Tag Archives: constructive criticism

From Cocoons to Butterflies: Teaching for a Decade (or, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I actually learned something)

Look, I was the last person to ever think that I wanted to be a teacher, despite prescient adults who told me repeatedly as a younger person “you’d make a good teacher.” As far as I knew, teachers were always broke and they worked with insolent young adults.

Fast forward a few years and here I am, wrapping up year 10…10 years!!!

For the first time EVER in my life, I’m not ready to poke a pencil in my eye and berate myself for all the little problems that manage to suck the joy out of teaching, or at least the joy of remembering that, in the broader scheme of things, I am not such an awful teacher (admission: I am often filled with doubts, though I’ve learned many of the teachers I admire are; but, because another teacher I admire said something, to treat teaching like a baseball season: never let your highs get too high or your lows get too low, I’ve become more gentle and forgiving with myself).

My first year teaching Honors and I accomplished some of the goals I set out to achieve: the kids improved their writing; I figured out how to do better close reading and textual analysis (not my strongest points; I will always be a better writing teacher), and the kids confirmed their learning in their final papers of the year, wherein they get to reflect on what they’ve learned and offer me some constructive criticism (they are absolutely gleeful at this part of the assignment; I told them that they can be brutally honest, as long as they remember to be nice; for the most part, they always comply). Their criticism is usually spot-on and I generally use it to make revisions.

Here, excerpts from some gems:

  • This class will definitely affect the way in which I will approach future classes and challenging circumstances, instead of having the mindset of “oh my god I can’t do this” I now have the mindset of, “okay, this is hard, but eventually I will be able to do it.”
  • I have never been more tired in my life. But I am a satisfying kind of tired. I have never had a teacher expect me to do more work before, but because you held us to such high standards, I have truly become a much better reader, writer, analyzer, re-reader, re-writer, and multi-perspectival analyzer [insert my thoughts here: say word?!]…And the student continues: My favorite aspect of the class was the amount of respect you showed us, which revealed itself in the ambitious level of reading and writing assignments. [Me: this same kid suggested I slow down the pace of the class because she often had a “book hangover” and wanted to continue our discussions. Love!!!]
  • This is the first honors english class I have ever taken. At the beginning of the year I was timorous [insert my thoughts here: LOOK at the use of one of our vocab words!!!] He continues: As the class went on you got a connection with each and every student and you were not going to fail them. You do everything in your power to have a productive class everyday of the week.
  • Part of the reason I think she [me] was so successful was because I felt as though the majority of the time, we as a class were learning together, not individually. I never felt as though I was being spoon fed information on a subject but rather that the classroom was an open pool for free thinking and discussion amongst ourselves.
  • I will always remember that going above and beyond helps. Teachers like to see effort, so when a student takes a simple project and makes it spectacular, that’s a plus.  [Me: This from one of my students who I had to push every single day–and who pushed me back every single day–about why she just couldn’t be great. Eventually, she came around to seeing what I saw in her the moment I met her.]
  • [On the Macbeth movie project] It helped me branch out more from my cocoon of quietness into a butterfly of loudness. Being put up on the screen, wearing a fairy outfit and reciting lines from Shakespeare, in front of your classmates really changes a person.
  • My most favorite unit was actually the rhetorical analysis unit because I found it much to my liking. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I actually learned something that I can use later in life. Now thanks to you I know how to convince my mom to give me things I want and spend more money on me.
  • Most importantly I learned that teachers are never here to hurt you, they’re here to help you. I never thought that going to your teachers for help with your situation would help. Since you helped me bring my grade up and gave me helpful tips to make my work better I tell my friends “Go talk to your teacher, they’re there to help.”
  • What I really liked about this class is the stress of intellectual learning…I felt that I was finally connected to the world of intellectuals. Your class was one of the first times I felt like an intellectual in school…I always wanted to be an intellectual, so your little tips like reading The New York Times helped my wish become more of a reality.
  • Now I think of essays in terms of content and complexity of the prompt, not the length…I no longer dread essays and I have learned to just do it.
  • My experience in this class has taught me that writing is a process, that independence in a learning environment is a privilege that should be handled wisely, and that working with classmates is a huge contributor to learning.
  • The way I saw your class was like this: Everyone starts from the bottom and they slowly work their way up the ladder to an A. Climbing that ladder to me has been one of the hardest yet most liberating experiences I’ve had thus far in my writing career and you are the reason for that. [Disclaimer: not everyone earns an A; but few, if any students fail, and most end up fine in the end]
  • I know now that writing isn’t focused on how you start out, it is more focused on how the author finishes their craft.
  • I would also note that the literary citizens of the world events have reminded me how I should be interacting with the world around me even if it isn’t a requirement.
  • [Future English classes should know] This class will go beyond the surface of what “English class” entails. There will be presentations, discussions, that will pertain to a sort of question of the ages and call for higher order thinking and questioning. It is impossible not to learn in this English class.

I take this assignment seriously, and they do, too, much because I think that the students who took the course in the fall directly impacted the changes that this current group of students experienced. Thus, hopefully they know that I value their opinions, and that I, too, am continually figuring out how to be the best teacher I can be, every day, but I need their help to get there.

And, of course, the suggestions they offered are ones that I will think about and turn over as the summer winds on, but I will no longer let them eat me up as they did before. The amount of learning that students own and can write about matters, and the revisions to the course I make as a result are constructive and offer the opportunity for even more students (and their teacher) to do this work–joyfully, on most days.

After 10 years of doing this, I am more joyful and more satisfied than I have ever been as an educator.

As soon as I got on the train to go home–feeling a bit bewildered that a school year ends much more with a whisper than a shout–I opened my book, Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng [note: you should just read this book right now] and fell right into it. That’s a sure sign that summer’s here: time and freedom to read my own books, time to slow down, time to savor, time to catch up, time to dream…

Welcome, summer.


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Friday Workshop Share: Negotiating Constructive Criticism

Another idea I’ve adapted over the years is one I found in Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. She describes how to get students to share their work. Essentially, students read their work and students have to respond with compliments for the writer. The writer runs the feedback session, and feedback is directed to the writer rather than to the teacher.

Every Friday, 3-4 students share their work in Friday share. It’s usually whatever paper we’ve been working on during that week. When I first started doing this three years ago, we just did compliments. Over the last year or so, though, students have asked for compliments and Areas of Growth. I took the middle ground: a writer could determine the kind of feedback he/she needed: thus, if he/she only wanted compliments, then that was fine. If the writer also wanted areas of growth, then what happens is that the writer tells us before he/she begins reading his/her draft aloud (i.e., can you see if my paper flows, if it makes sense, if you see any grammatical errors, etc.?) and we comment specifically on those areas.

As the teacher, I respond as a person hearing and reading the work. I have no additional authority in the situation. I often don’t even talk, just write notes that get passed down to the writer with all the others.

A quick look at Workshop Share in motion: A student makes enough copies of their paper for everyone in the class (usually 19, including myself and the TAs). Prior to distributing the paper, students have small scraps of paper they use to write notes for the writer. The writer tells us what they want from the workshop (compliments, areas of growth, a combination of both) and exactly what they want feedback on, and then begins reading his/her draft aloud to us. We follow along, marking up the copy. Once the writer is finished, we clap and then spend a few minutes jotting down compliments on one side of the scrap paper and, if requested, areas of growth on the other side. The writer then calls on classmates for their thoughts.

Here’s what I know: Kids find it very easy to be harsh, exceedingly so. I have no problem butting in and asking students to rephrase their comments. I always tell them that the goal of these sessions, beyond sharing our work, is to help the writer improve. Thus, blanket criticism has no place. Lead with the good, I say (and MODEL), and then, when giving areas of growth, end with a suggestion that the writer might incorporate to improve his/her revision. I noticed yesterday that some students were being a bit ruthless in their criticism. Not okay. So I told them about my own experiences with writing, that the first time my advisor sent my dissertation back (and I had mistakenly fallen in love, or at least strong like with my draft), she had written so much criticism on the first chapter that I was paralyzed and couldn’t write for at least a year (maybe it wasn’t quite a year, but it was long enough to be significant). I also reminded them that it is difficult to share our work and that we needed to thank people for being brave. If you can’t find any nice way to deliver constructive criticism, I finally said, stick to compliments. We are all on our own writing journeys, and I expressly forbid any of them to derail someone else’s journey.

Funny thing is, the kids who tend to be the harshest are the weakest writers. Amazing, or perhaps not. We tend to critique what we most dislike in ourselves, perhaps?

I don’t anticipate having to give this speech again, and I won’t let it diminish the overall effectiveness of the workshop. Students have said this is one of the most useful parts of the class, largely because they get to hear what their peers are writing, get new ideas, and generally feel part of a community of writers. And while I guess I probably couldn’t articulate those explicit goals of the workshop when I first adopted it, the kids, as usual, say it perfectly.

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