When I was in college, the only feedback I ever received from my professors regarding my written work came in the form of red ink scrawled across the paper. None of my teachers ever gave me more than a line or two of written feedback. They marked spelling errors and other mechanical issues, but never really focused on the content. I also never received oral feedback or had conferences with my teachers regarding my work. While I feel as though I did grow as a writer, I had to do it on my own. As a teacher, I want to support my students as they grow as writers. I want to have the boys think about their writing as a living being. What can they do to make that sentence, line, or paragraph stronger and more descriptive? Does that line make sense? So, over the past several years, I’ve worked closely with my co-teacher to be sure we are providing our students with effective and beneficial feedback.
Today during Humanities class, the students participated in our first Poetry Slam of the year. The students read aloud the object poem they crafted last week in class. Prior to the students reading their work aloud, we discussed the art of a Poetry Slam and even showed them a video of Taylor Mali reciting a piece of his brilliant work aloud. We had the students make noticings of what Taylor did well. They all caught what we hoped they would. They understood that inflection, annunciation, characterization, body language, and volume are all important aspects of reading poetry aloud. We then explained the protocol we were using for our Poetry Slam. The boys all seemed to understand exactly what they needed to do. Despite this, many of them looked petrified. Rarely this year have they had the opportunity to read their work aloud in front of the class. Usually, if they shared their writing, they did it from their seats. The Poetry Slam forced them to be on display with all eyes on them. What if something went wrong? Plus, we asked them to take a risk and read their writing with gusto and not in a normal manner. We wanted them to try something new and take a risk. We wanted them to breathe life into their brilliant poems. This is a difficult task for many sixth grade boys. They don’t want to appear different or embarrass themselves. We reminded them that our classroom is a safe place in which they can try something new and be supported. This still didn’t seem to alleviate their fears.
With this in mind, we also reminded them of the purpose behind having them read their work aloud. In the seventh grade English class, the students will be expected to fluently read aloud their written work quite frequently. So, practicing this skill and improving their ability to read aloud, will help them be fully prepared for the rigor of the seventh grade. They seemed to get this.
Rather than put anyone on the spot right away, we asked for volunteers. One person raised his hand almost immediately. So, he read first. He did a fine job, reading his poem slowly, inflecting and enunciating in places. He even emphasized some words. So, to help other students understand the expectation and to praise this student for having the courage to read his piece first, I provided him with positive feedback. I praised him for having the courage to go first. I also pointed out how well he did reading with pace in mind. He had a smile on his face and seemed to feel very good about his performance. Awesome, I thought. We had several other students volunteer after our first boy. They all did great work and I provided them each with a sentence or two of feedback. My goal was to point out the things they did well that showcased their ability to meet the objective. I also wanted those boys to feel good about taking a risk and trying something new. Reading aloud in front of a group of your peers is hard work. I wanted the boys to feel supported. While I did thank our last few students for reading aloud, I no longer provided them with specific feedback. At the end of class, I realized I should have been more specific with my feedback to those boys. While they didn’t master the skill, they all took a risk. I should have pointed that out to them.
Then, my co-teacher brought up an interesting point, providing feedback to students in front of the whole class can be detrimental to the students. Even if it is positive feedback, her rationale was, when not all students receive feedback, they may feel singled out. She also mentioned that the other students might feel intimidated to go next after the last student received such accolades. While I don’t agree with her point, I understand where she is coming from. However, how do students know what the expectations are if you don’t point out examples? Would other students have volunteered as easily if I had provided no feedback to that first student? Would the other students have recited their work as wonderfully as they had if I had not provided the specific praise to the first student? Would other students had been more open to volunteer if I had not offered the feedback I did? How does this kind of positive feedback in front of the whole class affect the students? Do they get embarrassed? If students don’t receive feedback, do they know how to grow? Is it possible to offer feedback in the moment to students, individually, when a group reading activity is taking place? Did my feedback affect some students negatively? While I praised almost every student, there were one or two who I merely thanked for reading aloud because their lack of English proficiency made it difficult for them to effectively meet the objective of reading aloud. Should I have said nothing? If I had asked the students to make noticings of their peers’ ability to read aloud, would they have been as positive? Would the students have taken it as seriously if feedback was given by their classmates? Would it have taken too long to do it that way? Is there a more effective way to provide feedback to my students in a read-aloud situation like this? I want to praise them for their great work and courage, but I also don’t want to negatively impact the other students by doing so.
After speaking with my co-teacher about this, we decided that the only way to figure this out, is to do some action research. So, in the coming months we want to gather some data from our students. We want to know how feedback impacts our boys. Do they like specific and positive feedback in the moment even if it is in front of their peers? Or would they rather not have any feedback at all? What works and what doesn’t is what we are going to try and figure out.