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When “Critical Friends” Are Actually Appreciated

by Samantha Wilson, English Faculty

Who would ever want “critical friends”? Why would you willingly put your work out there when everyone could tear it apart? How could you listen as others discussed your lesson plan or assessment as if you weren’t even there?

These are just a few of the questions that might race through a teacher’s mind when faced with what are known as Critical Friends Groups, which bring anywhere from six to ten teachers together to critique and improve each other’s work on a regular basis using protocols. CFGs have been around since the mid-1990s and were first promoted by the National School Reform Faculty, a group that grew from work done at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.[1] There is a slew of research about the benefits of such groups, and Mike Schmoker’s article, “Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive Instructional Improvement,” outlines much of the research on the long term positive effects of having “teams of teachers implement, assess, and adjust instruction in short-term cycles of improvement.” The clearest way for a teacher to improve is by being thoughtful and reflective about her or his practice along with input from others. I first learned about these groups two summers ago at the Klingenstein Summer Institute for Early Career Teachers, and I’ve been hankering to get a group like this going at St. Mark’s ever since.

This year, with support from the Dean of Faculty and The Center, we have started to get this group off the ground. Last month, we had our first CFG session of the year on an assignment of mine that I give to my 3rd formers near the beginning of the year. A CFG follows strict protocols and time limits to keep the conversation productive and on task. There are three roles: Presenter, Participant, and Facilitator. The Facilitator is the timekeeper and taskmaster, as it were. The Presenter brings the assignment that is critiqued, and the Participants examine and critique.

The first step is the Presenter explaining a bit about the context of the assignment such as what has lead up to it, what scaffolding has been put in place, and how it fits into the larger arc of the year. The Presenter also formulates a “central question” that gets to the core of what she or he wants to improve upon. In my case, the assignment was a storytelling project in which students were asked to deliver a 3 – 5 minute story of a “personal odyssey” in front of the whole class. In preparation we had discussed what makes for good storytelling and a good story. We watched videos of people giving similar talks and critiqued them. Students brainstormed several potential stories and worked together to rehearse and practice what they had decided on. But somehow, with all of this, many of the stories did not come out the way I had hoped. My central question had two parts. I was finding that students, despite the scaffolding and pre-work that we did, were missing the theme of this assignment and often described literal journeys rather than including metaphorical ones as well. I also wanted to look at the type of feedback students were giving to each other and how to make that part of the process more meaningful.

Participants are then given a copy or artifact of whatever the assignment is and any examples of student work that might be available. I passed out the assignment sheet as well as three examples of the feedback students wrote for each other after each story. After a brief period of examination, Participants ask the Presenter “clarifying questions” that are fact based and are meant to help fill in whatever context might have been missed. Questions for me ranged from “Is there a written component” (No, but they do write a longer reflection about the experience in their journals) to “Do you give them the feedback sheet in advance so they know exactly what they will be scored on by their peers and you?” (No, but all the things listed are things we’ve talked about and modeled in class). A lot of times, this is the space where, as a Presenter, you start to see the holes in your work and figure out where the lacunae are in the assignment. I realized that I never talked to them explicitly about what an “odyssey” is or what “journey” can mean, and because at that point we had only read the first two books of The Odyssey, they couldn’t judge very much from that. I also was reminded that students of all ages, but especially when they are younger, really benefit from clearly defined rubrics. This is also the part in the session when a Presenter can start to feel defensive as weak spots are revealed. As a teacher, or really as a human, it never feels good to have your shortcomings pointed out, especially by people whom you respect and want to impress. But this is the beauty of the CFG – these people are my friends, my colleagues, and my peers. In a CFG, eventually everyone has a go at being the Presenter, and it becomes clear that everyone knows there are points that need improvement in the assignment and that is why the assignment has been brought forward by the Presenter. The weakness has already been acknowledged and the request for improvement has gone out, so there is no need to feel defensive or question your own intelligence. Critical Friends Groups are a safe place to put your vulnerabilities out on the table and to have your peers’ help you strengthen and scaffold around them.

After a longer examination period, “warm” and “cool” feedback is presented for fifteen minutes while the Presenter is silent and takes notes. The warm feedback feels outstanding; you are reminded that you are not the worst teacher on earth and you are actually doing some good in service of your students. People thought it was great that I have students standing up and talking for three whole minutes in front of the class within the first month of school. I was also given compliments around the student feedback, and others were impressed with the level of detail that some students put into their comments. One of my central questions then was seen by others to be almost unnecessary. The cool feedback feels more constructive than critical. This is the time when others troubleshoot what they see as the problems and you are left with pages and pages, in my case, of notes with ideas to improve the lesson plan, explain it more clearly, and tie in other subjects and ideas along with it. This is, for me at least, the most exciting part of a CFG both as a Presenter and as a Participant.

One of the best parts of these groups is that they are interdisciplinary, so the connections and suggestions that people make come from all different fields and areas of expertise. One of the Religion teachers brought up several articles that he uses when talking about quests and journeys. A History teacher mentioned that she videotapes her students giving presentations, which allows the student to do a more objective self-critique as well as giving the teacher another chance to observe strengths and weaknesses. The Classics department teacher recommended splitting the class in the peer feedback so that some students are focused on looking at the storyteller’s performance and some are more tuned into the content of the story itself. All of these great ideas were novel to me, and many were things I never had thought of as possible for this assignment.

After the warm and cool feedback is a time for the Presenter to reflect on the process. I point out the comments that really made me think, the suggestions that I want to incorporate next time, and thank my peers for their thoughtful critique of my assignment. Even after the protocol is over, people lingered in my apartment and the conversation continued. I look forward to these evenings every month, and I am spreading the word about the benefits of these groups so that others can attend and eventually spin off into their own groups. A “critical friend” might seem like an oxymoron, but in this case, it’s the best kind of friend a teacher can have.

Sam Wilson is in her fourth year teaching English, where she also coaches lacrosse and cross-country, lives in Thayer House, and co-heads Burnett House. Sam hosts the monthly meetings of the Southborough Society (women’s affinity group) and Faculty Discussion Evenings (including CFG nights).


[1] http://www.nsrfharmony.org/program.html

Work Cited

Schmoker, Mike. “Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive Instructional Improvement” Phi Delta Kappan Vol. 85, No. 6, February 2004, pp. 424-432.

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