Saturday, April 12, 2014

From Numbers to Meaningful Feedback

In the world of education there seems to always be a new crop of buzz words creeping into our professional conversations. One thing that I've observed is that we all may use the same words, but often we are speaking a different language. Just like my students and I discuss how we each build different perspectives/connections based on our schema (background experiences), the same is true of us as educators. We may change our vocabulary without altering our practice.

I recently completed a graduate program in Teacher Leadership. One of the best aspects of this program was my experience of viewing things from the perspective of a student again. As I traversed this world of academia, I discovered that although many of my professors used the word feedback, they had little understanding of its true meaning.  I would diligently complete my projects or papers, asking questions along the way for clarification of the expectations, submit the assignment, and then receive a score.  The most frustrating part of this process was not the heavy workload or the irrelevant projects that sucked away my time, but the utter lack of feedback. I would receive a number score with a comment along the lines of "good job." I was flummoxed. I couldn't help but ask: Good job with what? How do I grow? How do I improve? Could my writing improve? Was there a way to deepen my content knowledge? Did I make some grammatical or mechanics errors that I could or should avoid in the future?

As I wondered about the disconnect in what a professor said and what he/she did, I began turning that question on my own practice with my learners. Was I saying one thing and doing something completely different? The number score and "good job"type of comments had long been left behind as I began conferring with my students and letting them set their own academic and personal goals. I realized that often my students would come back to me and inquire about their feedback in these sessions. They needed something tangible upon which to return to remind them of specifically how they needed to grow or where they were headed as a learner. That's when I began leaving private comments on their blogs and their Google Drive work. If I ever failed to leave feedback, my students would come back and ask for it; this showed me that they valued having my input to guide their choices and help them to grow as learners. One student actually told me this year that she was so glad that I didn't just give them a number. In her words, "Numbers don't really mean anything."

How many times are we guilty of slapping a number or a checkmark on the top of a paper or project? What signal is that sending our learners? What does the focus become? It's telling our students that the grade on a assignment is just a hoop they have to jump through to progress to the next assignment. It completely eliminates a focus on their learning. Learning is fluid and ongoing. Although students may master a standard, there is always room for growth. Yes, I teach sixth graders ELA, but I have several students who are working on mastering seventh and eighth grade standards. Isn't that what we want for our students? To continue their learning journey, wherever it may take them throughout a lifetime? There is no end game when it comes to learning.

As I was contemplating all these thoughts, it occurred to me that I needed to know what my students truly thought about our classroom. They understood and craved meaningful feedback; it's an integral part of our learning environment. So, I asked my students to provide me with meaningful feedback on our class. I completely trusted them because they understand the power of feedback. It needs to be honest, specific, and provide prompting for future growth. Here is some of the feedback I received:
"One thing I especially like is this: Blogging. I like writing creatively online more than turning in a sheet of paper. It has helped my writing grow because I can get immediate responses and corrections." ~AB
"Another thing that I liked is the pretest. The purpose of our pretest is to show our teacher (aka Miss Ramsay) what we already know. If you were to make a lower grade then you would be in small group,but say you aced the pretest you could still ask to be in small group. That way you can always make sure you really know the material well and can use it in your writing." ~Richard 
"This is random but it would be fun if we had a part of the website or blog where we build up a book list for anyone who doesn’t have anything to read. Each student could add one book each week including the title, author, theme, and a short summary that shows the main point of the book. " ~Annabeth
"Genius Hour could possibly be one of my favorite things though. I loved the freedom in it and that I am getting to do a topic I am interested in and teaching it through art. I have the whole picture planned out in my head and I am really excited to put it on the paper. " ~Belle
"The thing that I really liked about this class is small group.If you were having trouble with the subject you were learning and the test was in two days but you couldn't catch on when the teacher was teaching to the whole class, then you could ask for some help and sometimes you can even get a one on one lesson with the teacher, which can really help a lot." ~Peter
Do my students understand meaningful feedback? Absolutely. As a teacher, if you want to know how to improve, ask your students. They have the answers. From their feedback do I have areas to change, ways to grow? Absolutely. I also get to see their perspective of my practice. I realize that it matters not how well intentioned my choices are if they do not support my specific students' learning. In all of their feedback, do you know what was missing? That's right, a number. And although my students did give some "good job" kind of comments, they always backed up their answers with meaningful examples and ways I could help support their learning. One thing's for certain, my sixth graders could sure teach those professors a thing or two about feedback...and I love it!

P.S. I received permission from students to share their feedback. All student names have been changed.

photo credit: Vince Alongi via photopin cc

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Writing to the World

Several months ago, the editors of Educational Leadership asked me to submit a piece on collaborative writing for their April edition. After months of writing, re-writing, and waiting, it's finally here, Writing to the World. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to give an audience a peek into our classroom to see the amazing things that are possible when you empower students with the ability to drive their own learning and share their voices with the world.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lead with the Learning

In the last month, I have met with legislators and policy makers in both D.C. and Montgomery, Alabama. I have spent much time in reflection on what we as educators can do to make a difference for our students (See Can One Person Make a Difference?) In all the (mostly) ups and (rather few) downs, I have emerged with one thought that was shared by State Superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice: Always lead with the learning. He shared this in the context of speaking with non-educators, policy makers, and legislators, but I believe that this phrase has much greater ramifications on the mission and vision of an educator.

As educators, all decisions that we make must always be focused on positively impacting student learning whether we are discussing instructional practice, professional development, or logistical planning within a school or district. Everything needs to be focused on student learning.

It is human nature to become creatures of habit. We find a lesson, strategy, or management technique that works and we tend to stick with it for years even when it proves unproductive. Many times we want to make a square peg into an ever-shrinking round whole. What we really need to do is pause and evaluate if that practice is not only effective, but also supports students in their academic and personal goals. Are we leading with the learning?

My intern (who has been doing a fantastic job) often asked me how to adjust her management techniques to support certain students. I asked her to explain her rationale behind the choices she had been making. Once she reflected on it, she realized that she was simply imitating something she had observed rather than thinking about how her choices would impact student learning. I recommended she speak with the students to see what they suggested. What she discovered was that students knew what would help hold them accountable for making good choices and getting the most learning out of each of the opportunities that she provided. She began leading with the learning.

In our PLG meetings, are we making choices about our practice based on what's easiest for us or best for student learning? Taking the time to plan hands-on, cross-curricular activities or experiential learning experiences off campus or supporting student-created and driven learning activities all take time, planning, and resources. But, are we making decisions based on the learning or some less important factors. We must always lead with the learning at the forefront of all decision making processes.

In my aforementioned post, I wondered if I was accurately teaching my students that one voice can make a difference. To the best of my abilities, I try to lead by example. Following Dr. Bice's advice, I try to always lead with the learning when speaking with our policy makers and legislators. This week, I was fortunate to see a how leading with the learning intrigued legislators we spoke with last year. Several of these legislators had spent time seeking out the National Board Certified Teachers in their districts. They spoke with these teachers and visited their classrooms. They were able to see how accomplished teachers lead with the learning and the positive impact it truly has on each individual student's learning. These legislators have embraced the powerful learning that is possible and they have been actively seeking new ways to support it within their districts.

Lead with the learning is a mantra that educators can embrace in all aspects of their professions; one that can greatly impact not only the students directly in one's classroom, but have far reaching ramifications. So next time we each have a choice to make, whether big or small, let's take a moment to ask ourselves, are we leading with learning? If not, maybe it's time to stop forcing that square peg to fit that round hole and step out of our comfort zones and try something new.

photo credit: paul bica via photopin cc