The Virtues of Narrative Feedback

Photo: Holy feedback!

Holy feedback! – cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Audin Malmin

I have fallen off the pace a bit with the Dr Bernard Bull‘s Beyond Letter Grades MOOC, which is well worth a look even after the natural run of the course. I have been collecting a series of badges from the course and hope to collect them all but need to make tracks to finish all of them on time. Here are some thoughts and an example of narrative feedback.

A few years ago I started seriously re-envisioning grades and the whole grading process in my classes. Grading has always been my least favorite part of being a teacher. In fact, I dislike grades so much, I would just as soon avoid grading student work at all. However, the first time I attempted to not grade student work there was very near a mutiny.

Teaching in a high achieving high school, especially with a group of ninth graders already well-conditioned to working the grading system like pros, they were more than taken aback by the prospect of not receiving a grade on every assignment. I wrote more extensively about the first time I experimented with not grading work, even reflecting on the experiment after a few months.Since then I have continued to modify my grading practices considerably.

Of course, all of the grading has not been at the expense of providing students significant feedback. In fact, I began trying to leverage feedback in a more purposeful way. For years I had come to understand that student writing warranted most feedback earlier and more quickly in the process. Since I had long stressed and provided students with opportunities for revision of written work, nearly every writing task was transformed into a more formative assessment. This has had some pretty powerful implications in my teaching.

It is increasingly rare that I have arguments about grades in the classes where I grade the least amount of work. In not marking a paper with a grade, students have almost no choice but to review the feedback I have provided. Also, how I give feedback has evolved considerably.

The feedback technique I employ most often, especially with essay writing, is simply marking-up papers with nothing but targeted questions, precisely placed in connection to specific parts of the student’s text. I do this in both analog and digital formats, directing the kinds of revisions I would like to see students make. This has definitely had a significant impact on many students, helping them to produce higher quality “final” drafts.

Additionally, I will use narrative feedback at times, depending on the purpose of the assignment. My example assignment is a literacy narrative writing task, which I kind of nicked from Professor Deanna Mascle. The goal for students was to write a story about an important moment in their development as a literate person. They could focus on reading or writing, They had a lot of freedom and I encouraged them to be creative. I did coach students to focus more on a single moment or event, rather than list a series of events in catalog fashion. Below is a recent student example from one of my ninth grade sections. The name has obviously been anonymized.

Jim Shue
Mr. Haas
English 9
23 October 2013

A to Z Mysteries

     Until fourth grade, I hated to read books. I thought that they were just a waste of time. Then, one day, my friend told me to read one. The book was called the The Deadly Dungeon, which was part of the A to Z Mystery Series. I did not take him very seriously, but I agreed to read it so he would stop bugging me. So, I read the summary on the back of the book and I was completely interested in the story. The book had exactly what I liked. It had mystery and suspense and I thought that it would keep my attention. I rented the book at the school library and took it home. I read that book all night long, until my parents told me to go to bed.
     The next day, I went back to the library and looked in the mystery section and found many other A to Z Mystery Books. There were all of the other books from A to Z. The line of books started with the Absent Author and ended with The Zombie Zone. I took one more home every night until I read every single one of them. My parents were shocked to see that I was now interested in reading, instead of just sitting down and watching television all day.
     Of all the books, my favorite book had to be The Deadly Dungeon, which was the first book I read in the series. There was so much suspense and action that made it interesting and I fell in love with that book.
     As I got older and moved to different schools, I kept on reading mystery books and became fully intrigued by them, especially those written by Ron Roy, the author of all of the A to Z Mysteries. To this day, Ron Roy is my favorite author of all time and he had a big impact on my learning. The mysteries were always unique and different in their own way, making me picture what was going on in my head. The stories were about three young kids who were detectives, and they would have to find evidence and solve the mystery. I still use the technique of making a picture in my head to make me understand a story.
     If not for the A to Z Mystery Series, I probably wouldn't like to read one bit and have to be forced to read books for school. Mystery stories always interest me because the action and suspense makes me want to read more. Also, I think that if there is no action in the story it can get boring at times and lose my attention easily.
     The A to Z Mystery books also got me intrigued about writing because it made my writing more exciting and interesting. I loved how Ron Roy made the mysteries exciting and descriptive, and I try to make my stories just like his. Also, in the beginning of his stories he always grabbed my attention which made me read the whole book. I personally think that the first couple pages are the most important pages in any book. If they are boring and don’t grab the reader’s attention, the reader will just put it down and not continue reading.
     The ending of the A to Z Mystery stories would always end up solved and be a happy ending, which always cheered me up when I was nine years old. Every young kid always wants to see a happy ending in a story. These stories always gave that to me. Mysteries are my favorite type of genre because of the action throughout the books. The A to Z Mysteries were obviously fiction stories because they were very realistic and would probably never happen in real life.
     In conclusion, the A to Z mysteries were a huge part of my life and made my fourth grade year very enjoyable, which so far is my favorite year out of the nine so far. Hopefully, I will read a story similar to the A to Z Mysteries very soon in high school. If that happened I think I might like class even more.

Feedback Notes:
Jim,
     This is really quite a good first draft. The goal was to share a story about an important experience in your development as a literate person. You selected a powerful early reading experience, developing it with description and narration. By focusing on reliving an early reading experience you are able to include details that establish the context and your early favorite titles.
     If I were to make one major suggestion, I would say try to share the experience of reading one of the books from the a series a bit more. Take the reader with you in reliving the reading of The Deadly Dungeon, for example. Show what it was like to read the story in more vivid detail, using descriptive and narrative techniques we have addressed in class. That will be a more powerful means of sharing this event. Right now, you are doing a little more telling about the books, rather than showing your reading of them. It would be a matter of adding some material around The Deadly Dungeon section, making it come alive a bit more. You are doing some of this but tipping the balance more in favor of showing instead of telling is where you make the most improvements. May your revisions go well.
H

Interestingly, this example was actually lucky timing in relation to Beyond Letter Grades. This assignment served as a one of a handful of rehearsal tasks in preparation for a much longer personal narrative assignment that will actually serve in a more summative fashion, scored with a rubric and graded in a more traditional sense. This was a good but not necessarily the best of the efforts I saw from my ninth grade sections. The student was clearly trying to complete the task as assigned and did so admirably for an initial draft. The student will have the opportunity to revise this piece for re-submission at a later date. Plus, I was able to turn this around and return it to the student the next class meeting, which can be a major factor in the effectiveness of the feedback.

I like using narrative feedback in particular with narrative writing assignments, because it can, in a way, model certain techniques, like descriptive modes of detail and quality, as well as specific narration in the form of suggestions.

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