Walking the Tightrope: The Challenge of Feedback

Every day I write for myself, for my profession, and to help my students. Because I have students usually at least two years I always am challenged by giving my student writers effective feedback. To help these writers grow and improve I know the importance of this feedback.

When they first enter my class I always find positive things to say about any piece of writing. That part I have down. I can sit down with the writer and have them show me what they thought was good in a piece of writing. They love to do that although often the writer has to be held down to a number because of time. As they mature as writers I still give them the positive feedback, but I have to give constructive feedback to help them get better at the craft.

A student can be so proud of the story about the princess that kisses a frog that turns into Orlando Bloom even though there isn't a logical sequence and they went from kissing to living happily ever after. How can you gently encourage this fragile writer that some work needs to be done? Today a student and I conferenced on her story. The first thing she said was," You sure wrote a lot of comments for me." Sigh... I did it in really pretty magenta pen. I tried color coordinated sticky notes. I tagged the good parts. All she saw were the few things she felt were wrong. Don't we often do the same thing as writers? We got through it and she is back to reworking it, but I just wanted to be able to smile and say " cute story" and leave her smiling, but I knew that would not help her to grow as a writer.

It is a tightrope walk depending on the student. One may sway one way and smile when you give them suggestions. Another is ready to fall off the rope without a spotter or net below them. They just want to tear it up and start over. Another will dance across the tightrope and hand you a set of poems they composed on the school bus that morning. Some don't even start across the tightrope. They are still writing safe pieces about " My favorite day" or " My friend Sally".

Each day when we all return to class we regroup, remember to support each other, and create that community of writers. Sometimes another student is more helpful than I am with feedback. Some students ask for me to " be brutal". To encourage a variety of writing styles I provide choices in writing workshop so it isn't just essays, letters to the editor, and reports on famous people.

There are days when students hit a wall and can't do much. Sometimes they look up and don't want to quit at break. I celebrate successes, encourage growth, give them time, and provide small doses of feedback. That is what I need as a writer.

" I think I did pretty well considering I started out with a bunch of blank paper." Steve Martin


  1. A few years ago, I taught fifth graders how to write using cards with words on them. We mainly used nouns, but I had them draw 5 cards, and make a paragraph out of 3 of the words.

    When we first began, I would let them swap cards until they had three that were related. Then they had to write a paragraph using the three words in sentences, so that it sounded cohesive.

    Every few days, I would have the kids write 5 words on 5 cards, and mix them in with all the others. This way they sometimes got topics they were interested in to write about.

    Maybe you could have topic cards for them to draw from, when they haven't any idea what to write about. The students could suggest ideas, and after your perusal, those could be added to the selection process.

    I also gave them pictures from magazines to write about. Usually they were action pictures, or contained very expressive people to inspire them. I'd put the pics on the board, and let them choose which one they wanted to write about. Sometimes they wrote in the third person, as though they were watching an event. And occasionally, they would write in the first person, as if they were experiencing the event.

    Well, just suggestions, - but I'll bet you have a bazzillion ideas on how to approach your subject.

    Hope you don't mind my input.

  2. I approve of your approach. I don't like the method where everyone gets a pat on the back but never told what is wrong, and how to improve.

  3. I would expect that most students will come to appreciate your style, even if they don't when you critique their work. I think the fact that you look for the positive and ease into the criticism will make a difference in their ability to hear the suggestions for improvement. I love the Steve Martin quote. Take care, Carver

  4. Thanks for the ideas Pinehurst. I used to do something similar years ago with young children. Now I can try it again!
    Pamela, Thanks for the feedback.
    Carver, I hope they do appreciate it. I found the quote in a writing book... I loved it too.

  5. Beautiful post,

    I write every day. As a journalist, I have mentored many writers, so feedback is vital in that situation.

    Now, as a novelist and blogger, I find myself continuing to mentor writers - and it is extremely satisfying.

    Bless you for your commitment to writing.

  6. Afterthought - you've inspired my next post in my ``Telling Write From Wrong'' series.

    Look out for it ...

  7. Such a wonderful post, and such a great thing you're doing for your students, helping them gain the confidence to grow and improve.
    We walk the same delicate balance in teaching music. It's not easy, but it's worth the extra effort.

  8. You've given me something to think about here! It must be almost as hard to criticize without being too critical, as it is to learn to accept criticism without letting it crush you.


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