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When the Third Draft’s a Charm

Written on February 9th, 2015

Daniel's Penguin

“We often settle for low-quality work when, with perseverance and careful critique, we are capable of excellence.”

This is the conclusion that Ron Berger arrived at after visiting Anser Charter School in Boise, Idaho, where he encountered a series of butterfly illustrations by a1st grade student named Austin. If you’ve seen Berger’s “Austin’s Butterfly” video, you know how much Austin’s butterfly improved with each draft: the first one is a sparse and uninspired marker drawing, but the sixth and final draft is a thing of beauty—detailed, colourful, and carefully rendered.

The video has inspired teachers all over the world to think more about the role that constructive criticism plays in helping students create quality work—including Amanda Vandervinne, Senior and Junior Kindergarten teacher at Halton Hills Christian School (HHCS).

Like many people familiar with Austin’s story, Vandervinne was struck by the fact that Austin’s final illustration is not just the mark of a gifted artist, but the result of many thoughtful critique sessions with his classmates. After watching the video at a district PD day, Vandervinne decided to be intentional about making room for constructive peer-to-peer feedback in her own SK/JK classroom.

Her version of an “Austin’s Butterfly” lesson went like this: She watched the Austin’s Butterfly video with her class, and then asked each child to draw a picture of a penguin. After that, the class had the chance to critique their teacher’s penguin drawing, based on what they’d learned from the video.

What could Mrs. Vandervinne do to make her penguin look more like a penguin? What might she do better? What should she change? The questions prepared students for the next phase of their assignment: critiquing each others’ work.

“It was really neat for the students to hear from each other how to improve their work,” said Vandervinne. “It came from someone on the same level as them, not from above.”

Although students did need some prompts to make their feedback specific, the experience was ultimately an empowering one, she added. They felt like they had “good ideas and their opinions mattered”.

After that, Vandervinne sent her students “back to the drawing board,” so to speak, and told them try drawing a second penguin, keeping the suggestions they received in mind.

The next day, half of the class took part in another critique session with the aim of making their third and final penguin illustrations look even more realistic.

Throughout the process, Vandervinne liked watching what she describes as “helpful and honest feedback” carry over from the carpet to the tables where students were working. Advice between classmates flowed freely and naturally—she heard things like “remember the shape looks like this” and “you should add this …”

When students were finally able to display all three penguin illustrations to their reading buddies Vandervinne said she was “blown away at the improvements between the drafts”.

Pictures of the student work tell the same story. Daniel’s first penguin is a small, barely there oval drawn in crayon. In his second draft, the lines are a little more confident and we know that he’s on his way to something better. By his third draft, Daniel’s penguin is outlined in thick black marker—its clearly defined wings have been filled in and its webbed feet are a vibrant shade of orange!

This was the first time that Vandervinne has tried out an activity like this, and views the lesson design as her own “Austin’s Butterfly” moment.

“When colleagues were giving me feedback—suggestions for how to do it differently, or what else to do with the project, at first I got defensive,” she admitted. But, Vandervinne was soon “reminded to step back and take their advice as helpful things to make the lesson better”.

“I get to do lots of planning with the other SK teachers at the school. It’s good to hear a new perspective and different suggestions for lessons.”

Vandervinne’s take on an “Austin’s Butterfly” lesson is a beautiful example of what can happen when teachers embrace critique and invite their students to do the same. By making room for children to take part in critical cycles of feedback, Vandervinne is also creating a culture of perseverance and encouragement at HHCS. Through that journey, she’s seen her students grow, and watched them create some truly excellent work.

Fun Fact: You can read this story in The Georgetown Independent Free Press, too!