Effective Feedback: Timing, Team, and Tone
Our goal throughout Peopling the American Past—a Teaching American History (TAH) project partnership of seven small and rural Virginia school districts and George Mason University—was to support teachers in developing TAH skills, especially in teaching effectively with primary sources. To accomplish this goal with each of three teacher cohorts we provided feedback on classroom observations and on their written work.
Our intention was to keep feedback collaborative, something that was done with, not to, teachers. Our project team—project director, academic program director, and master teachers—was interested in fostering growth, not evaluating. Whether speaking in person with a teacher after observing her class, emailing teachers our thoughts on their lesson topics, or conducting extensive phone conferences on unit outlines, we framed our feedback so that teachers would want to use it to improve their work. This meant that we had to listen carefully to our teachers, notice if our goal was being achieved, and change our approach when necessary.
In our first year we required teachers to create an entire lesson plan that we then observed them teach whenever it fit into their curricula. We naively asked them to do it all: integrate TAH content knowledge, select high-quality online primary sources, use engaging teaching strategies, apply the Virginia Standards of Learning, and follow a prescribed template. And we sought to assess all this in our feedback. This approach had problems. While some taught their lessons in the first two months of school, others taught theirs as late as April or May, when our observation feedback was too late to be used in writing their units. Also we noticed that with all these requirements, teachers did not focus on what we considered most important: teaching effectively with primary sources.
So for our second and third years we pared down our requirements. Instead of the entire lesson plan we asked teachers first to create primary source infusions—select one or two viable primary sources and incorporate or infuse these into an existing lesson. Each did this twice during September and October, and the project director, often joined by the academic program director, observed one class. Then we scheduled an informal conversation, first asking the teacher what she liked about the lesson and next what she might change, and we responded too. At each point we provided specifics about what we noticed. The project director provided written feedback in an email.
Here is an example from a middle school lesson on the Transcontinental Railroad:
I especially liked:
Your use of the Library of Congress website Railroad Maps, 1828—1900. This is an ambitious choice and there's a lot going on there. It was clear that you preselected some relevant maps to share with your students.
I wonder if:
You might, as we discussed, first model using one of the maps yourself as a primary source. Then you could ask students to work in pairs on a different preselected map or two and see if they could find their way around their map. The NARA website has a bunch of useful questions for examining maps, but don't feel compelled to use all of them—select and adapt.
Even veteran teachers appreciated this approach, many commenting that they rarely had colleagues or supervisors observing and discussing with them how they taught history. When we offered an optional second observation, many teachers asked us to return.
Next we asked teachers to use what they learned from observed infusions to write their unit. Instead of the first-year requirement of a seven- to ten-lesson unit, we asked for a two- to three-lesson mini-unit built on a few high-quality primary sources and a short historical background essay to contextualize these sources. Instead of waiting to give our major feedback until teachers completed their rough draft as in year one, we provided extensive feedback when it had maximum impact: right after teachers wrote their outline.
Each outline included a background essay, an annotated list of resources, and the primary sources to be used. Teachers got written feedback on their outlines from our project team, with our academic program director focusing on their historical narrative and sources, and our master teachers suggesting effective teaching strategies to meet the developmental needs of their students. The project director then scheduled individual phone conversations with teachers who were equipped with their outline, our comments, and Internet access to connect them to the websites we recommended. From here, teachers wrote their rough drafts, again received written feedback especially on their teaching strategies, completed their final drafts, and presented their mini-units to their colleagues and the project team.
This approach was definitely labor intensive and some teachers required more patience and persistence than others. Still, in the end we were fully satisfied with our revised feedback process.