At the start of summer school, we asked our students to write us a letter. We asked what they thought of school, of teachers, of English, of themselves. We gave students a worksheet to write on with prompts like “where were you born” and “what is your favorite meal;” to encourage more reflective writing, we first read two letters out-loud in class: one from HuffPost of a teacher asking his students to step up, and a response from a high school student asking that teacher to step off.
Our students’ letters were to serve as an emotional/motivational pre-assessment. Why would students care about our class? How do they feel about themselves in class? We wanted to learn more about how students relate to us teachers, our content area, and school.
So often I feel that we teachers forget about why and how students learn. Or why or how they don’t, or choose not to. We know what and why we want them to learn, but what makes a student engage or even care?
My teaching team administered an academic pre-assessment, but that was to gauge what content we most needed to teach. I learned much more about the why and the how behind students’ learning from the honest writing in the letters.
One of the big teaching questions I’m grappling with is how much data is enough. Once I collect student feedback, what responsibility do I have to use it? While my gut says that more information is always better, I also recognize there is a collection cost of time and energy for both students and teachers. Letters take a lot of time to write, and a lot of time to read. Even more time if teachers plan to code the letters in a meaningful way and enter that data somewhere.
Also, if ten of my twenty students say they simply don’t like English, what do I do with that? I can acknowledge the sentiment during the next class, try to empathize or commiserate with students, but is there really anything I can/should do? Perhaps not all information needs to be wielded.
Another thought: how is student feedback stored so that it can be accessed, analyzed, and used? We have twenty letters from students about their likes, dislikes, relationship with school, relationship with friends, and much more. My teaching team read the letters, made notes on which students might need a bit more love or support, and put the letters in a folder. We never re-visited the letters. There was so much else to do, more writing to review, more feedback to reconcile.
Having our students write these letters was valuable as a writing exercise and a reflective activity. Student writing has a purpose beyond informing instruction. As I grow older I increasingly view writing as a muscle, one that quickly atrophies without use.
Still, at the term’s end I craved comparative closure — a summative “how do you feel now” writing assessment of how students’ beliefs or opinions or habits have or haven’t changed. I wanted a way to refer back to those original letters in a meaningful way, to prove that students’ opinions were honored and used to inform my work. I daydream about honing a super teaching system like a student feedback Vitamix that takes any and all student writing, extracts the nutrients of student knowledge, background, and personality, and blends a pressed juice drink of relevant teaching changes for my morning breakfast.
At the end of summer school, we did administer both an academic summative assessment and a qualitative feedback survey. I was proud of my teaching team — in terms of collecting student input, I felt we were doing more than most. We briefly reviewed both assessments as a teaching team after class on our last day, but it was tough to stay focused. There was a classroom to tear down, goodbye lunches to share, friendly banter about the upcoming break.
I want to use data and feedback to make class feel more relevant, engaging, and supportive than ever. Yet I’m learning about the opportunity costs of collecting data, and the weight that data can have in your teaching backpack as you head home each day. As a teacher, perhaps a good start will be not asking questions without knowing where I plan to put the answers and how I plan to put them to good use.
Featured Photo Credit: Letters by oatsy40