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A Group Critique Lesson

Expeditionary Learning's Ron Berger leads a group critique lesson with students from the Presumpscot School in Portland, ME. The third-graders use a piece of student writing as a model from which to identify criteria for a quality story.

This video accompanies the book Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment.


- We’re gonna read one story today, just one. And it’s written by a first grade boy named Nate. And we’re gonna try to figure out-- We’re gonna try to figure out why this story is a good story. And I’m gonna tell you right now, I think it’s a good story. I really enjoy it. Today we were working with third graders around the quality elements of a fantasy story, using critique as a lesson. Once upon a time there was a dancing ballerina prince, who was named Ernie.

- Prince Ernie was in love with a beautiful Princess.

- Just giving kids descriptors of what we hope they will do, whether those descriptors are through learning targets or whether they’re through Rubric, can often feel to kids like it’s just words. I like this girl, and I don’t know if she like, you know what I mean? Much more powerful is to bring in a model of great work, and then have the kids themselves be detectives. To have the excitement of discovering quality themselves. And then naming that quality in their own words. The battle was tough, but he was tougher. I think it’s particularly important that we’re using the work of real students. Hit them, and smack them right in the bumper.

- Does bumper mean butt?

- Yeah. It’s kind of a nice way of saying butt. They’re amused by it, they see problems with it, it’s not perfect. And yet it has qualities that make it sparkle and shine, and it’s available and accessible. They know another kid did it.

- And they lived happily ever after.

- Will you all give Rosa some applause here? So your job now is to be detectives at your table and think, “Hmm, what did Nate do that makes this story interesting?” I think he used a little bit of imagination in his story. Imagination.

- He made up like characters, he made up Prince-- Prince Ernie.

- He probably used other stories to get the idea of this story.

- And he decided to copy a princess book, but not like copy it, but like think of princess stuff and that.

- And he added more details.

- Time’s up, papers down. Who can name something for me that makes the story work? And Jamal, I’m gonna start with you, because you immediately said, “I like this part of the story.”

- Bumper.

- So two things I’m hearing there. One thing is you like it ‘cause it’s funny. I am in a positive way manipulative in these settings. By, when I hear a kid have the kernel of a great idea that I see. Anybody’s story can be helped by some humor. But I also hear you saying Jamal, that his word choice was good. Something that’s a kernel of an important convention in a discipline, I will rephrase it for them. And then try to put it in language that makes it really available for all the kids. Great, what else?

- He added more details.

- Good, can you give me an example there? I think that’s right.

- Page seven.

- Good, read aloud the part that you thought had some good detail.

- Was not what he ...

- And when there’s important features in the work that kids have not yet come out with, I might pose it as a question. Now did he spell everything right?

- No.

- And then they sort of discover it on their own, but in truth I’ve planted that for them. If you have a great word, and you’re not sure on how to spell it, was he brave enough to use it?

- Yes.

- Yes. So he was brave enough-- Be brave to try hard words ... One of the things I really loved in today’s critique session, was their explication of his character as having tension between being brave and fighting battles, but also being scared.

- I was afraid you wouldn’t like me. “Me too”, she said. That’s what I like.

- And why did it surprise you?

- He was afraid.

- Good. Tatum this is so great. ‘Cause do you think that this guy’s a pretty brave guy?

- Yes.

- Me too. What did he stand up to? What are the obstacles he stood up to? The trolls.

- And the witch.

- The witch. I always come into a critique with a strong piece of work, and I know the qualities of that work that I hope kids will find.

- When he was trying to talk to her.

- Exactly.

- He was shy.

- Exactly right. I love that Tatum. What else? Maureen what do you see?

- He had imagination.

- Good. So the critique is really doing two things at once. It’s teaching them the attributes of a high quality piece of work in that genre.

- Trolls and stuff; imagination.

- But at the same time it’s teaching them the critical analysis of how to critique work, which they then use for their own self-analysis. It makes them better self-assessors, and it makes them better peer assessors. Having something a little scary is okay to have in your story. There’s not one right time to use a critique, it’s hitting the moment when kids need that information, when everybody could be lifted. I’d like to make a longer story. I’d like to use some more imagination. I’d like to put some more obstacles in it. And it’s using a tangible, concrete piece of work to do it, not just language to do it. It gives them a vision. I can’t spell ‘em perfectly, but I’m gonna try them. I’m gonna try to have some surprises in my story.

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