Stories are one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Few things are more effective at persuasion, better for promoting engagement, or more memorable than a good story. This is why politicians and advertisers speak in stories and why Fortune 500 companies pay big money for storytelling consultants to come train their workers. It is also why we teach stories, both how to write them and how to read them.
This power of story is well known to educators, and consequently we as teachers tend to do a lot of storytelling. We weave the content of our classes together into clear narratives, guide students in unpacking the stories around them, and help students to tell better stories about themselves.
The one area where we teachers often forget to be a storyteller though is in our feedback to student work and writing. Instead, when it comes to feedback, we often switch from storytellers to detached arbiters of right and wrong. We simply mark what is correct and incorrect and leave it up to the students to interpret the story from there.
This approach might not seem like such a big deal at first glance–after all, it is what a great many teachers have done for a very long time–but there are two major issues that often come with it:
- Students often interpret praise, criticism, and right and wrong answers differently than we do. While we might assume that a student would see a seemingly innocuous short comment like “Try to add a little more voice,” for what it is–a quick suggestion for how to improve–a student could easily view it as yet another mistake that proves he/she/they is a hopeless writer.
- The positive and negative stories that students draw from feedback can have a powerful impact on their academic identities. For many students, teachers are often the only ones who have seen their writing or work, making the teachers’ responses the core upon which they build their identities as writers and students.
As a writing teacher, every day I see students holding onto negative stories borne in part from the feedback they’ve received. These students come into my class and tell me that they are not writers or are dumb or have nothing to say. And until I can get them telling new and better stories, my ability to help them move forward as writers will likely be stifled.
This is why in recent years I have actively tried to tell stories through my feedback and used it as a tool to promote positive mindsets and disrupt the negative stories that students often tell about themselves.
The trick of doing this is–as it always is with writing teachers–the matter of time, as the act of simply providing feedback to my 158 students can take up much of my bandwidth. Luckily, as I have explored telling stories through feedback, I have found that story-ifying our feedback, like story-ifying the content, doesn’t necessarily have to take extra time. In fact, if done well, it can even save time in many situations. Here are my keys for doing that:
- I focus my feedback. When writing Flash Feedback, I found the research surrounding feedback to be maddeningly murky in spots, but one thing that has been clear for a long time is that feedback should focus on a limited number of things. Trying to teach twenty lessons in critical little notes covering a paper will likely only lead to one lesson for many students: that they make a ton of mistakes, which is a lesson that if taught again and again can lead to students viewing themselves as simply bad writers. This is why I find a few focus areas and go deeper into them–an approach that both clarifies the narrative and saves time.
- I have my students weave moments of feedback together. Feedback is generally given as standalone bits of information, but if we find ways for students to weave different pieces of feedback together, it helps them to see the narrative of our feedback and gives them concrete answers for how they are evolving as writers. Plus, doing this means that students revisit our feedback multiple times, which generally leads to better understanding and memory of it too. My favorite tool for doing this is having students set goals for the next unit by looking at the feedback from the previous one, which creates bridges between the feedback in each unit.
- I make time for conferences. With preparation conferences can take less time than you might expect, and I have found those human-to-human moments to be so key for both increasing learning and for uncovering negative student narratives and/or helping to guide them to positive narratives.
- I do more than just focus on the right and wrong of the content. Teaching content in feedback is incredibly important, but as learners we don’t always need content in every moment. Sometimes we need affirmation or polite yet firm nudges, suggestions about process or mindsets, and reminders or an open-ear. Writing is hard and scary, and these non-content pieces of feedback can often act as Shepards to guide us through the ups and downs of growing as a writer.
- I offer regular positive stories for students to grab onto. Tom Newkirk in his book Embarrassment reminds us that “self-esteem cannot be built upon the wind or empty assurances–it requires objective and publicly acknowledged demonstrations of competence; being good at something.” We need to find a way to show every student that he/she/they is competent. Two of my favorite ways to do this are to link to a student’s earlier work to show growth and to mine their own work for positive exemplars (like pointing a student who struggles with engaging word choice to a moment of strong word choice from their own writing).
- I use wise interventions to quickly disrupt negative stories at the moments where students perpetuate them and replace them with more positive narratives.
In his other wonderful book Minds Made for Stories, Tom Newkirk says the following:
Stories are at the heart of how we learn because they create memories and provide details we want to know. Stories grab us in a way no list of facts could ever do.
He is right. As I said at the start, stories lead to more engagement, more memory, and more motivation, so it is time for us to stop looking at feedback as a onetime scorecard and start looking at it for what it really is: the most recent chapter in the long story of a student’s growth as a writer and student.
Yours in teaching,
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