Making it Manageable: Feedback at Every Step
by Tricia Ebarvia
Conferring with students can be exhausting. Sometimes a single conference can take 10-15 minutes, and if you have 100+ students, conferring is also incredibly time consuming. Time spent conferring with students is time away from whole class instruction, curricular planning, and much-needed grading. But feedback from conferring is invaluable. When I was in the Writing Institute two years ago, I emailed Penny Kittle for some advice. I was struggling with how to fit all the elements of the workshop model outlined in her book Write Beside Them. When I mentioned reducing time for conferring, her response was unequivocal. “Conferring is our most powerful teaching time,” she responded. “Everyone learns best in the context of their own writing piece, so we have to work it into practice.”
Still, time is always the issue.
Given increasing demands on teachers to do more with less, dedicating time to confer with students can be a challenge. And yet it is “our most powerful teaching time.” So what can we do? Over the years, I’ve pieced together a system that works for me, and maybe it will for you, too. First, whenever possible, I’ve thought small. What does that mean? For me, it means breaking down the writing process (including feedback) into smaller, more manageable parts. This fall, when my freshmen were ready to begin their summer reading essays, I structured our writing process to provide feedback at every step. Here’s what I did.
First, I had each student submit his thesis statement online via a Google Form I created. I then copied and pasted the entire class’ thesis statements into one document and made copies for the class (I removed student names). The next day, we reviewed everyone’s thesis statements as a class using the document camera. By reviewing the thesis statements together, each student not only received individual feedback, but also learned by looking at many student models. Additionally, because the thesis statement serves as the foundation for the essay, I could identify any problems before students continued writing.
From there, we moved immediately to the body paragraphs (we save the introduction for the end). I asked students to submit the first body paragraph online for my feedback. Our school uses an online program – Turnitin.com – where I view and comment electronically (you could do this using Google Drive). In this way, students could receive and read my feedback relatively quickly. Students turned in their paragraphs on Friday, I commented on them over the weekend, and students were able to review my comments online by Monday. Students then used my comments as a guide for writing their second body paragraphs on Monday night.
By Tuesday, students had two body paragraphs written. During class, students began work on their third body paragraphs. Meanwhile, I walked around the room to read their second body paragraphs and confer with students about questions or issues they were experiencing. As I do this with each student, I model the language of effective conferring and nearby students benefit from hearing the feedback their peers receive. Because we were only looking at a small piece of writing – a single body paragraph at a time – in most cases, I only needed 2 to 4 minutes per student and I could deliver at least one piece of specific feedback to each student. There were 3-4 students I didn’t have time to reach, so I took their paragraphs home to review, mark-up, and return the next day.
Peer Editing & Review
By Wednesday, students had three body paragraphs written. This time, students were in charge. Having already written two body paragraphs themselves and after receiving feedback from their teacher, students were better equipped to provide feedback to one another. They used this peer editing sheet to guide them. They worked silently for the first part of class to complete the sheet and then conferred with each other when they were finished. I walked around to eavesdrop, jump in, and comment. I found that by structuring the process this way, I’ve moved the responsibility of feedback from me to the students. When they came in with their introductions and conclusions a few days later, I had them exchange papers and peer edit, as well as place a few (anonymous) samples under the document camera for class review.
I know that this process might seem a little overwhelming. Honestly, it’s taken me years to figure it out. I started with one piece and just kept adding and refining it to meet the needs of my students and as the technology has changed. If you’re looking for ways to provide more consistent and focused feedback, maybe my process can work for you. If not the whole process, then perhaps 1 or 2 of its parts. Or maybe you have some tried-and-true tips for conferring and feedback you’d like to share? What challenges have you faced and how have you addressed them?
*** As an added note, Penny Kittle’s work has been unbelievably valuable to me as a teacher. In addition to her books, she provides wonderful resources on her website, including several handouts focused specifically on the writing workshop and conferring with students.
Tricia Ebarvia is a teacher at Conestoga High School in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District. She is also a PAWLP fellow, completing the Reading & Literature Institute in 2009 and the Writing Institute in 2011. Her teacher webpage can be found at mrsEbarvia.com.