Surviving in the Eye of the Storm: Quick Sorts, Class Letters, and Feedback Loops

All, Guides

Here I sit in the eye of the storm. Yesterday was the last day of classes and Monday kicks off finals week which means that I and other writing teachers are facing an onslaught of grading. I have final projects for all my classes plus an on-demand writing final (department mandated) and another set of grading that I need to do as part of a committee assignment (which I have been putting off because busy and I hate the idea of it but there you are). And I know that my grading burden is easier than many of my co-workers and considerably less than my friends teaching writing in middle and high school. This is one of the great failings of modern education at every level. We have so diminished the value of teaching writing that far too many teachers have more than 100 student writers passing through their classroom in a semester. Many writing instructors are even teaching closer to 200 student writers a semester. And then they (the media, the powers-that-be, the public) wonder why Janie and Johnny can’t write (even though they can but that’s another blog post). I have written about grading a lot on this blog and, in fact, have several notes on my idea list for future blog post because this is a topic that occupies the brains and conversations of many (all?) of my teacher friends due to the numbers game above. Most teachers I know hate thinking about education as a zero sum game, but we have no choice to think about grading in those terms as there are only so many hours in the day. Short of huge systemic changes that I do not anticipate any time soon, what can be done to provide the support and feedback our student writers need while also feeding grades into the system on a regular basis? First it is important to think about grading as something much more than the final number or letter assigned to a deliverable. Grading should be part of a classroom ecosystem and feedback loop.

Quick Sorts

One of the many many classroom tools that the National Writing Project has taught me (see KWP Made Me A Better Teacher) to help me craft just-in-time mini lessons and directed support for my students is the Quick Sort. Is is a simple genius method for assessing how well students have learned a specific writing skill or technique so you can plan your next steps. First, teach a lesson focused on a specific writing skill then have students individually write to practice that skill. Then collect a sample (5-7) of student papers. Examine the first paper in the stack for the strengths (specific to the lesson you just taught) of that writing sample. This is now the standard for one stack. Next examine the second paper in the same way. Focus on strengths not deficit language. Then compare to the first stack. Does this student sample belong in this stack or should it create a stack to the left or right indicating a progression of skill use? Continue with the next writing samples until all are sorted into three stacks. Now examine each stack for trends and patterns. What skills have students mastered? Finally brainstorm strategies to help students in each stack progress to the next stage of skill development. As you get better at the quick sort you can include a bigger sample or even the whole class, but the point is that you are doing a QUICK SORT and not undertaking feedback and/or grading. Students can generate a big or small piece of writing based on your evaluation of the type of practice they need to engage in, but you do not need to read that whole thing. You can collect and provide a “work completed” grade (if your teaching situation requires regular grades), but only look for the specific skill you want to check. I know it is difficult at first, but believe in yourself! Remember, you do not need to grade all the things that your students write. You do not need to read all the things that your students write. Sometimes selective check-ins and quick sorting is much more appropriate for your purpose and much more humane for you (and your students).

Class Letters

This semester I taught a combination of online and hybrid classes as usual. This means I see some students only once a week and others not at all. I actually prefer this method of teaching writing as it gives students time to process new ideas and practice their own work at their own pace while still having regular contact with my developing writers (my general education writing classes are hybrid while upper level professional writing classes are online). In class we engage in a combination of brainstorming exercises, direct instruction, and collaboration and then out of class students practice, share, and provide feedback via Google docs. This asynchronous writing workshop offers me lots of opportunity to check in with my students and their work. Sometimes I provide direct feedback, but more often I like to craft a class letter and/or use a quick sort to determine the focus of our next class. I cannot remember who in my PLN first introduced me to the idea of the class letter, but I love it and write several throughout the semester. I determine the content of my class letter (which is posted as an announcement in Blackboard) based on reviewing student writing. I typically divide the letter into a good, bad, ugly framework. I usually call out students by name for succeeding at the task or at least pointing out what they did right. This way other students can look at that work as a model. I will then describe one or two common pitfalls that seem to be plaguing the work I reviewed. Finally, I wrap up with some tips and strategies for improving their work and succeeding on the current unit deliverable – usually noting that these are things they should check for during their own revision process and peer review.

Feedback Loops

I have made writing self-efficacy a cornerstone of my writing pedagogy for many years (even wrote my dissertation on it!) and I firmly believe that feedback loops are a key part of developing writing self-efficacy. I make it clear through check-ins, quick sorts, and class letters that I am looking at student work all the time, but I am not spending a lot of time with each individual piece of writing which makes this work much more efficient for me. However, I also know that students crave feedback and models and that is what I try to provide both in class and in our Google docs. In class I employ pair-share or small group feedback sessions almost every class to provide rapid feedback about student thinking and planning as well as writing. While students are working on these I can circulate and listen or check-in as required. Out of class, students are given some weekly writing task suitable for our stage in the development of the unit deliverable. Sometimes it is a snap crafted to help us (the class writing community) understand the student’s thinking, sometimes it is a specific aspect of the project (such as a claim or evidence), and other times it is a rough draft. Working with Google docs allows me to set up a home base to ensure that feedback is spread around and covers the essential topics and also offers students the opportunity to provide direct feedback on a student document. Next semester I want to try to work in a set of small group conferences to provide some more focused feedback (and accountability) before we get to the rough draft stage. I am also toying with some sort of ongoing deliverable report (weekly reflections/updates?) prior to the grade conference because the two versions of the “Make Your Case” grade report I’ve used so far have weaknesses.

What strategies help you survive the eye of the storm and the end-of-semester onslaught of writing feedback and grading? While we can’t reinvent the system, we can reinvent our classrooms. What are you thinking about changing that will strike that delicate balance between supporting your students and preserving your sanity? Check out my tips for easing the pain of grading as well!

Artwork via Pexels

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