“So, uh, yeah this is pretty embarrassing for me.” I could feel my face flush in front of my 1st period Advanced Composition before I’d even begun. My voice shook as I stood in front of the 24 pairs of 17-year old eyes—the most vulnerable position one can be in. I had captured their attention at 7:45 in the morning, but I could feel my innards twist as I stammered through some of the usual excuses I hear from my student-writers: “I need to tell you the backstory first” and “I hope you get what I’m trying to say.”
Then I started, reading line by line the maid of honor speech I will deliver in fewer than two weeks at my best friend’s wedding. It wasn’t the first time I had shared my writing; I write with my students during quickwrites, share finalized pieces with them throughout the year, and discuss drafting pieces for this blog, but this speech was different—it was raw, personal, and untraditional. I had made some major stylistic decisions that pushed me, particularly as a writer, outside my comfort zone.
“I really need your feedback,” I said to them. And I was honest, practically on the verge of begging. “You see,” I continued, “writing happens throughout your life, and in this instance I need your help to make sure I don’t make a fool of myself in front of 200 guests.”
“You’re going to trust us?” a student asked.
“Yeah,” I responded, “Plus, at the wedding I’ll be in front of 200 people I might never see again, whereas here, I’m with you guys for the rest of the year. So, if I’m embarrassed here, it’s going to be really bad at the wedding,” they laughed and they listened to me recite the piece with a calm voice and a racing mind, a mind that begged them to chuckle at the jokes and coo at the memories. When I came to the end, I looked up, realizing again, as I have realized so many times before just how vulnerable it is to share writing. This time though, as much as it made me nervous, I knew that the only way to teach writers was through modeling. If I was asking them to expose their writing to each other, I had to be willing to expose my writing flaws as well, even if it felt like singing solo karaoke stone-cold sober.
Then the suggestions came: “I’m not sure what you were doing with that transition, maybe try to make it more specific.” “I would like to hear about when you first met her fiancé.” “I think you could add another story.” Their words were carefully chosen as not to offend but instead encourage and help. While some students doled out praise, others helped to polish the piece. Even trailing side conversations pertained to how to make the piece stronger. I typed their comments into the document, repeating what each of them would say, and then I sent them to begin a similar process of reading aloud their personal narratives within groups of three.
Next week I will arrive in class with another draft of my speech, and I will repeat the cycle. They must see me live the life of a writer if they are going to believe what I say. They must see me absorb their feedback if they are going to understand the value of peer review. And above all, they must watch me return, raw nerves and baited breath, if they are to believe that I see value in their words.