How I was Quincy, but became Trapper John

It is funny how things seem to fall into order at times. How there seems to be a way to focus things and get direction, even when that seems like the furthest thing from possible. I am the first to admit that over the first 6 weeks of being a principal I have been overwhelmed to say the least. There have been those days when there just seemed to be too many balls in the air to possibly keep the juggling act going. But the show does seem to keep going on!

It is probably from a sense of desperation over the above mentioned balls that I had to look for some sort of focus for the many different initiatives and projects on the go in our rather large school. It is funny where you can find this focus. It my case it was in the idea of DESCRIPTIVE FEEDBACK. It has just sort of worked itself out that our school is looking to focus our efforts around the many levels and layers of descriptive feedback. I have gone into some detail on this subject in earlier posts but I think there needs to be more focus here, especially after the incredible day I had yesterday.

In the morning I was at an SSI Principals Meeting to discuss start ups for our school initiatives and to hear from our Numeracy Coordinator Kathy Kubota-Zarivnij. Kathy had a lot of great insight into mathematics and the challenges that secondary schools face in trying to shrink the gap between the applied and academic level students throughout the province, but the point that resonated with me most was what she said about descriptive feedback. She said that feedback has to be ongoing and timely and that the teacher has to look for creative ways to work with the student instead of teaching to the student. Her closing comment about this was the feedback after the final mark on a test or an assignment is truly useless. She actually referred to this as an “autopsy”! This is my new favourite metaphor. It is also the thing that brings me the most shame when I think back to my own teaching.

Just think about the metaphor of the autopsy for a second. This is perfect for feedback that is badly timed. The teacher is essentially pronouncing you dead and then going into great detail, usually with red ink, explaining to you how you died. All fine and often hard work, but at the end of the process, you are still dead! I remember doing this with the thousands of essays that I read for the first say 8 years teaching high school English. I would write at least a page of copious notes and lots of annotations along the margin of papers that would never be looked at again. I was picking through the remains but there was no breathing life back into these bodies. Tag’em and bag’em was what I was doing.

Eventually I had a bit of an epiphany when I worked with probably the best teacher I have ever seen, John Notten. He was an art teacher that I had developed an interdisciplinary course with and with whom I enjoyed many conversations about teaching at learning. I would watch him give feedback and direction to his students WHILE they were working on their pieces and there never seemed to be any real deadlines (save for the year end art show). We were talking about it and he said that the work was really the thing and the final piece, while important was really just a conversation starter to go into the process. He would explain pieces of art not in regards to their imagery or technique but in the process. He wanted students to be able to articulate why and HOW they created their pieces and that stuck with me. Could the writing that these students were doing for me be a process? Could they get to the end and be able to justify why they used a particular writing style the way they could explain their choice of colour or material to John? It was worth a try and it truly made all the difference. It made a difference because I stopped being Quincy (See above) and started being Trapper John (see below).

As soon as I started giving the majority (almost all) of my feedback during the process and not at the end, my whole attitude about my work changed. Of course my students’ grades went up, but I honestly never really cared about grades. I was feeling better about how I was spending my time and energy. Instead of spending 30-45 minutes explaining (in writing by the way, not face to face), where they had fallen short, I was showing them how to succeed. In fact I found that I spent a lot less time having to point them in the right direction than I did pointing out their errors. IT was just a much more positive experience and that was better for me.

And there is an added wrinkle that we have now. There is so much in the way of technology available to EVERYONE that there are exciting ways to offer and structure feedback. We are investigating these options as a staff now and I hope to be able to blog about how iPads are being used to help students with their reading or how digital cameras are allowing students to play back their student/teacher conferences. I can’t wait to see what some of my amazing teachers are going to do with APPLE TVs and online learning management systems. I can’t wait but I think the truth is that it does not have to be all that technical. There is a reason that I chose TV shows from the late 70s and early 80s. I could have picked Horatio Cane from CSI:Miami and pretty much anyone from Greys Anatomy but then this point may have been lost: good feedback is nothing new. Sure there are some fancy devices around now that make parts of it easier but the real change is in a mindset that some have had for years. I sincerely wish I had made the change sooner but I like to think that I still have a bit of Trapper John or Hawkeye in me still!!

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