Sunday, September 14, 2014

Attending to Voice and Proximal Zones: My (Growing) Approach to Feedback

Giving effective feedback continues to be an area of frustration and growth for me. With so many student projects to read and evaluate, time is a huge limiting factor. Even when I do have time to give feedback, I'm not always sure that what I say or write to students is effective. By effective, I mean that my words provide students with enough guidance for them to more deeply think through a writing project. Part of what I need to do is incorporate assessments that helps me gauge how students respond to the feedback. I'm toying around with tweaking the "post-mortem" metacommentary students write after publishing/turning in a writing project. 

For today's blog challenge, I'd like to talk about two modes of feedback I'm most involved with right now. The first has to do with generative writing. The second is a new strategy I'm experimenting with for giving feedback later in the writing process. 

Generative Writing: So far this semester, I am being quite conscientious about giving students written feedback on their journals and reading responses. Students get full credit for these types of focused free writing assignments.  I read them, looking to see what students are thinking about the material. My comments at this point are as a reader; I simply react to their ideas, their voice. I might let a writer know which line or idea piqued my interest. I might point out an idea that they might pursue for the formal writing project. Perhaps I'll ask question, but one that I genuinely have about the writer's ideas, not a leading question meant for the writer to fix something. If the writing is personal or if a student discloses something that triggers my emotions, I'll say so. And if the writing suggests they might need some sort of referral, I make one. Basically, I respond to the content as I understand it - not correcting nor evaluating, but listening for voice. The guiding principle here is letting the writer know what her words make me think and feel. 

Feedback Later in the Process: I've added a new "habit of mind" to the way I give feedback to drafts for more formal projects. I try to observe where I see a student beginning to demonstrate understanding a new concept or practicing a new skill. I note where she is at a "proximal zone", where a student is on the way to mastering a new learning objective. It's that zone between what a student "can-do-on-her-own" and what she cannot. Perhaps the skill she is attempting is something we are working on in the class. Or it could be something that I notice that isn't necessarily what we are studying. Either way, I'm looking to see what she's just about able to do rather than what she can't. 

For instance, I might notice someone is experimenting with explaining a quote. I would write, "I see you are the verge of doing commentary - you are trying to explain what this quote means. That's a smart strategy to consider using whenever you quote an outside source."  To a student experimenting with using lists to illustrate a concept, I might say, "You are developing skill with the 'listing strategy' to show readers what you mean" and then add a guidance comment like, "Let's figure out how to make the list flow."  Instead of saying, "You've got a parallelism error here", I want to name the skill the writer is on the verge of doing effectively so they can recognize it as one of the writing techniques they can use. And then I'll add a coaching comment to get them closer to mastery. 

In order to do this, I have to read with an eye toward observing what students close to comprehending rather than hunting for mistakes. This reframes the way I see student errors; those mistakes can be manifestations of students trying out a new skill or expressing a new idea. How empowering it is to hear or read something that notices you are in the process of learning instead of seeing red mark that tells you you've done something wrong.  I got this technique from Lucy Spence's "Generous Reading: Seeing Students Through Their Writing."  Working with her ideas has been an challenging learning curve, compelling me to observe from a different angle. But trying on Spense's theory is already paying off. 

In a nutshell, what I'm thinking about feedback right now is about being someone who reads for my students'  nascent ideas, someone who listens for their voices. I am trying to minimize criticism of structural and mechanical issues so students can figure out what they are trying to express. Secondly, I want to be a generous reader, someone who notices and names what students are on the verge of understanding and then provides a helpful comment, leading question, or other form of  guidance that nudges students out of their proximal zones towards proficiency . . . and mastery!