I used to teach third grade. Right by the door I had a box. The “Turn It In Box.”
Everyone has one of these, right?
Students complete work, and then, instead of handing it to the teacher, they walk over and turn it in.
At the end of each day, I would walk over to that Turn It In Box and empty out a ream of cursive worksheets, friendly letters, and math problems. With a sigh, I would lug them back to my desk to begin the task of making sure everything looked “okay enough” and then in the corner quickly scribble a star, or put a rubber stamp of a dinosaur holding a wooden sign that said “Good work” in green or purple or bright pink ink. Some papers would receive a checkmark, or if, upon my fleeting glance, if it seemed to be rather good work, the paper would adorned with a “checkmark plus.”
The dinosaur with his sign, the checkmark-plus, they would never make it into my grade book.
These symbols would be hurriedly placed on the work, proof that I had looked at the assignment, and then the papers would be placed back into individual cubbies to be taken home at week’s end.
Things obviously get busy as a classroom teacher. The reality of the situation is that two or three days would go by and I wouldn’t empty that Turn It In Box. As the busy days would pass, the Turn It In Box would transform into a Turn It In Pile, and then grow into a Turn It In Mountain.
Students would come up to me and, looking at the floor as they spoke as though to avoid the embarrassment in my eyes, let me know that, “Umm… the Turn It In Box is full again and the papers are beginning to fall off the sides.”
The Turn It In Mountain had yet again become the Turn It In Volcano spewing ungraded work from its peak.
The taller the volcano of papers, the more guilt I would feel each time I walked past it. All that work, denied my stamps and stars and scribbles.
Now comes for my confession. I have never publicly admitted this before. I need to get this off my chest.
Sometimes, when the bin was too full and after the kids went home, I would lock the door, draw the blinds, and dump all that ungraded work into the recycling bin. As proof of the guilt that I felt in the moment, I would cover that student work with less conspicuous looking papers as to not draw attention from the custodian or colleagues that might stop by my room later in the afternoon.
Let me be clear. These were not projects or essays that students had poured themselves into. They were not quizzes or tests that measured what a student was learning. In short, everything that was ending up with a stamp or recycled was work that didn’t really tell me what the students were learning or needed help with. Rote math practice problems. Word searches. Fill in the blank vocabulary exercises. You get the picture
As I did this, I was sure that I was the only educator who would commit this sort of atrocity. But now, the longer I think about it, I am pretty certain that most of us can relate to this struggle.
We know that feedback is important. Meaningful feedback and support is the catalyst which stokes success out of struggle and challenge.
But we also know that the greatest challenges we face in our work are rooted in the fact that there is a finite amount of time in a school day. In a school week. In a school year.
Giving really good, really meaningful feedback on assignments takes time. And things come up that chip away at our time. Report card comments. Field trip paperwork. Planning the next day’s lessons. When things get busy, something has to give. Either we prioritize by cutting out something less valuable, or things begin to fall through the cracks. Turn It In Boxes becomes Turn It In Volcanos.
Audit your feedback habits. Ask yourself, is this scribbled star or dinosaur stamp actually having an impact on my student’s journey as a learner?
If you realize that your feedback is just checking to see if work is complete - stop. Instead of spending 15 minutes checkmarking and checkmark plussing a whole class’s worth of assignments, choose one or two of those students and use those 15 minutes that you would normally spend starring or stamping papers and give them real meaningful feedback.
Write them a note of encouragement. Look into their history around that academic concept. Try to understand the big picture of that student. Tell them where you have seen them grow. Tell them where you want to see them grow. Figure out where they could use help, and let them know that you want to work with them individually or in a small group to grow in that area.
Whatever happens, take a moment to be mindful about the feedback you give. A rubber stamp or a scribbled star cannot communicate all of the complexities, all of the highs and lows, of a learning journey. Only you can. Instead of giving empty feedback to a whole class, pick one or two kids and dive deep.
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