The Importance of Feedback
I find myself in new terrrritory. I am currently taking a class that requires me to read and write in a new genre: academic writing. I can say with all honesty, “It’s hard!” I find myself rereading sentences over and over. Looking up definitions of academic vocabulary is a given and I’ve found a new use for YouTube videos. Did you know that you can find short videos that explain theories and research terms? And then there’s the writing. Academic writing is not my strength. I can’t even begin to emulate the mentors I am reading. I’m not even sure I have a clear understanding of what everything means, much less write about it. Have I mentioned that this is hard work? I can’t help but put myself in the place of my own students. For some of our young readers and writers, every day in class brings challenges and frustrations like the ones I am experiencing.
When writing my first paper, I was nervous. I had to take all of the articles I had read and synthesize them into a one page paper that showed my understanding of the topic. I wanted to do it well. I wanted to show my instructor what I knew, yet I wasn’t sure how to do that effectively. So many questions swirled through my brain…
- How do I pare down SO MUCH information into such a small amount of space? Finding the right words to express my essential understandings was going to be tricky.
- How do I ensure that I am using the academic vocabulary correctly? Am I understanding the theories? Can I connect them to my real life teaching?
- APA formatting? Ugh! That requires constant checking of commas, periods, capital letters. I didn’t want to worry about those minute details, but I did.
- How do I interpret the scholars’ works and not just quote them? I wanted to sound halfway intelligent. Would my instructor think the committee made a mistake allowing me into the program? (I know…I got a little dramatic here).
When I turned in my paper, I was feeling very vulnerable and unsure of my abilities as a writer. Would Dr. Katz know that I had spent hours writing a mere 591 words, revising over and over, trying to get my message just right? How would she respond to my writing? I knew her well enough to know that her feedback would be respectful and stretch my thinking. In fact, I learn so much by watching her teaching moves, that I couldn’t wait to get her feedback. I knew that I would learn some important lessons about how I give feedback to the young writers I work with.
I wasn’t disappointed. Her feedback was encouraging and helpful. Yes, I’m sure there were lots of things she could have corrected. Instead, she focused on three things: something I had done well, a strategy to use to make my writing stronger, and reassurance that I was on the right path.
- She found a place that I had done something well and commented on that.
- She suggested where I might improve my writing by giving examples to support my thinking.
- She encouraged me by telling me that I was beginning to understand the craft of this type of writing.
I couldn’t help but reflect on my own teaching practices. In her podcast, Stories from a Teaching Life, Penny Kittle reminds us that the most important things a writer needs is confidence and encouragement. It’s important for me to remember that the writing students hand to me is a result of hard work, harder for some than others. Those papers smudged with erasure marks are most likely from our most vulnerable writers. My words and reaction to their writing matter.
I have been guilty of looking at a piece of student writing, sighing in frustration, because I don’t know where to start. It’s especially those times I have to keep in the forefront the fact that I am teaching writers not the writing. Finding the gems in a piece of student writing, focusing on one area for improvement, and acknowledging that a skill or craft move is evolving is what I know will be most helpful for my young writers, because I’ve found that’s what’s been most useful to me as a writer.
Julie Johnson, literacy coach and reading support teacher at Scioto Darby Elementary, Hilliard City Schools. She has taught for 25 years in both special education and general education settings. She is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project and writes at Raising Readers and Writers and for Choice Literacy.