Talking to Teachers: FeedForward Conferring and Student Voice

In this post you will meet Matt Foss—a colleague from my most recent teaching post at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. Right away you will pick up on Matt’s passion and openness for teaching as we discuss his IB Lang/Lit classes. Below is a breakdown of the main topics we covered so that you can zoom in on specific topic at your leisure. After the video, I reflect on the conversation and link to some of the resources mentioned.

Side note: This conversation happened at the beginning of the school year, but everything we discuss has relevance to teaching and learning on a macro level.

  • Matt discusses his journey of “writing beside” his students: 0:53
  • Matt talks about how he is switching up his methods of writing conferences : 3:18
  • Matt’s biggest hope for his students as writers…that “their voice matters”: 6:18
  • Matt started the year by making a podcast with his kids by emulating an ode to New York City that The Daily podcast put out…and he explains why and a bit of how: 7:55
  • Matt shares his thoughts on the benefits of remote learning: 9:52

Reflection Point #1 — Focus on the Positive

Dialoguing about a student’s work during online conferring sessions has been the single best thing about remote learning.

— Matt Foss

Matt notes that: “Dialoguing about a student’s work during online conferring sessions has been the single best thing about remote learning.” Although remote learning may have disconnected us physically AND significantly decreased the opportunities for the social construction of learning, Matt has found that this context has provided the space for him to connect with more of his students one-on-one (or in small groups) to discuss their writing. With this shift, Matt has had contact with those students who were less likely to take the initiative to come in for help while on campus.

Yes, Matt still sees remote learning as a hinderance to the overall learning process for his English classes, but his perspective on providing more opportunities and access to one-on-one conferring is definitely a silver lining. In addressing what, at first, seemed like an obstacle to student learning and turning it to his advantage—Matt was able to open up space to connect with his students. And in doing so, he also s aw a shift in HOW he gave students feedback:

Matt’s feedback used to mainly focus on writing comments on students’ physical papers and this feedback was heavily based on what to fix…what wasn’t working…what needed improving. However, in moving to digital conferences and opening up space for a dialogue with students about their work, Matt noticed that he was (1) focusing more on the positive, (2) asking more questions, and that (3) students were more engaged in the feedback process.

In recognizing that he has moved to more of a dialoguing and feed-forward approach to his feedback, Matt started to use the app Vocaroo (integrated into Google Classroom) to leave voice comments on a google doc instead of just written comments. By using Vocaroo, Matt’s feedback was more positive, specific, and inquisitive.

A Wondering…

Matt noticed that in a remote learning context he is able to confer more effectively with students 1 on 1. And so I wonder: (1) Are students also noticing this shift? (2) Will this carry over when students head back into the classroom?

A little something extra: Matt also has students fill in a google doc at various points in the formative process to help direct his feedback. Students engage metacognitively with their piece of writing by taking notes on (a) what is going well, (b) what they want help with, and (c) what options/strategies they might use to help them move forward. Not only does this put the students at the center of their learning process through the assessment of their progress, but it also helps teachers to:

  1. Engage more purposefully with a student and their writing: When we allow the student to be a part of the process in directing what they want to work on in their writing, this can increase self-directed learning skill sets and confidence.
  2. Assess a student’s level of understanding of a task: Does a student know what they should be focusing on? Does a student show the ability to access different tools/strategies to help themselves move forward instead of always relying on their teacher.
Make a copy of this Google doc here!

Reflection Point #2 — Voice Matters

Matt’s biggest hope for his students is that when they leave his classroom at the end of the year they really feel that their voice matters.

One way he tried to encourage students to use their voice was with a collaborative poem/podcast activity. After listening to a podcast by The Daily (New York Times), students created their own community poem/podcast for Abu Dhabi. Matt talks about this activity in the video (7:55 minute mark). The podcast was published to the ACS Facebook Alumni group and there were many responses from previous students and parents sharing their own nostalgic memories. Matt was able to show his students that they could create something that, once put out into the world, could have an affect on others—that their voice mattered.

Listen to the Ode here!

Matt and I discussed how he could keep this thread of voice empowerment going…how was he going to ensure that from the start of a unit his students would know that what they were creating something that went beyond earning them a grade? And Matt was very forthcoming in his response: “I don’t know how I am going to do that?!” Because this is the crux of teaching students who come from different backgrounds, who are interested in different things, who are inspired in different ways…how can we make an activity authentic and relevant to everyone…how can we help each student to raise their voice?

In connection to authenticity and relevance I am reminded of a blog post from Thoughtful Learning. This particular post breaks down how to increase authenticity and relevance at the front and back end of a unit. And Matt is on track with this type of thinking as he provides spaces for two main concepts:

  1. He focuses on who the audience is of every deliverable a student creates. He notes that students have a hard time jumping into a piece of writing without first knowing who the audience is: “If they can’t answer that first of all, then we shouldn’t go anywhere [further].”
  2. He ensures that there is an opportunity for students to publish their work—whether they end up doing so or not is up to them.

A Wondering…

What is important to front load in order to get students to really FEEL that what they are about to embark on creating will actually matter outside of their academic life?

Main takeaway

As I was talking to Matt, I thought back to a webinar I attended about Global Perspectives in the English classroom and near the very beginning the following statement gave me pause:

Curriculum is not a checklist—we need to keep the humanity in the humanities. This is about what we value as a society…we value people, we value culture. And it is writing that helps to get us there.

Jennifer Webb

And that is what I see Matt doing. Yes, he is teaching his students in order to help prepare them for their IB exams, but more so, he is showing them how they can contribute and how they can be heard once they are out in the world.

Of course he doesn’t have everything dialed-in yet (and he will be the first to admit that)…but as he fumbles and refines his practice, Matt is also modelling real life for his students. As they watch him be vulnerable and invest in helping them be better, they in turn will (hopefully) trust in the process he is presenting and create some beautiful writing along the way.


How do you ensure authenticity and relevance in the work? What are you tips for giving space for one-on-one conferring? What did you transfer from remote learning into your classroom? You can connect with me on Twitter @readwritemore and my website www.readmorewritemore.org

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