The change I’ve made this year from grading individual assignments to only giving feedback has led to an increased workload. But the extra work will always be worth it when I can see the work pay off in students’ work.
One of the areas in which I’ve seen feedback make a huge difference is in the letter-essays students write, which are similar to the ones Nancie Atwell describes in In the Middle and The Reading Zone. Once a month, each student chooses a book he/she has recently finished and writes a personal, critical response. I introduce letter-essays by having students read several good ones from the previous year, and then they create three lists: what they notice about (1) the format, (2) the content that is always included, and (3) other things they might comment on.
Students write one letter-essay a month, either to me or a classmate, and then we write back. When we respond, we’re not critiquing the letter-essay; we’re responding to their ideas with our own. In the past, I sometimes added a p.s. at the end to remind them of something they were missing in the hope they would include it next time. At the end of the quarter, students each chose their best letter-essay for me to grade, and I filled out a checklist to grade it. My hope was that students would take these checklists and improve over the course of the year. And some did, but others’ letter-essays continued to have the same shortcomings all year long.
This year, this whole process has changed. Now, letter-essays are due on Thursdays instead of Fridays. Thursday night I do a quick reading of each one, and then I leave comments on the Google Doc and return the letter-essays to them. The next day in class, students read my comments, review their notes, talk to me if needed, and then revise their letter-essays accordingly. Only after that is finished do I or their classmates respond. Leaving feedback like this is doable because I only have one class write these a week, and it rotates from week to week.
This has made an immediate difference. At the start of each year some students summarize a lot instead of writing about their opinions, observations, ideas, and reactions. In the past, this sometimes continued for several letter-essays, but now, these students receive written feedback and have the chance to address this immediately instead of waiting until the next month or next quarter.
Other students have trouble with specific areas. There aren’t a lot of topics students have to include in each letter-essay, but one of the few is to explore a theme from the book, something many students have trouble with. Now, these students get written feedback and again get the chance to address this immediately. For many students, this written feedback has been enough for them to successfully explore a theme in their letter-essays. However, this feedback has had an additional benefit because it shows me which students genuinely don’t yet understand what theme means. Before, when students had trouble with theme, I didn’t know if it was because they didn’t understand or if they just got mixed up, hadn’t reviewed their notes, were rushing, or something else. Now, though, I learn this. If students read my feedback, review their notes, and still can’t do this successfully, I know that they need reteaching or extra support, and I can provide this. Sometimes I provide this extra support in class, but I also have a small group of students in each class who come in during study hall during their class’s letter-essay week so we can work on them together.
This process does create extra work as I’m now looking over most letter-essays more than once, but the feedback has made a clear difference in students’ work and in my ability to work with them. The students who are having the most trouble with their letter-essays are definitely farther along than similar students in previous years, and I’m excited to think about where everyone will be by the time they write their final letter-essays in May.