Having Your Cake and Time to Eat It Too: Five Places We Can Save a Lot of Time and Provide Better Instruction by Letting Students Lead

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Writing teachers have never had it easy. Pick any era and dig into its literature around writing instruction and it won’t take long before you find those who teach composition bemoaning how Herculean their task is. My favorite historical example (which I also begin Flash Feedback with) was when Dr. Edwin M. Hopkins asked the following question on the first page of the inaugural edition of The English Journal: Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions?

And his answer? No.

Dr. Hopkins goes on to say that “it is an indisputable truth” that composition cannot be taught well under present conditions: There are simply too many students to teach too big a topic.

It is also worth noting that Dr. Hopkins had 100 students, which would be a dream for most modern teachers. And yet even at 100 students, Dr. Hopkins has a point. At a load of 100 students, every 5 minutes of time spent with each student/each student’s work equates to over 8 hours of teacher time (the number goes up to 12.5 hours for 150 students), and best practices in writing instruction require a lot of one-to-one work and personalization because writing is as unique as a fingerprints Some of the most time-intensive of these writing instruction best practices include the following:

  • Regular reading and responding to each student’s work 
  • Holding conferences with students
  • Being responsive in our instruction, and being responsive, by definition, means listening to and learning from students first before seeking resources and building instruction that meets their needs
  • Helping students to design and engage in a writing process that works for them
  • Facilitating individual student goals

At a glance, doing all of this does seem impossible for 100+ students, just like it did for Dr. Hopkins, and frankly it is impossible if we don’t use every feedback trick and tool we have learned in the 111 years since Dr. Hopkin’s time. A regular feature of this newsletter has been to share these tricks and tools (see micro-conferences, flash feedback, or the pyramid of writing priorities, etc.), and yet of the things we can do to teach composition well and in less time, arguably the most effective one is also often the most overlooked: finding places to let students lead.

No idea has shifted my teaching and my work/life balance more positively than regularly finding places to give the microphone to students before taking it for myself. This is an idea that I’ve talked about in the newsletter before, but it is an important one that is worth revisiting. Further, I’ve previously talked about it in bits and pieces, so I thought I would take time this week to bring all of the ways that letting students lead has helped me to be a better, more effective, and more equitable teacher together in one post, with links to resources and previous posts for each. Here it goes:

Student Self-Assessment

My original post on student self-assessment is the single-most viewed post in the history of my newsletter. And I think the reason is that it is a true game-changer for writing teachers. To understand why, all you need to know is that feedback on summative/graded assessment is dramatically less effective than feedback in the formative stages when no grade or other assessment is present. And yet, even when teachers know that, they still tend to take five or more minutes to write a note on final papers that offers explanation and justification of the score given. Those five minutes can feel minor while working on each paper, but remember that at 100 students, five minutes per student equals eight hours. Do this with five papers or projects in a year and that is a full extra week of work.

And yet the ending note is nearly ubiquitous because that is what is expected by students, parents, guardians, and administration. This is where the students come in. When well trained, students can be remarkably effective at both assessing their work and offering explanation and justification of the assessment on the summative draft of an assignment. And when students provide the assessment and justification instead, it frees the teacher to sign off on final drafts and then do more valuable things with that time, like offer more formative feedback, provide more meaningful praise, or reclaim some nights and weekends. It is also better for students because it asks them to be metacognitive and engaged in their writing growth in a way that we often don’t ask them to be.

For more on the specifics concerning how I train students to assess and justify their work, use revision history to quickly check their assessment, and handle issues that can arise like moments of disagreement over a score, see the original post here.

Student-Led Conferences

Conferences are crucial to good writing instruction. But like feedback, conferences can take a long time. In my classes with 30+ students, a week of five minute conferences with each student during the 50 instructional minutes each day takes nearly a week, and every 90 seconds added to those conferences tacks on another whole day of conferring with students. 

Of course, every 90 seconds cut on average from the conferences also saves a day of conferring, so efficiency really matters when it comes to conferencing. And the best way to have efficient conferences? Have the students prep and then lead them. This means that before I hold a conference of any size, I have students complete a Google Form that acts as a way for both the teacher and students to prepare for the conference (see right).

Student-led conferences also make it easier for me to play the role of interviewer, listener, and notetaker, which helps me to really hear and help them and get solid notes within the span of even short conferences.

Student-Suggested Mentor Texts

I have a tendency to agonize over finding the just-right texts and mentor texts for my class. This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug, and I have found the same to be true for the texts we use in class. The right one can light up a room and fill it with conversation. The almost right one not so much.

What has always frustrated me about finding texts that inspire and inform student writers is that no matter how much work I put into finding texts, too many of my texts ended up being lightning bugs, not lightning. 

That changed when I began to open up potential mentor text selection to students. This is easy to do too, and it saves me a lot of time. Just put a QR and/or link to a form where students can give suggestions (see right) and give them a few minutes to fill it out. This approach has led to some of my favorite lessons in recent memory, including using Shel Silverstein in high school (my second-most viewed post on the blog) and unpacking the way the opening of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse hooks the viewer, and it has saved me from going down any number of text-searching rabbit-holes.

Meaningful Student Peer-Response

Given the absurd logistics of conferencing and feedback, there is a hard cap on how much of both teachers can reasonably give. Luckily, students can be strikingly effective at responding to and conferring with each other. And when this happens, the students get substantially more feedback, but they also get more of something that is potentially as or even more important: an opportunity to critically read other pieces and offer feedback. On the surface, the opportunity to help someone else might not seem like that an essential thing, but an under-discussed body of research has made very clear over the last few decades that when it comes to improving almost everything—from our writing to how we manage money—we often get more from giving thoughtful advice than receiving it because of how the act of giving advice shifts our mindsets. 

Like with self-assessment, peer response done right—where students know what to do, how to do it, and feel comfortable enough with their peers to do it—takes training and practice (see post here for how to do that), but the time invested up front tends to pay off with handsome interest as it lightens the feedback load for the teacher while also opening up opportunities for students to teach each other and themselves valuable lessons.

Student Tracking of Feedback

We know that regularly revisiting something is the key to retention, but in most situations feedback is viewed once (if it is viewed) and then never seen or mentioned again. This issue is why a great many writing teachers have some way of getting students to track their feedback. My favorite example comes from Tyler Rablin; in his freely-available list of assessment resources, he shares this example of a simple system that he has the students use. 

When we ask students to track their own data, it takes it off of our plates and invites them to become stewards of their own data and authors of their own journey, as we act as mentors guiding from the side.

A criticism often explicitly or implicitly levied at movements to let students lead is that they are not rigorous enough because the rigorous adult is not leading the way. I, however, have found the opposite is true. When the teacher controls all the assessments and conferences and texts, the students are allowed to play the role of passive passenger. But when much of class involves the students driving, passivity is not an option, or at least it is far more obvious when it happens.

When the students lead, it also frees teachers up to be more strategic with how they use what is one of the most underrated and precious resources in education: teacher time.

Thanks for reading and yours in teaching,


If you liked this…

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