Student feedback and a thought about being an “expert” with lots to learn

I’ve been reluctant to write lately. I think this is partly due to being mid-masters degree and knowing what academic writing looks like and this blog being a weird hybrid between academic and “hey, friends, here’s what works for me…”

I write partly as a reminder to myself of what works, partly to share and seek feedback from my peers, and partly just because I think writing is fun. 

Here’s a feedback strategy I have started to use for student writing, which is the latest iteration of my many varied methods of providing students with feedback over the years. I find this one suits my needs right now and is accessible for my young learners.

Highlighter & sticky notes

I use bright sticky notes with a highlighter in a matching colour. The goal of this colour-coded feedback is for students to be able to identify the error and how to fix it. For the moment, I am trying to stick with two stars and a wish, both of which should be specific. The sticky note feedback is a new iteration of my old colour-code system where I just marked with five highlighters the types of errors students were making without providing much for written feedback.

Use pencil

I have a love affair with coloured pens and many teachers I know do. I always sort of figured I wanted my words to pop out for students so they would find them, but the more I reflect on the purpose of feedback, the more I think pencil makes sense. Students generally want work that looks tidy and reflects their best work. When parents come in and thumb through their notebooks the thing that stands out should be the student’s work NOT the teacher’s. Those with anxiety or a bit of perfectionist tendencies can remove it and have “perfect” final work. My fear was always that students would erase it… “But it won’t show parents what I told the kids…” What is the purpose of the feedback? It’s for students not for parents.

Iris and student process portfolios

As I mark, I keep student profiles open to make notes. This helps with providing students feedback, meeting with parents, and providing next steps on summative reporting like report cards. If the stickies do get lost I have a copy of the next steps for each student, although I don’t take the time to copy everything into the portfolio.

Mark it twice

I have been trying to provide students with this actionable feedback and then allowing them time to respond to it and improve their work. This often leads to a mini-lesson but sometimes the written feedback is enough.

I certainly don’t have it figured all the way out and I’m feeling a bit lax for not providing citations for my writing here… it’s just a personal reflection and nothing more.

Happy teaching, colleagues. I’d love to have your ideas for feedback,too!

Plickers (technology for formative assessment)

Today I had the opportunity to teach @allosamson how to use Plickers. This post has been sitting in my drafts folder since ISTE2015 so I thought it was a good chance to pull it out!

At first glance, Plickers doesn’t look like much; it’s an online quiz platform where students use printed Plickers to buzz in their responses. I was first introduced to the idea by @jmattmiller at ISTE2016 when he included them throughout the presentation. You bet I was more engaged when I knew there would be questions throughout! The concept is simple but the resulting information on classroom learning is invaluable!
The platform provides for rich formative assessment. Many teachers use exit cards at the end of a lesson to quickly assess students for their understanding and that’s how I used them in my classroom. The key to an exit ticket being that it can be filled out in a minute and can quickly be assessed for understanding.

The beauty of Plickers is that it is all of that without a pile of paper at the end of a lesson to go through. It’s anonymous to students as they answer. As the teacher scans, students can see themselves appear on screen as having responded but they don’t see how each student responded. The teacher only on the scanning device sees a quick flash of red (incorrect) or green (correct). Afterwards, the teacher may return to answers and see which students have responded correctly to each question and it allows targeted teaching in subsequent lessons.

In addition, I have used Plickers to have students write questions for one another. This takes some skill on their part to craft a good question and to predict some of the mistakes that might be made to find multiple choice answers.

The advantage of Plickers over other digital buzz in devices is price. Printed Plickers are free (while there is a paid option for more durable printed targets). Since my classroom uses relatively little in terms of photocopies, I consider a set of Plickers extremely reasonably priced.

Would love to hear how you’re using Plickers!

A Fine Balance (a post I almost titled: “I can’t” and other lies we tell ourselves)

I originally wrote this last Sunday and published it briefly before taking it down out of respect for Joe Bower. This post is intended as a tribute to an educator who profoundly influenced my teaching and blogging in spite of only knowing him online. I suppose it speaks to the power of social media that I felt I knew him so well inspite of having only really met him in person once and I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me. I so clearly remember thinking “Well, that’s all well and good for Joe, but I can’t do what he does.” 

I spent the day meditating on “I can’t”.

His work and writing inspires me.


The original post follows:

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I was seeking inspiration this morning as I head back to the classroom Monday and imagine that I’m not alone. I love my work. Reading and writing about teaching and learning is interesting and exciting. Working in the classroom is fun and rewarding. But we’re in a place where the hill gets steep; report cards are due in a week, we are in the thick of projects, I’m well slept right now but school starts in the morning, back to a masters degree, back to the track, back to being mom, packing lunches and helping with homework.

Sound familiar? 

Forgive me if I get philosophical, I’m coming back to my thesis: inspiration.

I went online today to get my dose of inspiration from like-minded educators on their last days of winter break and instead I learned the sad news of @joe_bower’s passing.

It’s left me rattled. Not because we were close; he’s someone I follow on Twitter, whose blog I read, who I only had the opportunity to meet face-to-face once but he influenced my thinking on teaching and assessment over the past while. His constant reminder that students are at the centre of what we do and that a conversation is always more valuable than a grade made a difference in the way I provide students with feedback.

I fell into a rut lately, thinking of myself in terms of “just”. Just a mom. Just a classroom teacher. Just a student. I can’t make a difference.

This post is not intended to turn a loss for a family, for students and for the many colleagues he influenced into something about me. Instead, I want to say to Joe that he made a difference in the life of someone he didn’t even know. In that way, his work as an educator and a writer extended beyond the work he did day-to-day with students and colleagues. The entire day has been spent reflecting on “I can’t”.

Running started for me from a place of profound loss many years ago; I spent three weeks unable to move, so lost, so dead in spirit, I forgot how to breathe. I did the only thing I knew to get out of bed: I put on my running shoes. The only place it seemed I could remember to breathe was in my running shoes, and for thirty minutes or an hour it became the pain I could control. I was just a middle-of-the-pack athlete. I still am. But running and triathlon made “I can’t” go away.

Three years ago, I met my coach when I decided I needed to do the impossible: Ironman. I needed to control the tornado. And six weeks after we met, she assigned a 1500m time trial. “Look,” I said, “You don’t know me that well… I can’t swim 1500m all in a row.”

“Ok,” she said, “just try it.”

And I did.

“I can’t.” And I knew in my heart that it was true. I couldn’t.

Yet I did.

Somehow I learned a thousand lessons from running and applied them to my life and my teaching. “I can’t” became a starting point instead of an end point. But I applied the principle unequally.

I met Joe at EdCampYYC only long enough to thank him for his discussion on ungrading assessment. It was a wonderful, inspiring conversation but, “That’s fine for him,” I thought, “He’s in a different place in his a career than I am. He can do that kind of thing… I can’t.” And yet… He challenged me to reconsider the objectivity of a grade book. My grade book has gotten considerably thinner but feedback to students has become considerably richer thanks to Joe.

“He can do it… But I can’t.”

But wait… I don’t really believe that’s true. Just a mom, just a blogger, just a classroom teacher, but I can make a difference. I went looking for inspiration and found it in an unlikely place. Someone I hardly knew made a profound difference in my practice over the past years and the best I can do is continue what he inspired.

What is it that every student needs? An advocate. Someone who, every morning, greets them with a smile and the unfailing belief that even though it’s not easy to do, that they can and will achieve the goals they set. That someone will see the potential even when it’s hard for them to see it. Our students need to know that even when in their hearts they know they can’t that we know they can.

I have written, deleted, rewritten, and rewritten this post because I’m having a hard time putting it into words. I do not wear my heart on my sleeve easily, but I feel that as a tribute to someone who took on so impossible a task as Joe Bower, this is not a bad way to do it. 

My condolences to his family and friends. I am so glad I got to know Joe and his ideas through Twitter and through his blog.

I can’t becomes, yes, actually I can.

Formative assessment, feedback loops, and report cards… oh my…

I read a great meme on Twitter the other day and then lost track of it. The upshot was something like, “If you don’t like doing assessment, you’re missing the point.”

As someone who shudders at the idea of carting home a stack of notebooks to not mark at night while they sit in the corner and I ignore them for something (anything) more interesting, this idea struck a chord for me. I still don’t love “marking” but I’ve put a lot of thinking lately into how to improve student outcomes and I’ve come to think of it differently. It’s not marking… it’s feedback loops.

Formative assessment is one of those things teachers know we should be doing more of; it’s one the thing we do in the classroom that has the greatest impact on student outcomes. Feedback loops are essential to student improvement. Students need to be able to see the goal and they need to see where they are in relation to meeting that goal. But how do we go about doing it in a meaningful way in our classrooms?

I definitely don’t have it figured all the way out yet, but here are the ideas that I’m using this year:

Plickers: I have used this tool a couple of times this year. In math, I used it as an exit ticket type activity where I got immediate feedback about who had understood the concept and who needed to have another go. The beauty of this tool is that it’s anonymous for students as they answer in the classroom so they have no fear of making a mistake in front of their peers, but when I look at my teacher dashboard later I can easily see how each student answered each question.

In English, we used Plickers to review information from the previous chapter and I had students write questions for one another.

Google docs: Students write a draft as they always have in their notebooks. This first draft is shared with one or two other students who have developed the ability to give constructive feedback in the form of two stars and a wish (two things that are great about the writing and one thing that might be improved in the next draft). Students write a second draft of the work, making any major revisions they see fit. After having a second go at it, I read their work briefly and give a positive comment and highlight three to five things the student can change independently (add punctuation, look up spelling). After this draft, students write a draft on the computer using google docs, which they submit to me. I use the comment function to send the student two stars and a wish. Students must then use my comments and the computer’s tools to write a final draft that will be taken for marks.

Math lab: once a week, students have a problem-solving “math lab” in which they solve an open-ended problem with more than one solution. They are invited to share their solutions with a partner and to explain how they found the answer. We use an assessment rubric and I ask students to rate their work using the same rubric that I use to assess their work. I mark the rubrics using a colour code (red for first attempt, orange for second attempt, yellow for third, etc. – rainbow order. Students are getting used to “having another go” at math work the way they are with language arts work.

As I take this with me into report card writing in the coming weeks, I’m not entirely sure what it will look like, but I am certain that I have a better idea of who my students are and what they are capable of than I ever did as a teacher with a grade book FULL of numbers.

Daily 5 in math

I feel like I’m still getting the hang of Daily 5 in math in grade 3; with every change of grade level there is a learning curve while learning a new curriculum and gathering materials that support the learning. 

This week my students are moving into multiplication and division, which has them over the moon (maybe because they perceive this to be “big kid” math).

Our centres are:

Math by myself: copy new vocabulary and begin this chapter’s illustrated dictionary.

Math with the teacher: guided introduction to the concept.

Math with a friend: textbook practice

Math problem: continue work on designing the community garden for our school.

Math with technology: IXL on the computer or splash math on the iPad 

Math games: I have… Who has…

I started the students who already have a foundation in multiplication and division at the more independent work and those who were still at the introductory stage in more supported work. I love that this allows me time to really target students at the right level for them but also allows them to interact, practice, and learn from one another. 

Math Movies

So this? Yeah… this is pretty cool! I had my students make fraction movies today. Using the app “Explain Everything” they recorded a lesson or an explanation of their understanding. I can imagine using this recorded lesson as a resource for students in the future. It’s also a great way for students to communicate their thinking without having to write it all out. I can get their ideas even when I don’t have the time in class to sit down with each group during class time – I can review their movie after the students have left for the day. As I said to the students, there will be a learning curve with the software. The movie they made today is not as good as the movies they will make in the future. We reviewed a couple of movies in math class and students discussed the math, critiqued their own work and provided constructive criticism for other groups. Some really powerful stuff going on here!