Monday, November 29, 2010

It's All in How You Say It

As some of you may have noticed, I have been lax in my blogging and for that I am really sorry.  My excuse?  I began a new (part time) job that, as is often the case, takes up more time than originally expected (I am working on it). 

The job:  Teaching an online course for Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth.  This course requires young gifted students to complete weekly readings from selected books, write a weekly blog and respond to at least three discussion questions weekly. My role is to monitor the discussions, tweak the questions when necessary and write weekly evaluations for each student enrolled in an effort to sharpen their writing and thinking skills.

The dilemma:  Providing written feedback to students you don't see (whose faces you cannot monitor), is a challenging chore. How do you get students to write more, develop their points and support them - while reinforcing the skills they have - all without really knowing these kids.

After 10 weeks, one parent nominated me for "Outstanding Teacher" because (as she wrote)  I was able to:
" responded to [the parent's] questions or comments with encourage [my student] to provide more information throughout the course. Her feedback ensured my [child] that she was fascinated with what [my child] had to say and simply wanted to hear more. This is a far different approach and far more effective than the typical classroom teacher method of writing “elaborate” or “more” and then the assignment is over."
My Point:  It is all in how you say it! 

Mary Poppins would comment that "a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down" and, while I do not believe anyone should sugar coat falsely, I believe there is a way to provide criticism that strengthens a student - or child's strengths while allowing them to notice, and with encouragement, to focus on the weaknesses. 

Example of Constructive Feedback:
The child above was reluctant to write. The need to write 100-250 words per response was daunting and this student's initial writing samples were sparse. This student's written responses contained little 'new' or original information and the few ideas presented were poorly developed or supported. In response, I made sure to find something I liked, something that added value and would comment upon that.  I would comment on why that particular snippet was so interesting, and that I would have liked to know more.  I then modeled questions, asking for information that would have made the responses more complete.

I did and continue to do this with all my students.  It takes time, but the results, to date, have been truly impressive.  I decided to write about this because so often in our haste to meet so many demands as teachers and parents, we let the art of skillful direction slip.

Final advice on feedback for Teachers and Parents:
  • Chose your words well.  
  • Begin with praise and ease into constructive shaping and modeling.
  • When you can, sit with your child/student and review (teacher) comments and feedback.  Make sure there is some sugar with the possible vinegar present in the evaluation.
  • Conference with your child/student and brainstorm about neat ways to address the comments.
All too frequently we don't realize or we forget how powerful our words and feedback can be.  Chose them wisely!

I'd love to hear some of your examples of feedback - I promise it will not be another month for my next post.

Hope you are all sated from Thanksgiving - wishing you all a happy holiday season - I look forward to hearing from you!