C in another, and an F in another.
And the main problem is that grades, especially when they are assigned to a draft of a piece, are antithetical to developing a writer’s practice and ability. A grade says “Your writing is good” or “Your writing is average” or “Your writing is poor.” How does that help a writer, especially a young writer, improve their craft?
Imagine a father, giving a kid a bike without training wheels for the first time. He gives his son the bike and a handout about how to ride the bike. Then he sits back on the curb and waits. When the son finally gets on the bike and crashes a few seconds later, the father holds up a scorecard that says “2/10 - Poor Effort. Needs Improvement.”
If you were that kid, would you get back on the bike again? Even if you loved riding a bike, or thought that you could learn to love it, you certainly wouldn’t want your dad to see you ride again.
That needs to change.
What our students need, and are desperate for, is feedback. The metaphorical grasp on the seat, manipulating the handlebars, pointing out posture and form issues in a way that helps our students improve, rather than dwell on the failures. The problem of course is that this is really tough. A class of 30 students will have 30 different sets of needs and range of skills. And there’s one teacher and a very limited amount of class time. This is one of the reasons I originally wanted to flip my class: I wanted to rearrange how I used class time to have more time to respond constructively to student writing.
So back to the definition of feedback: feedback is responding to student writing with concrete suggestions for improvements as well as highlighting good sections or techniques. The goal of feedback is to help students both recognise the problems and build on the strengths in their writing.
There is a reason teachers give grades instead of feedback. Feedback takes time and means often searching for what a student has done well when there is much wrong with the essay. And often, we end up with identical essays because in order to teach the structure adequately, we limit their original ideas and essentially tell them what to write, where to write it, and how to start every sentence. Giving feedback on those essays is more self-congratulatory than helpful for students…”Wow, well done on parroting back the EXACT idea I gave you in class using the sentence frames I gave you and in the order I gave you!” Yeah. That’s not helpful to anyone.
So really, there are two main issues:
- Bad writing tasks that give students too narrow a range of possible theses or an overly-structured essay frame that dictates what students write
- The amount of time it takes to give meaningful feedback to 100+ students in a short enough time-frame to allow for revision
The answer to the first one is that you need to lead with ideas. That will be the subject of another blog post because it’s a longer answer. The answer to the second is essentially just change what you do with your class time.
Let me say this though: no matter how good your system, giving meaningful feedback in a timely way is really really tough. I have a few tricks for helping the workflow, but I want to make sure I don’t condemn any teacher who is trying to help his or her students but struggles with an unrealistic workload. Andrew and I have always believed that personal life comes before professional, and you have to prioritise in order to keep yourself from getting buried in the work or burning out and quitting.
This is overwhelming because it’s overwhelming. You are not doing it wrong.
The years where I had fewer students I have been able to give more feedback more quickly. And the years where I have between 150-300? Yeah. I did the best I could, but things got dropped. However, I do think that with some simple changes, you could potentially give feedback on at least 3-4 major full-process essays in a year.
First, think about quality over quantity and assign more informal writing than formal. If you assign 20 essays but only give feedback on 4 and just give grades to the rest, you might as well have just done 4. Now, there are two types of assigned writing in my classroom: informal writing and full-process multi-draft essays.
Informal writing is all about developing interesting ideas, building endurance with writing (especially in-class), responding to interesting questions and prompts, trying out techniques, being creative, building arguments, and practicing the stages of the writing process. We do informal writing in class every single day. And I NEVER grade informal writing. It is for practice, and often, I don’t read all of it. Or I skim it for the ideas and use them to plan the next few days of class and what skills and content need to be covered next. A mantra in my credential school was “If you are reading every word they are writing, you are not writing enough.”
Informal writing is for practice and for giving the teacher information in order to tailor instruction to help all the students in class improve. In this case, grades are unnecessary and feedback is given in the way the following lessons and assignments are designed and delivered.
Formal writing is using the writing process, from drafting to through to multiple revisions, and honing that piece until it is as perfect as possible. And formal writing is primarily for the purpose of helping individual writers develop their ability and improve their craft. That is why these essays need feedback so desperately.
Second, instead of having them write the essays at home or just managing the room while they write, use the time to watch them compose within a document in Google Drive. We use the comment feature to give suggestions, help them build arguments, and find the most promising ideas. That does reduce the amount of time it takes to give feedback later, because you’ve helped them compose it from the ground up.
Third, use the class time you have to have individual writing conferences with every student. We will develop this idea in another post because there is a lot of pedagogy and practice behind it. We use time where students are reading in class or working on project time independently or in small groups to meet with each individual student. We give a pre-conference worksheet to prepare them for what we’ll talk about. This is often the first time we’ve seen the latest draft of their work, so it actually counts as one round of revision and feedback.
Finally, I schedule the essays at points in the year where I know I will have a little more time and I use apps that will make the most of that time. The traditional way to do this is over breaks, but then I end up in a guilt spiral about not having done them until the final day where I binge and get them all done in the final 24 hours of break. That doesn’t work well for anyone. So I have tried to do a few essays a day over a week either before or after a break. Then I can either bribe myself with something fun over break or I can be extra-rested and tackle them with renewed energy.
One thing that really helped me in this regard is voice comments using Kaizena. For some reason, I can motivate myself to talk more than add comments to a document. Plus, I’ve found students value this kind of feedback more than written. I have also explored doing video feedback where I mark-up essays and talk over them. That’s something I’d like to do more of this year. One app I’m considering using is Playback - it lets you have your face on an interactive whiteboard app, which makes is appealing for something as intimate and personal as writing feedback.
I’m sure there are things I’ve left out that would help you make giving writing feedback a priority for your practice. But that’s part of #bettertogether - if you have other ideas, please leave them in comments.
This is the second part in a series of writing instruction posts. The first post, Why We Stopped Teaching The Five Paragraph Essay, is a good place to start.