Guest post by Jamie Faith Woods, a fifth grade general studies teacher at Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island. She was in the first cohort of the DeLeT program at Brandeis University.

The notions of high standards, multiple drafts and critique have been on my mind since I attended the Mandel Center’s Teacher Forum with Ron Berger on “Cultivating an Ethic of Excellence.” For some time now, students in my fifth-grade classroom have been solving word problems in front of the class, explaining their thinking as they go. After Ron’s presentation, however, I have been thinking about how to put his approach to peer critique into play in my own teaching.

Ron Berger at the Mandel Center Teacher Forum

~Ron Berger presenting at the Mandel Center's Teacher Forum~

Ron makes clear to students that critique must always be three things: specific, kind and helpful. Critique is not criticism. During a recent math class, I asked my students to point out anything a presenter did that they felt was an example of good problem solving work—and not on anything else. I wrote down all of their comments on chart paper; these are posted in the classroom.

As usual, the students noticed more than I did. We did this twice more that week, and each time added a few things. Now we have a solid list for all to see of the elements of good problem solving. I can almost hear them thinking, “If x, y and z are what make up good problem solving, then I want to be sure to do those things when I solve a word problem.” They are referring to this and using it as a checklist; this is leading to higher quality work. Because they generated it, the list is more meaningful to them. The problems they’ve been solving are complex, and it is amazing to see the results in such a short time. Interestingly, most of their models are now neater and easier to read, which was never something that I articulated as being essential, but they noticed how helpful it is.