In my last post I explained that to start this new year, I will be writing about how I’m trying to maintain some semblance of balance–even as each week seemingly demands more–by looking for places where I can cut what I’m doing without negatively impacting (and sometimes improving) my instruction. If there is something you are doing, please share with me, as I’d love to pass it along to my readers!
This week, I want to rethink a topic that I explore a great deal in Flash Feedback: The Pyramid of Writing Priorities. The Pyramid is something I adapted from Dave Stuart Jr., who adapted it from The Core Six, and over the years it has helped me to save hundreds of hours when providing feedback by acting as a guide for when and how to respond to student work. For those who don’t know it, here is what it looks like:
The idea behind the pyramid is pretty simple: We do different types of writing in our classes, and so we should respond to each different type of writing in a different way. Practice Writing, or writing where students practice with new skills or ideas, should likely be mostly ungraded and probably unread; Targeted Writing, or writing that is focused on assessing or refining students’ understanding of a specific skill, should likely get a quick Targeted Response that focuses only on that skill; and Polished Writing, or larger writing that undergoes multiple rounds of revision, should get a greater, more comprehensive response. (This is a quick overview. For more on this pyramid, here is my original post discussing it).
While the idea of the pyramid is simple, using it isn’t always as straightforward because each rung holds a hidden potential pitfall that teachers often fall into, to the detriment of both students and the teacher. Further, I’ve felt for some time that it needs another rung, something between practice and targeted writing, for reasons I’ll touch upon in a moment. With that in mind, today I want to unveil my new, updated pyramid of writing priorities, complete with annotations about the potential pitfalls that can lead us astray and how we can avoid them. Here it is:
What It Is: In their new book 4 Essential Studies, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher recount the story of a ceramics teacher who split his class and told each side they would be graded differently. One group would be graded according to the pure quantity of work they did, with fifty pounds of pots equalling an A. The other group was graded on quality, only needing one perfect pot to achieve an A. The students with all the best quality pots at the end of the course? Ironically, the quantity side, because in pottery, like with writing, the best way to learn is to roll up one’s sleeves and get to work playing, experimenting, and putting in the time (as opposed to sitting around and philosophizing about what makes for great sculpting like the quality group likely did) (13).
Practice writing is that time to roll up one’s sleeves and get writing. It is the low-stakes daily writing where students can practice and play, and it is the first and most critical step for helping students grow as writers.
Potential Pitfall: Practice writing is essential, but there is one common pitfall that is incredibly easy to fall into. Generally speaking, it should be unread by the teacher because it needs to be a safe place for students to practice without fear of what a teacher will think and students should be producing far more of it than even the most efficient teacher could ever read. I have written about this more times than I can count, and yet it is so easy to just take “a few minutes” to read it because we are curious about what students are writing, and if we aren’t careful those “few minutes” can quickly add up into hours of reading.
Solution: The solution is simple and yet hard. Don’t read true practice writing. When students are practicing and playing in their notebook, make it clear to them and to you that this is for them alone (unless they invite you to look at it), and then stick to it. If they want your feedback for this writing, they can ask or share it with you. And if you feel that you should be looking at it, the newest rung of the pyramid is for you…
Polished Practice Writing
What It Is: The newest rung on the pyramid, Polished Practice Writing is Practice Writing that the teacher plans to read. I added this rung because sometimes there is Practice Writing that is useful for the teacher to read and maybe even respond to. In my own classes I’m specifically thinking of reading student reflections that they write as they work through a book or the occasional longer free write we do once we start to refine our understanding of a skill or topic.
Potential Pitfall: When we read something, it is even harder not to respond to it all. The students will likely have such wonderful ideas and showcase such insight and creativity that not responding feels wrong, but taken on the scale of my 160+ students, even a short comment responding to every paper will take hours, so we have to be judicious.
Solution: My solution is that I will tell my students when they submit Polished Practice Writing that I will read it all, but I won’t always respond to it. In doing this I will tell them why: I’m saving those hours of feedback for Polished and Targeted Writing where it will have the biggest impact. Students not only tend to understand and accept this, but I’ve found that these little glimpses into our pedagogy, if the choices we have made are thoughtful, can help to improve teacher credibility, which is one of the most important factors for increasing student achievement.
I then use what I call Opportunistic Response as I read through the Polished Practice Writing, which means that as I read student papers, I look for a few specific things, and when I find them, I leave a quick response:
- A place to make a meaningful connection. We tend to seek connections, and when found, they can be really powerful. One recent study out of Stanford found that when a student learned that they shared a birthday with a math teacher, the student worked on average 65% longer on problems and rated the whole math department as nicer and more approachable.
- A shift, either in a positive or negative direction, that feels worth commenting on in the hopes of underscoring it.
- Work of such joy or brilliance that it feels a crime to not comment on it.
I try to keep these Opportunistic Responses short and limited, and I also keep track of them to make sure that every student gets a few throughout the year. I have found that approaching them like this doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but it does allow me to take advantage of moments where a little bit of feedback goes a long way.
What It Is: Targeted Writing, or writing that if focused on a specific skill has been the champion of my pandemic teaching for two reasons:
- With so much disruption, students have been hungry for concrete lessons about specific skills so they can feel that they have learned something of value. These skills–like using commas, or purposeful repetition, or crafting great leads–are tailor-made for Targeted Writes.
- Targeted Writing allows for Flash Feedback (or feedback focused on a specific skill so that it can be delivered quickly), meaning that even in the most distanced of times, students heard from me personally about their work at least once a week.
Potential Pitfall: While delivering feedback in roughly a minute is really fast by feedback standards, taken on the scale of all of my students, it is still hours. And if I don’t give it right away, as was sometimes the case this last disorientingly-busy semester, those hours can add up and cause the kind of delays that often happen with larger papers and projects because of their size.
Solution: The solution is to give the feedback that day, in that same class. The way I generally do this is I have students do some Targeted Writing for 15-20 minutes, then have the students work on some other reading/writing/group assignment for 20 minutes while I provide Flash Feedback, and then class ends with me returning the writing with specific feedback for the students that they use to correct/revise in the last 10 minutes. This approach is a win-win. Students get feedback the same day and time to improve it, and I take no papers home!
What It Is: The classic reading and response. This is what teachers and non-teachers alike think about when responding to student writing and work. It is where a teacher looks at a larger piece of writing and responds to it.
Potential Pitfall: I’ve written about this a great deal too, but inside nearly all ELA teachers is a copyeditor just waiting to un-splice commas and un-dangle wayward participles. And while it is important to teach grammar, trying to teach it all at once through a series of cryptic edits is generally bad for everyone: for the students, this deluge of comments can overwhelm or intimidate them or at least get in the way of learning (more about this here). For the teachers, doing this takes a long, long time, and the return on investment might not be worth it.
Solution: Do a response autopsy. Get your last round of papers during quieter moments and do an autopsy report on it, using questions like these:
- Am I asking students to learn too many lessons at once?
- What elements of the writing do I tend to respond to the most? Are they the right ones?
- Are there things that I regularly comment on that could be taught through Targeted Writing?
The exact questions to ask during this autopsy don’t matter too much. The true key–which I strive to do a couple times a year–is just the act of looking at your responses through a cost/benefit lens where you think about whether the types of responses you leave are worth the time they take on the macro scale of all of your students.
Thanks as always for reading, and don’t forget that if you are saving time in a thoughtful way, please share with me, I’ll send it along to my readers!
Yours in Teaching,
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