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Constructive Feedback

Educators are trained to provide rigorous, engaging instruction, fair and accurate grades and assessments, and helpful criticism or feedback. As an English teacher, written feedback is a crucial aspect of the editing, revising and grading process. For students, the best way to ensure that our feedback is not going straight into the garbage is to make it as helpful as possible. While everyone has his or her own style of providing written feedback, below are a few solid Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to teacher feedback.

  • Try to balance the salty with the sweet—especially with younger or struggling writers. The writing process is complex, intimidating, and laborious for many young learners. When students are just starting out, a little encouragement can go a long way. This is not to suggest that feedback must only contain vapid or disingenuous fluff—not at all. The critical aspect of teacher feedback is what the students truly need. However, if we want them to invest in the time of reading, reflecting, and revising with the feedback we provide, we must be sure to draw them in as opposed to turning them off with only negative feedback. I not-so-fondly remember my own experiences where, even as an elementary student, my writing was more or less ripped to shreds by only harsh criticism. Yes, critical feedback is important, but we must also be sure to shed light on what the writer did correctly, as to provide a glimmer of enthusiasm, optimism, or positive reinforcement.

  • Focus your feedback on a few major takeaways from earlier instruction. For instance, if a main objective of the unit is that students will be able to support a claim with textual evidence and interpretive reasoning, then focus your feedback and critique around how successfully they attempted that objective. If introductions and conclusions were the focus, be sure to provide most of the feedback in that area of the paper. This not only makes your life easier by helping to focus the written feedback, but it also allows for students to hone in on a few significant writing skills at a time. The feedback will seem less tedious on your end, and less harsh from a student’s perspective.

  • Keep comments clear, but concise, by using highlighter functions or editing symbols in Google Classroom. One benefit to the abundance of technology that we educators have at our disposal is the fact that written (or typed) feedback can save teachers time, while providing students with comments and suggestions in real time. With the various digital platforms for students to submit writing assignments, students no longer have to wait for the return of tangible essays with handwritten feedback. Now students can simply login from home or school to view a teacher’s comments, critiques, and suggestions.

  • Use the editing or highlighting function in Google Classroom to note areas in a paper where students need spelling, punctuation, or grammatical revision. For students that need reminders, I may insert the first few missing commas. For others, however, I may simply highlight the areas in their paper where they are missing punctuation. This way, students will know where to include a mark, but must assess their own writing to identify exactly which punctuation mark fits properly in a given highlighted area.

  • Talk through the feedback to both put students at ease and answer follow-up questions that they may have. Like many things, sometimes our feedback can get lost in translation. If this is the case, consider setting aside a segment of class time where students can conference one-on-one with you about their specific feedback and suggestions. This allows students the opportunity to fully grasp the feedback to ensure that their plans to revise will in fact improve upon their first draft.

Group Work: How to Make it Work


Cooperative learning, collaborative strategies, group rotations—whatever we decide to call it, the research behind group work in the classroom makes a strong case for embracing collaborative learning. As beneficial as it is, however, group work can easily go awry if the planning and structures are not in place. Here are some suggestions for well-managed group work in the classroom.

  1. Consistency is key when introducing group structures and routines. Rotations, stations, and group collaboration involve much more than having students circulate through different activities together. Before you can even begin the actual group work, students need to be explicitly instructed on how they will form and work in their groups. Devote some time to having students practice moving into their groups in a quick and organized manner. Encourage students to have only necessary materials out during group work. Practice timed cleanup so that groups familiarize themselves with the amount of time needed to wrap up a work session.
  2. Teacher-derived groups should be deliberate on multiple levels. Be sure that groups contain personalities that will jive and complement one another. Also be careful to level the groups so that there are higher-ability and lower-ability group members in each group. When possible, groups should be gender-balanced and small enough that every person will play a vital role in the process and product. For the typical classroom, groups should be kept to 4 students or smaller to allow for accountability.
  3. Begin implementing group work by stressing the importance of the process, not necessarily the product. Of course the end result is important; however, cooperative dialogue, perspective-taking, and synergy are the foundations for a successful group—perfecting the product will come later. You want the groups to work like a well-oiled machine in the sense that each person knows that her individual input is necessary to achieve the end goal.
  4. Have open dialogue about that end goal. Part of the nuisance of group work is the fact that every group member has a different work ethic, mindset, motivation, and concept of the result. We have all experienced the headache and stress of completing “group work” individually because a partner or group mates were banking on someone else completing the job. To avoid this common pitfall, encourage groups to discuss what each individual’s end goal is and work on compromising from there. If one person’s goal is to complete the task in as little time as possible, assign that person one of the initial planning, prewriting, or beginning tasks for the project. If another person expresses a deep desire to perfect the group’s project, put that person in charge of checking the final product against the rubric and making edits or adjustments as needed. If one person simply aims to turn something in for credit, put him or her in charge of organizing materials, brainstorming ideas, keeping the group’s notes, etc.—the key is to play to each person’s strengths and desires so that everyone’s intrinsic motivation leads the group to the same end goal.

From a Teacher to a Teacher: Kindness in the Classroom

Dear fellow educator,

I think it goes without saying that these are crucial times for our young people, not only with regard to education, but also in forming the next generation’s principles. All politics aside, our students are coming of age in a time where kindness, empathy, and integrity have been shoved aside in favor of judgment, rivalry, and naiveté. As we move into a new school year, fervent introspection has me focusing on one question: how can we craft and nurture ‘goodness’ in our schools?  

Perhaps one of the biggest perceived roadblocks in our quest to add kindness to the curricula is the fact that we are here to educate, not parent our students. No matter what age, our students come to us with a belief system and moral gauge that far exceeds our reaches. With so many uncontrollable variables at play in our classrooms, how could we possibly begin to stomp out hate that may have been engrained in a child since day one? Is it even acceptable, as mere educators, for us to take on that role or responsibility? These perplexing questions may forever go unanswered.

Instead of looking at changing the child’s cognizance, I’ll begin to nurture kindness by looking at my personal practices in the classroom—let’s consider it a ripple effect of sorts.   

  • Use seating charts to recognize the “lonely students.” This is a concept used by a veteran teacher from Texas throughout her entire career. On Fridays I’ll ask students to write down the names of two people that they would like to sit with next week. I will make clear that these requests are not guaranteed to be granted.  Students will occasionally get their wishes. However, the key here is that I am not concerned with the seating chart in the least—who sits beside whom is of no concern to me. I am looking instead for the names that are not written down—which child is never sought out as a seating partner? Are these missing names indicative of a bullying problem? Do I recognize signs of grief or depression in any of the students that are not requested as seating partners? By analyzing the seating requests, I am better able to reach out to the children that may feel lonely or withdrawn and potentially change the course of their unhappiness.
  • Praise acts of kindness just as much, if not more, than test scores, grades, or GPAs. Academia is designed to breed competition through class rankings, SAT scores, honor roll lists, etc. Several schools in Montgomery County celebrate their seniors’ achievements by posting each student’s college admittance for the coming year in the local newspaper—a great opportunity for young scholars to shine. However, with such recognition comes an inevitable ranking or hierarchy among graduates. Seeing my name and future university in print, followed by so-and-so attending Harvard, would undoubtedly sour my sense of accomplishment. Yes—that’s the real world—someone is always going to be smarter, more successful, better… Consider this: Focusing on achievements in kindness would not take away from anyone’s academic achievements. This praise and acknowledgment would simply be an additional measure of character—one that is just as important (and sometimes as lucrative) as academic success. If a student is struggling academically, try showing appreciation for that student’s kindness. Highlight students that have shown acts of kindness to others—use this as an opportunity to place value on the concept of being a good person.
  • Model empathy at any opportunity. Seeing as I teach middle school, empathy is something that many of my students are still grasping. During the adolescent years, the brain is primed to self-serve. This sometimes creates an inability to see things from another’s perspective. It’s not that they don’t want to—it’s that the adolescent brain is still maturing. Demonstrate how empathy works by expressing your own instances of relating on an emotional level. Try starting the conversation with, “You know that we all make mistakes…” or, “I’m upset that you’re getting down on yourself for one low grade…” or, “I see that you’ve really tried to improve and I admire your effort.”

 

Autism Awareness Month: Advice for the Classroom

April is Autism Awareness Month. One of the more mysterious developmental disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder presents itself in many different ways from child to child. In an effort to raise awareness about the many learning styles of students with autism and effectively support them, it is important that educators receive valuable, current information and strategies to help empower students in the classroom. With diagnostic data indicating a rising rate of more than 1 in 70 births, it is likely that this information is vital for parents and educators.

No two students with autism are alike. This disability is unique in the sense that it manifests differently from person to person. The age of onset varies, as well, with most children exhibiting symptoms by age three. However, there are some consistent findings: boys are almost four times more likely to have autism, and language regression and sensory sensitivity are often the first reported signs or symptoms.

Because early intervention is paramount for treating and managing an autism diagnosis, students in your classroom that are affected by autism are likely to have certain routines or practices already in place. The key then becomes streamlining the successful practices and strategies from home into the classroom environment. Be proactive when asking parents about successful strategies that they implement at home. Be sure to make contact with families early in the school year to ensure that the classroom transition is smooth. As much as possible, reinforce the successful practices from home in your classroom. The more consistency that your students experience, the better. Parents are a teacher’s greatest assets when finding ways to best serve your students.

Plan to maintain consistent and positive communication with parents of your students with special needs. Parents of a child with autism may be hesitant or anxious about their child’s acclimation to a new classroom environment. This is 100 percent understandable, as some past experiences may have been unfortunate or stressful for the child. Put parents at ease by maintaining a communicative relationship—one based on positivity and growth. Of course, weekly reports may vary in positivity, but remember to lead with the pros. What did the student do well this week? What growth have you seen of late? What social milestones did you witness in class or at recess? And so on.

Since students with autism frequently experience a sensitivity to sensory stimuli, teachers should be sure to maintain a calm and consistent environment. This is much easier said than done, however. A classroom of 35 boisterous children does not necessarily lend itself to calm and consistent. In an effort to best accommodate your students with special needs, consider keeping a cozy corner or quiet spot in the classroom. Use cushions, pillows, and bookcases to create a somewhat private “cool down” area if a student is experiencing stress from the classroom. Bright lights or darkness, loud noises, commotion, or unexpected changes in the routine, like a fire drill, can totally throw students with sensory sensitivity for a loop. Students on the spectrum are most comfortable when routines are maintained and expectations are met. So consider giving your student a heads-up if the daily norm is going to be disrupted. Knowing what is to come is immensely helpful for students that rely on continuity.

Be careful about praise, criticism, and sarcasm. Generally speaking, sarcasm should be avoided in the elementary classroom because of the students’ inability to read those cues. However, with students on the spectrum, sarcasm and dry humor can be even more confusing or misleading. Similarly, comments of support, praise, or reassurance may actually come across quite differently, depending on a student’s social perceptions. Be careful when recognizing a student’s achievements. Some may loathe the limelight and attention. If you know that your student is particularly shy, consider writing him a congratulatory letter, or recognizing his accomplishment in a small group of his friends.

Tips to Improve Reading in the Classroom

Not surprisingly, reading is one of those activities that students either love or loathe. As much as it can be difficult to get a bookworm to put the book down for a second, it can be equally challenging to get a reluctant reader to pick one up. So how can we improve reading skills for both our avid and unenthusiastic readers? The strategies and methods are just as different as the students themselves.

For Reluctant Readers:

Allow reluctant or struggling readers to use digital aids to improve comprehension and ease the stress correlated with fluency and decoding. Listening to audiobooks is a proven method to encourage and boost struggling readers. Explain to students that they must follow along while listening to the text. Many audio tools also allow students to highlight, mark, or pause the reading in order to define difficult terms or make notes along the way. This process allows students to actively engage with the text without relying solely on their own reading skills. While some argue that listening to books on tape is not actively reading, educators know this to be false. These digital tools, such as the audiobook, are simply scaffolds to allow for different avenues of comprehension. Yes, students are following along, but the audio also acts as an added support for comprehension, which can be very encouraging for struggling readers.

Make sure that the Lexile level matches the ability of your reluctant readers. Many students find reading to be discouraging, especially if the level of the text far exceeds their ability to comprehend. Numerous educational applications are available now to help teachers sift through texts and find appropriate levels for all readers. Some apps even provide variations of the same story or article for on, above, or below-grade level readers. This allows all students to read and comprehend the same text, so participation is not an issue.

Appeal to individual interests by providing student choice. As much as possible, students should be provided with texts that engage them and relate to them personally. Yes, the end goal would be for students to embrace reading as a means of exploring new things. However, for reluctant readers, it is all about the incentive to buy in. Charming their interests is a great way to bring enjoyment to an activity that they don’t necessarily love.

For Avid Readers:

Encourage students to explore texts that challenge their current level of comprehension. Voracious readers embrace the opportunity to increase their own vocabulary by encountering more challenging texts. Not only do unfamiliar terms pique their interests, but the complexity of sentence structures or plotlines also helps to stimulate learning and engagement for strong readers.

Allow strong readers to take creative liberties with their writing assignments. Since writing and reading abilities are reciprocal, a strong reader will likely flourish in writing, as well. Provide enrichment by having strong readers extend a novel, poem, or short story. The idea here is that fanfiction not only boosts writing skills, but also encourages advanced reading skills such as close reading, mimicking voice and tone, making interpretive predictions, etc.

Provide time for reading and exploring new texts in class. Obviously, avid readers are happy any time they are able to indulge in their favorite hobby during class. But, more than just silent reading for the sake of it, small bits of class time devoted to reading for pleasure is a great way to foster literature circles or book talks. Socializing over a beloved novel is a way for advanced readers to dig deeper into inquiry-based methods and learn to analyze texts on a more progressive level.