Critical Friends: an Investment that Returns
by Rose Himber Howse
This past year I was fortunate to participate in “Critical Friends,” a group of ELA teachers and coaches who met to give feedback on each other’s curriculum. After the first meeting, the name Critical Friends—which sounds oxymoronic—began to feel quite fitting. By critiquing each other’s curriculum through a student-centered lens, we improved the quality of each other’s assignments.
It was so helpful to have six profoundly accomplished instructors suggest revisions for my unit plan that the most important question to emerge from the process was: why only now? Shouldn’t collaboration and mentorship in the adult education environment be the norm, not the exception?
The usual answer to that is, "Where's the time?" and so I want to make a pragmatic case for the Critical Friends model. While the extra time it took to give, receive, and implement feedback on curriculum seemed like a lot at first, it’s worth re-framing that time as an investment, one with great returns both for student outcomes and for our time management in the long-run.
At Critical Friends, I got feedback on a health unit for my ELA class. I’d designed it during a professional development training with Amy Trawick, who helped me use backwards design to envision the final product (a powerpoint presentation) and create a rubric and daily lesson plans aligned to the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education. I was quite pleased with the unit... until I actually taught it, at which time many elements didn’t go as planned. The other members of Critical Friends considered several samples of my students’ work in conjunction with the assignment and helped me to parse some of the problems.
I’d been so focused on research skills that I hadn’t provided enough scaffolding for the reading comprehension involved in the research materials. I hadn’t supported students who were unfamiliar with the technology involved in the project enough to ensure that typing and formatting did not overtake the harder skills involved in the assignment. My actual lesson plans didn’t reflect the balance I’d struck in the rubric between writing content, grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.
The shortcomings of the assignment go on, but the takeaway here is that when there were six talented educators eager to help improve my assignment, based on the evidence of related student work, it only took about forty-five minutes for me to learn how to do radically better next time.
Getting feedback on my unit plan not only allowed me to revise it, but it saved me a tremendous amount of time when I sat down to my next planning session, armed against making the same mistakes I’d made in the past.
It’s also worth mentioning that while backwards design takes more time at the beginning, it gets quicker the more you do it, and it is actually as efficient as it is effective once you’re used to it. Add up all the times that you’ve asked yourself, "What am I going to do in class tomorrow?" and then headed off on a wild goose chase through Google or the stacks of old papers in your desk or bag. By comparison, consider an extra few hours on a Saturday spent mapping out a unit plan based on the the desired final product. But even knowing all of this, I slip sometimes during the most stressful periods of the year.
While my colleagues and I have always been open to the idea of collaboration, in practice it can easily drop far down the priority list. It always comes back to time and resources; we have so many tasks to complete in order to serve our students in the way that they deserve, and so little time and funding with which to accomplish them. Participating in Critical Friends reminded me of what teachers are missing when they insist on forging ahead alone.
Having the Critical Friends structure not only improved the quality of my assignments, it also provided accountability for me to design assignments in the way that facilitates student outcomes, as opposed to the way that’s easiest for me in a given moment. That’s a secondary, and equally important, rationale for bringing curriculum collaboration into our programs and routines.
Teachers are some of the busiest people on earth. If we can think of collaboration not as one more thing on our plates but as a way to become more effective in less time, we can all be better for our students. And, in opening ourselves up to feedback on our work, we’re modeling the kind of curiosity, perseverance, and growth-mindedness we ask our students for each and every day.
About Rose Himber Howse: While participating in the Critical Friends pilot group, Rose Himber Howse was a STAR teacher and ESOL literacy teacher and coordinator in a Boston program. She is now getting her master's degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she works with undergraduates in the Writing Center.