Tag Archives: teaching strategies

Effective Feedback for Student Growth


Last week I wrote about Sarah M. Zerwin’s book Pointless: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading (Heinemann, 2020) and how she maps out her assessment practices omitting grades and numbers from her classes. Her book is filled with tools and examples how she manages feedback to support student learning. Her online gradebook hacks help to effectively evaluate her students so they can grow as readers and writers.

Similarly, I just finished reading Matthew Johnson’s Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out(Corwin Literacy, 2020) and I am drawn to compare the two books that address teacher efficiency of feedback for student success.

“Feedback is about showing students how to rise to the next level by illuminating pathos forward.” – Matthew Johnson

Both Zerwin and Johnson utilize conferences, self reflections, checklists and rubrics to help create a culture of feedback that propels students as readers and writers. These teacher-authors focus on feedback that is positive, specific, and comes from multiple sources – teacher, classmates, and student. Johnson states that when reading and evaluating student writing, teachers are not editors and should not focus on every little error or mistake the student writer makes. Additionally, not everything that students write needs feedback.

Here are the key tenets from both authors about feedback:

  1. Feedback should help the student; the goal is not to improve the work but the writer (Zerwin). Remember we are “teaching the writer not their writing” (Johnson).
  2. Feedback is a conversation (Zerwin) and not a one way street.
  3. Feedback should cause thinking (Zerwin) and help students grow as writers.
  4. Feedback should tie to a student’s learning goals (Zerwin & Johnson)
  5. We don’t want to scare students or confuse students with so much feedback so less is more. Be a teacher, not an editor. Johnson suggests offer feedback on two features per writing assessment.
  6. “Feedback should provide a path forward, not an autopsy” (Johnson). I love this quote because it implies empathy when teaching and evaluating writing. Teachers need to focus on feedback that is positive and personable. When students see too many comments and negative comments, they shut down. This is not what we want to do, rather see our students flourish as writers.

To provide helpful feedback, Zerwin and Johnson utilize the following tools and practices:

Have students Color Code Drafts by highlighting statements, claims, data, and analysis. This quick exercise helps for the teacher to see at a glance useful information and for students to follow up with where they need to revise their work.

Use checklists or rubrics as a tool for guides and feedback. Then, have students score their own work based on the rubrics. Both Johnson and Zerwin are proponents of students creating their own rubrics. Check out Johnson’s rubrics at resources.corwin.com/flashfeedback

Peer Feedback when taught, nurtured, and modeled can be helpful for students. Zerwin describes “speed dating feedback” for students to take 30 seconds to explain something they are working on or thinking about and then 30 seconds for the other student to respond. Additionally she describes “peer feedback circles” which provides longer time for classmates to read, respond, and then pass the paper to the next reader with a particular focus.

Additional feedback strategies include mini-lessons, mentor texts, and examples of student writing. Both authors utilize Google Forms for reflection. Johnson has students complete a self reflection when turning in a writing assignment. Letter writing how students are doing, how they are doing with writing and reading are also helpful tools. Johnson and Zerwin speak extensively about conferences and using conferences to provide comprehensive feedback that is focused on actions for the students.

Writing is scary and difficult for many of our students and when teachers provide comments and respond to writing with empathy we are helping students succeed. This might include giving a tip or offering a path forward in addition to a criticism. Both these books shed light on grades, assessment, and feedback to support deep learning and focus on what we value most: growing readers and writers.

Tagged , , , , ,

5 Activities for Close Reading, Collaboration, and Discussion

David McCullough, author of John Adams and 1776, said during an interview on NPR, “To teach history, use pictures to fuel students’ curiosity.”

We want students to get into a text (whether a primary source or historical fiction) and get a sense what people experienced during other time periods.  Then, students fill in the text with what isn’t being said by sketching, improvs, writing. 

Creative activities help students walk in a particular time period and ignite student interest in the past. Teachers can bring new life to a unit of study by integrating the tools of creative drama and theatre – tools like pantomime, movement, improvisation, scripted drama, oral interpretation, debating, public speaking, readers theatre, storytelling, and the many other ways we use our body or voice to creatively communicate ideas to others. 

Content is what we teach, but there is also the how, and this is where literacy instruction comes in. There are an endless number of engaging, effective strategies to get students to think about, write about, read about, and talk about the content you teach. The ultimate goal is to build a student’s comprehension, writing skills, and overall skills in communication.

Here are five activities to do with your students to promote deeper comprehension, communication, and close reading.

It Says, I Say, So What? – This  reading strategy from Harvey Daniels helps students by guiding them through the process of drawing inferences from the written text. Also, it provides an opportunity to synthesize the information with prior knowledge. I have adapted this many times to include images for students to read closely and articulate what they see and then what does it make you think.

Image Detectives

Reading Detective

10 Questions – Another reading strategy that I employ with my students was adopted by Kelly Gallagher, author of several books. Students read a chunk of text, the first chapter of a novel, or a passage from a nonfiction text and then brainstorm ten questions they have after reading the text. These questions become a frame for further reading and discussion about the text.


Speed Networking – This activity provides an opportunity for students to make connections and exchange a variety of ideas with their peers in a productive manner. A student and a partner will discuss a given topic for three minutes, then switch to a new partner and discuss again. The number of rotations will depend upon the time available and the topic. The three rules include: 1. Stay on topic, 2. Keep talking until it is time to switch, and 3. Talk only to the person across from you.

Write Around – Students read a passage or a chapter then write a question at the top of a sheet of paper. Students pass their papers to one another or post them in a gallery for everyone to write a response to the open-ended questions.

Student to Student Dialogue Journal – Rather than creating a T-Chart where students record passages they thought compelling and writing a response, there is space for students to share their responses to the students’ double entry responses. Padlet is a great digital tool to collect student response and summaries in the write around and dialogue journals.

And one more . . .


Mystery Envelopes – Hand small groups a mystery envelope with an index card inside that has a question for the group to answer. Working collaboratively, students formulate answers with evidence to support the text dependent question(s).









Tagged , , , ,

Powerful Writing Starts with Strong Sentences: 8 Sentence Activities to Use Across the Content Areas

“It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.” —J.K. Rowling,

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“One must be careful of books, and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.” 

—Cassandra Clare, The Infernal Devices


How do we get our students to write well?

How can teachers help students to string words together with poetry, grace, and meaning?

I recently attended a workshop on The Writing Revolution: The Hochman Method, an instructional approach to teaching writing and communication skills. Dr. Judith C. Hochman is the creator of the Hochman Method and founder of The Writing Revolution. Dr. Hochman was the Head of Windward School an independent school focused on teaching students with learning disabilities.  

We began with sentences and sentence activities. The idea is to start small in order to help students to write better. Focusing on sentences improves the substance of writing to raise the level of linguistic complexity and clarity, enhance revision and editing skills, and improve reading comprehension.

The following 8 sentence activities were presented to help student take command of their sentence writing and become better writers.

Sentence Fragments – A group of words that is not a grammatically complete sentence. Usually a fragment lacks a subject, verb or both or is a dependent clause that is not attached to an independent clause.  Teachers can post sentence fragments for students to repair. The aim is to address what is necessary to write complete sentences. For example, as a bell ringer have students identify the sentence fragments and change the fragments into complete sentences adding necessary words, capitalization, and punctuation.

the town of Macomb

does not remember her mother well

atticus finch is a lawyer

Scrambled Sentences – Another five minute do now is to have 7-9 words maximum for students to put together to make a complete sentence. One way to help students with this activity is to bold the first word of the sentence to help them unscramble the sentence.

Sentence Types – We use four different kinds of sentences when speaking and writing: Statements or Declaratives, Questions or Interrogatives, Exclamations, and Commands or Imperatives. Give students a topic or an image for them to write a sentence, question, exclamation, and command for. This strategy encourages students to think about the text and encourage precise language. To differentiate this activity  you can offer an answer and have students create a question that shows synthesis, comparison, and frames their academic vocabulary.

Q: _____________________________________

A: direction and magnitude

Possible question: What are the two defining characteristics of a vector?

Because, But, So – Because tells why, But changes direction, and So shows cause and effect. If we want students to think critically and not regurgitate information we can have students extend a sentence with but, because, and so. Each of these conjunctions help to change the meaning of the sentence.

Hammurabi created a written code of laws . . . .

Students can complete the sentence based on what they know and understand.

Hammurabi created a written code of laws because ________________________________________________

Hammurabi created a written code of laws, but ___________________________________________________

Hammurabi created a written code of laws, so ____________________________________________________

These three conjunctions can help students learn linguistically complex language and change of direction language that can help writing counterclaims. Additional transition words for but includes:  although, while, even though, however, on the other hand.

Subordinating Conjunctions – After, Before, If, While, Although, Even though, Unless, Since, When, Whenever. Rather than asking students questions about the text or material, use subordinating conjunction  sentence stems to evaluate comprehension and knowledge. For example,

Since Lennie has a mild mental disability in Of Mice and Men, ________________________________________

After Lennie meet’s Curley’s wife, _________________________________________________________________

Although Lennie promised to keep the farm a secret, ________________________________________________

Students can use a given subordinating conjunction to write a sentence about a character.

Although __________________________________________________________

Even though ________________________________________________________

If I was using the above activity with To Kill a Mockingbird, I might anticipate a student to write,

Although Tom Robinson was innocent and defended himself well, he was found guilty.

Even though Tom Robinson’s case seemed doomed from the start, Atticus agreed to defend him.

Appositives are a noun or noun phrase placed next to another noun to rename, or explain it more fully. Teachers can have students practice writing topic sentences with appositives. Another activity is to have student match appositives or fill in the appositives. Introducing appositives provides students a strategy to vary writing and help the reader provide more information. In addition, it improves reading comprehension. Another strategy is to give students an appositive and have students write a sentence around it.

Sentence Combining helps to teach grammar and usage because it requires students to gain syntactic control.

This strategy is from The Teacher’s Guide to Effective Sentence Writing by Bruce Saddler.

Let’s take the following five sentences:

People are innocent.

People are innocent according to a principle.

The principle is American.

The principle is legal.

They are proven guilty.


What did you come up with?

According to an American legal principle, people are innocent until proven guilty.

To scaffold this sentence activity you can give hints for students to use a conjunction or appositive. Additionally, you can differentiate the activity by giving the high fliers a challenge, the middle level students a hint, and for struggling or ELLs offer them a sentence starter.

Kernel Sentences – A simple, active, declarative sentence with only one verb and containing no modifiers or connectives. This activity is helpful for note taking because it gets at the who, what, when, where why, and how.

Snow fell.

Cells divide.

Pyramids were built.

Students state the when, where, and why.  Think of this like a puzzle, students need to complete every piece of information to write an expanded sentence.

In ancient times, pyramids were built in Egypt to protect the body of the deceased pharaoh.
Whether you try all the sentence activities or just a few, activities should be embedded in the content. Teacher demonstration and modelling is beneficial. Sentence strategies can be practiced in do nows and warm ups, stop and jots, exit slips or even test items.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Four Hour Teacher: 10X Student & Teacher Output

When you look at your daily or weekly lessons, what are you filling up your time with in your classroom?

This is a question that I ask myself often to help strengthen student learning and reflect on my own teaching practices. My intentions in my classroom are to teach what is important, limit and eliminate wasteful worksheets or information to help my students succeed and learn in deep ways.

Before I address how teachers can do the same in their own classrooms, I want to talk about why and what prompted this vision for teaching.

I am a HUGE fan of Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week, The Four Hour Body, and The Four Hour Chef. The concept behind his books and podcasts are to strip down information to the essentials tools and knowledge in order to optimize output ten fold.  Ferriss is an entrepreneur, writer, and teacher. In fact, he has said he always thought that he would be a ninth grade English teacher. His books are like cliff notes to mastering cooking, weight loss, and managing time. His podcasts are interviews with amazing entrepreneurs that taps into their own successes, mindset, and rituals that got them to where they are.


Work versus busy work. Efficiency. Filtering the “signal from the noise.” These are the ideas that I transfer into my teaching and classroom to accelerate learning. It’s about searching out what works in education and literacy learning to dedicate my class time to developing students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing skills. This means “engaging students in the best learning opportunities” (Frey, Lapp, Hattie, 2016). In my own classroom these learning opportunities include: Genius Hour, Interactive Reading Notebooks, Gamification, Articles of the Week, Reading and Writing Workshop. These are the approaches and tools that help me meet the variety of learners in my classroom. At the same time, I hone in on the purpose, context, and timing of the practices students are engaged in my classroom on a daily basis.

What does that look like in my classroom? Here is the calendar I created  last week for the first semester of school (20 weeks). The calendar outlines the units of study I will dive into with my students along with the skills and topics I teach in order to provide students the opportunities to build on and improve their abilities as readers and writers.

Want more on Tim Ferriss?  Here are three of my favorite podcasts he has done that offer insight into this mindset and philosophy on learning.

  1. Tim Ferriss featured on Freakonomics
  2. Tim Ferriss interviews Malcolm Gladwell
  3. How to Think Like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos
Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Thinking About Ongoing Assessment

In Data Driven Differentiation in the Standards Based Classroom (2004) G. H. Gregory and L. Kuzmuch identify three questions that help planning assessment:

1. What do I know about my students now?

2. What is the nature and content of the final assessment for this unit or period of time?

3. What don’t I know about the content knowledge, the critical thinking, and the process or skill demonstration of my students?

Early in the school year, parents are requesting grades while I am working on building skills and learning more about my students strengths and weaknesses. This past week for example, after reading through the summer reading assessments (which I do not grade), I did a teach back of the introductory paragraph and claim and students revised their writing. Instead of a grade, I used a rubric that offered three responses in regards to meeting the learning target rather than a grade of 1, 2, or 3: “Nailed It!” “Almost There” and “Keep Trying.”

For me, assessment informs instruction much more than it informs student learning. Here are some assessment strategies I use in my classroom to support student success:

1. Whip Around: Teacher poses a question, students write response, students read written responses rapidly, in specified order. This develops closure, clarification, and summary.

2. Status Checks: This can be a thumbs up/thumbs down, students can use colored cards (red, green, yellow) to show their understanding.

3. Quartet Quiz: Teacher poses question, students write a response, students meet in quads and check answers, the summarizer reports, “We know . . .” The teacher can record responses on the board. This allows for closure and clarification.

4. Jigsaw Check: Teacher assigns students to groups of 5-6. The teacher gives each student a question card, posing a key understanding question, students read their question to the group. The scorecard keeper records the number of students for each question who are: really sure, pretty sure, foggy, and clueless. The students then scramble to groups with the same questions they have to prepare a solid answer. Students then report back to their original groups to share answers and re-do scoreboard.

5. Squaring Off: Teacher places a card in each corner of the room with one of the following words or phrases that are effective ways to group according to learner knowledge: Rarely ever, Sometimes, Often, I have it! or Dirt Road, Paved Road, Highway, Yellow Brick Road. Tell the student to go to the corner of the room that matches their place in the learning journey. Participants go to the corner that most closely matches their own learning status and discuss what they know about the topic and why they chose to go there.

6. Yes/No Cards: Using a 4X6 index card the student writes YES on one side and NO on the other. When a question is asked by the teacher, the students holds  up YES or NO. This can be used with vocabulary words, true/false questions, or conceptual ideas.

7. Thumb It: Have students respond with the position of their thumb to get an assessment of what their current understanding of a topic being studied. Where I am now in my understanding of ______________? Thumb Up = full speed ahead (I get it), Thumb Sideways = Slow down, I’m getting confused, Thumb Down = Stop! I’m lost.

8. Journal Prompts for Ongoing Assessment: Choice A – Write a step by step set of directions, including diagrams and computations, to show someone who has been absent how to do the kind of problem we’ve worked with this week. OR Choice B – Write a set of directions for someone who is going to solve a problem in their life by using the kind of math problem we’ve studied this week. Explain the problem first. Be sure the directions address their problem, not just the computations.

Tagged , ,