Instantaneous Feedback

There’s nothing like finding yourself face down in the snow, one of your skis five feet behind you, to make you think that, maybe, you made a mistake. That something might have gone wrong.

There’s nothing like getting back up and skiing the rest of the way down the hill without further incident–barring being a little colder due to the melting snow that found its way into your clothing–to convince you that falling isn’t the end of the world.

Yesterday I went skiing for the first time in about 15 years, maybe more. I was still in primary¬†school when I last went skiing, and now I’m teaching school. In other words, it’s been a very long time since I have been on skis. And let’s be clear about this: I was not a good skier back then. The last run I did as a kid ended up with me riding down to the lodge on a snowmobile. So it’s not like I was just picking it all back up again; more like learning it for the first time.

Which is why I signed up for a day-long adult “first time skier” lesson. Great idea. We began the day sliding along the snow on one ski, pushing ourselves along with our other foot to get the feel for gliding. We ended the day doing a couple of green runs.

It is possible to make huge strides in a small amount of time given the proper motivation and some good instruction and timely feedback. When you are doing something like skiing, you learn really quickly what works. You make your wedge bigger, you slow down. You turn perpendicular to the slope, you stop. You point your skis parallel down the hill, you go fast. Your body gives you excellent feedback about how you’re doing.

In our lesson, we learned four big things–I’m calling them the beginning skier “standards”:
1-the wedge stop
2-the wedge turn
3-how to get onto a chairlift
4-how to get off of a chairlift
Note: for obvious reasons, you have to learn those last two things at the same time, but the first one is much easier to master than the second.

Once I had the basics down I got fairly comfortable. I could stay in control on “The Big Easy” run we were practicing on. Even when we went down the first green run I felt pretty safe and secure–though staying out of the way of skiers who knew what they were doing was challenging.

But the real lesson I learned was that it’s okay to fall down. This was the lesson I went into the class really wanting to learn. I know it sounds kind of silly to say that I wanted to fall down yesterday, but it’s true. I wasn’t ever trying to fall, I didn’t set out to purposely fall down when I did my epic face-plant. (I wish I had video of that–it must have been beautiful). By no stretch of the imagination was my fall intentional. I was going faster than I wanted to, I overcorrected, my tips crossed and next thing I knew I was face down on the slope. It was one of the best parts of the day. It was the lesson that over-cautious, scardey-cat me needed to learn.

I knew that going in. I was aware that the best thing that could happen to me was to fall down–hard–and to get back up again and keep going.

Of course I spent all day trying to go slow and maintain control and therefore avoid falling down. Because, well, who in their right mind wants to spend all day falling down? I had fallen down a few times before this, but little falls, nothing major. This was the Big One.

But you know what? It didn’t hurt, and other than being cold I was totally fine. My instructor brought me my ski and made sure I was okay, then complimented me on how far I’d gone before falling down. I clicked back in and off I went to finish the run. So much better than my last skiing experience, half a lifetime earlier.

When you take risks and you do something new, you fall down sometimes. You fail. But that’s how you learn–by making mistakes and then trying again, fixing things, making new mistakes–better mistakes. And then fixing them.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

-Samuel Beckett

Recycles

I’ve been catching up on my Google Reader and have noticed–perhaps it’s just the posts I’ve decided to read–that there have been several recent (well, not necessarily recent) posts about giving written feedback to students and whether or not they read these comments. I remember spending my time and energy on writing comments on student tests and quizzes in my first year of teaching, and then feeling that stab of agony when some kid raised his hand and asked if he needed to keep it. Or finding the quizzes crumpled up on the floor at the end of the day. And then, when on another assessment I decided just to mark it and not give any comments, I’d have kids come up to me and ask me what they did wrong on a particular problem. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The school I taught at last year, and the one I’m teaching at right now, are really a different environment. From the get-go I noticed that students really took comments to heart. They read them, they tried to understand what had happened with their test or quiz or other graded assessment. So, I feel like a lot of what I’m about to offer may be harder to implement in a setting where this isn’t the norm.

I also feel the need to qualify my description of these super-responsible students I’ve depicted. You do need to bring the level down a step or two for my current middle schoolers. They run the gamut from very responsible, perfectionistic, no I will not let you come in again to finish your test kids today to spacey, distracted, OMG! we have a test today?-what’s it on? kids. You know, regular middle school kids.

But part of the process of getting students to the point where they look at feedback and think about how to apply it is to give them opportunities to interact with feedback. Things like test corrections, or SBG reassessments, help students to see why reading comments and talking about them with their teachers is important. The process that I started using this year (stolen from my former co-teacher, now at-home-Mommy) is called a “recycle”. A recycle is different from test corrections I ways that I really like.

The format is that student fold a piece of paper along its vertical axis (i.e. a “hotdog” fold), or they just draw a line down the middle. The left-hand side is for students to correct all of the problems they made errors on in the quiz/test, and the right-hand side is for students to explain what kind of error they made and/or why they made that error. The second part is what I really like. Students have to really think about what kind of mistakes they are making. Are they careless errors? Are they big conceptual errors? Did they make a lot of errors involving negative signs? Did they not know the meaning of a word? As they do these recycles, students are involved in a high level of metacognition. They have to tease apart what and how they were thinking at the time they took the test and think about how that thinking has or might change now.

My eighth graders, who have been doing this process for over a year at this point, have a really good understanding of what kinds of errors they make and why. My seventh graders are still learning what makes a good recycle. Some of them continue to have trouble with the format. But they are getting there.

No matter where I wind up next school year, whether I wind up staying on at this school or continuing in my roving-teacher ways, I plan on bringing the recycle with me. After all, it’s good for the planet.