Writing Comments

One of the major differences between public schools and private schools is that we usually have to write comments. These are long narratives about each student detailing what they studied, how well they are likely to know it, and what other things we noticed about their potential for success and future “growing edges”.

These comments cost a LOT of time in terms of time and thought in order to to write, edit, and proofread. A colleague of mine at a public school also writes comments, but he picks three number codes off a chart, and a computer system plugs in three complete sentences about test and quiz grades, class participation, and homework.   It seems like a much easier system, given that they have well over twenty codes to choose from in a dozen categories…. but we attempt to write an invididualized comment for every student.

After thirteen years, I am more than a little “run dry” on what to say, and how to say it.  With an average of 56 students a term, and having taught for 13 years, and writing three sets of reports a year… I’ve written over 2,000 of these reports.  And most of them have been variations on this:

Johnny was a pleasure to have in class this term.  He achieved an average of 87% on all of his homeworks this term.  He was a regular participant in class discussions, and asked cogent questions relevant to the topic, which was the history of Mesopotamia and the development of city-states in the 27th century BC.  On tests and quizzes, Johnny did less well, achieving an overall average of 83% for the term.  He has difficulty with writing strong paragraphs, despite coming for extra help several times.  I wish Johnny well next year.

This is… nice.  Not great, not horrible.  But it’s not anything that couldn’t have been written by grabbing three or four codes off of a chart, and programming the results into a database.  Alas.

On the other hand, thanks to Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Doug Lemov and their project at Uncommon Schools, and at the Amistad Academy, I had a lot of strong data on every kid who took the examination.  And I was able to offer more specific and realistic advice for the future.  This is a ‘blended comment’ borrowing material from three different students’ comments that I was able to write this time (because I don’t want to reveal a personal comment for a specific kid — their parents paid a lot for that right).  However, all the comments I wrote this time around were about this long, and detailed:

It has been a real pleasure watching Diane bloom as a writer, speaker, and scholar over the course of this last term.  At the term’s start, she was still writing disorganized paragraphs with no clear theme; by the end of term she was writing concisely structured paragraphs with clear themes.  Her paragraphs use a variety of sentence structures and styles, and she makes use of both modifiers and prepositional phrases in her writing.  Her great difficulty currently is that she uses very few action verbs, and prefers to use linking verbs.  She should practice transforming words through various parts of speech as we practiced in class so that she develops a greater range of options in her writing.  Diane showed greater confidence during her presentation on the temple of Luxor in Egypt than in her presentations earlier in the year; she is more comfortable speaking formally in English despite her earlier difficulties in learning to speak the language. Her sentence structures are excellent, but the idiomatic use of the definite and indefinite article is not yet perfect.  She needs more practice at answering questions about her topic, though; once she left her prepared remarks behind, she was much less at ease than when speaking from her script.    In reading comprehension gains, Diane made tremendous strides as long as she heard and read the text, and had the chance to discuss the text with a teacher or with other students.  However, her performance on several quizzes suggests that she still has difficulty decoding primary source materials or more difficult reading.  Current news reports and elementary school history books are relatively easy for her, but actual historical documents are still challenging.  She should practice reading aloud next year in high school, and work with a study group to confirm that she has interpreted more difficult texts correctly.  Her overall grades on homework, class participation, and tests and quizzes showed slow but steady improvement through the term.  More importantly, she has made great gains in speaking, reading and writing.  There is still much she has to learn, but she is headed in the right direction.  Keeping a journal and reading some more difficult English literature this summer will help stretch her abilities and keep her prepared for high school when she returns from Japan in the fall.

I think this second comment is much more useful both to the parents and to the student, and it sets parameters for future growth.  Moreover, it can’t be constructed from a chart of pre-determined codes.  It’s designed to tell a real story about a real person, and it can’t be manufactured.  It’s a story of where this particular person started, and where they might be going.

Much improved, don’t you think?

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One comment

  1. Andrew, that comment is brilliant. I love it. I have three goals for next year; one of them is to keep better track of individual students’ work so that I can write about it at the end of the term. As of right now, my comments look like this:

    I have enjoyed having the opportunity to work with Johnny this year, and I congratulate him on his success in English class. With the exception of an early vocabulary quiz, Johnny earned no grade below 90% on any grammar or vocabulary assessment, a fact of which he should be very proud. He also received grades of A- on both of our literature tests this term, and his performance on these tests demonstrated excellent understanding of the material, though his short answers could still use more detail and description. On the other hand, he did a wonderful job on both of his essays, earning an A on a paper relating one of his own passions to “Warriors Don’t Cry” and an A on an in-class essay comparing and contrasting Plato, a character from the film “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Dana Matherson, the bully from our summer reading book, “Hoot.” In class, Johnny continued to remain a polite and productive participant, although there were some times early on in the term when his chatter with his friends pulled him off topic. Nonetheless, this has been a year of tremendous growth for Johnny, and he is well prepared for the increased demands of English class next year. Have a great summer, Johnny, and don’t forget to download the information regarding summer reading and the guided reading questions from the school’s website anytime after July 1st!

    Yours is better. I’ve got the Lemov book on my list!

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