Can Opener Comments

I started this blog post two weeks ago when the big internet drama of the day was Bean Dad. That was just two weeks ago, my friends. I almost scrapped this whole post when I opened it up to finish it today because I’m certain he is long forgotten. BUT…the parallel I was drawing to my practice is still something I’m wrestling with so bear with me and hop in the time machine to simpler days when we were fired up about beans and can openers and not violent insurrections.

I was in the middle of putting feedback comments on Google Doc essay plans while I was distracting myself with Bean Dad so, of course, it gave me pause. Bean Dad’s big justification for not helping his daughter was his belief that kids only ask how to do something because they want you to do it for them. There are a thousand reasons why his approach was a complete trainwreck, but I still think there’s a lesson for us to learn here (I have to justify that wasted hour somehow, so just go with me). 

Many of my students are quick to throw up their hands in frustration when a writing task is particularly challenging or read my feedback comments and immediately say “I don’t get it.”  This year especially–when it’s harder to connect with my virtual students or when I only see my hybrid students two days a week, it is tempting to throw up my own hands in frustration and scream “Did you even READ MY COMMENTS? JUST USE THE CAN OPENER!”

In a normal year, that frustration on either side is quickly solved with a writing conference. Some of that can happen in 1-on-1 Zooms this year, or when I see my hybrid students face to face, but it’s just not as frequent or as easy this year. This year, I’ve needed to step up my game with written feedback to help my students open the can, so to speak.

How do I make sure my comments are “Can Openers”?

Written feedback is so tricky. Too much and you overwhelm. Too little and you confuse. And the wrong punctuation or a poorly chosen word? I had no idea just how easy it was to discourage a young writer until my sixth grader’s Social Studies teacher dropped a “Charles” in his written feedback. Charlie read that as pure hatred and it took a LOT of convincing from mom that *perhaps* his teacher was just innocently using his legal name. 

Before you throw up your hands and say “but I don’t have time to give written feedback”, let me be clear: I’m not advocating for hours of comments on every single draft. I’m suggesting we choose one or two of the biggest areas of need in a student paper and leave feedback that models what to do rather than comments on what was done. Can-openers instead of Can-denters, if you will. 

Can-Opener #1: Organization

Sometimes I open a student document and I’m greeted with a wall of text. No paragraphs, no discernible plan for the piece—just words and words and more words. Perhaps these are students who zoomed past the planning steps because they had so many ideas to get down on paper or perhaps they were frustrated by the steps of planning. 

Dent the CanOpen the Can
You need some paragraphs!Highlight the spot where the first paragraph break could go and say this: Try adding a paragraph break here because you’re shifting to a new idea!  This is the first place–look for others in the rest of the piece. 
Where are your topic sentences?Highlight a main idea–wherever it may be buried–and say this: Can you turn this into the first sentence of the paragraph? It will help focus this paragraph as a clear topic sentence. Each paragraph needs one!
Go back and use the graphic organizer/outline we worked with in class!Highlight the thesis and subclaims and say this: I think I’ve highlighted your main ideas, but it’s hard to tell how they fit together. Can you reorganize so that it is clear how they all fit together? 

Can Opener #2: Fluency

Other times the organization might be there but the phrasing and word choice are just…off. My AP students have a very sweet habit of trying so hard to sound sophisticated that they overcomplicate their writing and end up saying almost nothing at all sometimes. But…you can’t just say “this is awkward, champ” and move on. 

Dent the CanOpen the Can
This sentence doesn’t make sense! Highlight a keyword or phrase that DOES work and say this: This is the best part of this sentence. Can you keep this and revise the rest for clarity? 
Lots of incomplete sentences Any consistent error likely means the student simply doesn’t know and won’t know how to fix it. Highlight one and say this: You’ve got a number of phrases like this one that can’t stand alone. Add ____to this one and then go through the rest of the paper to see if there are others you can fix. 
Missing transitionHighlight the end of the previous paragraph and the beginning of the new one and say this:  Could you add something at the beginning of this paragraph to better connect these ideas? How does this paragraph build on the last one? 

Can Opener #3: Idea Development

A good chunk of the writing we do in AP Lang and AP Seminar is argumentative, so often my students’ struggles are in idea or argument development. They name an example but fail to contextualize it, or they make a vague claim without fully supporting it. 

Dent the CanOpen the Can
Add evidenceHighlight the spot where the evidence is missing and say this: Love this claim but it would be so much more convincing with some concrete evidence. Can you add something specific here to prove it? 
Tell me moreHighlight the undeveloped idea and say this: I think I understand you, but you’re a little unclear. Can you add a sentence or two explaining what you mean here?
Confusing!Highlight exactly what is confusing and say this: Can you connect this more clearly to your claim? Maybe add a concrete example to explain what you mean here. 

Obviously, every writing task will generate a whole new set of issues and potential can-opening situations, but this strategy of thinking through how to use my comments to move them forward has helped make my writing feedback more fruitful this year. I kept my chart of common problems and feedback open while I scored and copied and pasted my way through a whole set of essays rather quickly. 

It’s not as good as conferring. Conferring is like one of those super fancy electric can openers that you don’t even have to touch. Flip the switch and Voila! Beans! Written feedback is more like one of those dull ones buried in the back of your utensil drawer that you have to line up just right (and you still might tear up the label). But…the can will open. 

–Hattie

How are you managing written feedback this year? Any great strategies to share? I’d love to hear them in the comments below, on the Moving Writers Facebook page or find me on Twitter @TeacherHattie.

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