“Is this good?” Abbie asked me, gesturing towards the introduction of an informational piece of writing.
As an instructional coach in Abbie’s class, I had just watched her teacher engage students in a lesson analyzing various strategies for “hooking” readers into their stories, including quotes and narratives. Unfortunately, Abbie had been out of the classroom, missing this critical part of the lesson.
My inclination was to fill her in on what she had missed, essentially providing the lesson in a one-on-one format so she was caught up.
But I caught myself, knowing full well that my intentions, first and foremost, are always to build agency in my students. After all, there would be times in the future where Abbie would miss parts of the class and would have to find ways to catch herself up. But my hesitancy to step in was rooted in more than that. Abbie’s question, Is this good? was a signal to me: Abbie was relying on me to evaluate her work; if student agency is truly front and center in my intentions for partnering with students to personalize learning, I’d have to coach her out of this dependency.
“Well, what do you think?” I replied. “Do you think it’s good?”
She furrowed her brow, looking back down at her draft. I could tell she needed a little bit of direction.
“I know you came in late,” I said to her, “so you may want to look through the mentor texts your teacher just shared with the class. Maybe you can use those to evaluate your introduction.”
Worry bubbled up inside me. As a coach in the room, I wanted the students to feel comfortable asking me for help–and I didn’t want Addie to feel rejected by me, like I didn’t want to read her work.
“Listen,” I continued. “I want to let you into my teacher brain and let you know why I’m not giving you my opinion first.”
She looked on silently, waiting for me to finish.
“I want you to be as independent as possible. That’s always my goal. One way to be independent in writing is to use mentor texts and then evaluate your work on your own, making changes based on what you see in the samples. I want you to check out the examples, and then read your introduction again. I’ll come back in about 10 minutes to hear what you think. Does that make sense?”
She nodded and got started on her own. When I came back ten minutes later, as promised, my hopes for her had been realized.
“I noticed this author used a quote to start their piece,” she said, “so I thought I’d try that instead. My introduction wasn’t as good as that one.”
“For me, it wasn’t that it wasn’t good,” I replied, trying to move her away from non-descript, binary language like good and bad. “It was that I was looking for a bit more creativity. Your introduction does what an introduction is supposed to do: it orients the reader and previews your piece, but I thought you could be more creative with the hook.”
We accomplished what we needed to, helping Abbie grow in her ability to write an engaging introduction, but we did in a way that was undeniably learner-driven, prompting her to give herself feedback before I did, hopefully creating an internal pattern of interaction that she’d take with her beyond our conversation.
Feedback in the classroom is a powerful tool to drive learning. But if we want our feedback to bolster learner agency in addition to inching students towards academic goals, we must ensure it doesn’t create dependency in the process.
That said, there are moments where clear, imperative feedback makes sense. When you do provide that feedback, consider using some of the following tips I provide in Reclaiming Personalized Learning: A Pedagogy for Restoring Equity and Humanity in Our Classrooms.
Before providing feedback, always ask yourself: How can I maximize a learner’s agency in this situation? How can I counter dependence while still providing them the feedback they need?
When we hold student agency near and dear, we actualize the independent, lifelong learning for which we all strive.