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In Five Minutes, Teachers Can Begin to Build Students’ Feedback Literacy

“Ms. Matlick, I start to shake when I get on stage. I literally can almost throw up,” one student tells me.

We have been knee-deep in a research process for three weeks now as my students prep for writing their own informative TED talks on topics of their choosing. At the end of the unit, they will each stand on a red-dotted stage and present their information in front of their peers. Many are excited, but several are naturally apprehensive, or worse.

The public speaking element of the project certainly ups the stakes, and giving the kids many opportunities to test out the stage and their material in front of small groups will do a lot to build confidence.

But as we head into the drafting and revision stage of the writing process, I’m reminded of a post by Floop co-founder Christine Witcher. She wrote about how feedback exchanges themselves in any context can be emotionally charged, too. She suggests that by not only preparing kids in the traditional sense for the task at hand, we should also prep them for a productive, positive feedback exchange.

Integrating feedback literacy into my lesson

The challenge we all have as teachers is that we don’t feel we have a lot of time. I will need to integrate my first intentional lesson on developing my students’ feedback literacy into my teaching of the skill I also need them to learn: in this case, drafting out loud and using trial-and-error to determine the content of a speech.

This is a method promoted by TED talk consultant, Jezra Kaye. Kaye suggests that writers “use sound” at all stages of the writing process in order to lose the stiffness or formal tone that can seep in when composing slowly and quietly. Kaye says we should ask ourselves: Does it sound right if I tell this story first, then share this fact? How about if I give the fact first, and then the story?

“How many of you have done improv before?” I ask.

Many of them nod. Someone says, “We all have. In Explore!”

“And how many of you liked it?” I ask.

About a third give an enthusiastic thumbs-up, another third give a thumbs-sideways, and the rest of the kids just look mortified in advance. No thumb at all.

“And for those of you who didn’t give a thumbs-up, can you describe for the person next to you what type of situation you would need in order to want to give it a try?”

They huddle and talk while I write these headings on the board:
  • Norms for doing the academic task
  • Norms for giving feedback
  • Norms for receiving feedback

Creating shared norms

We reconvene and share responses as a group.

“Some of us need time to think first.” I write that on the board.

“I would rather be sitting than standing,” another student says.

I write “sitting is OK” on the board. “What type of feedback in terms of body language do you need from your audience or partner? Can anyone demonstrate what would not be awesome body language to help a person relax as she tries this?”

An enthusiastic thumbs-upper slouches and turns away from me, the pretend improviser.  “You don’t want to be, like, only half-into it and look like you don’t care if your person does well or not,” she says.

“Nice. So, maybe good posture? And, good eye contact…? This is the kind of immediate feedback you need. Great.” I write it down.

“And don’t laugh unless your partner laughs,” another says. “Laughing can be misinterpreted.”

One student pleads across the table: “Guys, you better be nice to me.”

“But you also want to know if something sucks,” another says. “Don’t just say you love it if it doesn’t. Give a solution.”

“What could supportive but also constructive feedback sound like and look like?” I ask.

The kids have plenty to say about what they expect from their peers. In a few minutes we create norms for body language and sentence starters that my students agree will make them more comfortable doing both improv as a drafting technique and giving and receiving feedback.

After about 5 minutes, we have the following listed on the board, with some additions to make it fit the learning activity we’ll be trying.

Norms for doing the academic taskNorms for giving feedback Norms for receiving feedback
Try !

If you don’t succeed, try at least one new strategy.
Use neutral or supportive language.

“I like…”
“I wonder if…”

Offer real opinions and specific action steps your peer can take to improve.

Use respectful body language:
-Sit up
-Make eye contact
Use respectful body language.
-Sit up
-Make eye contact

Ask for clarification or examples, but don’t argue with your peer’s assessment.

Say thank you.

Practicing our norms

“Let’s give it a try then. In a few minutes, you’ll turn to the person standing (or sitting, if you decide) next to you, and improvise an opening to your TED talk. Take turns and give feedback on the writer’s hook. Remember to use our criteria for hooks,” I say, pointing to that printable on their tables, “but also the norms you decided for this feedback exchange. Take a few minutes to think or review your notes, but, when the timer goes off, go!”

When the timer rings, the room is instant energy as kids stumble, try, and stumble again. Many are laughing, and some are encouraging others to keep going.

“It’s okay!” I hear one student coach another. “You’ve got this!”

I also see some thoughtful “a-ha” expressions as kids turn away from the mayhem to type out or write out an idea they had tried and liked. Several are writing down their feedback.

Closing the activity

At the end of the activity, the kids jot down exit ticket reflections. I’ve been having them do this throughout the unit.
  • What did you accomplish in this activity?
  • What was great?
  • What was hard?
  • What can you do to address that challenge?
Prompt reflection continues to do the task of helping kids pause to address emotional roadblocks like self-criticism or apathy about feedback and toward proactive planning and understanding of their progress.

I tell the kids after this activity that I’d never before combined improv with writing. “This was my own trial and error. I had no idea how it would go. What feedback do you have for me?”

I write down their suggestions (they have plenty), tell them I’ll think on it, and that I’ll likely plan something a bit different for us next time.


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