Hanging On To What Matters: Feedback

Allow me to state the obvious: These are not normal times. As the COVID-19 crisis has driven educators and their students into home offices, dining rooms, living rooms, and closets, big questions have loomed large in the minds of teachers: How will I teach? What digital platforms make the most sense? How will I work and manage new family responsibilities? These questions, as well as a host of others, have weighed heavily upon my mind these past weeks, as I am sure they have on yours.

Another important question nagging at me has been, “What elements of good teaching will be possible to hang onto in our current, stay-at-home situation?” I would venture to say that your life for the past few weeks, like mine, has proven to be a combination of struggling to survive in a new role as distance educator and figuring out ways to best rise to this challenge. Fortunately, this week the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (somehow) planned a virtual institute for teachers designed to help us do just that. In words of the Project, this institute promised to help teachers “become increasingly adept at virtual instruction.” And the institute delivered.

One of the themes of the institute this week has been hanging onto what we know really matters in writing instruction. When schools closed and many districts across the country eventually moved education online, I know many teachers were left wondering if we could do any more than provide activities or assign things for kids to do? After all, as writing workshop teachers, we know that writing instruction, if it is to be truly effective, must be responsive to the learners in front of us in our classrooms each day. But without them physically in front of us anymore, how can we be responsive? How can we teach?

In a breakout session this week, one way Project staff developers Laurie Burke and Sara Gretina encouraged us to think about responsive teaching in a distance environment is through feedback. By now, many of us in education are aware of John Hattie’s research on feedback as an accelerant of learning. The effects of good feedback cannot be underestimated, as the research has concluded that among all the things we do in education, feedback rests toward the top of the list in terms of effectiveness.

Feedback Conditions

We can likely all remember someone in our lives who provided us feedback that really made a difference. As we think about that person, we might also think about the conditions around that feedback. What were those conditions? Perhaps some of are listed here:

It may take some creativity on our part to begin to imagine how to create these conditions in a distance learning environment; but let us remember that technology affords us many avenues through which we might consider achieving these conditions. Technology such as Google docs, Google Meet, and Zoom are ways many teachers are now connecting with students either one to one or in small groups. I have begun using Google forms to set up times for feedback I will provide over the phone (dialing *67 to conceal my own phone number). Whatever ways you plan to set up to give feedback to writers, it is important we think about how to create supportive conditions such as those mentioned above.

Types of Feedback

Great teachers and coaches understand that feedback can be provided in a variety of ways. As a soccer and basketball coach, I always believed in working to strike a balance between building players up through compliments and affirmations and pushing them to improve by setting high expectations. Staff developers Laurie Burke and Sara Gretina reminded us this week that feedback, even when being delivered virtually, can take different forms:

  • Appreciation– Anything that affirms the strengths of our writers would be considered appreciation feedback. Students may sometimes feel like they are just being “told what they need to do (better)” by their teachers. But appreciation feedback acknowledges and affirms what they are already doing. Moreover, it helps kids feel “seen” by us, their teachers. And, as Laurie asserted, “This type of feedback ‘seals in’ skills they are approximating with.” Compliments, affirmations, and positive strokes can go a long way in creating energy and nurturing what Peter Johnston calls “agentive narratives” in our students.
  • Coaching – This type of feedback is most effective when we are looking to help kids improve specific skills. Like a coach on the sideline of a game, though, we want to keep our coaching lean. This might take the form of questioning, gentle reminders of next steps in a process, or suggestions for what to try next.
  • Evaluation – This type of feedback allows writers to know where they stand in their current performance. Evaluative feedback can be helpful especially when next steps are also clarified.

Dear readers, I do not write this post as a way to provide any answers or certainty during this extremely challenging period in history. Honestly, figuring out ways to provide feedback when we are all sheltered at home is something I am trying to figure out myself. But I plan to strive to do whatever I can do to create conditions for effective feedback, as well as remember that writers need a combination of all types of feedback in order to move forward. However that may look in this era in which we now all reside. Peace and luck to all of you doing this work.

– Lanny

Further recommended reading:

A huge thank you and shout-out to Laurie Burke, Sara Gretina, and the entire TCRWP Staff for the inspiration for this post.