I asked my students, and here’s what they said worked and didn’t work in my classroom last year

Every spring, I survey my students somehow about their experience in my class so I can work to improve for the following year. This year and last year I landed on a format for this survey that has yielded some great information for me. (See last year’s blog posts here and here and here.) The survey was a little more complex last year–a few different sections (reading, writing, digital tools) but this year I just went with one big list of the things we did/used in my classroom and asked students to let me know which ones helped and which ones didn’t their growth as readers and writers.

I surveyed two sections of seniors, a total of 58 students. Forty of them responded to my invitation to complete the survey. I did not survey my freshmen because I’m not teaching freshmen next year. I’ll start with what they said worked:

What helped you? (percentage of students who said it helped)

  • Choice about your writing (97.5%)
  • Choice about your reading (95%)
  • Work time in class (92.5%)
  • Lesson plan posted online each week (82.5%)
  • Working on your writing in Google Docs (82.5%)
  • Optional attendance days (80%)
  • Collecting all your work in Google Drive (77.5%)
  • Author visits (72.5%)
  • Weekly drafts (72.5%)
  • Conferences with Doc Z (70%)
  • Group book conference with Doc Z (70%)
  • Socratic seminars (70%)
  • Thorough Revisions (65%)
  • Independent reading (65%)
  • Semester grade request (65%)
  • Mindful breathing (62.5%)
  • Notes about your work, not points, in IC (60%)
  • No grades until the end of the semester (60%)
  • Reading books together as a class (57.5%)
  • Peer response on writing (57.5%)
  • Schoology (57.5%)
  • In-progress grade check-in (47.5%)
  • Writer’s Notebooks (45%)
  • The punch list (45%)
  • Response groups (37.5%)
  • Formal speeches for finals (25%)
  • Discussions on Schoology (17.5%)
  • Google Site portfolio (7.5%)

If you’ve wondered if the workshop approach works for students, the first three bullets up there should tell you that yes, it does. Choice about reading and writing and time to work in class are pillars of workshop, and my students were nearly unanimous that these things helped them to grow as readers and writers. This tells me that my journey toward a workshop classroom needs to continue. I’m more there than I have ever been and will be making more movement toward a workshop world this year.

I’m surprised to see that the next most helpful thing to my students was the simple fact that I posted my weekly lesson plans online where they could access them ahead of time or after the fact. I include with those weekly lesson plans links to all the materials they will need and any notes from class conversations underneath the table that contains the weekly plan (you’ll find an example here). I’m glad to see so many students indicated that having access to the weekly lesson plan helped them.

I was pleased to see a strong response on conferencing with me individually and in groups, on the weekly drafts, on socratic seminars, and on optional attendance. I did more conferencing this year than ever before and more intentionally. I hit a rough spot with this after my dad passed away suddenly in February. There were a few weeks there where I just didn’t have the energy to conference unless students asked me for help. Even so, I’m thrilled to see that so many students saw conferencing as helpful. Weekly drafts are a structure that my colleague Jaime suggested for this past semester. We wanted students to write more–he wondered if we could ask them to get a piece of writing across the finish line (as a draft) each week. Then after a few of these, they would choose one to revise. This one structure has made my classroom feel more like a workshop than anything else I’ve done. I love it. And I’m glad to see many students did as well. Socratic seminars are something I’m being much more deliberate about lately. I had the opportunity to take a class with a socratic seminar master, John Zola, this past spring. What I learned there has really improved seminar discussions in my classroom (my socratic seminar guidelines are here). And as for optional attendance–this is something we’ve done in this senior class for the last few years. Fridays are optional for students who are caught up on their work (read more about it via the letter we send to parents here). It’s really a fantastic motivator for many. Students love to have control of their time. I’m a real believer in the optional days. They give students practice in managing a more flexible schedule like they’ll have in college. And those optional days are smaller classes full of students who need or want to be there. I make them work time always and I use them to conference.

I see interesting things there about the tech pieces: students share my love of Google Docs as an excellent tool for writers. They also see their Google Drives as useful for collecting and organizing their work. They weren’t huge fans of Schoology (nor was I–I’m moving away from it for next year). And the Google Site portfolios we used, that my department is all using–they didn’t see those as so useful. This may be my fault. I didn’t make them primary in our daily work in class. It was difficult to when my students don’t have access to computers every day (we have three sets of computers to share between 17 language arts teachers). I need to think about this piece–I love the idea of them curating their work in a portfolio (and the department idea is to have one Google Site for each student that they use for all four years of language arts–we built a template for this, structured on the Common Core State Standards for language arts). But it felt extra, out of our typical work flow, busywork. Some of my colleagues had better luck with this so I’ll keep thinking about it. But I just don’t want to throw anything at my students that feels like busywork.

I would have liked to see a stronger response about a few things this I see as critically important: thorough revisions, the things I’m doing to move away from traditional grades (semester grade request, no grades until the end of the semester, notes about your work not points in IC), peer response, writer’s notebooks, and response groups. This tells me that I have some work to do on all of these pieces. The thorough revision task is tough and takes time (you can see it here). One student wrote, “the revisions took time, but they did really help improve our writing a LOT.” I do think I can maybe simplify the task somehow–I’ve essentially used the same task (with a few revisions as it evolved) for five semesters now and I know what works and what doesn’t. Maybe it’s time to take another look at it and see how I can revise the revision task. The non-traditional grading pieces all got around 60% of students saying they helped them grow. This is another piece I really believe in but am still thinking through. Very few of them said that these pieces DIDN’T help them grow (see data below). And as for peer response and response groups–I’m still learning how to really create a collaborative classroom community, especially when it’s something students are not so familiar with. It’s messy and students have a difficult time trusting each other sometimes to give great feedback on their work. I wish more of them saw their peers as helpful toward their growth. I will keep working on this. And writer’s notebooks–this one came out low last year as well. Clearly I didn’t quite get there. I have some ideas though after the time at UNH with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher (I wrote about my goals for writer’s notebooks as part of my workshop manifesto here).

Here are a few more tidbits from students from the survey:

“It wasn’t nearly as stressful as other LA classes and that worked tremendously.”

“As much as the weekly drafts sucked, they did help improve my writing, this had the biggest impact this year.”

“I love the freedom with the writing.”

“I thought that by writing drafts every week and have a few thorough revisions it allowed us to improve upon our writing.”

“The optional attendance for me was one of the biggest motivators to actually get work done.”

“Work time in class was always a big help for me because I could get things done and you were there to help if needed.”

As for what students said didn’t help them grow as readers and writers:

What didn’t help you? (percentage of students who said it helped)

  • Google Site portfolio (70%)
  • Discussions on Schoology (60%)
  • The punch list (45%)
  • Formal speeches for finals (42.5%)
  • Writer’s notebooks (25%)
  • Response groups (22.5%)
  • No grades until the end of the semester (20%)
  • Schoology (17.5%)
  • Thorough revisions (15%)
  • In-progress grade check-in (15%)
  • Mindful breathing (12.5%)
  • Book groups (12.5%)
  • Reading books together (12.5%)
  • Author visits (10%)
  • Semester grade request (10%)
  • Socratic seminars (7.5%)
  • Peer response on writing (7.5%)
  • Notes about your work, not points, in IC (7.5%)
  • Weekly drafts (5%)
  • Optional attendance days (5%)
  • Independent reading (2.5%)
  • Choice about your writing (2.5%)
  • Working on your writing in Google Docs (2.5%)
  • Collecting all of your work in Google Drive (2.5%)
  • Choice about your reading (0%)
  • Lesson plan posted online each week (0%)
  • Work time in class (0%)
  • Conferences with Doc Z (0%)

The first thing I notice here is that there are very few things that a lot of students said didn’t help them to grow as readers and writers in my class. Yay! But there is pretty good consensus on the Google Site portfolio and Schoology. When there is that kind of consensus, I need to think seriously about not doing those things anymore or do them completely differently if I know they’re important. As I mentioned above, I need to think through the portfolio and I’m moving away from Schoology. I am pleased to see here that for some of the aspects of my class I discussed above that I wished had more students saying that they found them helpful, there were very few students who said that they were NOT helpful. That’s the non-traditional grading pieces, the peer response, the thorough revisions, writer’s notebooks. All things I need to keep working on to improve, but definitely not things I should even think about moving away from.

I want to thank my students for their thoughtful reflection–it always helps me to improve my classroom from year to year.

What worked in your classroom last year? What didn’t? What will you change? What will you continue to work on?

And when do you start back to work? (August 10 for us.)


This entry was posted in 21st century teaching and learning, CCSS, grading, making change, not grading, planning, reflections, student feedback, using data, workshop teaching, writer's notebooks and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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