Writing school reports – for Alexis.


This is a repost for another blogger in response to one of her posts.

The best ten years of my working life was in an inner suburban boys school in Melbourne. It was what is called a middle school and there aren’t many like it left. The boys ranged from about twelve to sixteen and there were over two hundred ethnicities although the majority were Italian, Lebanese or Vietnamese.

One day during the morning briefing, the Principal mentioned that the woodwork teacher had needed to resign. His wife had become quite ill and he needed to stay home and look after her. He was not sure what to do – woodwork teachers were not too easy to find. Did anyone have any ideas? I did. If you can find someone to take either my English classes or my Maths classes I would love to take on the woodwork classes. That’s how I got to become a woodwork teacher.

Now, and I’m building up to something here so don’t wander off and make coffee, it was very close to the time that mid-term reports needed to be written. I had no idea how to write something intelligent about most of the boys. I hardly knew them. Half of them I had taught before but not in a woodwork class. So my comments were fairly innocuous and quite general. In one of the woodwork classes there was a couple of small, bright, smiling, clever little Vietnamese boys. They worked together and talked together and I wrote almost the same thing for them both.

“Minh is a bright and cooperative student and his woodworking skills are developing well. However he is inclined to become easily distracted by other boys in the class.” 

No parent can complain about that, I thought. When Parent/Teacher night came I was interested to note that Minh and his parents arrived at the same time as Bao arrived and they were quite clearly friends at home as well as at school. Minh came in first and introduced his parents. The father looked at the report and tapped his finger on the phrase – his woodworking skills are developing well.- and told me he wasn’t interested in Tam’s woodworking skills. “Is he polite and respectful to his teachers”. I assured the father that he definitely was. I hadn’t thought of writing that.

Then Bao’s parents came in. I thought I’d get in first and started by telling Dinh’s parents that he was a very polite and respectful student. Yes, Yes, of course. But is his skill level good enough for him to get an apprenticeship as a carpenter.

That night when I got home I thought about it and realised that I had told the parents what I wanted to tell them but I hadn’t told them what they wanted to know.

Writing reports is difficult, firstly if you don’t know the students for as many reason as you can imagine and secondly because you don’t have a good grasp of what the parents might expect. So I devised a new method of writing reports, a method which saved my bacon on many an occasion and which was used by many a young teacher when I explained it all to them.

These days, reports are often set out very precisely and surround a wonderful concept that we imported from some place overseas that took all the fun away called KPIs or Key Performance Indicators. Toward the end of my career I had to sit through a KPI workshop where the facilitator kept referring to Key Performance Indicators. She kept saying Pre instead of Per and I found it very annoying.

So; to my method. First of all I photocopied a blank report form. A copy for each student. Then I told the class the story of the parent/teacher meetings with the two boys and their parents. It was clear that they understood the problem.

Then I said they were to write their own report. The immediate reaction was ‘Wow’ followed by can we say whatever we like? I said that they could. I also said that they were to give their own grades. Then I told them a little story to set out the concept. This was a woodwork class and here is what I told them.

“Last weekend my wife asked me to make a new door for the laundry cupboard. So I got my pencil and my tape measure and some paper and I measured everything and then I drew a plan. I went over to my workshop and started to cut and saw and measure and screw and fit hinges et cetera, et cetera. And when I finished I rang up the building inspector and asked him to come out and inspect the door and tell me what I needed to do to make it better.”

Up until this last bit they were with me. But the last bit stopped them and they all laughed and said that last bit was stupid. So I asked them who would tell me if the door was good enough. Some said I should ask my wife but by now there were some who had got the point and they said that I should decide myself if I had done the work properly.

These boys were all year seven, so about twelve years old, and the first term project had been to make a picture frame. So I said that each of them knew whether it had perfect square joints, whether the four pieces were all the correct length and whether the joints were solid. Because they were only young I had the glass cut by the local glazier to a standard measurement. But they had to cut the back themselves.

Then I told them to have a look at their own frame and give themselves a mark from zero to ten. BUT I exclaimed, if your frame is really only worth a 6 – for example – and you give yourself a 9 – which is ridiculous – I will change your mark and give you a 5. But let’s say you give yourself a 7½ but I think it is only worth a 7, I won’t argue and I’ll let you have the 7½.

When we finished that we went on to “Behaviour” and the same procedure. And “Attendance” and “Respect for Others” or whatever we had in the reports that year.

Then they handed them up to me and I looked at them. I didn’t know what to expect although I had hoped it would work. I looked first at one of the best boys in the class – Tony – and one of the less competent – Anton – and I called them both out. I gave the reports to the two I had called out. I gave Tony’s to Anton and Anton’s to Tony.

And this is when the magic happened. First Tony looked at Anton and then looked at me. “This is wrong, Sir. Anton’s work is not as bad as a 3. He’s worked really hard and the joints are hard to get right and if he paints it it would be at least a 5.” OK I said and I crossed out the 3 and put a 5.

Then Anton looked at Tony’s. “Yes Sir. All that is good but he should get 10 and not 9 because there is nothing wrong with his frame at all. But he gave himself a 9 for “Respect” but he is a bit cheeky sometimes and he should only get 8.” I asked Tony if he agreed and he did. So I got them to change the marks.

I looked up at the class. No boy was working. They were all looking at the discussion between the two boys up the front and waiting for my reaction. So I told them to take the forms back and change them if they wanted. But in general I found it hard to fault the assessment each boy had given himself. I never marked any boy down but I sometimes marked them up.

Then we moved on to the comments. I told them I would write what they wanted me to write but only if it was honest. If it was glaringly wrong I would change it.

The same thing happened with one glaring difference. Almost every boy was a lot harder on himself that I would have been. And they said things about themselves that I had never noticed.

I asked them to say nothing outside the class because some people wouldn’t understand.

I expanded that method into all my classes up to year nine. It worked best in woodwork classes but I was never disappointed in other classes. Many a young graduate teacher use the method.

But I haven’t told you how I got to know what the parents wanted. Maybe tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “Writing school reports – for Alexis.

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    This was a very interesting method of assessment, I would never have thought of it. I think the key to this technique is that it gets the kids to reflect and hold themselves accountable. It also shows them that you value their imput, efforts and opinions as well. Brilliant!

    Great read.


  2. It is a wonderful story, and they clearly learned a lot more than woodwork from the process. There is a great difference between a qualified teacher and a good teacher, and I think this story illustrates that.


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