A few days ago my parents, in a fit of fall-cleaning, boxed-up assorted artifacts from my youth that were collecting dust in their basement and dropped off a surprise trip down memory lane on my front porch. And so my daughter, who loves such fragments of “the old times,” as she calls them, and I spent the evening digging and laughing our way though old photos, newspaper clippings, and momentos until we got to a large stack of papers at the bottom, the sight of which froze me in mid-sentence.
Sitting there was something I’d long given up as lost–something that is now of great professional interest to me: my high school and college papers, complete with the feedback my teachers gave to me.
As I began to draft Flash Feedback three years ago, my initial hope was to start the book by reflecting on these old secondary and post-secondary papers and feedback that I received as a student, but after months of unsuccessfully looking for them, I eventually wrote them off as lost to a pre-digital age and moved on. And yet, years later here they were, perfectly preserved in all their analog glory.
After my daughter went to bed, I pulled out the papers again and began to examine them more closely, and right away two things stood out to me. The first was that I was not a very strong writer in many ways. I largely knew this. My high school writing grades ranged from not great to mediocre, and writing for me in those years, like it is for far too many students, was generally scary and confusing. When an assignment fluttered down on my desk, I held my nose and got through it as quickly as possible, with my only revision usually being a cursory click through the spelling/grammar suggestions that Windows ’97 had for me.
The second thing I noticed was that nearly every paper, regardless of whether it was a literary essay or lab report, had exactly the same type of feedback: margins packed with curt shorthand comments pointing out everything I got wrong, quick corrections scribbled throughout the text, and maybe a vague, cursory positive statement like “Good job!” or “Nice work!” at the end.
In defense of my teachers, I also saw plenty of care and desire to help a struggling writer in the feedback too, and during the 1990s that style of feedback, where the teacher’s job is to act as a copy editor or impartial arbiter of everything right and wrong (what I often call the detached authority), was the standard approach. Also, if I am being honest, I gave feedback in that same detached authority fashion for many years, all the way down to a standard proclamation of “Good job!” at the end of each paper.
Thankfully, as I’ve written about extensively here and in my book, this detached authority approach to feedback has become less common, replaced by the more effective and efficient interested reader approach, where the teacher focuses her/his/their feedback on only the lessons the student can handle in that moment and uses that extra space to go deeper and be more human and humane in her/his/their approach.
And yet this fall, even after having written an entire book arguing for the interested reader approach, I began to find myself backsliding towards a more detached authority approach in my feedback as I battled the exhaustion and isolation of teaching remotely. For regular readers, this might be a surprising admission, given my regular discussion of being an interested reader, but after reflecting on it, I am actually not very surprised at all.
The reason that curt corrections and cryptic margin statements like “awkward” or “needs flow” persisted as the main form of teacher-to-student communication for so long was that writing teachers were forever trying to do an impossibly large job; they were trying to play copyeditor and mark every issue on every page of 150+ student essays. I once calculated that when I used to try to do this, I likely made over 6,000 comments for each round of essays, and when faced with such a task, quick and vague comments are really the only option if one is to return the essays within the month.
And when I think about teaching in the pandemic, the one trait that links nearly all teaching assignments right now is that they are impossibly large. Whether we are in-person, hybrid, or fully digital, we have too much new on our plates, too much we have to create each day, and too many students who need too much support–and that is before we even factor in the personal toll the last nine months have taken. So in an effort to keep afloat, it is not surprising that I and others might slip into old habits borne from simply trying to keep one’s head above water.
Still, it is also true that students are struggling across the country as well, and many need an interested reader who is paying attention and actually listening to them more than ever. They need someone who is curious about them and asking questions. Someone guiding them towards their next step, even as the rest of the world feels stalled-out. And we teachers need that too. We need to refuel our souls with those amazing moments where we connect with students over their work and watch them soar, thanks in small part to our guidance and support.
And so in mid-October, in an effort to keep the detached authority at bay, I wrote a quote on my whiteboard in my home office:
“Where is the poetry in this student?”
I came across this quote years ago and it stuck, but I can’t for the life of me find the original source now. I want to say it is Donald Graves or maybe Linda Christensen, but the idea is to start every interaction with a student, whether it is responding to a piece of writing or engaging in a glitchy Zoom conference, by actively seeking the poetry within the student and going from there.
I was in a meeting the other day and a colleague told the group that “There are 10,000 ways we could tear up an essay, but I’m not sure tearing is what we need to do right now.”
He–as this colleague is about many things–is right. While offering constructive feedback remains important, a heartbreaking number of students desperately need someone to shine a light on their poetry and assets instead of jumping right to their deficits. If this means we have a couple fewer content lessons while we pass along the larger lesson that the student has something interesting and unique to say, that feels like a fair trade for me.
Happily, this current situation is temporary. At this very moment vaccines are going into arms across the country, and one day not too far away I hope to find myself in an actual classroom again. Even then though, I’ve started to fall in love with the notion of continuing to seek the poetry first. In a recent interview, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad captures my feelings really well: “Typically, we all want others to see us for our greatness…I have observed researchers who create problems in their work by basing it on empty statistics that speak to a narrative of failure. The more effective approach would be to begin their stories with the brilliance the youth carry.”
I can’t help but think of how much it might help the transition back into classrooms across the country if we keep looking for greatness, and brilliance, and poetry and then we use what we find to build the foundation for everything that follows.
Thanks for reading, and yours in teaching.
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