I received Ron Berger's book "Ethic of Excellence" about a month ago but only read it over the weekend. I found it inspiring and centering as far as focusing on what parts of teaching I like the most. I collected my favorite parts of the book into Practices and Mindsets that I want to incorporate into my work.
Regular Critique and Display paired with Reflection
I as long as I have been working at High Tech High I've heard the importance of peer critiques. My project ideas have been critiqued, my class work is critiqued, and I see other teachers successfully use critique to instruct and elevate the work of their students. I have been unhappy with the results of critique in my own class and now I think that I know why.
Usually I will run a critique only a few times through a project. The sessions must always be preceded by a refresher on norms and procedures and the students bumble through without much accountability or trust. The critique everyone receives is flat and only minimally helpful. Discouraged, I refrain from trying again for a few weeks, only to have subsequent attempts feel stale and forced.
In "Ethic of Excellence", Berger describes a classroom that holds critique sessions almost constantly. I've hear that he has said he spends 70% of class time critiquing. A high standard for sure. In reading I realized that it was because of the infrequency of my critiques that they were not improving. This semester I decided that we would hold critique sessions at least every Thursday. Because they are so regular it becomes possible for the students to improve and take more ownership of that time in class.
Almost as important as the critiques themselves is the reflection on the critique, the meta-critique. During work time I like to circle up with 3-4 students at a time and ask them for ideas to make our critiques more useful. This input and feedback strengthens the sense of ownership and genuinely improves our time on Thursdays. I additionally started to assign a formal Critique Response
I am trying to hold myself to too high of a standard. That standard is "I cannot require or expect students to do something unless I first show them an example." This is crazy and feels impossible but has served to be a useful goal and helps me develop empathy towards my students. Some have never kept a calendar before. Some have never organized their work in a binder. By the above mantra, I cannot take for granted any skills that my students should have.
I tend to run lessons by the seat of my pants by default, relying on my adaptability and knowledge of the content to get me through. By forcing myself to always have an example I also force myself to consider what's coming up in the lesson and what I must model and show. If they will be performing experiments, we must first examine an experiment and I have to practice it myself. If we are having a discussion, we should watch a group of people have a similar discussion.
Modelling can take many forms. It may be a physical object which shows what everyone will be making. It can be a piece of writing which shows depth of thought and reflection. It can be a bit of art that shows precision and detail. When my students ask a question and I reply "I don't know, but I could probably figure it out.", I'm modelling a growth mindset. What's important is that I provide something for them to base their attempt off of and give us a place to start conversations about what is expected and required. In speaking about his experience as a carpenters apprentice, Mr. Berger says, "No amount of words could convey what one good model taught me."
A big piece of insight I gained from this book was when Mr. Berger was discussing drafts. To me, it seems natural to do multiple drafts of any type of work to continuously improve it. What I didn't actively recognize was that many students might feel that needing a second draft is the same as failure in the first draft. Because I haven't made the effort to incorporate language like drafts into the classroom, I can't really blame them.
A place to start in this regard is to explicitly require a certain number of drafts for a piece of work. For example noting that draft 1 of 4 is due at such and such a date. This sets up the expectation that work will be returned and developed over time.
Self-esteem through work
There's no faking self esteem. I can tell a student that their work looks good but they know and I know when it's weak. I and the rest of the class come off as disingenuous if we give false compliments. In response to this, when I've told students to restart a project or rebuild a part of their work I follow up by saying, "Make yourself proud."
I don't want my students to work to impress me. I don't even want them to work to impress each other. When they complete work that they are genuinely proud of, they don't need my compliments because they know how good it is.
"All the self esteem activities and praise in the world won't make them feel like proud students until they do something they can value. When they begin to make discoveries that impress their classmates, solve problems as part of the group, put together projects that are admired by others, produce work of real quality, a new self-image as a proud student will emerge."
- Ron Berger, an Ethic of Excellence
When I first began hosting critiques I with my class I thought that I knew what they were for. I thought this was a chance for students to improve their work based on the critique of their peers. This is part of the motivation, but misses the greater purpose: building a sense of group excellence. One of the best critiques I have yet run occurred after I used a quote from Berger, "Any weakness reflect on all of us."
When the motivation for critique shifted from individual work to the total quality of the whole class, the vibe changed. Students who typically don't need much feedback engaged in helping bring up those around them. The groups who needed the most help didn't seem shy getting help, because they knew and their peers knew that the whole point of the work time was to improve everyone's work.
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.