As a middle school language arts teacher, I am responsible for seeing that my readers and writers grow and achieve at their highest ability levels possible. That seems simple enough as I write it down on this page, but in reality it looks much more complicated and messy—especially when this particular group of students that comes through my door each day consists of about 75 teenagers. I find myself struggling to keep up with them all, especially when it comes to their progress in writing workshop. How do I find the time to get to all of them on a regular basis so I can give them constructive and meaningful feedback (or “feed-forward” as we refer to it in my classroom)?
Throughout the years, I have finally found (and continue to find) a few simple but powerful opportunities to connect with my writers individually and to provide them with the “feed-forward” support they need to be successful—as well as provide myself with the data and notes I need to keep records of their work.
Daily Notebook Collection
How many of us have gone out and purchased a rolling crate that we shove full of student work to take home with us night after night? I know I did, and not only was it a tall task to lug their notebooks home each night, but the act of cracking open 25 to 50 of them to check in became daunting. I found myself giving only surface-level responses and lacking any connection to my students as writers. Something needed to change!
In an effort to not only be efficient, but also to really dig in and give valuable, reflective responses (which my hardworking students truly deserved), I have started collecting three to five student notebooks per night (per each of my three class periods). Not a groundbreaking concept, I know, but looking deeply at several notebooks a day versus glossing over a whole class full has been extremely beneficial for both my instruction and student progress. I am able to give in-depth feed-forward and record significant notes for later instruction for each student—something that notebook collection in bulk did not lend itself to. Not only am I enjoying reading my students' work, but I am seeing much stronger revision habits coming from them, and I'm still getting through all of my writers within a week and a half or so. True, I don’t get to see all of their writing all of the time, but shouldn’t my students be writing so much that it is impossible for me to read it all anyway?
The best kind of feed-forward doesn’t come from just one person, but from a variety of people. I started exploring the concept of “feed-forward Fridays” when inevitably, during workshop, we would run out of time to share our work with peers. This designated day allows us even the smallest chunk of time (anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes—or less if you're strapped for time) to be sure we are getting new sets of eyes on our writing each week. Based on the focus of our writing for the week, students choose a piece they hope to get some feed-forward on and share their work digitally or by swapping notebooks with a peer. (This can be done with writing partners or table groups, or in any other fashion you see fit.) During this time, students provide their peers with constructive notes, questions, and praise about the work they are reviewing. This often sparks new thinking in the writer that they may not have previously considered, and often helps to build confidence too.
Just as it sounds, these tabs are sticky notes for students to mark a piece in their notebook where they want my extra attention. A student may be struggling with a concept (for example, using dialogue within a narrative), or thinking hard about a topic and wanting to double-check it with me, or wanting to share a celebration. This looks different from my weekly notebook collection, because I typically have students leave this brightly colored sticky note on their table as they are working (a sign to me to check in—all while alleviating interruptions during conferences). If it’s urgent, they can flag a specific page in their notebook and leave it in the collection bin at workshop’s end for me to look at that evening.
When we get our hands on the resources to use technology in writing workshop, we jump on it. Within my workshop, most of our writing happens in Google Classroom. We gravitate to this tool because of the collaboration factor: it's easy to share work with others, receive feed-forward, and store a record of revisions. From a teacher standpoint, I can also access their work from my own computer at any time without directly interrupting them. I use this perk to
- notice trends happening within their writing that could lead to small-group conferences,
- point out things they are doing well,
- ask probing questions to guide their thinking,
- respond to notes they may have left for me, and
- notice the need for urgent interventions or opportunities for reteaching.
All of the above opportunities help to guide my face-to-face conferences during workshop time. Based on the information that I have gathered from these check-ins, I am able to form targeted small groups and prepare for specific conferences based on the individual needs of each student.
In combining the strategies above, I also am sure to get my eyes on the writing of every student at least once a week. While recording my interactions with each student’s writing in a Google Form, I can house a running record of the frequency of my check-ins and data about the writing they are producing. These are practices that not only offer efficiency within my workshop time, but also provide a wide variety of opportunities for my writers to receive feed-forward regularly, and from a variety of resources.