Giving feedback the ‘Michaela’ way

I’ve written before about marking, but just to summarise: it has always been something I’ve loved doing. There was something in that Boxer-like satisfaction of ploughing through an unending pile of books, leaving lovingly crafted comments in an array of coloured pens and stickers that just looked like it would work so well. How could pupils fail to make progress when I’d spent so many hours on them?

So something I was nervous about when starting at Michaela was their approach to marking; that is, don’t do it. I’d read Joe Kirby’s blog and spoken to him at length, but remained steadfastly concerned that marking worked – if you ensured pupils

acted on feedback. I then moved to the idea that marking worked, but at what cost – a teacher with six or ten classes cannot be expected to give the detailed feedback the lightly-timetabled members of SLT seem to manage on a weekly basis.

In my second week at Michaela, we had a department meeting where Joe brought up the excellent question: it’s great for workload that we don’t mark, but how do we make sure we’re giving feedback to make pupils’ writing better?

One of the main reasons I think I find marking helpful is because it holds me accountable – I am actually reading if I am putting a pen to paper to say something about it. (I annotate the books I read in the same way – it helps me to remain focused.) But while this is an essential strategy when it is 7am on a Saturday, pre-intervention, and you want to clear the last 20 books to enjoy a semblance of a weekend when you return home that afternoon, or 9pm on a Wednesday when you just want to sleep, actually, I had underestimated my ability to focus.

To begin with at Michaela, I couldn’t get out of the habit of marking. I would spend two hours with about 60 books, circling and underlining when I couldn’t resist; writing limitless notes to share with the class, photocopying paragraphs to get pupils to annotate their peers’ examples. Joe’s comments on this kind of feedback were: ‘would you want all teachers to be photocopying twice or three times a week? Is it worth the time getting the pupils to annotate a piece of paper they are then just throwing away? What else could you be doing with that time?’ Moreover, I was reminded of why marking is not always the best method – if I’d put the merest hint of a mark on a child’s book, their hands shot in the air: ‘why is this circled?’ ‘I can’t read your writing on this spelling correction.’ ‘Why is there a question mark here?’ Marking breeds over-reliance on the teacher.

Now, I’m getting into the swing of the Michaela way. I read my pupils’ books once or twice a week. I teach four classes, each with between 28 and 32 pupils, so it is about 120 books in all. I read 60 books in 30 minutes. As I read, I make notes: spellings lots are getting wrong, things they’re all doing well at, and the main issues they need to improve. I note down anyone whose paragraph is amazing to reward with merits or show the class; I note down anyone whose work is messy to give a demerit to. It looks something like this:

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In the following lesson, I teach the spellings from the front, and then test pupils. They will write their corrections out in green pen, interleaving the ones they got wrong, or the ‘toughest three’ if they managed, on this occasion, to score 100%. I’ll test them again the following day. I’ll share the positive things I found and celebrate the star paragraphs, and then explain carefully, perhaps modelling on the board (as Katie Ashford has described brilliantly here or occasionally putting a great paragraph from the class under the visualiser, how they can all improve their own paragraphs. And then they improve them, in green pen. It looks like this:

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The second powerful tool is in-class feedback. With an excellent behaviour system, silent writing for 25 minutes means I can see every child’s paragraph twice while circulating, giving them suggestions and tweaks while they write. On my colleague Lucy Newman’s suggestion, I’ve also started using my visualiser more. This way, we can take a pupil’s book, display it to the class, and show pupils how to edit their mistakes in that very lesson, just by giving oral feedback on the common errors they are making, or the aspects they really need to focus on improving. 

The thing is, what makes the difference in their writing is the quality of the feedback and how timely it is. They don’t need feedback on a paragraph they wrote two weeks ago. At Michaela, they can improve the paragraph they wrote yesterday, while it is fresh in their minds. I miss marking, I do. But I’m realising I did it for me, not for the pupils.

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49 thoughts on “Giving feedback the ‘Michaela’ way

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  2. Thank you for sharing. I like the change of focus…to the kids not you. I use my visualiser every day now modelling writing,analysing poems, showing work of students and find because it’s ‘real’ the kids are happier to share theirs to the class too. I only mark their independent work now because what they’ve copied from the board isnt ‘their’ work. I have introduced feedback Friday’s. ..A review of their weekly work completed or changes required to homework with focused questions to guide them followed by 30 minutes reading.

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  3. Hi jo

    Is this an approach used in all subjects or just English? I am guessing it is school wide but just checking. I am a head of history and the amount of marking is always a challenge under my schools pretty reasonable marking policy so this is intriguing. Thanks.

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  4. Pingback: Focusing our Teaching and Learning Priorities: A reading list. | headguruteacher

    • Same thing perhaps? I find having something concrete helps – have you included at least 7 short quotations? So set the parameters at University level and have them count up what they have/have not included perhaps? And again, general feedback will be more useful, or photocopying the best essay and explaining what makes it so brilliant, and what that person could also improve. Quality of examples over time is key!

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  5. This was awesome – thanks for sharing! I’m an American soon-to-be certified high school English teacher and I too use composition books and free-write assignments. At first, I read the books and made no markings at all. I needed students to get comfortable just letting words flow. Now that that’s happening, I was wondering how best to approach giving feedback. I love the use of the green pen! Question: Since you’re not reading books every day anymore, do you stick to a particular day for in-class feedback around spelling and modeling excellent responses? Thanks so much!

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    • I actually don’t – it takes me so little time to read their paragraphs I can do it when I need to. It helps me be really responsive to them as time demands. If I were pushed for time, I would do a sample of 10 random books I think and use that to formulate general feedback.

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  9. I like this – I’ve just had a go with a set of 30 y11 poetry paragraphs and it took less than 15 mins. But how do you then know that they have actually improved their work? Do you ever grade/ put comments on their work?

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  10. Hi Jo,

    Please could you let me know how this is done at your school in MFL lessons. Great idea and would love to see how it can be adapted for us in MFL.

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  26. This is exactly how I mark. Great to see a school make it easier for their teachers. I only write in the books to tick the box of “evidence”. The students get far more this way. I’ve just recently found your blog. I definitely don’t agree about everything but I agree with a lot and I find it all interesting. Thank you for sharing.

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  29. I’m all for making more effective use of my time and increasing the impact of my feedback to pupils. Over the past year, I’ve been using an adapted ‘markingcribsheet’ from @MrThorntonTeach which seems to be a similar approach. It works for my Senior MFL classes, not sure how it would work with my Junior classes as we’re a school with a high proportion of pupils with literacy and/or learning needs so I feel I do still need to mark their books. If I’m honest, I do still mark their extended writing. I’m not sure they would pick up all the various types of errors in their work. I do find a whole class sheet is helpful to highlight common +/- points. Good to see and consider different approaches from different schools.

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  32. My previous infant school, which has over 70% of children in the bottom 2 categories of ACORN data, worked on similar principles. Teachers didn’t make a mark on children’s work. When we had Ofsted the lead inspector was, initially, sceptical. However, when he saw the systems we had in place, such as very structured guided sessions, child created targets, detailed formative assessment booklets and the way teachers guided children’s self assessment he went away with a different perspective. The school was judged Outstanding and the inspector went home to rethink a talk he was giving about marking for trainee teachers.
    I am now deputy in a primary school; a very strict and time consuming marking policy, with no differentiation for age or stage, was introduced last year. I find extremely frustrating when teaching the younger children. If a teacher is writing more than the child, and the child can’t read it independently, we have to ask who we are doing it for? When teaching nursery last year I drew the line at introducing and marking writing and maths books and getting the children to correct with a green pen. Consequently, I was moved to KS1 this year and nursery now have books!

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