by Harmony Button
The following was a letter addressed to faculty members during finals week at the Waterford School, a time in which teachers were composing written reports of individual students’ progress to present to parents.
The end of the term is a tricky time. Time behaves oddly — what promise to be leisurely long afternoons during finals week turn into an ever-accelerating rush towards another new term. We feel stressed, but lack the structure of class periods to give us a sense of immediate accomplishment. The work bleeds into the break, through the break, into the next term. We come back exhausted.
Perhaps this is not universally true, but it is a common enough experience that I felt compelled to address it in this week’s Writing Across the Curriculum email. Grading aside, one of the common reasons that teachers feel stressed in this season is the pressure they feel in the face of Progress Report writing.
I have heard from many teachers that they feel some anxiety over the process of report writing. The stakes seem really high: many teachers feel judged on their writing skills and tone of voice, as well as their content. Here are a few thoughts on writing progress reports, especially for those among us who do not frequently write for a living. I can’t create any more time in your schedule, but maybe a tip or shift in perspective might help you get some traction:
The purpose of progress reports:
In the term of MS/US-wide post-Canvas roll out, the purpose of a progress report became a moving target. The goal of an end-of-term report is often to sum up a student’s successes and challenges over the course of a term. This information, however, is readily available via Canvas. If you keep the kind of grade book that is heavily annotated with comments and feedback, a progress report of this variety is, in many ways, redundant. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth writing, for other reasons, but I would suggest that the purpose behind progress reports has been subtly shifting.
Instead of being purely informational, many parents look to progress reports as evidence of a teacher’s investment in their student — they want to know that we care about their children, and know them personally, and have an eye out for their individual learning patterns and habits. They want to know how their children are doing… but more importantly, they want to know that we know how their children are doing, beyond the stark statistics.
This is one pitfall: I want to polish and polish each report until it is the perfect kernel of communication, until it demonstrates how much I care about each student, and how well I know them, and how I have thought deeply about how they might improve their learning experience in the future. This is an impossible task. It takes forever and often involves layers of personal anecdotes and parenthetical commentary on learning strategies. It comes out feeling gangly and over-written. I am emotionally drained, and the sun has set. And then there 79 more to write.
On the other side: Say I have 80-some progress reports to write (some of you have more — I know). I see the purpose as communicating information about a student’s standing in my class, so I make some comments about their general demeanor and then cite some statistics about how they have performed in different categories. I come across as cold and disinterested, and all of my content is kind of useless — it is all information that is already available to a parent via Canvas.
The balance: You want to write a brief, personable, meaningful commentary on a student’s current progress in your class. This means that A) you do not need to finish grading all the finals before writing the report, and B) you do not need to touch upon all categories and elements of their experience this term. You need to sound like someone who keeps an insightful eye on this burgeoning young learner — you need to demonstrate competence and clarity, not a comprehensive overview.
What does this look like?
A good deal of your tone of voice is carried in your syntax (sentence structure) not just in your diction (word choice). This means that you can use many of the same words, but combining sentences or rearranging them can effect the overall tone of your commentary. Of course, watching your diction is also really important (I would love to get Darren to set Google Docs to auto-correct “lazy” to “struggling to demonstrate follow-through on difficult tasks”) but most teachers are already pretty well attuned to word choice. Here are few ideas for sentence structures that can help you convey multiple types of information, while also smoothing your tone:
1. Good news + bad news:
Although he _________________________ (successful skill), NAME still struggles to ___________(target skill).
2. Context + action + consequence:
In __________________ (context: ie, testing situations), NAME can become __________________, which leads to _____________.
3. Identify the behavior, vs. making value judgements:
I have noticed NAME _________________ and ______________, which suggests that he might be ___________.
4. Propose a solution:
One way NAME might avoid _________________ would be to ____________________.
5. Offer your support and encouragement:
NAME has demonstrated good _______________ and ________________. If he would like to get my help on ___________________, I would love to see him be able to _________________ in the future.
If, upon re-reading your progress reports, you’re still not satisfied with your tone of voice, take a look at your punctuation. Sometimes, lack of proper punctuation makes you sound gruff and abrupt. On the other hand, overly elaborate sentences can lose clarity or make you sound evasive and insincere.
Managing the Progress Report Writing:
Design the arc of your progress report. You want to greet the reader with something positive, continue on to something that proves your knowledge of their unique student, and then close with an eye on the future. You can do this in several different ways. If you’re looking for a basic structure, here’s one that will rarely lead you astray:
1. What’s happening in class
2. What’s happening out of class
3. Opportunities for growth
4. Strategies to achieve growth
Or you can try this structure:
1. What’s going well
2. What needs work
3. Strategies for growth
4. Opportunities for the future
Or I’ve heard of some teachers who use this structure (although I have a caution about it, below):
1. In the beginning of the term…
2. By midterm….
3. Now …
4. Looking ahead…
— Even in very short forms, tone of voice is really important. This is what tells the parent that you know and care about their child.
— Longer is not necessarily better. If you feel yourself spinning off into great detail, feel free to refer the reader to specific elements of your Canvas account where they can find more information, or offer to set up a meeting or conference time.
— Be careful of treating progress reports as a play-by-play of the entire term. You may be inclined to slide into descriptions of performance or statistics, rather than a description of learning habits and skills.
— Resist making judgements of character or physical appearance, positive or negative. You don’t know how a parent will feel about you calling her daughter “a really lovely girl with a smile that lights up the room.” Besides, what does that have to do with her classwork?
— Writing good progress reports, even short ones, is really exhausting, because it is an exercise in empathy and awareness, not just a collection of data. Try alternating your report writing with other small tasks, to give your brain (and your heart) a chance to recharge.
Good luck, all. I’ll see you on the other side.