Second Shift: The Too Big Bite That No One Can Swallow
When my stepson was three, chewing and swallowing was challenging for him. He would take a bite of macaroni and cheese or chicken, and struggle to use his teeth to break it into smaller pieces. “Chew on the sides,” his dad would say. “Take smaller bites,” I’d suggest. One of us would reach for his plate to cut up the chicken. I’ll get him some water, I’d say and then jump up from the table. “Take a drink.” It was a cacophony of the best-intended parents at work, but was it helpful? I’d watch his eyes grow wider as he chewed, and chewed. Frustrated, he would spit the food back on his plate. “I’m all done,” he’d say.
Was it just a matter of time? Because time, takes time. It’s the space in between children’s phases of development that worry us. We live in a reactive society. The minute something feels like it isn’t on track we find ourselves feeling helpless. So, we open the computer and google it; we read all the books, and often, at least for me, take action right away.
What do I need to do to fix this?
The problem is there isn’t just one result when we Google, or one book when we search on Amazon. There is so much information out there that we can easily go down the rabbit hole, and overwhelm ourselves with next steps, tips, and fast solutions. Life is captured in headlines. Humor is shared in memes and YouTube Videos. Full disclosure: I love videos of kittens cuddling as much as anyone, but the access to information is endless. This is the world our students are navigating. Knowing that instant and never-ending access to information is part of their daily reality, how can we support them to manage it all?
Are we getting too much feedback?
My first few years of teaching, I spent hours grading my students’ writing, and giving feedback. I had a system that I believed was best for my students: a lot of feedback is good feedback. Another full disclosure: I didn’t even think to ask my students what types of feedback they found helpful or if they knew how to receive feedback, or even if they knew what feedback was. I assumed these were skills they already had.
The system went like this: I would first mark up their writing line by line. Prior to teaching, I was a magazine editor and writer, so this was the type of editing I was most familiar with. I wish I could say that I never used a red pen, but I often used whatever pen I had around. I was also a big fan of the highlighter. After the line edits, I would write each student a multi-paragraph letter where I highlighted what I thought they were successful at, and what I thought they still needed to work on. I didn’t consider there may be value in asking them what they thought would be most helpful. After all, students don’t grade their own writing, and would they even know how to self-assess their work? Every peer editing lesson I planned had been nothing short of a disaster.
Just typing that made me cringe. You don’t know what you don’t know.
As you can imagine, this system took a long time. It took so much time that one year I was still grading papers on Christmas Eve while the rest of the family sat around the fire and watched Christmas Vacation. It got to the point that I carried my students’ writing wherever I went. If I was waiting in line at a coffee shop, I’d pull out a paper and start marking it up. Once I missed my stop on the subway because I was writing feedback.
What was most interesting was how my students responded. If you are a teacher, this image will either make you laugh and empathize. I’d pass back the papers, students would flip to the back, look at the grade, and then toss them in the trash. Not even the recycling, the trash.
If insanity is the definition of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then my approach to giving my students feedback on their writing was insane. I kept using this system, and they continued to toss my feedback in the trash.
I remember an especially painful conversation with one of my mentor teachers. “I don’t understand! I have taught comma splices three different ways. I’ve showed a video; I’ve provided examples, and they’ve corrected sentences with comma splices in groups! Yet every single paper, there are still comma splices! I spend my nights and my weekends writing as much feedback as I can, but their writing never changes!”
She then proceeded to do something for me that was hard to swallow, but powerful. “Julie, what if I came into your classroom to watch you teach, and a few days later handed you several pages of my feedback. Both positive feedback, and constructive criticism are included.” She then began to list some of her observations of my teaching. As she continued to speak, I could feel a heaviness in my chest. It became hard to focus on what she was saying. I started to feel so overwhelmed by all her suggestions and comments that I stopped listening.
I threw her feedback in the trash. I couldn’t take another bite.
Finally, she stopped talking.
“What was that like for you?” She asked.
“Impossible,” I said. “I couldn’t process everything that you were sharing.”
“Do you feel like you have a sense of what you need to work on in your teaching?”
“No! I feel like I am a terrible teacher, and I have so much to do, and so much to learn.”
Point taken. A teachable moment.
When I work with teachers, some of the comments I hear most are, “I hate grading.” “Despite giving feedback, my students aren’t improving. ” “I don’t have time to give the kind of feedback I want to, and “the students don’t seem to care what my feedback is or know what to do with it.”
What I see in these moments are teachers who are just as overwhelmed by feedback as their students. The feedback loop is broken and there is no joy in the process for anyone. Receiving feedback then becomes a painful process instead of an invitation. Suddenly no one is hungry, and everyone wants to leave the table.
When I begin to work with teachers on feedback, we start to shift their thinking by exploring what feedback means to them. I ask them, “think about your own story of school. Identify a teacher, coach or adult who gave you feedback that you still remember. What feedback did they give you, and how did they deliver this feedback? While they are thinking, I see the light start to return to their eyes. Some teachers even smile. Others cringe.
Their responses go something like this. “My tenth grade teacher, Mr. Martin, would ask us to answer two questions at the bottom of every assignment. Did this assignment help you learn? What is one thing that made you curious as you did this assignment? I still remember thinking, Mr. Martin cares what I think? Isn’t he the teacher? I’m just the student! But now that I am a teacher myself, I am realizing that asking students what they think and what their experience was like is an important part of feedback.”
A small step, a big shift.
Some teachers struggle to come up with answer. Instead, they flip the question on me, and say, “I can remember the teachers that didn’t give me feedback.” One of the teachers I was working with shared that her eleventh grade teacher told her that her writing was C level work. The teacher didn’t explain the rationale behind the grade or give any specific feedback. She said C is average, so you did well enough. “I always worry that I am only good enough,” she shares. “ Even as an adult, I still feel like everything I do is C work in my teaching and in my personal life.”
Feedback is powerful stuff. Especially when we give our students too much of it or not enough of it. So how do we find the balance?
Today I took my son to his first theater class, and his first soccer practice. He was nervous, and didn’t want to go to either. I got down to his level, and said, “remember when you didn’t want to try red peppers because you thought they’d be yucky?”
“Once you tried red peppers, you loved them, and now you eat them all the time. If we always eat the same things or do the same things, we could be missing out on all kinds of fun. And sometimes finding the fun means trying something new which means maybe feeling a little uncomfortable.”
He nodded. Fast forward four hours later, and he says, “mom, I love theater and soccer is cool.”
It’s easy to stick with what we know or even what we think we know. Our teachers may have marked up every line of our writing, and so we teach how we were taught. We may think that we aren’t doing our jobs if we don’t correct every error or comment on every paragraph. So we pick a plan and stick with it, but nothing changes, and even though it isn’t working, we keep doing it.
Shifting can be scary. Being in a learner’s stance can be scary. Doing something outside your comfort zone can be scary, but that’s exactly why we need to do it.
This summer one of my colleagues asked me to facilitate a Design Studio by myself in New Buffalo, Michigan. A Design Studio is a two-day in person workshop where we introduce students to our coaching process and begin to craft a plan for their work with us this year. The colleague who asked me is a colleague who I respect, admire, and constantly learn from( You’re awesome, Daniel). He’s not someone I say no to often. So I said yes right way, and as the design studio grew closer, my anxiety built. I had never been to New Buffalo, Michigan. I would be working with elementary teachers, and I taught middle and high school. I planned several new activities, and didn’t know if they would be well received. There was so much fear. But then, there was also the excitement of possibility. What if it went really well? What if the teachers were engaged in the work and eager to start coaching? What if Google Maps got me exactly where I needed to go?
Eventually the two days came and went. When I walked out of the school afterwards, I felt so energized. I was proud of myself, and I learned things about myself that I didn’t know before. I made a shift from I can’t do this to, I am going to trust that I can try to do this. And it was cool.
It was a shift in mindset. A willingness to try something new.
(New Buffalo Teachers and Administators hard at work)
I always tell teachers that I coach a mindset, not content. Part of that mindset involves conducting experiments. These experiments involve testing out a new teaching move, routine, procedure or strategy, and collecting data to reflect together on whether or not the experiment had a positive impact on both the teacher and the students.
“You want me to do what?” This teacher wasn’t buying it. “You want me to ask my students for feedback on how I give feedback?”
“I don’t want you to do anything, “ I said. “I am suggesting that you might want to consider asking your students if the feedback they are receiving is helpful. It might be interesting to ask them how they would like to receive feedback, and how much feedback they need in order to take action.”
“Isn’t that opening up a giant can of worms?” He said.
“What’s so bad about that?” I said. “Is the current system working for you? Is it working for your students.”
He said nothing, and then said, “Ok. Let’s try it.”
Step one in the Feedback Experiment was giving students a survey on the current feedback they were receiving. Once the students completed the survey, we looked at it together in a coaching session. The patterns were clear, but not what the teacher I was working with expected.
Most of the responses looked like this:
I understand why my teacher gives me feedback on my writing.
When I receive feedback from my teacher, I know it will be helpful.
I see the value in getting feedback on my writing.
My teacher gives me feedback because he wants to help me become a better writer.
“It sounds like having a conversation with your students about feedback is your next step” I offered.
He agreed, and held a class meeting where he asked his students to think about a team or group they were a part of where people gave and received feedback well. What did that feedback look like? What did it sound like? What did it feel like?
From there, the class worked together to create a list of hopes and fears around receiving feedback.
I worry that the feedback will make me feel like I didn’t do a good job, so I don’t like to read it.
I hope for less feedback because I think the less feedback I get, the higher my grade will be.
I hope to know what to do when I read the feedback, but I often don’t and there is no time to ask questions.
Too many big bites, and too much to chew. The students couldn’t swallow their feedback. They couldn’t even pick up the fork.
“ What feels like the next step? How can we address both their hopes and their fears?” I asked him.
“Maybe instead of grading for every single thing–grammar, structure, word choice, content, etc. I could have them each focus on one thing. at a time”
“Say more things,” I prompted.
And this is how Fun-Size Feedback was developed. Over two-coaching sessions, we talked through a process where students would set a goal for their writing. They would share the goal with their teacher, and he would support them to refine it so it was SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely). When he collected their writing assignment, he would give feedback on this goal only. He took a video of himself giving the feedback, and shared it with each student. They were able to watch it as many times as they wanted or needed to. After they watched the video, they wrote 2-3 sentences explaining if they felt they had met their goal, and why, or if they felt they weren’t there yet, and how they could use the feedback to formulate their next goal.
(Thank you, Kaelee, for the student work examples)
Another teacher decided to highlight only a one area of focus that she wanted a student to address in his writing. Once the student got back his writing, he revised just the highlighted area of focus. Using an Independent Correction Sheet, he identified the problem area, and revised. The teacher provided a list of potential problems to support the student and scaffold the process.
(Thank you, Darcy for the student work examples)
No more papers in the trash. No more big bites. Fun-Sized, and only one bite at a time.
Shift Small: Steps For Teachers And For All Of Us To Start Shifting
1. Fun-Size Your Feedback For Your Students And Yourself.
One of the strategies I recommend to teachers is to provide students with a glow, and grow. The language is incredibly positive, and the amount of feedback is digestible. At our company, we use the same framework in providing feedback to each other. Parents might want to consider using this framework with their children. It provides a familiar and predictable structure, which makes receiving the feedback feel safer and lower stakes.
2. Throw It Out (Not the student writing!)
Consider becoming open and willing to experimenting with new systems for giving your students feedback. If your current system is leaving you exhausted and depleted, and your students aren’t improving, then it may be time to try something new. While it may feel like there isn’t enough time to tackle the feedback problem, ask yourself if you want to spend another winter break doing line edits.
3. Shift Your Daily Inventory to Daily Gratitude.
I used to do a daily inventory before I went to sleep. I’d go through my day and give myself feedback. Usually it went something like this, “If only I had…next time I will do better…I can’t believe I…I didn’t get that done, etc. Not only did I have trouble falling asleep, but this thinking wasn’t productive. The day was done, and beating myself up over the “shoulds” and “what ifs” wasn’t aligned with my values of balance, joy, and authenticity. My colleague, Chuks, starts all of his meetings with teachers with a sunshine moment. He asks teachers to share the bright spot from their day. I have started using this with my children, and I have replaced my “shoulds” with my own bright spots.
(Thanks, Chuks for the meeting agenda)
4. Set Yourself and Your Students Up For A Small Win.
If your students have one writing goal to focus on at a time, they can manage that bite, chew it, swallow it, and digest it before they take another bite, and write another goal. When we are trying to develop and practice skills, we need to be realistic about what we can handle. For example, if you want to start exercising, and you tell yourself you will go to the gym every single day, you may be setting yourself up for failure. Ask yourself, is it realistic for me to set this expectation? If you start small, and commit to taking the stairs instead of the elevator, you are more likely to have a small win. You are integrating exercise into your daily routine, rather than starting a new routine all together. The same applies to teaching. Rather than commit to giving students feedback on their writing within two days of receiving it, tell your students that you need time to look at their work, and set a more realistic expectation for yourself. A small shift, a small win, but a bite you can easily chew.