My Best Moment of the Week: Getting Students’ Feedback (19/365)

students raising their hands in a full lecture hall

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Visiting one of our elementary schools last week to drop something off, I used the chance to visit a couple of classrooms. While I was standing in the doorway of one fourth-grade room, the teacher crossed to me.

“They’re just wrapping up their reading groups,” she said and explained this was the second week of the students working through a menu. Each week groups had a selection of Must Do and May Do activities to work through. It was an added element of student choice and a move on the teacher’s part to better recognize students’ agency.

The teacher told me she’d been impressed with what she’d seen in the first couple weeks and she was working to help the students get used to their new control over the learning.

“And what about the kids,” I asked, “Do you have some sort of feedback mechanism built in to get a sense on how they’re thinking about the changes?”

“That’s a really good question,” she said without missing a beat, “Let’s do that now.”

She called the groups back to their spots and asked them to discuss two questions with one another: What was going well with the new structures, and what could they do to improve the class moving forward?

That would have been enough to make my week. Not only were this teacher and her team trying something new based on a drive to get out of students’ way and better honor their agency, she saw value in hearing students’ feedback to such a degree that she was willing to adjust her plans on the fly to give students an opportunity to report out on what they thought of her new ideas. That, alone, would be enough.

But, that wasn’t the best part.

I perched myself amidst a group of four young women and listened as they talked with one another in response to their teacher’s questions. It was an exchange the civility and earnestness of which I’ve rarely seen in a faculty meeting. Their teacher had given them yet another chance to help chart the course of their learning and they were equal to the task.

As their conversation wrapped up, I asked if I could get their feedback on one more query. “Sure,” they told me.

“Well, your teacher is responsible for making sure you’re learning, right? So, how, with this new way of doing things, might she be able to keep better track of what everyone’s doing and what they’re learning from it?”

A pause as four faces with pursed lips considered my question.

Then, they were at it again. A lot of decisive, Wells as they started tossing ideas around, building on and pushing the thinking of those who’d spoken before them.

My favorite idea came from the student sitting to my left. She suggested students could write a couple of sentences as they finished an activity, relaying what they’d done in their groups and what they’d learned from it. Then, she said, they could take pictures of their writing and share it on Seesaw so both their families and their teacher could see their thinking.

I’ve been in 3-hour meetings with teachers where only at the end did we get to an idea as clear and salient as hers.

To anyone who’s been following these ideas for a while, it should be clear why these moves of practice and these ideas brought me so much joy.

What might not be as clear is the joy I took in the ease with which these students had their conversations and shared their ideas. You might not see my joy at how quickly their teacher considered a new idea, modified her plan for the day, and sought her students’ feedback. The ease and comfort of all of this bring me joy because they signal this is the normal for this classroom. Conversations, democracy, feedback, honoring students’ thinking – they were all taken in stride. That is evidence they don’t just happen when visitors are in the room. That brings me joy.

Can You Take a Compliment?

After last night’s improv show, I was sitting in the lobby of the theater as the last few audience members were leaving. “Great show,” a few of them said, “That was really funny, and I had no idea where it was going.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Last night was one of the rare occasions I was in agreement with them. It had been a fun show. The group was listening, playing around the fringes of chaos, and still paying attention to when we needed to calm a scene or “rest the game”. While far from perfect, it was a good show. I could agree with those audience members.

This is different than many shows where the quality to which we aspire and what actually ends up happening on stage are significantly different. After these shows, inexplicably, audience members still offer what feels like genuine positive feedback on the performance. These are the hardest “good shows” to hear.

Internally, I think, “Were we at the same show?” and begin to tick off the myriad moves I should have made and didn’t. I map the imperfect listening and the lines I thought would land, but flopped when they made it to the audience.

Externally, I say, “Thank you.”

Time was that I would say thank you and keep internally accounting for all of my flaws in the show. After almost two decades of performing improv, I’m getting better at realizing mine isn’t the only valid perspective on a show.

For everything I would or could have done better, the audience members who honestly compliment a show I think went down the tubes can recount a moment that made them laugh, surprised them, or pulled them more closely to a world that didn’t exist before the show started and will never exist again.

And that’s the lesson. Were they to pick at the flaws of a show (while socially awkward), I’d be right there with them. “When you went to do X, but the other person did Y, it looked like you all didn’t know what to do next,” would bring me into the conversation fully.

Acknowledging what we did right, though, is a more difficult pill to swallow. It means not only seeing the world from another person’s perspective, it means seeing me from another person’s perspective and deciding to like what I see. This is not easy.

Yet, it’s exactly what I asked high school students to do when I implemented High Grade Compliments. The thing I was prepared for in helping my students formulate specific, positive comments for their peers was the mining and speaking their thinking. Seeing the good in another person and speaking that good to them are two different things.

Remarkably, they took to this quickly. They’d been paying attention to what they appreciated in their classmates all along, it seems. What they struggled with – to the development of deep blushing, nervous smiles, and an inability to hold eye contact – was hearing someone else call out how they made our classroom a better place.

It’s why I added coaching on the receiving of compliments to the process. The rule was simple, “Really listen to what they are saying and then say, ‘Thank you’.”

School, life, and any number of outside forces had tuned them in to hearing criticism from others and even accepting it. And while critique has its place in the building of better ideas and examining beliefs, it shouldn’t be our default when people start to talk about us or our work. Living in the belief that the world wants you to know what’s wrong with what you’ve built doesn’t lend itself well to inspiring the building of new things.

It was the teaching of this lesson to assembled adolescents that shifted my practice in improv. Urging others to be open to what their peers might appreciate about themselves meant I needed to shift my listening as well.

Now, when shows don’t go as well as they did last night and an audience member’s opinion of a performance is more positive than my internal damning, my thank you is internally followed by, “…for making me take the time to realize there was more good there than I was willing to see.”

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Things I Know 265 of 365: I’ve been worrying over grades

But there are advantages to being elected President. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified Top Secret.

– Pres. Ronald Reagan

I’ve decided, if possible, to take all of next semester’s courses pass/fail.

It was a decision I almost made when I registered this semester, but the schooly devil on my shoulder shouted pretty loudly.

I’m not failing any of my classes and I’m reading and learning more than any aggregate moment of my undergraduate career. The problem is that I’m worried about the grades in a way that makes me uncomfortable and that leaves me wondering if the learning I felt like I was doing matched the grades on my assignments.

This problem works both ways.

Earlier this week, I received a graded stats assignment (and you know how much I’m loving stats). Along with the comments from the Teaching Fellow (what Harvard calls TAs) was an A. I received an A on the assignment.

Then I got angry. I’ve been reminding myself any B I’ve received this semester was someone else’s interpretation of my learning and not a reflection of what I’d actually learned on the assignment. Most of the time, I’ve interacted with the grading TF no more than a sum of 10 minutes. Even if it’s been more, the samples of my work and thinking my graders have seen have been minimal. It’s a little like a standardized testing window.

My anger at the A rested in how quickly I was willing to accept a complimentary grade when it validated my self concept.

I can’t have it both ways. No matter my reaction, the effect is the same. Grades distract me from learning.

This is not to say, as Dave Thomer commented the other day, that I don’t respect and internalized my teachers’ critiques of my work. I’m here to study with experts and learn from them. Part of that means submitting my work for their response.

Whereas a grade hits me like a period of exclamation point marking the end of my thinking on the matter, a paper returned riddled with questions and comments begs a conversation.

I read a grade as, “We’re done here.”

I read comments as, “Say more.”

One of these is internalized as a statement of worth.

The other is read as the invitation to keep thinking and asking questions.

I’m hoping removing overall grades will cancel out some of the background noise and help me focus on my learning and my professors’ coaching of that learning.

Things I Know 260 of 365: I’m not sure what I did right

When we fail in this diagnostic role we begin to worry about ‘assessment.’

– David Hawkins

I’m struggling to write tonight. I’ve been struggling to write for the last few days.

I’ve an assignment due tomorrow – 8-10 pages, and I can’t get myself invested in it. Or, I’m too invested in it.

For the last assignment in this class, I submitted work of which I was proud. I spent time and thought on the assignment. I worked to refine my thinking and understand which other thinkers served as progenitors to my ideas.

My work was submitted with a feeling of having been thoughtful and diligent in my work. I had learned something new and refined   old thinking.

When I got my assignment back, I struggled to find positive comments. I struggled to find comments that were in response to my ideas.

I didn’t need praise lobbed at me or ego stroking. I just needed a clear sign of where I was on the right track; otherwise, I start to question if I was anywhere near that track.

Because I am who I am, I submitted a re-write of the assignment. Re-doubling my efforts, I consulted the rubric even more the second time than the first.

While my grade on the second attempt was higher than the grade on the first, I’m still sitting here stymied as I work to complete this new assignment.

It’s a horrible feeling.

I don’t know what I did well in the last assignment upon which I can build for this go-round. I have lists of things to avoid, but I don’t know what I’m good at in context of trying to do what’s been asked of me.

I’ll write more tonight.

I’ll write more tomorrow.

I’ll turn in my assignment tomorrow.

I’ll be hesitant to feel proud.

And the thing that kills me – that absolutely drive me batty – the work I did on the first assignment and the work I did for the re-write was fine work. I am still proud of that work.

But there’s a teacher’s opinion in there. There’s a teacher’s opinion muddying the waters of my learning.

And I’m really hating the fact that matters to me.

Things I Know 30 of 365: Feedback can be tricky

Do not say a little in many words, but a great deal in a few.

– Pythagoras

For a pretty large chunk of the day, yesterday, I was in my office – lights off, bottle of lavender essence open, Balmorhea playing on iTunes.

I was working to complete an implementation plan for the inquiry project assigned as part of my grad program.

By the end of it all, my desk was covered in printed resources and my web browser was creaking under the weight of all my open tabs.

I submitted my 6 hours of work ahead of schedule, hopeful it rose to the challenge presented by the assignment.

For the plan, I’d suggested some ideas the practicality of which I was unsure. As I juggled them in my head, I was fairly certain I’d culled the best of the ideas. Still, I was uncertain.

This afternoon, I logged in to the course to find my assignment had been graded. I’d earned 45 out of 45 points. Relieved, I turned my attention to the comments field to see how the ideas had played out with my facilitator:

The plan summary clearly articulates a focused problem statement: the specific goals, which are measurable; the specific solutions you have chosen for t his project; the preparatory steps; and the expected outcomes for the inquiry project. The weekly plans are clear, creative, and appropriate with evidence of insight and thoughtful planning.

While I’m pleased with my score, it doesn’t doesn’t really do much for me as feedback.

Neither do the comments.

Two circumlocutious sentences with words that certainly sound as though they should mean something, but no.

Today, I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion on how schools can foster student innovation. While, I can carry on a conversation with a tree stump, I’ve never moderated anything. For 90 minutes, amid some interesting audio issues, I attempted to probe the minds of five deeply thoughtful educators. I was, in a word, nervous.

While the audience clapped when they were supposed to and several strangers told me “good job” when everything had concluded, I was uncertain of the job I’d done.

Later, sitting in the office snarfing a bag of popchips and downing lukewarm coffee, I checked in to twitter.

From Chris, I saw “@MrChase is an amazing moderator,” with a picture of the panel in progress.

Michael replied with, “So true…You are rocking, Zac.”

And from Ben, “You did an amazing job. Period. You=my hero.”

I realize they are tweets. Even re-typing them here, I feel a bit silly.

Still, those three lines contained more feedback than any of the acrobatic language from my facilitator.

I know these three. Through the relationships we’ve cultivated, I’ve come to understand their expectations and what it means to earn their approval. While I see the hyperbole in what they’ve said, I also know they do not offer up public praise lightly.

I understood their expectations, and they offered up their opinions using clear language.

I know I completed neither the implementation plan nor the panel moderation perfectly.

The feedback I received on both was positive. In fact, the implementation plan score implies I did nothing wrong.

Still, I’ll never message my facilitator seeking advice for improvement. The relationship is too distant, the language too obtuse.

Should I ever need to moderate again, though, I’ll seek the advice of these three, knowing they will evaluate me with a notion to help me be a better version of myself.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Grading

As I’ve explained, I started my master’s program a few weeks ago. Through an online program, I’ll have a Master’s of Teaching and Learning in Curriculum and Instruction in 14 months. It’s my first time in an all-online learning environment. They’re doing it wrong.

I’m a pretty decent student.


I like to think. I like to participate. I love to learn.

Oh, and I get good grades.

One quarter in high school I got straight A’s. Otherwise, it was A’s and B’s. Still, not too shabby.

It’s been a while since I’ve been graded.

Turns out I’m perfect.

I really shouldn’t be.

Assignment #1, Parts 1-2-3 was my first attempt at the use of APA style. I’m pretty sure I got it wrong. At least I think I got it wrong a couple of places. I’m not entirely sure.

Here’s what Education Specialist had to say:

ES hit on each of the areas of the rubric. And…well, that’s it.

My favorite comment? “APA was used.”

You bet your sweet bippy it was. Used correctly? Who’s to say?

Well, at least I know how to improve it.

You see that place where ES questions my thinking and points me to places where I can improve in the future?

Yeah, me neither.

Probably just ran out of time.

Let’s take a look at another one. My Philosophy of Teaching. I worked quite thoughtfully on this one. It’s my statement of what I believe as a teacher. I edited it publicly as a google doc and revised more than most anything I’ve written lately.

ES says:

Ok. Note my ability to connect my philosophy of teaching to my learning is worth as much in the assignment as my ability to properly utilize writing conventions. Sure, those are the same things.

Again, no direct questioning or push back. That’s fine, because the assignment was shared with my peers in the course for discussion. Wait. No.

I’m torn on how I feel about the fact that two assignments sit turned in but ungraded.

I teach. I teach in a classroom with 32 learners in each section.

I get that grading in a timely manner can be a bear to say the least.

If the feedback were richer, though, I’d be more forgiving.

If the feedback pushed my learning, I’d be more forgiving.

Neither of those things is happening.

When I saw the score on Assignment #1, I shared it with the rest of the team in South Africa. “That’s great. Congratulations,” was the general sentiment.

While I’m not saying I’d like to have failed, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the 53/53.

I worked a long time on that assignment. I didn’t learn much of anything, save for APA style (I think).

In Making Learning Whole, David Perkins provides three types of feedback:

  • corrective: announces what’s wrong “Yes, but…”/”Good, but…”

  • conciliatory: vague, uninformative positive feedback

  • communicative: structured to ensure good communication 1) clarification, 2) appreciation, 3) concerns and suggestions

As a teacher, I’m going to be striving to live more in the world of communicative feedback this year.

I wish ES was doing the same.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong.