Sunday, September 16, 2012

Specific Feedback

As I look at the date, I am astonished that so much time has passed since reflecting on my classroom in writing.  Perhaps there could be the question of whether I do reflect on my classroom practices, and the answer would be a resounding "Yes."  Unfortunately, it is the writing (not the reflection) that has been under the knife and nearly cut from the slim budget of time that the school year has provided me.  In the time since school started this year, there have been a number of ideas and projects that deserve attention in this space--NWP/Gates foundation/LDC professional development work, literacy theory in my graduate class, new course designs, and new course assignments. There is one concept, though, that I want to focus on today: specific feedback.

My students are finalizing their literacy story drafts.  This assignment has been challenging in oh so many ways.  Instead of narratives about their favorite waterpark or the death of a beloved pet or even memoirs about their aunts and uncles serving overseas, they are writing about their journey with literacy.  Essentially, if they did write about a favorite book or hobby, they needed to include how that book or hobby has shaped their reading and writing.  Sigh.  Perhaps a simple letter telling me what they like and dislike about reading and writing would have been easier...much easier.  But we are trekking up this mountain, and we will plant a flag somewhere at the top.

As with other writing assignments I have mentioned, I included mini-lessons on transitions and on creating leads.  Writing leads can be interesting because, as I tell my students, often the best introductory paragraph is the one you just wrote as the conclusion; so we have most of the draft completed before I venture into a mini lesson on leads.  I found a variety of books on my bookshelf to help me show the students what different leads might look like:
Dialogue--Charlotte's Web
Flashback--The Young Man and the Sea
Action--Any Matt Christopher sports book
Snapshot--Leviathon; Dust City
After reading a paragraph or two of the book, I asked my students to focus on their literacy story idea and try writing their own leads.  A timer seems to add urgency to the task.  Many students were surprised when, after the four or five attempts, they had filled a page or two or three in their composition notebooks.  It was really amazing when one student found that he had a pretty incredible introductory paragraph after he combined two of his leads together.

It wasn't difficult up to this point to give casual, verbal feedback when students were asking questions about their topics, transitions, or leads.  When it was time for some initial written feedback, however, I knew that time would be a crippling factor.  The media center specialist had arranged for my classes to listen to book talks on the books nominated for the Bluegrass book awards, releasing me from my teaching duties; so that was going to be my time frame for responding to their stories.  After attendance, gathering notebooks, settling in a corner of the library, and preparing post its, only about 50 minutes (or less) would remain in the class period to respond to between 21-28 notebooks depending on the class period.  When I explained this to my students the day before we went to the library, they understood the issue of time and how difficult reading a whole rough draft would be.  Many students also had sentence practices and notes interspersed with their drafts and had already made a number of revisions.  It might be difficult to just find all the pieces much less read and respond.

We then talked about the type of feedback they were looking for.  A question such as "Is this good?" would be extremely difficult to answer for a number of reasons: again, the draft is in a very messy stage and may not be easily found or understood; and time constraints would limit the opportunity to discuss the variances of "good."  On the other hand, if a student asked me, "Does my lead draw you into my story?" or "Do I have enough details about my literacy in this paragraph?" I could probably respond fairly quickly.  Students drew a box around a troubling piece of their writing, a section with which they wanted or needed the most help.  Then, on the post it note I gave them, they wrote a specific question they wanted me to answer.  With the post it acting as a tab, I could quickly flip to the correct page.  Before moving on to another notebook, I moved the post it so that my feedback could fit alongside it for a snapshot, which I then uploaded to Evernote into the student's note that I had created at the beginning of the year.  With the new writing program reviews and the fact that my sticky notes are not very sticky, I felt that documentation would be helpful for all of us.

I did not have time to respond to every notebook in that short time period, but I came very close--even with adding the picture-taking time.  The remainder were completed during planning time, and I was able to quickly assess who had not turned in a notebook or had not written a question on a post it.  The students also learned the skill of being specific when asking for feedback.  And post it notes are fun.  In fact, next time I'll discuss another activity in which I used sticky notes for gathering evidence.  Unfortunately, these activities have depleted my supply of sticky notes.  I'm not sure there is one left to use as a reminder note to buy more.  That's just another day in the life at the SPMS Literacy Workshop.

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