Ran Holeman, Upper School Head, Upper School English / April 1
While completing the long overdue process of cleaning out my desk last weekend, I found an essay I wrote in high school. The margins of the now yellowed paper were filled with handwritten notes from my teacher. Some of these notes were encouraging, referencing phrases or passages of particular insight, and plenty pinpointed weaknesses in my writing, whether they be vague analysis or indicators of lackadaisical proofreading. At the end of the essay, there was a longer note summarizing the strengths and weaknesses I had demonstrated on the assignment. Both then and now, these notes communicate an immense sense of care on the part my teacher. They show in clear terms that he was actively concerned for my growth as a writer and a person.
Not surprisingly, considering the quality of this feedback, I stayed close with this English teacher over the years, eventually asking him to write a recommendation on my behalf when I began to seek a position as English teacher myself. And naturally, during my first year as a teacher, I strove to model the feedback I gave my students on their writing assignments after his. Providing this kind of feedback was as rewarding as I expected it to be, but it was also incredibly time consuming. At the end of that first year, I called him so that I could put to him the many questions I had recorded over the last nine months. One of my first was, "How long does it take you to grade each essay?"
There was a long pause after I spoke, and during it, my mind raced and my heart pounded as I anticipated his answer. I just knew that thanks to his decades of teaching experience, he would have a process that was both spectacularly efficient and deeply meaningful. Instead, he said, "About thirty minutes." I sighed. After all, thirty minutes was about the amount of time it took me to grade an essay.
After reflecting on this conversation (and grieving a bit), I recognized its ultimate takeaway: giving quality writing feedback simply requires you to invest the right amount of time. Writing is so deeply personal to students. Sometimes the subject matter contributes to this heightened sensitivity, but even when writing in the most analytical of forms, it inspires fear and requires trust. Students, by instinct, recognize how many complex intellectual activities they are completing at once as they write an essay. Consequently, your feedback must be both caring and critical, and it must be built upon a strong relationship with the student, one in which they trust you to help them be clear-eyed about their weaknesses and potential. Your feedback must help them recognize their own growth.
The writing feedback process used by Doane's English department is designed to cultivate this sense of growth. Its centerpiece is having teachers write in-depth responses to each draft a student completes, and in addition, teachers coach students through the experience of being workshopped, when they share their first draft with their peers and the class works together to help them improve it. It closes by asking students to complete a piece in which they reflect on the changes they made from draft to draft and how they have improved as writers. This piece, too, receives teacher feedback. Doane's process is time intensive for both the teacher and the student, but its resultant growth is inspiring. Such a process is only possible when class sizes are small, relationships are strong, and teachers are willing to work incredibly hard. Doane provides such a learning environment, where these three elements are present and teachers spend about thirty minutes grading each essay.