Developing Critical Minds

Constructive peer evaluation in a middle grades drama class

For Middle Level

In my first year teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade drama, I noticed that when I asked students to respond to a performance or give feedback to their classmates, they frequently did not have anything to say or seemed unable to move past simple comments such as, "She was good." Generic, non-specific feedback doesn't offer performers helpful assessment; they can be left feeling slighted or even disrespected by their peers, discouraged from polishing their skills.

Constructing and accepting meaningful criticism are important skills for young adolescents to acquire in their journey into adulthood. Both stem from a capacity to think critically. Therefore, one of my goals for the new school year was for students to provide each other with respectful and constructive feedback after performances in drama class. I aimed to improve students' acting skills while teaching them the language and process of critique in the arts.

Laying the groundwork
I worked to meet my goal through a number of strategies. To connect the students to our work together, I started by having each student set a personal goal for himself. We had discussions that led to a full acceptance of our Social Contract [consensus-derived group rules]. I also incorporated friendly greetings and activities into our class. These steps helped provide consistency and build a trusting community.

Finally, before delving into my course material, I taught two mini-lessons on the purpose of critique in theater. Afterward, we did a role play about sensitive and constructive ways to suggest improvement to a performer.

A survey to gauge understanding and progress
In the first week of the class, I had students complete a survey about giving and receiving feedback. They took the same survey at the end of the semester, which allowed me to gauge their growth. This survey contained three questions:

  1. How do you give feedback to someone about their performance?
  2. How does it feel to receive feedback in class after your performance?
  3. What is the purpose of giving feedback to classmates about their performance in drama?

I wanted students to understand that it was important to use specific techniques and language to be respectful and encouraging. I wanted them to see that feedback should leave students feeling positive, supported, and safe, and that feedback improves everyone's understanding of theater arts.

Incremental steps began with acknowledgments
Because I wanted to foster a safe space to give and receive criticism, we made our transition into critiquing performance slowly and incrementally, emphasizing the positive. During the first week of class, I regularly used closing time to ask students if they had acknowledgments for others. The following week, during our unit on pantomime, we set up a structure where the performer(s) sat on the edge of the stage facing the audience during this feedback time. I modeled informally by adding a compliment or mentioning positive qualities I noticed in the performance.

To prepare reluctant students to provide feedback, I let them know in advance that I would be calling on them specifically after a particular performance: "Martin, after Jasmine performs I'll be asking you to tell her one good thing you noticed about her performance." After more practice, in addition to one compliment, I asked students to name one thing this per¬former might add or change.

Improvements noted
I noticed an improvement from the previous year in the quantity and level of detail in student feedback. In our unit on pantomime, students were able to use the language introduced in the unit to critique their classmates' performances. Occasionally, students raised their hands to offer feedback even when I was not planning to critique a particular game or performance. I also noticed a few students say, "Compliments? Advice?" to the audience after they had performed. Student performers internalized the process of following a performance with debriefing, and automatically sat on the edge of the stage after performing to listen to feedback. More importantly, students no longer viewed critique as something inherently negative. Quite the contrary, they gave and took criti¬cism constructively-practices that will serve them well later on.

I continued to use the process of "one specific compliment, one piece of advice" as an introduction to critique for my drama students, and I continued role-plays and discussions about critique. There is still progress to be made in students learning that the purpose of critique is to enhance one's critical eye as an audience member. To address this, I plan on setting graduating goals for my students based on grade level and drama exposure. A 6th grade goal might be to critique a classmate's performance, peer-to-peer. A 7th or 8th grade goal could be to learn to critique not only student performances in class but also theatre techniques from other cultures and times.

Importance of teaching behavior skills and expectations
This process has reminded me that it is important to fully teach a skill or behavior I expect to see. It is necessary to go beyond just telling students what to do. I need to use mini-lessons, role-plays, and modeling to introduce specific language and processes to help students learn and make long-lasting changes in their behavior.

I was also reminded of the power of my own language as a teacher. In the past, I had unwittingly set students adrift by asking, "What did you think about this performance?" and expecting meaningful responses. I now understand the need to frame questions in a way that directs students to the kind of responses I am looking for. The entire process reinforced the benefit of "going slow to go fast."

Melinda Russo is a drama instructor at Old Orchard Junior High in Skokie IL.

This article first appeared in Developmental Designs: A Middle School Newsletter, Fall 2009