I didn’t mean to make them cry, but that’s what soul writing can do to a person. (Soul writing is what my students and I coined as the type of writing that rips at our guts, makes pools fall from our eyes, and leaves us lurching toward the door to “take a little break.”) We are only into the third week of school, and I tried a new protocol for feedback; something I learned at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, directed by Dawn Potter.
Giving honest and critical feedback to one another is difficult for many of my students. So afraid of offering offense, they either do not say anything, or they do the proverbial pat-on-the-back and mutter “good job.” I tell them that when they refuse to be honest in their feedback, it’s cheating. They cheat their friends out of ideas that can help them grow. And that is what we want in a community of writers — we want everyone to experience opportunities to grow.
The tears today watered some tender little seeds. All afternoon I gushed about it to anyone who who listen.
We sat in a circle around the large table in the center of my classroom. Many students came to class without their drafts*, so I sentenced them to the outer edges and advised them to get their brains and their pens working. I told them to write silently, but they might want to keep an ear tuned to the conversations happening in the middle. If they did, they learned more than they could have from any one-on-one conference with me.
First, I explained that giving feedback can be a bit tricky. We want to be honest, but if we do not deliver that honesty well, we can cripple our writer. (I use the word cripple because that was my own experience. I’d spent months drafting a chapter for my book. I’d finally finished what I thought proved to be a powerful piece of writing. Then I asked a friend, someone I trust, for feedback. She gave it to me: honesty cloaked in sweet little daggers. When I read her comments, all my ideas crumpled, and my focus limped right out the door. I didn’t write another word for six months.)
The “I wonder ____” protocol is really very simple:
Those who offer feedback:
- Listen carefully as a classmate reads her piece.
- Think about ideas that might help her improve it.
- Offer feedback that allows for the writer to “play with the possibilities” (Dawn Potter) by putting the ideas you have that might help the writer revise the piece into statements that begin with “I wonder ___”.
Those who receive feedback:
- Read the piece loudly and with clarity. (Repeat if necessary.)
- Listen to the “I wonder” statements made by peers and write yourself notes.
- Try to just listen (This is hard because we tend to want to justify why we wrote certain things).
- Play with these various possibilities while revising.
I asked for a volunteer to read her writing. Eyes darted all around the table until Jessica read her draft.
Jessica went first:
Wow, right? She punched us right in the stomach, and we sat in silence. Finally, I said, “Okay, we’ve got some amazingly powerful stuff right here. How can we improve it?” and they looked at me like I had hornets on my head. I knew I better go first, or this feedback thing wasn’t going to work.
“I wonder if you need to tell us that Lori’s a woman,” I said.
“I wonder who ‘assigned’ her to you,” Mikaila spoke up.
“I wonder what she did that was so helpful,” Mariam said.
“I wonder how you survived,” said Daissy.
Jessica listened, answering a few questions, and taking a few notes on the comments her friends gave her.
And we were off . .
Daissy read next:
“I wonder who ‘those’ are.”
“I wonder what the problem was.”
“I wonder what happens next.”
“I wonder what happened that made you change.”
And then Daissy could not remain silent any longer. She had to explain her stuttering, and how she’s worked so hard to overcome it, and how now wants to major in broadcast journalism and speak on live TV.
We forgot to preface our comments with “I wonder” when we all told her THAT is the story she needs to write.
Students shared the honest writing from their hearts, and students gave honest feedback with tender and caring insight. Writing improved.
Even better? Imagine being in this kind of classroom with this kind of community of writers.
*Our mentor texts were VISA Go World commercials. I got this idea from an assignment I did at a class taught by Penny Kittle at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute. We watched several of the videos in class and discussed and analyzed the various structures of these very short, yet poignant, stories. Students were to watch and analyze a few more examples, transcribing the words to use as models for their own writing. Then they were to write their own, playing with word choice and syntax.