October isn’t just for Pumpkin Spice Lattes and decorative gourds. No, it’s also when many of us schedule parent-teacher conferences and write comments.

Mention a due date for comments in a faculty meeting, and you’ll likely hear collective groans and see many teachers shift in their seats as they look around to affirm everyone is on the same page here.

Writing comments is a time-consuming process. I have 73 students this year, and my comments typically run anywhere from 250–400 words in length. (I am an English teacher, after all. Somehow, I tend to eschew the advice I give my students: compress your language; say as much as you can with as few words as possible. Instead, I tend to tell stories about them, describing their work in class.) On double-spaced pages at 12-point font, that runs to anywhere from 70–100 pages! That’s so much writing. Yes, some of it is repetitive, but it’s still a lot!

This year, thankfully, my team has decided to streamline the comment writing process by creating a formula for each student. The plan is to provide a few sentences on these three items:

  1. Accomplishments. What has the student accomplished thus far in the class?
  2. Areas for Growth. Where might the student need to target his/her efforts to find the most improvement.
  3. Actionable Goals. What specific step(s) should the student take to work toward growth?

I’m calling this “The Triple-A Comment”…everything needs a catchy name, right?

Even with this framework, we still have quite a bit of data-gathering that needs to take place. This leads to the key questions I want to address here:

  • How do we go about gathering sufficient data to make our comments meaningful?
  • How do we ensure our comments actually reach students, not just the school’s student information database?

The Magic of Crowdsourcing

The content for my comments about students come from three different sources:

  1. My observations in class.
  2. My comments on the student’s work.
  3. The students themselves.

It’s this third one that I want to focus on.

While writing about a student from my own perspective is pretty easy, I find that incorporating some of the student’s own ideas into the comment helps me to understand that student even more. What does the student view as her strengths? How does this student understand the areas in which he needs to grow? What does the student believe are important steps to take to improve or to succeed?

Moreover, asking students to look over my comments on their assignments and reflect on the past eight or nine weeks has the effect of getting them into a metacognitive mode.

  • Where was I a few weeks ago?
  • Where am I now?
  • Where do I hope to go and how might I get there?

These three questions help to frame the reflection. I ask students to write about questions like these, to share specific examples from their work, and then I use that piece of writing as the basis for my comment.

In a single move, I’ve gotten the student to reflect while also crowdsourcing valuable information for my comment. Some of this information I might have access to through my own observations and marks on their work. Much of it, however, is not available to me. Through this reflective assignment, I can see what students value and what they think the keys to success are.

These reflections form not only the basis for these comments, but they also help me to steer the student toward greater productivity. Some students, for example struggle mightily to develop actionable goals. Instead, they write something vague:

My goal is to earn an A in my English class.

“Cool story,” I tell them, “But how are you going to get there? What behaviors and habits do you need to alter today to get you where you want to go?”

By sharing this information with their parents and guardians, I also end up giving them better advice about how to support their student.

Johnny has told me that he typically waits until the last minute to start on major writing assignments. To reinforce the importance of the writing process, we agreed that he would share his pre-writing with me on the same day that the assignment is given.

Now, Johnny and I can take care of that, and his parents can ask him about it.

The key here is that the student’s action steps have to be simple, achievable, and measurable. You might consider using (as I do) the SMART Goals framework for this. See the simple assignment I use below.

The Triple-A Assignment

The following was copied and pasted directly from a page in OneNote I distribute to my students. I made a few small edits to it.

We are 25% of the way through the school year. Rejoice! As we finish up Q1 and enter Q2, consider what we've done together:

In this space, I list out the major accomplishments from the quarter: big assignments, texts read, etc.

Now, I'd like for you to take a few minutes to reflect and then respond to the following prompts. NOTE: I may use this information when writing your mid-semester comments for your parents.

PROMPT 1: Accomplishments.

In the space below, please write 2–3 sentences describing something specific that you've accomplished thus far in this class.

Delete this line and write about your accomplishment here.

PROMPT 2: Areas for Growth.

In the space below, please write 2–3 sentences describing some area where you feel you need to grow if you are going to succeed in this class.

Delete this line and write about your area of growth here.

PROMPT 3: Actionable Goal.

Thinking about your area of growth, write 1–2 sentences describing a specific goal, something concrete and actionable, that you will do to help you grow. Do not make it something vague (e.g., "do better" or "make an A" or "improve"). Instead, it should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bound

Examples (from my English 10 class):

  • I'm going to complete the reading on the day it's assigned. This will help me grow because it will allow me to take my time with it, rather than rushing through it right before class.
  • I'm going to spend more time planning my next writing project so that I know my ideas flow before I start writing.
  • I'm going to ask two trustworthy friends to proofread my next paper before I turn it in. In doing so, I hope that I will find more of the small errors that I keep making.
  • I'm going to schedule office hours with Mr. Hebert before my next speaking assignment is due so that we can talk about the structure of my speech/presentation.

Do you see how these goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound (SMART)? Keep it small and awesome!

Delete this line and write your goal here.

You can take this assignment and alter it to your specific context. Just make sure that you get them to hit the three A's:

  • Accomplishments.
  • Areas of Growth.
  • Actionable Goals.

Weaving It In

As I write out their comments, I find ways to weave some of that information in. Here are actual examples from past comments (names changed, of course):

Accomplishment: “Aditi was really proud of the way she took feedback on her presentation a few weeks ago and applied it to her most recent speech.”

Area of Growth: “Carson knows he needs to review several grammatical errors he keeps making, especially comma splices and subject-verb agreement.”

Actionable Goal: “Zoe says she is going to meet with me during her study hall twice in the next few weeks to talk about the structure of the satirical piece she is writing.”

Your Thoughts

The ROOTED community is full of so many professionals who have great ideas. In the comments below, I’d love your thoughts on these questions (and more!)

  • What’s your best comment hack?
  • How have you streamlined your process so that you provide meaningful feedback for students and parents?

We look forward to hearing from you!