Friday, December 3, 2010

This Much I Know...

We began our conversation last night with two things we know for certain. Gathered around a conference table were our two PA Writing and Literature Institute instructors and five practicing teachers, myself included. We've each been pursuing our own teacher research on areas related to teaching writing. As I posted earlier, I'm looking into how the principles of mastery learning and grading might help to improve student writing. Specifically, I've been looking at how feedback on writing assessments differs between teachers who use a more traditional, cumulative grading system versus those who subscribe to the ideas of mastery learning.

We were inspired by Dorthy Allison's quote about her Aunt Dot:
"Lord, girl, there's only two or three things I know for sure." She put her head back, grinned, and made a small impatient noise. Her eyes glittered as bright as a sun reflecting off the scales of a cottonmouth's back. She spat once and shrugged. "Only two or three things. That's right," she said. "Of course it's never the same things, and I'm never as sure as I'd like to be."

So, here's what I know so far from my research:

Progress in student writing depends, in part, on doing something with feedback. If you've taken the time to grade a student's work, if you've written comments on it, or made suggestions for improvements, you must give students time to do something with that feedback. If you don't, you have wasted a great deal of your time grading the piece and wasted the student's time by asking them to write it. If you're not going to do something with the feedback, then don't give feedback.

This is not a new thought. A great many writers and teachers of writing have been saying this for years. But, it was interesting for me to see it echoed through the interviews and surveys that I've been doing with both teachers and students. Students admit to stuffing graded papers to the bottom of their backpacks with only a cursory glance at the percentage or letter grade at the top, and teachers admit to not giving time in class for students to read, reflect, respond, and revise based on the feedback they've given. And both teachers and students responded that they continued to see the same feedback time and time again. And no wonder. If a student doesn't have an opportunity to reflect and respond to a teacher's feedback about a his poorly written thesis statement, he's going to continue to write bad thesis statements.

What was most interesting to me about this is that many of the teachers I interviewed talked at length about times when they were able to really connect with a student and help that student make progress. Each example recounted a time when a teacher was able to help a student specifically identify a writing skill to work on, and then work with the student over time on various writing assignments to improve in that area. The student had multiple opportunities to receive focused feedback and respond to it, revising and reflecting on that skill area in order to make progress. Hmmm...isn't this working toward mastery? Identify specific skills, practice that skill, both teacher and student reflect on the student's progress, make adjustments, and repeat.

Which leads to the no-duh moment for me, the other thing I know for certain: our curriculums must clearly articulate the skills students are working toward and not simply the texts that they will read. In talking with teachers and in survey responses from teachers not just in my district but from all over the country, I have learned that many English teachers are simply picking for themselves the skills they will help students in their specific classes develop. One ninth grade teacher will choose to help her students develop clear organizational strategies in their writing, while the ninth grade teacher across the hall is working with his students on commas. And although both items are listed in the state's standards for writing, there is little consistency from class to class, let alone from year to year. I'm not suggesting that English teachers sit down to rewrite curriculums by creating page upon page of skill lists. But we need a starting point, a common ground and a common language. And by articulating the skills that we want our students to work on, we will help students develop as better writers overall, and not simply as better writers of literary analysis essays in response to a specific text.

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