I have been on a quest to provide meaningful feedback and grading practics. In 2020 I was part of an Teacher Action research project with Diane Cunningham. After reading Sarah M. Zerwin’s Pointless: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading (Heinemann, 2020) I was on a quest to create more meaningful grading and feedback practices with my students and move away from numerical and letter grades. As an English teacher, my goals are to help grow students as critical and close readers and creative communicators. This year as I participated in the What Schools Could Be learning experience I aimed to hone that feedback loop with students to provide more reflection and understanding in a way that numbers and letters cannot provide. In lieu of grades, clear and meaningful learning goals are established, feedback in multiple forms is utilized, and students are held accountable to their learning and growth. Many of the teaching tools (writing conferences, rubrics, checklists, reflections, and PowerSchool) teachers already utilize daily I repurposed to better enhance student feedback for their growth and deep learning.
Reflection was a key component to learning in English 8. After all assignments, students completed a reflection. In the first quarter students wrote a letter of their learning and growth the first ten weeks of school.
The student responses from the first ten weeks of school were insightful. Each student took a metaphor to help tell their stories and show their growth and insight to help reflect on their role as a reader and writer. Students were provided with a model for building the metaphor based on the student sample on the second page of the assignment.
Here are some student responses:
Amelia’s growth over the past semester has been tremendous. At first she started out as a little caterpillar who was unorganized and didn’t take care of the important things she needed to do. Amelia has now grown into a butterfly, she can flap her wings and is on top of her work. Everyone has something they can transform into to make a better version of themselves. That is exactly what Amelia did.
I have a love-hate relationship with reading, which led me to procrastination and lazy reading towards the beginning of the quarter. Once I learned how to take notes and make inferences, reading became more interesting and easy to do. I have found a strength in summarizing text, this enables me to be able to break down what I am reading and jot notes every 5-10 minutes. This keeps me always thinking while I am reading as well as focusing on the theme and central idea. A few growth moves that I can make are reading more consistently, having superb focus while reading, and taking close, more specific notes often to help me understand the author’s message.
Cate has always felt that she is a rather strong writer; however, she occasionally fails to properly elaborate her topic sentences and analyze her quotes with relevant details. At first, she would get frustrated by the feedback she was given and refused to tweak her sentences for clarity. She would protest to herself, “Why do I have to fix this part? I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. I think that sentence is perfect!” Now, Cate is open to constructive criticism and eager to fix her mistakes. Whenever her writing is returned to her with corrections and suggestions, she immediately makes sure she can understand where she had flaws in her work so that she can improve. “Growth mindset”, an idea developed by Carol Dweck at Stanford University, is “the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort.” During the first quarter of eighth grade, Cate has acknowledged that she won’t excel as a writer without accepting her mistakes and learning how to grow from them. Additionally, Angela Lee Duckworth states, “They’re [students] much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.” With this mindset in place, Cate is no longer angered by her flaws as a writer because she knows that the best way for her to learn is from her mistakes.
Frankie feels that she has made a drastic change throughout the first quarter. All she wanted to do was win the game, she would take messy shots and never followed through with her shots. Occasionally she would get lucky and score. Now, she thinks about the small details to improve her game. She realized that basketball isn’t only about winning, but it is about her performance as a whole.
Taking the time to reflection on one’s learning process helps us decide where to go moving forward. In the next two quarters reflection was part of our writing process. During the following writing unit students were to meet with their teacher at least once during the writing workshops to discuss their stories. Students had to come to the conferences with specific questions and then both the teacher and the student recorded notes on the conference to return to later on. These notes from the teacher were recorded as a running record on Powerschool in the comments section.
Before the end of the last quarter students completed a reflection on Google Forms. This was more than a single question survey but consisted of rating scales, checkboxes, short responses, and paragraph responses. Again, students were asked to reflect on how they have grown as readers and writers. Students were asked to rate the quality of their work and even give themselves a number grade with evidence to support the number provided.
You can view the questions and complete Google form here.
Students again shared insightful responses.
I have grown as a reader through this quarter by starting to take more notes on my reading and extending my understanding of developing theme. Before this quarter, I didn’t really pay that much attention to sensory details and I wasn’t giving it my all to learn at my maximum level. As of recently, I have started to practice better reading habits such as making mental notes of plot and theme developments. Another way I have developed as a reader and a student is by creating stronger text evidence to prove my points. This all shows how my reading and writing has advanced over the quarter.
I feel I have grown as a writer in the third quarter because I learned to use more detailed language to vividly show the reader the picture I am trying to portray. Through listening to the Lethal Lit podcast, and reading mentor texts in class, I realized how important small details are to make the piece interesting and inviting to the reader. My setting piece in particular was very beneficial because I was able to stretch out one scene to make it very detailed and vivid. The setting piece made me realize the importance of using specific adjectives or phrases to convey the proper mood forward to the reader. Additionally, I feel I have gotten better at re-reading and editing my work. I am more open to many different people reading it, and taking in all of their constructive criticism and/or ideas to make my writing as strong as possible so it can please different audiences. Overall, quarter three has made my writing grow tremendously because I began to use strong details to clearly convey my ideas.
Over this quarter, I felt that I have grown as a reader by being able to interpret the reading material better, and therefore make better inferences about it. I felt like going into this quarter, while I was able to understand the text I read, I wasn’t fully able to dive deep into what was hidden in between the lines. When we read Animal Farm, I felt like it expanded my ability to understand the theme of a story. Because Animal Farm was allegory, the novel was mainly about finding the bigger picture, rather than just the surface plot, and so reading it pushed me to be able to better identify the themes the author may have hidden in the text. When we read our books in separate groups, our group read Unwind, and rather than just skimming through the basic ideas of the book, I was able to analyze it through note-taking. By using the bookmarks, I was able to comprehend the text better, and I found that after I finished reading and taking notes, there were so many important details I might not have noticed without taking notes. Overall, I think I was able to become a better reader by understanding what I read, and recognizing themes in my reading.
In terms of my reading, writing, speaking, listening, and collaboration skills, the obstacle I faced in the 3rd quarter was really ensuring that everything I wrote/said made sense to someone else. Rather it was giving someone good constructive criticism, taking notes on Lethal Lit, writing my own mystery piece, etc., I had to make sure that I was clear and concise. When I read novels by successful authors, I can understand what it takes to make a story make sense to others, but at some points when I tried to do this myself, it was slightly difficult. I typically write out everything I want to say on my paper first and then go back to editing. It was a challenge for me to be aware of how much more the writer understands the plot and details than the reader who has never read the story does. I was glad to meet this conflict because I very easily overcame it through revision work. I learned this quarter that editing my notes and writing is crucial so that other people understand what I mean no matter how much effort, time, and trials it takes.
What I have described above is the feedback that students provided me, their teacher, about their learning growth and challenges. At the same time I was giving students ongoing feedback. Immediate feedback was provided on writing assignments in terms of written feedback and verbal feedback using Mote, a Chrome extension on Google Classroom. During writing conferences I also provided immediate feedback that was specific to the students writing needs and always provided models, mentor texts, checklists, and rubrics for feedback and assessment.
Consistent, ongoing and detailed feedback can have a positive effect on student success in the classroom. Research shows that feedback also helps to increase student self-confidence and self-esteem. I do see students feel more confident and comfortable to take risks with their writing through feedback. What I have found is that not only does feedback need to be immediate and specific, but it should also be task related and describe specifically what the student did well on the task as well as what they could improve. I always begin the constructive feedback with “Consider . . . “ or I might provide an example from a mentor or student mentor text. There is also process feedback which I might tell students, “It has helped me to read aloud my writing before submission” or “Darcy has coded all her clues and red herrings on the Google Doc. It might help to go through your own mystery story and highlight all your clues and red herrings to see if you need to any additional ones.”
Lastly, there is personal feedback where I share with the students something positive about their effort or growth.
Are my students obsessed with specific numbers and letter grades, YES! I don’t think we will ever be able to get rid of them. But when we put feedback at the forefront, there is a lot more specific data to help students grow as readers, writers, and thinkers. Students are more reflective of their actions and learning in the classroom and we have more accurate evidence of their growth that a letter and number cannot provide.