When I am on my game as a teacher, I make mistakes, just as I do when I'm off course. The difference is that when I'm paying attention, I learn from my
mistakes and inch forward in understanding my profession. One of those learning moments happened midway through my 20-year career as a middle school English teacher.
Heather, whom I taught from 7th through 9th grades, was the kind of student who most teachers would say makes teaching easy. I'd have said this myself at the
time—and the statement would have predicted the significant error I made. I learned early on to grade Heather's writing last so as not to put others' papers at a
disadvantage by comparison. When I read a piece of Heather's writing, I generally found myself thinking that I'd be proud to have written it.
I worked hard to give Heather feedback. I suggested authors she might read, noted her powerful use of language and sensitivity to meanings, and marked my favorite places in
her work. For three years, I felt good about the care I took in responding to Heather's writing.
A Punch in the Stomach
Fast forward several years. I met Heather's mom in the grocery store a few months into Heather's first year of college. Eager to know how college was for my
former pupil, I asked whether Heather was doing writing she enjoyed at our state university. "As a matter of fact," her mother beamed, "that's
what she's loving most about college! Last week she told me that for the first time in her life she was learning to become a better writer."
As I recovered from what felt like a punch in the stomach, I began to understand how I'd failed Heather and probably her peers as well. Heather's writing was
an exhibition of what she already knew how to do. I praised what she brought to class, but I had no mechanism for helping her get better.
To turn good writers into stellar ones—and adequate writers into good ones—I saw that I needed to develop insight in three areas:
- Clarity about the elements of good writing. Rather than react to whatever the student produced, I needed to proactively offer a road map to
a better destination.
- Awareness of the broad progression through which students develop the attributes of good writers. When one of my students seemed
"behind" with writing skill, I couldn't diagnose which entry point to suggest to boost that writer's ability and confidence level. I lacked precision in
prescribing next steps. In Heather's case, I had no awareness of what came next in the development of a student whose skills and habits of mind were well in advance of
her grade level.
- Engaging students in thinking about their own development as writers. I needed to help them find themselves on a broad spectrum of
writing proficiencies, articulate their own strengths and needs, and plan their own development.
My feedback to Heather failed because I didn't have clear teaching and learning targets, wasn't equipped to identify a broad range of next steps, and
"did" assessment and feedback to my students rather than with them.
Writers, Not Grade Getters
As I noted, when I'm paying attention, I learn from my teaching errors. Some years after I taught Heather, I taught an advanced seminar on education issues at the
University of Virginia. The class had a heavy writing component, and I was determined to create a feedback process that would move all writers forward. Like my former middle
schoolers, the seminar students were diverse in background, skill development, and confidence. And, like my middle schoolers, many were so focused on getting the right answer
that actual learning was a sidebar.
I talked with the students about my hope to help them develop their power as thinkers and writers. I gave them a rubric that indicated competencies important for their success
as writers and a progression of growth for each criterion. Most important, I told them I wouldn't grade any of their writing until near the end of the semester. It was my
conviction that their grades would be stronger if we worked together so they could take their own next steps as writers, rather than if we focused on grades all along.
Each week, students turned in an essay. I always returned their essays with feedback specifically targeted to the competencies on our rubric, which we refined together as the
In the first portion of class, students read my feedback and wrote me a note to indicate which elements of the feedback seemed useful to them and which elements seemed off
target. Then they wrote a brief plan for how they would address the helpful feedback in their next paper. When a student felt I'd missed the boat with my feedback, we
talked about that briefly after class.
That semester, my students functioned like writers rather than grade getters. Their progress was, without exception, impressive. There was no competition among students;
rather, the class felt like a gathering of colleagues working together toward a shared goal. I was a teacher—a real one—because I had clarity about where we were
prepared to meet each student at his or her entry point, and made students my partners in teaching and learning.
I can still feel the stomach punch Heather's mom inadvertently delivered in the grocery store. But it stings less now because it taught me to be a better teacher.
Author's note: All names are pseudonyms.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry
School of Education, University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author, with Marcia B. Imbeau, of
Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2010).
Click on keywords to see similar products: