October is when the quicksand hits. I’m up to my knees in student work and am starting to feel serious pangs of conscience for not being able to give every scrap of paper the care and attention that children and young adults deserve. So I hold onto the work, thinking that I’ll be able to properly process it soon enough.
There’s no way that’s going to happen. There are how many of them and one of me? They can produce far faster than I can respond. I can try to expand the audience for their work–with peer review and even more daring ideas like student blogging that I haven’t tried out yet–but I still feel this intense obligation to give them personal, thoughtful feedback myself. So their classwork and write-ups and reading logs pile up, and soon enough I’m in over my head.
Every year I struggle with this. Every August I prepare a new plan to combat it. I’ve racked my brain trying to find the solution.
Sometimes when you’re so deep into struggling with something, you have to hear a fresh perspective more than once for it to stick.
I read this post by Steve Miranda the other day about his experiences trying to give thoughtful feedback to his English students. Amazing stuff. I recognized myself in his frustration with students who do not seem to appreciate the labor of commenting, and I loved both his experiment and his ability to understand the logic of his students’ motivations. But no lightbulb went off in my head just then.
The next day I was in the park re-reading The Open Classroom by Herbert R. Kohl. I first read it after my first year of teaching, and it had been calling out to me from my shelf at the beginning of the summer. I came across this passage toward the end, in a section entitled On Correcting:
“It is not a matter of whether one corrects a student’s paper so much as a question of when and how. Students produce some papers that they care about and others that they would just as soon forget. In school, teachers have a tendency to consider all the work of a student on the same level. Everything a student does is supposed to be a finished product. There is little allowance for hesitant beginnings, false starts, bad ideas, impossible dreams–all the explorations writers attempt before finding their own voices and the forms appropriate to expressing them. They are expected to be perfect every time. In my experience when students produce a work they care about they want it to be correct in every way–that is, to communicate as fully as possible. They ask for corrections and want to get things right” (p. 111).
Whoa. Students can decide what matters to them, and they can tell me about it.
Steve’s post warmed me up for this thought, and Herbert Kohl’s paragraph drove it home. I’ve held the conscious belief for a few years now that it’s more important that my students do good work than it is for me to know about it. I don’t think it has affected my behavior nearly enough. What I need to know about my students’ work is whatever allows me to assemble good future tasks for them that will meet them where they are. That, whatever information I need to be able to write fair and descriptive end-of-term reports. If my attention to my students’ work isn’t serving those two purposes, and if my feedback isn’t particularly desired by a student on a particular piece of work, then I am wasting my attention and time. If my efforts to interpret and respond aren’t shaping my lesson plans, giving me something to say about the kid come report time, or helping me to build up a relationship with the student around a piece of work, then it’s just ornamental–a mental game that I’m playing alone and with no real-world consequences. I’m just writing comments for myself.
I don’t want to do that.
So I’m going to start asking my students what kind of feedback they want from me, and when.
I’m going to stop treating every slightly-mashed worksheet as though it’s an exotic flower with mysteries in the offing. These products of student thinking and work are entirely secondary to the thinking process they engaged in. Most of what was going to happen for them has happened already. There’s no point to autopsies for worksheets. The kid is still alive and kicking. The question is less, “what happened here?” and more, “what can I do to shape what happens next?”
Finally, I’m going to trust my students more–trust that if I show my willingness to give them attention and advice, celebration and critique, that they’ll seek it out.
I’ll let you know what that looks like in practice. Check back in October.