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Austin's Butterfly

Building Excellence in Student Work

Ron Berger from EL Education demonstrates the transformational power of models, critique, and descriptive feedback to improve student work. Here he tells the story of Austin's Butterfly. First-grade students at Anser Charter School in Boise, ID, helped Austin take a scientific illustration of a butterfly through multiple drafts toward a high-quality final product.


- What would you guys say to teachers? If they’re not getting high-quality work, could they learn something from this? And what would you say to them that they could do differently in the classroom? This is a story called “Austin’s Butterfly.” And it’s true story about a first grade boy and his name is Austin. And he goes to school, or used to go to school, in a town called Boise, Idaho. And in his class in Boise, Idaho, they were studying butterflies, and he had to do a project. His job in first grade was to draw a butterfly and this is the butterfly that he picked. Austin had to use this photograph as his model and he had to draw an accurate, scientific drawing of this butterfly. This is called a Tiger Swallowtail.

- I knew it!

- Can you tell, Toby, why it’s called Tiger?

- Because it kind of has the stripes of the tiger right there.

- Good, so here was Austin’s job. He was supposed to do a scientific drawing of that butterfly. But remember, Austin was only in first grade. And do you know what he did? He forgot to look like a scientist, carefully. He got his paper and he just started to draw the image of a butterfly that he had in his head. And he wasn’t looking like a scientist. And so, this is what he drew. It’s not bad, and it is a butterfly. But does it look exactly like this?

- [Kids] No.

- No, it doesn’t yet. It doesn’t look exactly like this yet. And so they didn’t look at this and say, “Good, Austin, you’re done.” They said, “Austin, good start. “Now we can start giving you critiques “so you can do a second draft and make it better “and a third draft and make it better “and you make it much much closer to this.” And he was ready to go. All of the first graders in his critique group sat on the floor, like you guys are, and they decided to split their advice into two kinds. First, just the shape of the wings. And then, when the shape was right, they’d give him advice about the pattern inside the wings. Allea, what would you say?

- He can make it much pointier.

- Good, these wings could be much pointier. Who else would add something? Atak, what would you say?

- How about the angle? Because, not to be mean about the angle, it’s just not exact, so...

- Okay, so show me. Come on up here, Atak. Show me what you would ask him to do slightly differently.

- To make it a little longer.

- Longer where? Draw where you would do it.

- Right there.

- Okay, so pull this out longer.

- Yeah.

- That’s very specific, Atak, thank you. Jamila, what would you say?

- It’s like a triangle.

- Good, Jamila, I love that. So, you’re saying more like a triangle shape. And I agree. Well, you know what? Those first graders came up with most of those same ideas. And do you know what Austin said? He said, “Okay, I’ll go try.” And he went back to his seat and he drew this. Does this look more like a triangle?

- Yeah.

- Yeah, did he go out further like Atak was suggesting?

- Yeah.

- Did he add some jaggedness here?

- Yes.

- Did he get rid of that bottom thing?

- Yeah.

- So he did listen to his friends, and he made it better. It’s not perfect. Toby, what would you say?

- I’d say don’t put those little tail things so pointed in, I’d say put them more pointed down.

- Good, okay, Ethan, what would you say?

- I think he should make the wings like this, not like this.

- Okay, he listened to his friends and they said, “This is really a lot better, Austin. “That second draft really is better.”

- Now he can make a third one.

- Good, maybe he can make a third draft. And so he did this draft.

- That’s his third draft.

- That’s his third draft, Hadley, that’s just right. Elijah, what do you notice there?

- Well, one wing’s more pointed than the other and that side is a little bit higher.

- Good, Coburn?

- Right here, it doesn’t have the inside things still.

- Ah, okay, needs a little bit more of that notch. So, do you think maybe he should do a fourth draft?

- Yeah.

- Well, that’s just what he said. He said, “Shoot, okay, I got round again. “I’ll go back and do a fourth draft.”

- He listened.

- He listened. Does it look more even, like Elijah was suggesting?

- Yes.

- Yeah, and does it look like it’s coming out a little sharper? Like Cindy was suggesting? And like Atak was saying, the angle looks a little better. So now, Austin was feeling really good. He said, “Am I ready to add some pattern?” and they said “Why don’t you try adding some of the pattern?” And he did.

- Whoa. He is so good.

- And then they said, “Austin, you’re ready for color. Let’s look at his last draft. And what do you think? Did it come out really good?

- Yeah.

- Yeah, what do you think about how much progress he made? Atak, what would you say about his progress?

- He made a lot of progress, he persevered doing it. His friends were honest with him.

- What was it about the kinds of advice that they gave that allowed him to get better each time? Hassan?

- Well, they told him what was wrong about it.

- Did they say it’s just wrong, or were they more specific than that?

- They were more specific, but they weren’t mean about it.

- Great. Hadley.

- He made six drafts.

- And so, is that something that other kids should learn from? What should we learn from that?

- We can make other drafts if it’s not right.

- Good, so if it’s not right, you can keep doing more drafts to make it better.

- You just don’t use things in your head, you want to use a sharp eye.

- Good, he used the eyes of a scientist. Great.

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EL Education

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