Monday, February 5, 2018

The Need for Feed(back)

Determined that my past sewing adventures were not merely a fad, I decided to sign up for sewing classes with the Toronto Parks, Recreation and Culture Department. It's been a different experience than my attempts to learn how to sew from my mother. Our assigned instructor was not available due to a family tragedy, so we did not have classes for the first two sessions. For the next two sessions, we had a substitute instructor, who had to hurry all the way from Richmond Hill to Scarborough to teach and who was unfamiliar with where the resources for these classes were located. This past week, our original instructor returned, but she had to do a lot of administrative catchup. Despite all these setbacks, we've actually done quite a bit of work. We learned how to measure ourselves and each other properly. (My fellow classmates, Tamra and Judy, and I have gotten quite up close and personal while practising these skills!) We also learned how to thread a sewing machine, cut out patterns, pin them to fabric, cut out the fabric, and stitch parts together.

Pinning my pattern, aligned with a fold

Re-pinning my pattern correctly on the right side

Unlearning/relearning which way the pins are placed

Shoulders stitched on a prototype top
I noticed that I peppered my sewing teachers with a lot of questions, a lot of them along the lines of "am I doing this properly?" I found that I really needed feedback.

Perfect timing on that notion of feedback. I'm involved as a participant in the TVO Teach Ontario book club for The Feedback-Friendly Classroom by Deborah McCallum. The book's subtitle suggests that it will help readers "how to equip students to give, receive, and seek quality feedback that will support their social, academic, and developmental needs". I like how Maureen McGrath, our facilitator, has set up ways for us to provide our own feedback on our learning through this text. Participants such as Beckie, Maureen, Kit, Alexis, and Alanna have provided great insights via the discussion threads. For instance, I really like how Maureen gave an example of a single-point rubric - it gives a lot more room for specific feedback that a traditional, four-column rubric doesn't always provide.

This is Maureen's sample posted on TeachOntario

 It hasn't been all back-pats and celebrations, however. I've struggled with this quote:
"Teachers sometimes need to provide feedback next-steps that highlight what to do better; students sometimes perceive this as negative feedback. When students give feedback in a feedback-friendly classroom, we want them to focus on only the positive aspects of someone's work." (page 91)
I'm not sure how much I can support this statement, especially considering my recent sewing class experience. If my instructor is too busy with someone else to tell me what's wrong with my pinning performance, I don't want to have to wait until she's free for me to proceed - I'd rather have a fellow student, who I know has the expertise to advise wisely, to tell me that I've pinned the pattern to the wrong side, or that there's a bump in the fabric that I didn't notice. If I'm approaching a situation with a dis-regulated student that might escalate the negative reactions, I'd rather have a colleague give me a heads-up on what not to say to that student, because as the classroom teacher, they might have had more experience dealing with that student's outbursts. Maybe the "focus on only the positive aspects" only applies to students? But if that's the case, is that implying that students can't identify the flaws in someone's work? Or that they cannot make those suggestions in a helpful way? I'm not certain.

I know for myself that if I genuinely want to improve something, and I'm mentally ready to separate myself from the work, I don't just want to hear the "good stuff". This was well illustrated at a meeting I went to very, very early in the morning on Friday, February 2. I'm thrilled to be the incoming, junior OSLA Super Conference planner. Jess Longthorne is the outgoing OSLA SuperConference planner. Alanna King is the formerly junior, now senior OSLA Super Conference planner. These are big shoes to fill with this role but I'm excited about the opportunity. This 7:00 a.m. meeting was for all the new and current Super Conference planners, led by the absolutely phenomenal Michelle Arbuckle from OLA. The entire meeting was focused on feedback. They used the "2 Stars and a Wish" strategy and Michelle took copious notes on what everyone shared.
These are volunteers who have been working together for a year, and non-stop since Tuesday to put together a fantastic conference. They were exhausted but they realized the need to reflect and share. Key to the sharing was the "wish" portion - the things that hadn't gone well, the next steps, the aspects that might need changing somehow if possible. It would be completely understandable if some people were not willing to hear these "criticisms", but coming from those who were part of the team meant that they weren't personal affronts, but observations that shouldn't be shunted under the carpet. We don't have to act on every single one of these feedback suggestions, but we should hear them out.

Another great example of listening to feedback and then making your own decisions came from a Forest of Reading Silver Birch nominee I read this past week. (I got caught up with some more of my reading by borrowing books from students - I read The Doll's Eye, Summer's End, The Stone Heart, Yellow Dog, and From Ant to Eagle - all really good books!)

In the back of the book, From Ant to Eagle, the author describes getting feedback from the first literary agent who responded to his inquiry, suggesting that he change the ending of the book so that (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) Sammy doesn't die. Alex Lyttle tried it - he rewrote the second half of the book. This is what he said happened next in this process:
But after rereading it, I decided it no longer felt like my novel. Yes, it was happier, and yes, many people would likely prefer it that way, but it wasn't what I had set out to write. The harsh reality of pediatric oncology is that there are thousands of children like Sammy and Cal out there, and in the end, I chose to tell their story.
Even those this book probably caused me some dehydration from crying so much, I'm glad that Alex Lyttle didn't change his original ending. It seems like even experts like literary agents and editors can provide "incorrect" feedback, which still leaves me struggling with that idea from Deborah McCallum's book that I wished was more developed: how to reverse inaccurate feedback from peers (and when to allow critical comments). I welcome any feedback from readers about how to deal with this, either via Facebook, Twitter, or through comments directly tied to Blogger.


  1. Yes, feedback is important as well as full collaboration. I often find it frustrating to provide a research lesson usually involving keyword searches and effective database searching for a project and then not be involved with the rest of the lesson. When the instructor is approached, almost always the end result is the failure of students to synthesize the information and put it in their own words.

  2. Too bad you can't give feedback *about* full collaboration, Rum. Unfortunately, I learned from that book study that it takes a while to build that structure so that people are ready to give and receptive to receive quality feedback. I don't know what the reaction would be if you said, "Hey, Teacher X, I feel grateful when I'm invited to teach about keywords. I feel excluded when I'm not asked to continue working together and I need to be involved at a deeper level - can I help you assess the final product, at least, or co-teach a lesson on synthesis or plagiarism?" Can any of my teacher-librarian friends reading this provide any other advice for my friend here?

  3. Thanks, Diana. You're causing a lot of thinking for my poor, cold-addled brain. I agree with all of this, and I'm so impressed with the post-mortem (that's what we called them at my university paper) meeting on what worked and what didn't at OLA. We really can't improve without looking at strengths and weaknesses.

    Your editing story was fascinating. In my conversation with Cherie Dimaline (Marrow Thieves) and her editor, Barry Jowett, I heard a similar story of reexamination, of diving back in and really thinking about what might happen if.... I am astounded by the resilience of writers.

    I suck at accepting constructive criticism. People with ADD have this lovely thing called rejection dysphoria, where we take any “negative” feedback deeply to heart, and it can be really crippling.

    I really do feel that it's possible for students to give each other gentle, helpful feedback that's much more easily accepted than if it comes from the adult in the space. I think we can teach our students to give effective feedback to one another and to us.