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They Don't Even Look at My Comments!

By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller

As a new teacher, Jason Haraz found a number of student behaviors surprising during his first semester in the classroom. Several students would show up to his writing class without a pencil. Some misplaced, lost or forgot their writing journal. Others misinterpreted his directions and did not follow through with assignments in a timely fashion. All of these behaviors were puzzling to him that first year, but the one behavior that surprised and concerned him the most was how his high school students reacted when he returned their writing papers.

Jason took his responsibilities as a professional educator seriously. He committed long hours to reading students' writing assignments and adding his instructional and encouraging comments to them. Instead of pointing out weaknesses he gave examples of how they could make their papers stronger. He wrote messages that affirmed students' abilities and efforts. He made suggestions designed to point students toward improved writing. He added detailed explanations about the parts that created an emotional impact on him. He mentioned the humor, insight, detail, empathy, and passion that he noticed. He informed students about which sections or sentences piqued his curiosity and which parts led him to want to read more. When Jason Haraz reacted to students’ writing papers, he was more than thorough. He did indepth analysis, investing his time, effort, energy, and insight.

So what did Jason’s high school students do with their papers when they got them back? Most of them looked to see what grade they got. Few gave more than a cursory glance at his comments. Many just shoved the papers in their writing folders. Jason found some of the assignments he had commented on deposited in the wastebasket near the hall doorway.

How did Jason react to this apparent disinterest in his efforts to give students helpful feedback? He began by complaining. "They don't even look at my comments!" he announced loudly in the teachers' lounge. "They don't even care what I wrote," he grumbled to the teacher across the hall. "They don't want my feedback. They don't want to improve," he whined to his spouse when he got home.

The whining, grumbling, and complaining lasted one day. Then Jason took a different tack. "What is, is" he thought to himself. "And all the wishing, hoping, complaining, and whining I do isn't going to change anything." Jason decided to take action. He wanted a different behavior from his high school students. Because he wanted a different behavior, he decided to teach a different behavior. He designed a lesson to teach his students how to respond to his written comments effectively.

The following day Jason explained and assigned a new writing project to his students. A day later, as directed, they turned it in. That night Jason completed his typical, thorough review of their papers, making detailed comments about the completed assignment.

When the bell rang the next morning to signal the beginning of class, Jason held the papers in his hand and held them up for the class to see. "I have your papers here," he announced. "In a minute I am going to be passing them back. Before I do I want to tell you about today’s writing assignment."

Jason walked to the white board and wrote the words, "Reacting to Teacher's Comments." Then he underlined them.

Reacting to Teacher's Comments

"I am going to pass out your assignments from yesterday shortly," Jason said. "You will see that I wrote some comments on them. Sometimes I wrote a lot. Sometimes I wrote a little. And I wrote on every one of them. The first part of your assignment for tomorrow is to read all the comments I wrote on your paper." He then added the additional part of the assignment to the white board.

Reacting to Teacher's Comments

  1. Read all the comments.

"Then I want you to decide which comments you agree with and which ones you don't agree with," Jason continued. "Circle the comments you agree with." Again he added the direction to the evolving assignment.

Reacting to Teachers Comments

  1. Read all the comments.
  2. Decide which ones you agree with and circle them.

"Pick one comment you did not agree with and tell me why. Then pick one comment you did agree with and tell me why. This is to be done on a blank sheet of paper and turned in tomorrow attached to your assignment from yesterday that I will soon be returning to you." An increasing number of students began to take notice and pay attention.

"And yes, it will be graded and it will count toward your grade." Even more students tuned in to what was going on. Jason then added that part of the assignment to the growing list of directions.

Reacting to Teacher's Comments

  1. Read all the comments.
  2. Decide which ones you agree with and circle them.
  3. Pick one you agree with and tell me why.
  4. Pick one you disagree with and tell me why.

"The final part of this assignment is to select one of my comments that you agree with and put it to use," Jason told the class. "I want you to alter your paper based on something I wrote that you think could make your paper even stronger. Take any comment of your choice and redo that section of your paper. You will have time to work on it this morning in class. If you do not finish, you are free to take it home and complete it. This new assignment is due first thing tomorrow morning."

Jason then completed the written assignment on the board.

Reacting to Teacher's Comments

  1. Read all the comments.
  2. Decide which ones you agree with and circle them.
  3. Pick one you agree with and tell me why.
  4. Pick one you disagree with and tell me why.
  5. Implement one suggestion by rewriting that section of your paper.

Although he had a serious look on his face, Jason was smiling inwardly as he passed out the papers he had invested so much time on the previous night.

Jason told his students that as soon as he passed out their previous writing assignment, reacting to the comments he wrote on it would become their new assignment. He also told them the new assignment was due tomorrow.

Jason, with a serious look on his face, was smiling all over on the inside as he passed out the papers he had invested so much time putting detailed written comments on the previous night.

How did his students react? What happened the next day? How did his students react by the end of the semester? To get the answer to those questions you'll have to wait until the next installment of this newsletter.

The following day Jason asked students to get out their responses to the previous day's assignment. "Tell me about this new assignment," he suggested. "How did it go? What was it like for you to read my comments and react?" Several students responded verbally. Many did not. The ones who spoke up offered the following comments.

"It was difficult."

"I had to think about it for a while."

"I had trouble deciding which one to pick."

"I didn't agree with any of the comments."

"It didn't take very long."

"I think it made my paper better."

"My mother thinks you ought to do this with every assignment. You're not going to, are you?"

Students added other comments to the discussion, which lasted ten minutes. Jason then put two debriefing questions/statements on the board and asked students to respond to them in writing.

1. How did your reaction to my comments on this paper compare to your reactionto the comments I put on previous assignments? (Asks for compare and contrast thinking.)

2. Give yourself a grade on how well you did the five things required in "Reacting to Teacher's Comments" on your paper. Explain your rationale for the grade you suggest. (Asks for evaluation and appraisal thinking.)

He allowed his students five minutes writing time. When the time was up he first asked students to share their answers with a partner and then led another class discussion. The activity and discussion produced a variety of interesting observations from his students.

  • Students admitted not paying much attention to written comments previously.
  • Some saw his comments as helpful, where in the past they assumed they would be critical and evaluative.
  • One student confessed this was the first time he had ever read a comment on one of his papers.
  • Some students realized that the comments actually did lead to improving their papers.
  • One wanted to know if this assignment was going to be graded or if they got the grade they put down.

During the process Jason made no evaluative remarks. He simply listened to the students’ comments, attempting to understand what they were feeling and saying. There are no right or wrong answers in debriefing, just a sharing of opinions. The students who did not speak up at least got to hear how their peers were reacting and compare their silent opinions with the ones being expressed aloud.

Yes, Jason did that same activity with his students the next time a major writing assignment was due. Yes, he did it the time after that, too. In fact, he did it five times in a row, changing the debriefing questions/statements each time.

  • Predict how using one of the comments to change your paper will affect your grade.
  • How does reacting to your teacher's comments in this classroom compare to how you react to your teachers' comments in other classrooms?
  • Can you sum up in one sentence what you have learned about the importance of reacting to your teachers' comments on your written assignments?
  • On the whole, what can you say about the kinds of comments teachers write on student papers?
  • Make a list of all the good things that can happen if you read your teachers' comments.

By the end of the semester Jason noticed a big difference in the reactions of his students when papers were returned. Most of them read his comments. Because they did, he was encouraged to invest more time reading, reviewing, and writing on their papers. Most of the students used some of his comments to improve their writing. Because they did, Jason felt more valuable as their teacher. Did his students apply the skills they learned in his room to other classrooms? We don’t know the answer to that. Our guess would be that some did and some didn't.

Regardless of whether or not Jason's students used this important skill in other teachers' classrooms, one thing is certain. They used it frequently in his. They used it because they had a teacher who believed that if you want a behavior you have to teach a behavior. And they did it because they had a teacher who was willing to invest the time to teach them how to do precisely that.

Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of The Teacher Talk Advantage: Five Voices of Effective Teaching. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for the newsletters or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: www.chickmoorman.com and www.thomashaller.com

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