Learning Materials

This page has a lot of information about how to respond to writers in a way that gets beyond generalized praise and also in a way that keeps students from feeling defensive and yet allows you to help them improve their writing. The pdf is an article Carolyn wrote based on her training as a crisis line counselor and her experiences with teaching and editing writing. Below that is an extensive discussion of how to respond to student writing. It includes ideas about features of writing that teachers can recognize and use in discussions in an encouraging way.

Responding to writing is a lot like responding to people calling a crisis line:

Here is something Carolyn wrote after having experienced a lot of creative writing classes and the often toxic feedback one receives in them.

One way to demonstrate the ability to understand this is to choose a piece of writing (such as a blog from someone) and to practice the kind of feedback suggested below. In other words, write down how you engage with the writing, not judgments.

Notes on feedback for writers

When people write, they typically think of some kind of reader reading their work, and they structure their writing towards some kind of reading of their work. They want the reader to have certain understandings of the events they represent and the characters they develop. They want a certain degree of clarity about the situation they describe, although that degree of clarity differs from writer to writer and from work to work. They want the reader to get some information directly from the text and to construct some information based on hints in the text--this is what poetry is about especially. They have some way of dividing out the "work" of making meaning of a text, between what they say directly, what they say through metaphor, and what they leave unsaid but imply.

What is good feedback for a writer? Everyone who writes wants to produce quality work. That's why we work so hard and write and rewrite. But historical contexts change. The people who are popular in one time are completely unknown at another and rediscovered at some later point. No one can make global, sweeping statements which will hold up about the literary quality of a work, yet that's what we typically try to do. We try to predict: will this poem be considered good fifty years from now? Is this a good short story? These are impossible judgments. Not to mention inappropriate.

What kind of feedback is really possible? Writers read as writers. This makes them an unusual kind of reader. Writers know about forms and plot structures, and can articulate these concerns. This allows for a very specialized kind of feedback. I suggest that the kind of feedback that is most beneficial for a writer is that which shows a reader's engagement with a text, articulated by a writer's knowledge of formal structure. What does this mean? This means reading a story or a poem and writing down one's expectations and understandings as a reader at various points while one is reading.
If a story starts off "Once upon a time," this sets up a certain group of expectations. A reader/writer knows that this is a formal element, and can write down three or four expectations upon reading the phrase. As the story unfolds, the reader/writer can write down questions he or she has about the characters or events. Are there places where the reader/writer experiences confusion? What kinds of associations do certain phrases or words elicit? What themes stand out in the work? It is important to do this process during the first reading, so the feedback can include expectations the reader/writer has. Retrospective readings might also be done this way, but it is harder, and it doesn't replicate the typical way a text will be engaged with on publication: a fresh reading by someone who has not seen the text before.

The reader/writer, then, focuses on his or her engagement with the text: understandings, expectations, moments of confusion, and so forth. The reader/writer avoids using words of judgment: "good," "bad," "I like," "I don't like," and so forth. The point of this is not to make judgment but to let the writer know what the experience of reading the text for the first time is like.
Using the feedback. When the writer receives this kind of feedback, he or she can look at it and see where the feedback was similar or different from what was expected. Are there themes that weren't expected? Do you like the unexpected reading? Is that moment of confusion a real problem or something minor? It is important to keep in mind that this was one reading, albeit by someone who is an expert reader, but still not infallible. Choose which questions make sense to answer. Not all questions need to be answered. Choose which concerns to deal with. Give the text to another reader if necessary.

When writers write, we put a great deal of ourselves in our work. I go through stages with my work: when I first get something down on paper, I think it is the best thing written in the history of human kind. This feeling is helpful to me, because it helps me to make the time and effort to put stuff down on paper. It gives me the confidence to keep on going. After the stuff is down on paper, I go through a period of time where I feel that it is the worst writing in the history of human kind. This feeling is also helpful, because then I am ready to edit my work and make it stronger.

But notice, neither of those feelings are realistic assessments of my work, in that neither represent the kind of engagement that a real reader will have with my work. I need those feelings because they help me to do my work, but I also need real readers to let me know how they engage with my work. I cannot be objective, in that I cannot know how it feels to read my work for the first time. The best I can do are the guesses I make when I am writing and editing.

So I need readers to tell me about their engagement with my work. I don't need people telling me that my work is wonderful or terrible. Who can really judge? What do we bring to work we are judging? Especially those of us who are writers. I know that when I judge stuff, that I bring to the work the ideas I have about how I would write it. Well, I'm not writing it. But that feeling limits my ability to really understand something that is a new way of writing or a way I didn't think of first. I also may bring to a work all the feelings I have about the author, usually jealousy of that person's success, which I always perceive to be greater than my own. We all want success in writing, and it is easy to look outward rather than inward. Finally, as has been seen, I can't even judge my own work. How could I judge anyone else's?

I think judgment, then, is impossible to do, and not worth it. I think engagement is possible, and possibly helpful. I hope that we as writers can find ways of articulating engagement and give this type of feedback. I hope we as writers can find positive ways of supporting each other, acknowledging our struggles with our own processes instead of using the process of feedback as a paltry and petty way of making ourselves feel bigger and better.

Here are some ways of doing this:

First of all, think Suzuki. Suzuki said to always find something positive about a child's playing before jumping into correction. Here we are looking for connections with the text and then places where we didn't understand but doing this in a way that is non-judgmental.

When I read x, it makes me think of a, b, and c... because (what in the writing caused you to think of these things)?
This poem/essay/story/etc. reminds me of another poem/essay/story/etc. I read because (what caused you to think of these other texts)?
This part of the writing reminds me of when I was.... because.... (connections to own life).

Note that with the above statements you can scaffold students to the next level in their writing. For example, I recognized the elements of metaphysical poetry in a student's writing and because I could explain that type of poetry and show her how her writing was in that same ballpark, she got interested in her own writing and she edited it into a poem that she was proud of. It's not that you have to know metaphysical poetry--if you can liken a child's writing to a children's book you have read or something you have read on the web, then that will get the job done of inspiring kids.

This paragraph was so clear to me that I could see the images you were talking about, particularly x..... (be specific).
Okay, here's the ideas I got from this paragraph/sentence/section. Then paraphrase your own understanding of it. Then ask: is my reading what you wanted it to be?

The above is how to deliver good news and bad news about your comprehension. Remember that it may be your reading is wrong because you missed some cues so be prepared to change your mind about how you understood something when you talk with the student.

Finally: teachers do not own their students' papers. I like to write my comments on a post it note and stick that to the paper instead of writing on the paper itself. If you feel compelled to write on a student's paper, please do not use red ink or pencil; the color red puts you in a position of being a judge and not an advocate. Try to use pencil so your comment can be erased.

Here's how I wrote on a post it note--one note for the whole piece:

Dear so and so,

When I read your poem/story/etc. I was reminded of an incident in my life/something else I read/etc. because of ..... If you want to work on this piece further, I bet you could... [make positive suggestion that would create a piece that would be impressive to the writer] and I would be very glad to help you with this if you decide to do it.


Discussion Post

What kinds of feedback work and don't work when it comes to teaching music? What has been the most helpful feedback to you? What guidelines do you have for yourself in terms of feedback that you give to your students?