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Conversing, Consulting, and Creating

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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A high school student is sitting across a table from an adult in a library, and they're talking to each other. There are bookshelves against the wall behind them, as well as another table, and students sitting at desks.

I pull up a chair and join a group of students at their table. They're leaving feedback on each other's drafts, writing notes about writing that works well along with ideas for improvement. "What type of feedback would be most helpful?" I ask, knowing that if I want to check in with every student, I have only a couple of minutes for each conversation.

Sitting next to Jasmin, I lean over to see her screen and quickly scan what she's written while trying to figure out what I can offer to help her move her work forward. "These are really powerful ideas that you're beginning to investigate," I tell her. "I wonder if you can do more to draw readers in right from the beginning? You could open with a short descriptive scene as evidence of why this issue matters."

When I'm sitting next to Reggie, the conversation has a different focus. "I'm trying to understand what you're writing about. The first part of your paper focuses on the idea of literacy, but then it shifts to the experience with your family. How are these connected?"

With Kenny, our short conversation becomes a strategy session for him as an English-language learner. "I've noticed that you struggle with verb tenses. What do you need to do to submit a paper that doesn't have verb tense mistakes? How can I, and others, help?"

Moving Beyond Formative Assessment

As a younger teacher, I remember regular feelings of disappointment as I graded student work. Much of what students produced felt on the verge but hadn't yet come to fruition. One student found excellent sources but never fully developed a focus. Another began to develop powerful insights but would have benefitted from questions leading him to further clarify and develop his thinking. Sadly, my grading and realizations about what would help students usually occurred at an endpoint when they had no more attention or patience for work they had "completed." The written comments that I offered them were skimmed, if read at all.

Those of us who spend our days with young people know that teaching is an enormous interpersonal challenge and that student motivation and progress are often tenuous. Students have few reasons to invest themselves in their work and no reason to view learning as a collaborative act if they don't feel valued as individuals, as thinkers, and as creators. The small conversations that occur when teachers shift the focus to consulting with students are beneficial in the following ways:

  1. They help build relationships.
  2. They allow teachers to get a real sense of student progress and understanding.
  3. They help teachers nurture emerging student ideas.

For good reason, there is a growing emphasis on formative assessment. While there's a place for small activities that allow teachers to gauge understanding, it's more crucial to make conversations with students a core element of classroom practice. By leaving the front of the room, checking in, conversing, and consulting with students, teachers shift the paradigm of what it means to learn. Several practices work to support the idea of teacher as consultant and help establish collaborative, participatory, intellectual communities:

Sharing Ideas in Process

By having students share their rough ideas and work-in-process with peers, everyone is exposed to the messiness of creation, and the process becomes a communal undertaking rather than an individual struggle. This process can be modeled by teachers and provides opportunities for collective feedback.

Seek to Understand and Support

Too often I find myself assuming that I get what a student is attempting to accomplish, only to realize that I misunderstood. By reminding myself to approach each student with the intent of listening and understanding, I strive to figure out their thinking before sharing my own ideas.

Decentralizing Authority and Knowledge

Consulting with all of my students is an enormous task and one that I could never do on my own. Fortunately, peer feedback is very powerful and assists students in taking ownership over the requirements of an assignment. When students peer review each other's work, I am able to move around the room and add to work that is already happening.

Finding Inspiration and Models

Consulting is most effective when it connects students with outside sources or model texts that help move their ideas forward and give them a clearer sense of what they can create. Remembering this reminds me to ditch the expert hat and instead act as a facilitator, exposing students to information that they might not otherwise find.

A Challenging Path

It's liberating to abandon the idea that I'll assign work, students will complete it, I'll grade it, and we'll move on to the next thing. Now I think of my role as showing students to the beginning of a path that they must explore for themselves. They're the ones who figure out their direction and the shape of their final destination. I'm there, waiting in many different places along the way, offering support, critique, and guidance. The learning is designed as a way of challenging students to examine new ideas, and ideally it results in students producing work that goes beyond their expectations of their own abilities.

It's important for me to remember that this type of work is challenging for people of any age. Whether they're learning from the stories of immigrants, investigating democracy, creating a video about their Education Vision, or developing ideas about literacy, my students need clear expectations, they need models, and they need feedback. Viewing school as a collaborative, creative process allows us to connect, to grow, and to truly learn from each other.

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Yesica Navarro's picture

What a great article on the importance of being an active facilitator. I agree with you, students need to conference with the teacher as they learn and create new things. A teacher's presence encourages students, but more importantly guides students in the right direction.

Conferencing definitely helps differentiate instruction without having to create 30 different lessons or assignments. It adds rigor to student learning. As teachers we know what each student is capable of; therefore, we can ask the right questions to help each student reach deeper levels of critical thinking. This offers the opportunity to offer different instruction to English Language Learners, gifted and talented students, and students with special needs. Students who do not fall under these categories also have different abilities, and it is important that we individualize instruction to meet their needs.

Without redirection, students might produce poor quality work and they are not truly learning from their mistakes. Students learn best when they receive immediate feedback, and it makes sense to offer the feedback while their work is still in progress. This way students can make changes and produce their best work possible. In turn they gain ownership over their work, and hopefully gain a more positive attitude toward learning.
Thank you for your insight.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Very nice article Josh! I agree that consistency and consulting with students one on one helps tremendously with improving their writing. I also found that I had very little time to do this consistently, but leveraging the support and power of peer feedback really gives students an opportunity to focus their writing and even become more motivated to continue to write.

Ask Ms. K.'s picture
Ask Ms. K.
Teacher and Education Blogger

Josh - I totally agree! Consulting with students is really the only way to do longer-term writing or research activities. It ensures the students have the opportunity to explore what really interests *them* and gives us the chance to provide plenty of feedback without taking work home every night!

Shafattack's picture

I love that you describe learning as 'Messy" because that's exactly what it is!
It's chaos and disorder with arrays of half created thoughts beliefs and undiluted ideas that smash into one another distorting each until something original comes out. Yes consulting fits so does facilitation and would I love to see the distinction made as an actual job title for schools to separate 'teaching' which implies a push methodology rather than a pull one.
I recently heard a Tim Ferris podcast interview with Peter Diamante the billionaire on how they thought technology would disrupt teaching. Mr Diamante felt that when technology creates a machine that can read pupil dilation and other body signals in response to answers this will help teach our young to a higher order than currently seen. He should read this post. The intense connection between humans are deeper than fact transfer. The human quality of appreciation of one's work, acknowledgement of the struggle to create, the passion and message that is born from learning cannot be replaced with a mechanical facsimile.
I loved this post.
Awesome. X

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thank you all for the comments! You all raise excellent points and really add to the ideas of the post. I appreciate the ways you are expanding the conversation about these aspects of teaching.

Kurtis Henry's picture

I enjoy the mental image you portray in your post of a classroom vibrant from students' learning experiences and personalized feedback. The shift from just written feedback about their understanding of the concept to interactions with each student that is personal and about their understanding is phenomenal. How does peer feedback work with the students you have? Are there particular ground rules and a script that they follow to begin that process? The idea that informal assessment can be a guided and dialogued event changes assessment from an anxiety causing check-in to a comprehensive understanding of the student as it pertains to the concept. How is your teaching style evaluated by administration? Is it positive or are they lost in what is going on?

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks for your comment, Kurtis. One structure that has improved the quality of peer feedback in my classroom is workshopping feedback for student work with the entire class. I may talk to a student in advance and ask them to be ready to share their intro or some other part of their work. Then, I remind students of guidelines for responding to student work (sometimes we use "I notice... I wonder...") and we spend some time giving feedback to this student so everyone can hear. This modeling of effective feedback, and a reminder that authors don't need to utilize all the ideas they receive, seems to help students when they are then doing the same process in pairs and small groups.
To answer your last questions, I am fortunate to teach in an Inquiry and Project-Based school, Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, where these types of teaching and learning are valued. It is my hope that more and more schools will begin to recognize the value within these types of practices.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Kurtis! I've used protocols from the School Reform Initiative ( to help teach my students how to give feedback. They provide some great structures for conversation and have solid ground rules that keep kids safe but challenged. I practiced with my kids using neutral texts (work that wasn't created by them, with one student taking on the role of the author) and used a fishbowl format so we could talk together about what constructive criticism actually looks and sounds like.

I can't speak to the larger question about teaching evaluation other than to say that it would be really important to communicate your learning objectives (and how they align to the Common Core speaking and listening standards) and to be clear about how you're assessing what you see (which gets a little meta "I'm assessing their capacity to assess").

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