One of the best articles I read when I was on my way to entering this profession was about the “myth” of self-esteem, and I wish I remember where it came from so I could provide a link, but the gist of it was that because we have focused on students’ self-esteem so much throughout their lives, we have “created a monster” so to speak. That monster has two heads: the entitled brat with a helicopter parent and the teacher who is scared to even give a single word of negative feedback because he has heard that the school system “damages” children (or “steals dreams” or whatever the talking point is now).
I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback lately, probably because I have spent most of my nights this week grading essays and proofing yearbook pages. So I guess I’m more or less ensconced in feedback, but while I’m plowing through my work, I have been thinking, perhaps a little too much about whether or not the feedback that I give is helpful. Now, I’m pretty comfortable with the grading process for an essay because the rubric I use is very clear and straightforward so students aren’t left wondering why their grades have the numbers that they have. It’s the feedback itself, which is mostly expressed through comments made on the essay (both in the margins and at the end), that I have been wondering about.
Part of this comes from an argument I had back in October over the Internet about the nature of feedback and something I said about my “feedback philosophy” if you will. Students need to know what constructive criticism is and why that is more important than a pat on the back. I don’t use red pen on their essays because I want to crush their self-esteem. I do it because it shows up and they can see my comments clearly. I also don’t mark up their papers because they are bad papers. I do it because I want them to see where and how they can improve. Just because I was thorough in my comments and you got a C doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer, that you’re stupid, or that I hate you.
Btw, I am really really really sorry I just quoted myself. It makes me feel dirty and I just … need a shower.
Anyway, the response I got to that was:
If I got graded on all my writing, I would not like writing. Let students make mistakes without pointing it out. Focus on what is good. Don’t turn them off to a subject and associate it with everything they do that is wrong. A wise teacher shared this advice with me. Ask students what kind of feedback they are looking for and give that to them. I think this is so smart. Another analogy is this. I have taught more than a dozen people in their 30s and 40s to snowboard. I never focus on what they are doing wrong. They are usually frustrated in those first few days. I build them up and focus on the great things they are doing. I have gotten every single person on black diamonds by weekend 5. My key, focus on what is good.
Asking people what they want to hear and then telling them that instead of giving them the truth — isn’t that how we wound up in Iraq? Snark aside, the comment got me thinking about grading, because I come from a “workshopping” background in that I spent much of my college career and my pre-teaching career in situations where my creative output was often commented and criticized by multiple people before it was finally submitted to wherever it was going, whether it be to a professor for review or a potential client. Sometimes that commentary I got on my work was pretty brutal and had I not been used to receiving negative feedback from time to time I would have gotten more upset than I did when, for instance, a partner at my former law firm asked aloud in a meeting why the heck we even paid for a marketing department.
Ah, lawyers. The only people with worse manners than teenagers.
Anyway, I’d never take that sort of approach with a student because I don’t think that’s very professional in any environment (but maybe when you make bank you can act like a douche and get away with it?), but I did wonder if negative or at least critical feedback is really as bad as that comment made it seem.
For instance, one of the things that has worked really well when feedback is concerned in my classes has been the three-pronged approach I learned when I was a writing workshop student in college. When you are given a classmate’s work to read, you do these three things: write a quick statement telling them what you think it is about or what the main point is; write at least three things about what that person did well or what the piece’s strengths were; write at least three things that can be improved (and usually mechanics were off the table because I think they were assumed to be correct anyway). What I found useful about this is that it made you think about their piece and go back and read it a couple of times, and it made you think of it in more than one light.
Furthermore, it made them see whether or not their writing worked (in a way). I always liked it when anyone in my class or group could tell me exactly what my piece was about because it meant that I was writing clearly. When they were confused about that, I knew that there was something that needed fixing. I, of course, liked hearing what I did well but areas for improvement were always as important because I respected those doing the evaluation and knew that as a novice writer, I wasn’t supposed to have my style “set in stone.”
So as I’m grading these essays, I’m wondering if the feedback I am giving is useful or if it’s going to hurt or quite frankly if it’s even worth giving. One of the most discouraging things is to see essays in the trash after you’ve handed them back, especially when there’s an opportunity to hand in a revision for a better grade; or to hear “What did I get?” instead of seeing a student look over the comments I’ve left. It seems to be too rare of an occurrence that a student asks me about improving description or how to make a main point more clear. And it gets frustrating because I love writing and really want my students to see that discussing and writing about books are way more worthwhile than regurgitating reading comp in a multiple choice formant; furthermore, I love the personal essay and I feel like it needs to be rescued somehow from the circle of hell that is home to the five-paragraph essay (the fifth circle, I’m assuming. Isn’t that where Dante put English teachers?).
Somewhere along the line, either in elementary or middle school, many of the students I have came to associate writing with invasive surgery. They practically break out in hives on the first day when I talk about how much I love writing and that we’re going to work on writing a lot in class. It takes half the year to break them of the habit of asking me if it’s okay that a paragraph is not EXACTLY five sentence and the other half … well, sometimes it’s a breakthrough and sometimes it’s eleventh grade teachers wondering if I taught them anything.
But back to the feedback and what have you. I think that as in just about anything, there’s a mean to strive for between ripping something to shreds because you’re a super-villain named EDIT-OR! and writing with flowers and hearts like you’re Glenda, the Good Witch of the North. Having mistakes pointed out isn’t the best thing in the world, but I think that it’s needed if it’s going to help avoid some bad habits or break some bad habits that are already there.