Monday, June 10, 2013

Commenting Can Mean Teaching

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      I’ve described in other posts that the students at my school each study an individual topic, called units of study.  Activities within the units include creative writing like fiction and poetry, along with communication of questions answered through research and multiple kinds of reporting.   Sometimes the “answers” are three-dimensional projects and numerous other kinds of responses.  Students also create magazines, newspapers and pamphlet for topics, along with the expected basic reports.  

        The teachers with whom I work and I have spent time talking about the challenges of evaluating the “answers” students turn in.  There are a number of ways to do this, but one that is a critical question for the teachers is how to save time because one on one conferences about everything is simply not possible.  Particularly in the upper age groups, there are so many products for teachers to evaluate.  One approach that helped me both teach and save time is the way I comment on the products, and keep track of them.


         The content of the comments is so important:  I tell what I see that is appropriate and/or well-done, I suggest different ideas for revision if necessary, and I write questions when needed.  Some are more generic, like How did you arrive at this conclusion? and Why did you add this part?   If it is a written report, I write on the paper.  If it is a three dimensional product, I write a note. The questions are key.  If I only have one, the student is welcome to revise by themselves and turn in a second draft or make changes to the project.  If more, they need to set up an appointment with me to review the questions. 
         At the same time, I am noting to the student all the things they did well, mostly through words, but on occasion I’ve tried to use markers for color-coding.  This is such a difficult idea to explain, but time and again, I have seen and heard my “responses” as “learning” students return to use in the future.  When I’ve pointed out things such as the good conclusion written because you’ve reminded your audience of the points you want them to remember, the dialogue and/or quote is creatively inserted, or it is good to explain this concept in organized steps, students are able to work independently with more intention than if I had just given them basic comments like “awkward” or “add more details”. 
         Brief and to the point.  The final piece of this teaching by response concerns my own notes.  I have a grid with the student list on the left, and lots of boxes.  Column headers are:  name, product, conference (yes or no), skills supported.  As I respond to the products, I note this information for future reference.  For instance, if a student has received several different comments about conclusions, it indicates that further one-on-one work is needed.  I review my list each week, making notes of the varying needs of the class. 
I realize that everyone has different ways of doing their note-taking for students skills, but not only did I need to make note of what kind of project everyone was currently working on, I also needed to note the skills they might need as scaffolding in order to be successful at the end.  Keeping track with some kind of organized system was really important!
What kind of commenting do you do with students in addition to conferring?  

16 comments:

  1. This seems like a huge task to organize yet so important to the students' learning. I am glad you reminded me about how commenting is learning. I am teaching a writing camp this week and I have the opportunity to influence young writers. Comments are tricky. You want to encourage while also leading to revision.

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    1. Absolutely right, Margaret. One wishes to say just those words that inspire more and teach along the way too so they will use the 'ideas' again. Thank you!

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  2. I love the idea of a grid. Last year we had an individual sheet on each student and then took notes on the conference...It was useful for report cards, but it wasn't handy enough to look at those students that we had concerns about. Next year I might try a mix on my new I-pad...where kids could listen to what I have to say and then try to implement suggestions. I'm wondering if this is even a possibility to try before I confer. Thank goodness our class sizes will be smaller next year. Conferring is so important and this is always, always the plight of the classroom teacher. Thank you for your suggestions. I can't wait to meet you at All Write ! xo

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    1. Hope I helped you re-think notes in some small way, Nancy. Isn't it great that so many of us will be at All-Write? I am excited to meet you, too!

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  3. I read and nodded. Giving specific feedback and keeping proper notes are two things that I am still working on. I am looking for ways to keep notes neater and more organized. I wonder if you use rubrics (student or teacher created) to evaluate the projects.

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    1. Hi Terje, just returned home! Sometimes we use our own created rubrics, depending on the project assignment. Sometimes there is the 'same' assignment, but students have choices in the interpretation, so when that happened, I would create a rubric with the students' input, my expectations with their additions. But mostly it was all subjective between the teacher and the students, slowly bringing them to self-assessment too. Complicated, and it was often brand new each time because the students were different. I kept many notes, & usually stapled all together and dated weekly. It gave me a way to look at progress from week to week.

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  4. Commenting is such a specific art, as well as a science. It takes time for all of us to learn how to comment on others' work in a meaningful way so it becomes a learning experience for the person commenting and the recipient.

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    1. I would say, considering what I wrote today, absolutely right, Stacey. And sometimes I had a few students where their needs were not always met by the comments, but flexibility is the key, isn't it?

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  5. I think you made such an important point when you wrote about being specific in commenting. I think that it is the single most effective way in which to move a student along. A well thought-out comment allows the student to reflect, know what to do, and then set about making adjustments. So much better than, "needs more details", right?!

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    1. Yes, for sure, Tara. I feel that the comments both teach and support a growing student, and I really believe that the students appreciated them too. Thanks!

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  6. Linda,
    I would love to sit down some day and chat about this topic for hours. How to respond to students in a timely, engaging, and thoughtful way during a learning process is such a tricky thing for me even after 30+ years of teaching. Thanks so much for sharing here.

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    1. Well perhaps we can chat a little at the All-Write, Karen! I agree, it is such a fine line to walk with what one says, too much or too little-what will help, what will not, etc. Thanks!

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  7. Linda,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about commenting. Giving and recording comments is one of those things I think we are always working to improve for students. What caught my attention is the way you specifically commented about what works. I find often these comments carry students the furthest. Often they don't realize what they are doing that works unless we tell them. What great reminders!

    Cathy

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    1. Even in my comments for blog posts, I find it so difficult to just say "great job". I guess I have worked so hard to do it differently with intention for students that I want to respond the same way to everyone else too. I agree that this is most helpful for students, thus the earlier purpose of 'saving time' by commenting more purposefully. Thanks Cathy!

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  8. I loved seeing the kids' projects, and hearing about how you respond to them. Your system kind of reminds me of Don Graves. He used to always tell us to tell the writer what WAS working and ask if they could do that again, then nudge them forward. You also make me think of Peter Johnston and his thinking on the need for specificity in feedback. So, so, so helpful to kids! I wish I had you for a teacher!

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    1. Thanks Carol. I probably was way influenced by Donald Graves; I certainly was in love with all his books! And are you by any chance going to see Peter Johnston this Thursday? I'll be there with a colleague. Either way, I'd love to meet at TC sometime and talk.

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Having a conversation is a good thing!