Guest post by Laura Smiley
The focus in the classroom was primarily on delivering content and practicing skills through carefully crafted lessons in the earlier part of my career. More often than not, purposeful application of what students were learning was secondary to “getting through the curriculum.” Students would interact and collaborate, but only when instructed and in order to answer a series of teacher-prepared questions.
Though sometimes effective in gauging understanding, this method did not truly provide students with rich, reciprocal learning opportunities in which they had authentic engagement and input. There never seemed to be enough time to gather multiple sources of evidence of learning or gradually release the responsibility into the students’ hands.
The former model of French instruction, referred to as the Grammar-Translation model, was one in which students were explicitly taught vocabulary and grammar, often in isolated contexts, and expected to memorize these forms and then understand how to use them contextually. Assessments and evaluations frequently happened to students in the form of quizzes, tests, and exams.
Through research, this approach has been replaced by a more progressive and purposeful one, know as the CEFR, or the Common European Framework of Reference, which centers around implicitly developing a strong linguistic basis in French by using strategies and developing skills to interact through action with one another. In this way, students are thinking creatively and critically to problem-solve, develop 21st century learning skills like collaboration, curiosity, empathy, critiquing, negotiating, and leveraging technology to deepen their learning.
I began using a model of specific and descriptive feedback a few years ago after reading pedagogical literature that resonated with me. Flash forward to 2016—I am supporting a diverse group of learners, I am able to understand their strengths, celebrate their successes, focus on where they need to improve and WHY, and then provide them with suggestions for HOW to close that gap in their learning. This is what I present to students and parents on Parent’s Night, and the feedback has been extremely positive. The results have also been astounding. Be it from the start of the semester to the end or from grade 9-10, 10-11, I have observed such growth, in terms of skill development, a shift in mindset, confidence, and engagement, in French.
Last year, I provided students with the opportunity to give peer feedback in class using technology to revise writing tasks. This exposed many students, then in grade 9, to a learning process and invited risk-taking, collaboration, reciprocal learning, and collective accountability.
A professional goal I had this year was to take that group of students, now in grade 10, and help develop their peer feedback skills. Starting with clear learning goals for the students and success criteria, which empowers them to be active participants in their learning and engage at multiple points, I scaffolded a feedback activity.
Using Starr Sackstein’s Peer Feedback in the Classroom, we looked at WHY we use peer feedback and directly related this back to our course Overarching Learning Goals. This eduspeak in our school board essentially means a set of five to six goals that highlight what students should KNOW and be able to DO by the end of the course. If students cannot see the value and relevance of what they are learning, they will, by and large, be disengaged.
Next, we discussed WHAT feedback looks like—what it IS and what it IS NOT. This gave students clear ideas of what they should aim to provide and what they should avoid. Finally, I created a TIPS section as a quick reference point for students while they converse with peers and provide feedback.
As I am cognizant that many learners are visual and this may have been their first real attempt at a deeper form of peer feedback, we looked at several anonymous exemplars and compared them to the success criteria (some of which was developed by the teacher and some of which was co-constructed with students). I chose an element of the final evaluation that the students had already completed so that they were quite familiar with both the task and success criteria.
Furthermore, they had received personalized descriptive feedback, so in fact they already had one prior experience with this sort of reflection and assessment. As a whole class, we looked at the first exemplar and the first few success criteria. In groups, I had students assess the work and determine if the student had MET or NOT YET MET the criteria. For each criterion, we discussed WHY and HOW the student MET or DIDN’T YET MEET the criteria in the feedback section.
Sackstein stressed the importance of focusing on one criterion at a time and supporting students through the process of providing effective feedback. This exercise was completed twice—once with an exemplar that met every criterion but still had room for improvement to exceed the expectation, the second that primarily didn’t meet criteria. I realized during this activity that students often struggled to truly provide meaningful feedback rather than simple grammatical corrections and vague, overly positive comments. I thus used this as a learning opportunity to model effective descriptive feedback comments and engage students in the assessment process.
Several days later, students reproduced the peer feedback activity using the same model but with their own research. This step of final evaluation asks students to have a conversation in which they discuss the research they have completed relative to a Francophone country of choice. They are assessed on their ability to provide an overview of the country, discuss challenges and successes (social, economic, geographic, political, cultural, etc.), the impact on teens, and compare what they have researched to Canadian teens.
This conversation required critical and creative thought, negotiation, understanding of their research, summarizing and comparison skills, as well as interaction in the target language. This focused on all four strands of the Ontario FSL curriculum (reading, writing, listening, speaking), empowered students, allowed for development of skills like vocabulary-acquisition strategies and contextual use of language conventions, and lastly, gave students another opportunity to take risks and learn in a reciprocal context, which reinforced the community within the classroom.
As I was aiming to inspire my students and empower them to be active participants in their learning, I have been proud to see students taking the initiative to collaborate and peer assess in class during activities and for assessments. This serves as a means for multiple entry points for my students and allows me to assess at various points of the learning cycle.
Thank you to Starr Sackstein for the influential presentation on peer feedback in the fall of 2017, as well as for the tools, key questions, and exemplars from her work.
Laura Smiley is currently teaching advanced placement and core French in grades 9-12 and serves as the acting department head of the Modern Languages, which represents French studies and English Language Learners. While her background is in teaching French immersion and social science, for the past two years she has focused on the advanced placement French program. Twitter Handle: @Mme Smiley Professional Learning Networks: #FSL #AssessPeel #AssessABC #PeelSALT #PeelEML #peel21st Photos courtesy of Laura Smiley.
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