When all else fails, keep teaching! Plus, a note on the power of feedback.

They said ‘Austin good start now we can start giving you critiques so you can do a second draft and make it better and a third draft and make it better and you can make it much much closer to this [the exemplar].’ – Ron Berger, Austin’s Butterfly

Austin’s Butterfly – Drawings showing the drafting process – screenshot from the YouTube Video by Ron Berger and taken from teaherhead.com.

Introduction: Today, the world seems to be teetering on the brink of disaster. Or perhaps we are already in an active state of disaster. Either way, it’s glum. The headlines of the NY Times this morning included reports of the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, the accelerating climate crisis, and the COVID pandemic that seems to ebb and flow and never end. These past few years have been a rough one for the world. And yet, I keep teaching. The students, privileged and fortunate as they are, keep coming to school. Hope still remains.

My sixth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Coblin, used to tell us (and I remember this so very clearly), that we should continue with our learning no matter what. She talked with her hands, had a thick Long Island accent, and sounded a lot like Mike Myers’ Linda Richmond character from Saturday Night Live. She would deadpan:

“If I fall down… if I fall down on this floor right here and have a heart attack… if a catastrophe happens outside… if some great disaster is on the verge of happening… just continue on with the lesson. Step over my dead body. Close the door. Walk yourselves over to the board and finish up whatever it is we are in the middle of. You can call for help later.”

Sometimes I feel like, perhaps, I am still a student under the tutelage of Mrs. Coblin. Soldiering on because I honestly can’t think of anything else to do.

What’s been going on in my classroom recently? So, time is passing and my digital storytelling unit is now underway. It’s been going great. A bright spot in my days. We started out by going over the “What, Why, and How” of Digital Storytelling, and then talking about the steps of the digital storytelling process. We watched exemplar videos, reviewed the success criteria, created helpful anchor charts on what makes a good story, brainstormed ideas for our stories, and drafted scripts. It’s been a busy month and we have covered a lot of ground in our mini-lessons and workshop sessions.

Student-created anchor chart: “What makes a successful digital story?”

This brings me to feedback! After the students drafted their scripts my partner Shafali and I thought it would be a great time for us to bring our classes together to do some peer feedback. Shafali teaches grade 5 and I teach grade 7 but, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, we are collaborating on this unit. Scheduling was a bit of a struggle because we teach in different divisions, but we were finally able to find a time that works thanks to some colleagues who were willing to shift their classes a bit.

Shafali suggested we use Austin’s Butterfly as an example when talking to the students about feedback. It’s an absolute classic. I can think of no better way to explain to learners the importance of drafting, revising, and soliciting input along the way when creating something.

Austin’s Butterfly: Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback. According to the YouTube description, “in this video, Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer at EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) demonstrates the transformational power of models, critique, and descriptive feedback to improve student work.” Berger, the author of the book “An Ethic of Excellence“, often talks about the importance of process over product and the benefits of taking your time when completing larger projects.

If you haven’t watched this video before, please do. It describes how a student named Austin was able to improve his sketch of a butterfly over the course of several drafts after receiving feedback from his peers about his work.

After watching the above video together, the students talked about what they had seen and the importance of receiving feedback. They were shocked to see Austin’s first draft as compared to his last! Then, Shafali and I shared a slideshow that we had created to explain to the students the process they would undergo to give critical feedback to each other. Here’s the link to that slideshow if you want to see it.

Slideshow overviewing the Peer Feedback process. Developed by Megan Vosk and Shafali Shafali.

The feedback process we used was a modified version of a choice board designed by Catlin Tucker. In this process, students chose two of the six ways explained on the choice board to provide written feedback to their partner.  Shafali and I had put the students in home language groupings so that they could use their home language in addition to English if they needed to.

Peer Feedback Choice Board developed by Catlin Tucker and modified by Megan Vosk and Shafali Shafali

After students read each other’s scripts and gave each other feedback, they reflected on the comments they had received using a protocol developed by Shifting Schools called Digesting Feedback.

Digesting Feedback protocol developed by Shifting Schools.

I actually spoke about this feedback protocol on an episode of the Shifting Schools podcast called “Starting the Year with Sharpened Tools” that came out in January 2022. I was excited to be able to actually use it!

Here’s an example of one of the student’s completed feedback forms with the self-reflection questions answered at the bottom.

Example of student feedback form from our peer feedback session.

And, here’s a pic of the students collaborating in the classroom during the feedback session. It was one of my favorite lessons of this year so far. Seeing all the kids talking together was heartwarming. As I said at the beginning of this post, the world is kind of in shambles. But then I look back at pictures like the one below and I can’t help but smile. Maybe things will work out OK in the end? That deep-seated hope is what keeps me going.

Students take notes on what critical feedback looks like, sounds like, and feels like while watching Austin’s Butterfly. Photo by Megan Vosk.

And what about you, dear reader? How do you find the strength to stay positive and carry on with the day-to-day when things seem bleak? Would love to hear your thoughts…

One thought on “When all else fails, keep teaching! Plus, a note on the power of feedback.

  1. I LOVE Ron Berger and his concept of “beautiful work.” I was once lucky enough to hear him speak, and his point was so simple: students want to create beautiful work. They want to be involved, create, and when the work is authentic, do their best work. Thanks for bringing this notion into your storytelling unit. Lots of rich resources here!

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