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Conferences are intended to foster growth. Here, the student and the teacher come together one on one in order to move their work and their learning forward. Definitions of quality are considered, and criteria specific feedback is provided. As a teacher, I’ve always felt that this is where my most important work is accomplished. I think it’s my own experiences as a learner that make me value conferences so much.
Do you remember the first time a teacher sat and spoke with you about your learning and work?
I do. I don’t remember what the work was, and I don’t remember what was said. I remember how my teacher’s thoughtful attention made me feel, though. He helped me feel competent. He also helped me realize that my work, while imperfect, was important. This made me want to improve it.
Most importantly, my teacher didn’t tell me how to make my work better. Instead, he shared a variety of ideas and possibilities with me. He didn’t position himself as an expert that I needed to obey. Rather, he was my collaborator. He trusted my capabilities and respected my expertise.
The way that I confer has evolved over time. When I first began teaching, these meetings focused strictly on the student and the work at hand. Now, I use conferences as an opportunity to have my students assess me as well, posing some of these critical questions and using the responses I receive to reflect on my own practice.
Today’s conferences aren’t merely opportunities for my students to get feedback from a teacher. They’re opportunities for me to position myself as a learner as well. This reciprocity has had a powerful effect on the culture I’m striving to establish. For all of these reasons, conferences remain a driving force of much that matters. I wouldn’t think of abandoning them. Here’s the thing, though: conferences take a ton of time, and I often find that learners require far more frequent feedback.
Years ago, this reality inspired me to seek solutions. This is how over-the-shoulder feedback found its place within my classroom. It’s a practice I continue using at the WNY Young Writer’s Studio today. Short, sweet, and tightly structured, this three step approach enables me to speak to thirty learners in under forty minutes, leaving wiggle room on either end to welcome learners and provide closure. When my block of time runs longer, I’m able to wrap instruction, peer review, and opportunities for exhibition around these quick exchanges.
3-Step Approach for Over-the-Shoulder Feedback:
1. Know your target and prepare to align your warm feedback accordingly.
Feedback is most helpful when it aligns to the learning target that instruction has attended to. If your most recent lesson focused on crafting dialogue tags, this target should focus your vision as you peer over each writer’s shoulder and into their work. If learners are pursuing self-selected targets, be certain to align your feedback to these instead.
As this isn’t an extended conference or the review of an entire draft, it’s okay to skim. Move your eye over the work in progress, and identify where the learner is meeting the target or demonstrating a readiness to. Reinforce what they’re doing well, using specific evidence and criteria.
2. Find an entry point for improvement, and pose a question that prompts the learner’s thinking.
Resist the urge to be directive as you prompt learners to consider next steps. Frame your cool feedback in the form of questions whenever possible. Don’t tell them what to do or how to do it. Open the door the deeper thinking and problem solving, but let them walk through it on their own. Scaffold them toward independence. This is how confidence and ownership are built.
3. Share a few quick strategies or name some of the moves the learner might make in order to forward their work.
Again, it’s important to offer options, not directives. Show learners what is possible, but give them room to experiment, tinker, and even find their own resolutions. If you’re inclined to share models or examples, make sure they’re multiple in number. When we share single models, students tend to copy them. When we share multiple models, the results are often far more creative. Coach creative theft rather than compliance.
Now that I’m practiced at this approach, I typically spend about a minute with each learner that I see. I time this sort of feedback carefully as well. I find that over-the-shoulder conferences are especially effective at the beginning of the learning process, when students are just starting to draft, problem solve, or design. At this stage of development, the amount of content that learners have produced is often minimal, and this allows for a quicker and far more focused review.
This approach is one that learners can replicate easily as well, and this is critical. Feedback has significant influence each learner’s progress, so it’s important that teachers aren’t the only people capable of providing it well. All learners must be coached to provide criteria-specific feedback to one another, and I’ve found that this approach, combined with the use of quality rubrics, helps.
Know that over-the-shoulder feedback isn’t intended to replace conferences. It’s quick, refined, and intentionally focused on one small aspect of the learning or work at hand. Conferences attend to far more, including a wide variety of soft skills that are critical to any learner’s growth. The over-the-shoulder approach allows teachers to assess on their feet, discovering things that immediately inform feedback and instruction. Conferences provide far deeper perspectives that can only be gained through richer and longer conversations with learners.
I’m curious to know how others make time for conferences and the exchange of feedback. What works in your world? I’d love to learn from you.
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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.