Whack-A-Mole Pedagogies and Reimagining Feedback

Photo from Victor Burclaff, "Egg Dawn"
My friend, @minfucious, asked me a really good question about teaching problems and changes occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are lots of reasons for why things go awry in a literacy classroom (online or face to face). I don't want to pretend that what I'm about to offer is a universal solution. It isn't. But maybe it will offer something to begin with.

Min asks, "In my efforts setting up remote learning, which is a whole new system for my school, my students and me, I’m feeling the failure of my imagination. So much of assessment had to do with the culture we built in a classroom together." She adds, "Tho not all of it, the physical proximity is foundational. How do I reimagine instead of trying to make a square peg fit in a circle?"

I believe, Min is working in a high school context, or maybe it's a middle school one, regardless her question really is one that we all can ask no matter what kind of course or classroom we are in, or even what kind of problem we're facing. That is, to ask "how do I reimagine instead of trying to make a square peg fit in a circle?" is a broadly applicable question and it's one about systems and structures, not symptoms and signs. My translation of this hinges on the practice of reimagining assessment, which Min is wanting to get advice on.

Whack-A-Mole Pedagogies
The temptation often -- especially in our current pandemic-forced circumstances -- is to react to the new problems that are made present to us in our classrooms. They pop up now, so we change, add, or stop doing something, or we do a combination of these things in order to improve things. But what does improvement mean? Does it mean the outcomes you got last year? What if we are only seeing the symptom, only a sign of something deeper, not the problem, not the cause? Reacting as a teacher might simply be a pedagogical practice of "whack-a-mole." The problem will keep spawning new symptoms, new effects, more moles, if you don't get to where the moles are coming from.

The problem with whack-a-mole pedagogies is that that usually don't ask the deeper questions about sources and causes, which typically are systemic and structural. For instance, when we learn that research on grades in classrooms shows clearly that grades are harmful to student learning, our response should be to change the system of grades by getting rid of whatever it is about them that harms learning. Getting rid of grades seems outrageous, even counter to a school's educational mission. But grades don't educate students. Grades are primarily an administrative convenience, not a pedagogical necessity.

What do schools, programs, and teachers tend to do? They whack at moles as they pop up. We make grave compromises, ones that sacrifice students and their learning in order to maintain a flawed system. They keep the grading system, and do other curricular things that, with the grading system still in place, simply dresses up the old problems in new ways. They whack one mole without realizing that the game of whacking moles itself is the problem in the first place. Why whack away when you cannot get rid of all the moles? And if you cannot get rid of the moles, then why keep trying to get rid of them in the first place? Maybe the moles can help you, maybe there is some beauty and benefit in moles?

But this is just an example. It's not what Min is asking. Her moles are different.

Reimagining Starts With Preparation

So what does Min mean when she asks how to RE-imagine something? I asked her if there was something in her classroom she was trying to reimagine, and she gave me a bit more. She explains,

Now, I would hope that Min has access to conferencing technologies, such as Zoom, and can hold regular classes or meetings with students. But let's put those things aside and just think about asynchronous ways to circulate feedback in an assessment ecology, one that is compassionate and attempts to acknowledge the whole, embodied reader and writer, which I hear in her initial question.

Min is concerned about the lack of physical contact and community that classrooms can normally accomplish simply by having students' bodies in the same room. Normally, writers and readers get together to talk about their experiences of each others' texts face to face. There are lots of things that gets communicated when students sit in a circle and discuss each other's writing. Much of the messages we get do not come from the words we speak or write in response to others words. They might be facial expressions, tone of voice, perceived accent, even physical proximity. It's amazing how a comment can change when a pair of eyes and a voice is connected to it. We can forget this when we only interact with people online, or asynchronously. Even feedback on our writing, a practice we know requires that another person attend to our words, can feel like a solitary event, feel lonely.

One way to help students and teacher reimagine feedback could be in how we prepare students for attending to others' words as a reader and receiving feedback as a writer. Students can be reminded of of the important issues of embodiment in the practice of reading by first reflecting on them. These reflections can begin the cycle of feedback, preparing them to engage with their colleagues' words as part of the writers' (and readers') embodied presence. It can remind them that anyone can be insensitive, uncaring, or even cruel if we don't keep our selves attached to what we tell others about their writing.
Sample Prompt 
How might someone be insensitive or even cruel when they don't have to face the person they are talking to? That is, when someone doesn't have to be physically near the person they are talking to, what have you noticed that people are willing to say or do that you think they might not have occurred if they were face to face with the person they were talking to? Consider an argument you have either been a part of or witnessed on social media, like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. How did that interaction go? What helped or hurt the interactions? What was the source of conflict or misunderstanding or lack of compassion? How different do you think it would have been if those people were in the same room, looking at each other? 

Follow-Up Prompt 
As you write your feedback to your colleagues, how can you ensure that you will be sensitive, compassionate, and kind when the writer cannot see you but only read your words? What will it take to help you show that you are there, face to face, with the writer? 
These reflections can lead to agreements about how to engage each other that the class or writing group creates. It could be a list of practices or actions. Your students' reflections could help you craft feedback practices that everyone agrees to do.

Compassion Practices
Like many teachers, I ask my students to write a short cover letter to their readers. In it, they talk to us about their process and what kind of feedback they most want. But I ask them to open the letter with a reminder about our promises of compassion to one another. They've chosen two of our compassion practices to practice while writing their paper. These practices are ones we came up with collaboratively in the first week or two of the term, and we reference and use them every week. In the letter, they tell us which two compassion practices they were trying to practice and why. This cues the readers too since in their feedback letters they have to start by explaining the two compassion practices they chose to exercise while reading and offering feedback.

To do this compassion work with my students, I use a modified template charter for compassion, offered by Karen Armstrong. You can see the list of compassion practices that a former first-year writing course came up with after a few very short readings (a handout on compassion), some reflections on that, and 30 minutes in groups.

Embodying Feedback
Part of embodiment is understanding who the writer and readers are and where they come from. This can be tricky because I  feel it's important that students only volunteer information they feel comfortable volunteering. I also find it helpful to remind everyone that when someone offers something about themselves, we should accept that information on their terms, receiving it humbly and with much gratitude. Sharing anything about ourselves with others can be scary. It can make some of us more vulnerable than others. My instructions try to emphasize this.

I like asking students to offer a short narrative of themselves as a reader and writer. It's a way they can introduce themselves to each other and know their readers, even if in a limited way. It's usually only a page in length (about 300 words), and discusses the goals they have for our class. I do one with them. Some things I prompt them on, but do not require them to disclose, are:
  • how they would like to be known or identified along racial, gender, and ethnic dimensions 
  • how they would characterize themselves as a writer and/or reader
  • some literacy experience that they feel introduces them or illustrates who they are as a reader or writer
  • a few important goals they hope to accomplish through the labors of this class
Something like this might be done before any feedback is attempted as a way to get to know each other in the ways they wish to be known. It could also include a selfie or a favorite picture of themselves, something that will help others know who they are.

Picturing Feedback
We need to feel the presence of others, especially in the literacy classroom where our learning is not just abstractions and ideas. Literacy and language is connected to us, our identities, even our bodies. A few ways to do this that my students and I have found meaningful involves taking pictures and including them with their feedback.

The pictures are meant to do a number of things for readers and writers. This isn't just in feedback practices but in all practices and labor I ask of my students, so it has broader applications. I use Slack to do a lot of this work since it is private (unlike Twitter or Instagram), but you could have students include their pictures in their feedback and cover letters as well. Here's the gist of the instructions for pictures I often ask students to Slack to us:
  • Take a picture of your workstation or where you are doing this labor for the class. Tell us something about it or how you are doing your work there. 
  • Take a picture of yourself. It can be a selfie, something posed, or more candid and impromptu. No need to be fancy. Please minimize the use of filters. We want to see your face, to know you a little. Tell us how you're feeling about the labor. 
  • Take a picture of something around you, anything. Tell us anything you want, something fun, something interesting, or something you are thinking about.  
  • Take a picture of your work, the outline or the notes you just wrote down. Tell us one thing you like about what you're finding out and have captured in your notes. 
The pictures coupled with statements or comments that center on how they are feeling or telling us something don't have to be overtly personal, but I've found that even a comment about their pet cat who likes to crawl into their lap while they read offers a lot, and personalizes the student to others. After just a few weeks of a few Slacks like the above, our interactions when we do get together are often warmer, more caring, and even compassionate.

Hearing Feedback 
Another way to embody feedback and help students know each other as embodied can be to ask them to record a portion of their feedback to each other, say in a short audio recording or a video. I've only asked students on one or two occasions to do this, but it seems worth revisiting now. Keep the recordings short since these kinds of files can get quite big. But 1-2 minutes is enough time to do any number of meaningful things:

  • summarize one thing the reader found engaging in the paper
  • discuss how the reader felt after reading the draft
  • read a short passage from the draft to the writer and ask a question or talk about what the reader hears in the language
  • thank the writer for something they did or said in the draft and explain why they are thankful as a reader or student in the class 

You'd probably want to structure what they say, give options, and remind students that this will go to their colleague. In many ways, it will represent how they feel about and attend to their colleagues' words. To make sure they are sending the right impression, readers should listen to their recording before they send it to the writer.

Of course, I'd still require a more extensive written feedback, and I'd ask students NOT to read a portion of that written feedback in the video or audio recording. The recordings should be a meaningful exchange, not just an add-on or extra something. I'd ask students to talk to the writer as if they were right there, and I'd want writers to use these recordings in some way, maybe record a short response to the reader. I likely even ask readers to remind themselves of who they are talking to before they record anything by looking at a picture of their colleague, maybe keeping it in front of them as they record.

As a way to ensure that students engage well with these recordings, it may be useful to ask writers to write a note or letter to you, maybe just 100-300 words that explains what they heard their colleague saying in their recording, how it helped them, and what they hope to hear next time. Course Management Systems (CMS) like Canvas offer easy ways to do this kind of recording and exchanging, but if you don't have access to something like Canvas, then recordings could be trickier.

Photo by Kiyoshi Inoue, "Chicken"
What Makes for Reimagined Feedback? 
Now, what makes any of these things systemic changes, or a reimagining of feedback practices?

It all depends, I think, in how any of this is circulated in the assessment ecology. How does it change the structures of assessment in your class? How does it make square holes instead of round ones? How does it stop whacking moles, and perhaps does something completely different?

More specifically, how are the pictures used? How do writers and readers use pictures and recordings to interact with their texts differently and produce different learning products? How are students cued to pay attention to who the writer or reader is that is virtually in front of them? How are students use compassion practices in reading and writing? How are any biographical introductions used to help writers and readers think about the texts they read and exchange as more than texts to respond to, but as a part of the embodied writers and readers?

Reimagining feedback, I think, means imagining feedback as an ecology in the classroom that does something different, produces different kinds of artifacts and outcomes, and offers different ways to circulate things. In this case, I hope if offers students a way to produce and receive feedback that remains embodied in order to be more compassionate and meaningful in our socially distant times.