Vignette #3 – Striving to provide assessment that has a stronger and more long term impact on student improvement, a fifth grade ELA teacher evaluates how she can best impart ongoing, frequent, non-evaluative and high quality feedback for her student writers.
Charged with teaching students key skills in reading, writing, and analysis (among the other significant behavioral and curriculum goals in her classroom), fifth grade ELA teacher Lauren Cason often wrestles with how to provide feedback that will help all of her students progress over the course of the year. When Lauren started to notice that her endless hours of work were not translating into better writing for her students, she decided it was time to focus on types of feedback her students were receiving and how she could weave in opportunities for more effective student support within the lesson. With various rubrics in place to evaluate student work, she felt it was time to closely consider her own goals when assessing student work and if she was meeting them.
Focusing on the work of Grant Wiggins and his “Feedback Essentials”- that “helpful feedback is goal-referenced; tangible and transparent; actionable; user friendly (specific and personalized); timely; ongoing and consistent,” Lauren commits to evaluating her own system of student assessment to see if it fits Wiggins’ criteria. She also develops a survey to get feedback from students and families on how they are experiencing “assessment results” and the helpful feedback that she feels should go hand in hand. Lauren realizes that what may seem transparent to her could be confusing to students and parents. She also gains valuable insights from her students about timely and ongoing feedback. Some students are frustrated by the length of time it takes before getting feedback on their written work and admit to feeling confused about what the most important “take-aways” are from her comments. Others share that they feel like Lauren sometimes “moves on” too quickly in class, leaving them lacking in confidence for next steps. The surveys reveal that students want more feedback in “real time” and feel they could benefit from more consistent opportunities to work on the “hard things” with guidance from Lauren. In response, Lauren integrates more intentional moments of checking for understanding during class time by introducing “silent signals” and exit cards.* In addition, Lauren designs shorter writing assignments with fewer and more specific goals for the students. As she suspects, her students often feel overwhelmed by her extensive written comments and need fewer and more focused points to consider for next drafts. She finds that her students are having a hard time keeping track of what they are working on from draft to draft. By providing a checklist for self and peer editing, ** and individualized learning goals with each student (and family at conference time), Lauren finds her students more focused and motivated to improve their writing. A shift to journals and writing portfolios further enables students to use previous feedback points to inform their ongoing writing processes. By keeping these lists pasted in the front covers of the portfolios, students have an organized and visual reference “go to” as they build skills throughout the year.
In response to students wishing they had more feedback during the writing process, Lauren incorporates additional writing lab days where she can circulate, answer timely student questions, and have opportunities for one-on-one conferences. Lauren starts each conference by providing positive, descriptive, and non-judgmental feedback on some aspect of the student’s writing. She then moves to help students consider the goals of the writing and how they can identify areas for revision. Lauren makes certain to keep the learning active by asking questions (rather than giving advice) that inspire students to envision themselves as authors with agency to improve their own writing. Taking Wiggins’ suggestion for “less feedback that comes only from you, and more tangible feedback designed into the performance itself,” Lauren sets up clear processes for revision work and provides strong exemplars of successful work that students can use for self and peer assessment. She is grateful for the shared files of exemplary student work that her department head collects and makes available for classroom use. With permission from the students to use the work, Lauren and her colleagues find this a valuable and growing resource. Lauren also turns to “The Reading and Writing Project” to gather examples of student work to use for “mentoring” her students through the writing project. ***
Lauren shares that participating in an ongoing process of examining the feedback she gives and its effectiveness on individual student success has encouraged her to clarify short and long term goals in the classroom. While the answers along the way are not always clear, Lauren insists that a stronger and more specific sense of direction helps with her focus as a teacher and seems to motivate her students to work towards goals that feel clear and achievable. She notices marked improvement in student writing, less frustration with the process, and more support from the parents who have greater opportunities to discuss their children’s learning.
- In “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback,” Grant Wiggins clarifies what we mean by “feedback” and offers insights on the “essentials” that make it effective. He insists that feedback must be goal referenced, tangible and transparent, actionable, user-friendly, timely, ongoing, and consistent.
- This chapter from Susan Brookhart’s book How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students outlines types of feedback and their purposes. It is a comprehensive look at feedback strategies that vary in “timing, amount, mode, and audience.” Brookhart includes good and bad examples for all of the strategies she presents. It is helpful to see these outlined.
- From “WriteSteps – A Common Core Writing Program,” Suzanne Klein offers “3 Secrets to Great Conferences with Young Writers.” This short article provides common problems and tips to address them.
- From NCTE, this lesson plan idea for “Involving Students and Families in Ongoing Reflection and Assessment” offers tips for families, a weekly progress form, and a hand out for the “Student-Family-Teacher Conference.” It provides ideas and structures that support a partnership with families over student writing. Families have the opportunity to respond to student self-assessments that then become the basis for discussion during later conferences.
- Making Students into Better Writers – This five minute video clip from The Teaching Channel shows how a teacher successfully navigates a writing conference with a fifth grade student. By providing positive, limited, and descriptive feedback, the teacher inspires her student to figure out how to improve her own writing.
- This ten-minute video of “Precision Teaching in the Primary Classroom,” shares a student-teacher writing conference where the learning goals of the conference are highlighted throughout. It is helpful to see strategies such as “self-assessment, review prior learning, explicit feedback, and setting a learning goal” appear on the screen as the teacher models the practices.
- Communicate Learning With Silent Signals – This two-minute video from The Teaching Channel shows a teacher and her students demonstrating how various “silent signals” are used in the classroom. The signals provide data points that are especially helpful in checking for understanding.
- Tracking Tools: Assess & Celebrate Learning – This two-minute video from The Teaching Channel shows how a teacher uses a simple thumbs up/thumbs down signal as a way of getting feedback from students about their levels of understanding and confusion.
- This website provides a print out of an editing checklist for self and peer evaluation. It also provides support for using the checklist and ideas to further support responding to student writing, such as a “fishbowl” exercise.
- The Reading Writing Project – This valuable website provides support for teaching reading and writing and has information on everything from teacher institutes, workshops, resources for the classroom, and videos for supporting instruction. It also has a developing section of resources that includes student work to be used to support classroom instruction.