Category: Blog

How to Get Students to Read Our Essay Comments

Summer is a good time to reflect on what worked this past academic year and what didn’t and what changes we can make to ensure greater success in the fall.

One of the more demoralizing experiences as a teacher is investing an hour or two writing what we perceive to be helpful comments on students’ essays only to have them skip directly to the grade and ignore what we wrote. If this happens often enough, we may be tempted to stop providing written feedback even if we know it is precisely what leads to the deepest learning. Unless we figure out how to overcome this challenge, we may begin to ask ourselves if it’s worth writing questions and insights that prod a child to do a closer reading of a primary source in Jewish history, a poem in an Ivrit class, a sugya in the gemara, or a passage from the Tanach.

One long-suffering English teacher changed it up a bit and developed a creative way to motivate students to read her feedback. She didn’t immediately disclose to students their grade and instead only provided comments. Imagine if we started off the new year that way! We might have frustrated students, but they’d learn a lot. Here’s how:

In a Cult of Pedagogy article summarized in the Marshall Memo, Issue 689, high-school teacher Kristy Louden says it was incredibly disheartening when students looked at the grade on papers she’d carefully annotated and either tossed their paper away or consigned it to the depths of a backpack. “Wow, glad I put so much time into that assignment,” was Louden’s sotto voce reaction. “Not only did I feel like I had wasted my time; I felt like they just didn’t care. And then the snowball of thoughts would start: How will they survive if they don’t care about feedback? What’s going to happen in college? Or when they get jobs?” She confesses that this often led her to put off reading students’ papers for days at a time.

After nine years of suffering through this unproductive dynamic, Louden stumbled upon a process that has worked remarkably well for her:

• Step 1: Return students’ essays with feedback but no grades. When she reads essays, Louden writes detailed comments (either on paper or within Google Classroom submissions), but she records the grades separately on a hard copy of the rubric and holds onto it. “The simple act of delaying the grade means that students had to think about their writing,” says Louden, “… and digest my comments, which allowed them to better recognize what they did well or not so well.” One student said, “Mrs. Louden, you’re a genius. I’ve never read what a teacher writes on my essay before, but now I have to.”

• Step 2: Have students evaluate their own essays. Students are directed to (a) read over their whole essay; (b) write three observations on what they did well and not so well; (c) read the teacher’s comments and write two follow-up questions – how to improve the essay, what to do differently, etc.; (d) use the rubric to grade the essay; and (e) be prepared to discuss all this with the teacher. Louden gives students time for these steps and walks around monitoring their work, which is usually silent and intense.

• Step 3: Conference briefly with each student. The class should have independent reading or work so the teacher can have a 2-3-minute conversation with each student. Louden starts off by asking, “What do you want to talk about?” and students say things like, “I can’t believe I did —-“ or “I’m sorry I turned it in like this” or “You specifically told us not to do this.” She finds it helpful to have these conferences at a large whiteboard-painted table so students can spread out their work and laptops and she can jot comments and planning ideas on the table. “The level of reflection is deeper than any I’ve ever encountered,” says Louden. “I assure them that it is fine and I don’t expect perfection, but on the inside I’m so excited that they’re seeing the things I see.”

• Step 4: Compare the student’s and the teacher’s grades. Louden finishes each conference by asking students how they scored themselves on the rubric and puts their assessment side by side with hers. Often, students are harder on themselves than she was, and they’re much more receptive to the grading process than they were with the previous system.

• Step 5: Have students revise. Louden gives students time to work on 1-3 further drafts, checking in with them on what they’ve done and any questions they have.

Louden says this is the most significant change she’s made in her teaching in years and she’s very pleased with the results: “Students have become more reflective (and sympathetic of how long it takes me to grade – haha!), their writing has improved, and I return papers much more quickly – and happily – than ever before.”

Read the original article entitled “Delaying the Grade: How to Get Students to Read Feedback” by Kristy Louden in The Cult of Pedagogy, June 4, 2017 at https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/delayed-grade/.

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Filling the End-of-Year Parties with Reflective Content

Many teachers and students organize end-of-year parties to celebrate their accomplishments. This post is not meant to talk against this widespread practice.

After all, according to one source (Shabbat 118b), there has been a long-standing custom dating back to the fourth generation Babylonian Amora Abaye to do something similar. According to the Talmud, anytime Abaye saw a student who had completed a text, he would invite everyone in the yeshiva to celebrate together at a siyyum.

However, the celebration wasn’t just a party. Typically, the student taught the last portion of the text, and in order to make it intelligible to the listeners, the one leading the session offered some broader reflection on the learning as well. The opportunity to review and reflect also helped the learning “stick” for the one leading the siyyum.

What are some engaging ways to insert reflection in an end-of-year party?

Some teachers zoom out and allocate time for their students to write thank you notes to their parents for their education in general and their Jewish education in particular. In those letters, students are encouraged to re-cap what they’ve learned and how their education has benefited them. Some Ivrit teachers have students write the letter in Hebrew even if the parents don’t necessarily understand the Hebrew.

Other teachers prepare students to play Jeopardy or some other quiz show that summarizes the year’s learning. The teacher writes questions or, even better, asks students to write questions, and then they play.

Some teachers prepare retrospective questions (What did you enjoy learning most? What’s one thing you learned that applies to the real world?) and prospective ones (What’s one thing you want to work on next year?) and ask students to pull a question out of a hat and share their responses aloud.

Here are two more ideas that come from a past edition of Edutopia.

#1. Create a Symbol and Hashtag
After reviewing each unit of study, ask students to draw a symbol that represents their experience with that unit. They could even create a hashtag that reflects an aspect of each unit. After they have designed their symbols, they can craft a few words that describe and explain their symbol.

#2. Craft a Letter to a Future Student
Invite your students to write a letter to a student in next year’s class.
What advice might you give him or her?
What should the student do in order to be successful in this class?
How will what they learn help them in other classes? How about in life?
You keep the letters and pass them out to incoming students during the first week of school in the fall. Students tend to take this activity seriously because there’s a real audience built in.

The end-of-year party is a joyous way to celebrate what one has learned. However, students naturally take for granted how much they’ve grown and learned. Any activity that asks students to reflect on, highlight, or summarize what they have learned will add a well-earned feeling of accomplishment and pride to that joy.

See the full article at https://tinyurl.com/y38ppbfz

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The Educator Is the Midwife to the Birth of Questions

As is well known, the Passover seder was constructed in such a way to arouse curiosity.  We pour wine for the diners even before they ask.  We recite the blessing over wine four times even though at a Shabbat meal or on other festivals “borei pri hagafen” is typically recited only once.  We are instructed to recline even though customarily we tell our children to “sit up straight at the table.”  The bread we eat isn’t the sweet, soft challah that we are used to at a Shabbat meal.  Many families distribute candies before the main course even though conventional wisdom suggests that it will spoil a child’s appetite.All of these moves are meant to arouse curiosity and encourage children to ask questions.  It is true that the ability to ask a question, to challenge and debate, is a sign of freedom; and hence questions are appropriate for the holiday that celebrates our freedom.However, more fundamentally, creating the curiosity to create meaning is what gives the seder leader the platform to re-tell the story of our people.  For, without an audience hungry to listen, we will find it next to impossible to do anything but serve dinner as quickly as possible.The importance of curiosity in learning cannot be understated.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the role of the educator is to be the midwife to the birth of a question.  How do we as teachers engineer learning with curiosity in mind?  How do we construct our lessons so that our students are hungry to learn?  How do we become midwives to the birth of questions when we teach?The October 8, 2018 issue of the Marshall Memo (Issue 756) features a summary of Bryan Goodwin’s recent book Out of Curiosity, which breaks down the key elements of an environment that arouses students’ curiosity.Below are seven conditions and seven curiosity principles that encourage this critically important life skill.  Some will sound familiar from the seder and others are good suggestions to incorporate into a seder (or classroom).Seven Learning ConditionsIncongruities – Encountering something that runs counter to our expectations (for example, that winds blowing from mountaintops into valleys can sometimes be warm) naturally sparks curiosity.Controversy – Researchers have found that getting students involved in a pro-and-con debate on an intriguing topic produces engagement, motivation, and curiosity.Someone knows something we don’t – This might be called the “I have a secret” dynamic, which often leads to questions and exploration.Different-lens questions – Students are asked to look at a subject from a different perspective – for example, considering a science question from an ethical standpoint.Mash-up questions – Students consider two seemingly unrelated ideas or apply what they’ve just learned in a completely novel context.Manageable knowledge gaps – Incomplete sequences, unfinished sentences, cliffhangers, riddles, and puzzles naturally spark curiosity.Guessing and receiving feedback – Being corrected on an inaccurate guess is especially helpful (assuming a low-stakes environment in which mistakes are okay).Seven “Curiosity Principles”Embrace not knowing. “Curiosity involves an element of risk taking,” he says. “We must delve into an area we know little about or where we feel incompetent. And we’re more likely to do that when we feel safe to admit we don’t know something. Thus, we need to help our kids see that it’s OK to profess ignorance, yet a shame to profess indifference.”Ask fewer, deeper questions. Peppering students with questions is quite common in classrooms, but many of them are at a low level of cognition and ask students to do little more than recall what’s been covered. A smaller number of questions focused on higher-level thinking will spark more thought and curiosity. Goodwin suggests applying this principle to the time-honored question when a child gets home from school: What did you learn in school today? Some alternatives: What surprised you today? When did you feel joyful today? What are you wondering about now?Replace undirected with directed questions. Posing questions to the whole class often results in a few eager beavers raising their hands and 80 percent of students sitting passively while the familiar back-and-forth plays out. Better to cold-call specific students or use “numbered heads together:” the teacher poses a question, groups of four students consider a response, the teacher then calls on individuals by their number in a group.Use questions to provoke thought versus seeking correct answers. Many students avoid answering teachers’ questions for fear of making a mistake and being embarrassed; quizzing students on what they’re supposed to have learned can trigger these emotions. Better to pose open-ended questions and create a climate in which students feel safe making mistakes and develop courage, confidence, and curiosity.Use wait time. When teachers pause for three or four seconds after posing a question, the length and quality of responses increases and students are more likely to ask questions of their own.Let students follow their curiosity. What one person finds interesting, another may not, so students need latitude to explore and find the areas that pique their curiosity and passion. “[C]uriosity is more likely to flourish,” says Goodwin, “when kids are free to pursue their own interests alongside supportive adults who offer well-timed nudges to guide their explorations and keep their curiosity alive.”Go play outdoors. Recent research suggests that the best “medicine” for bored, incurious, video-game-obsessed kids is a dose of sunshine, fresh air, and unstructured play.

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