I had a momma bear moment this weekend.
You probably know what I mean. This bear came out at the baseball diamond, mid-day, in 90-degree weather and a blazing sun. It was the kind of day where I had to eat my popsicle from the concession stand in three bites or I’d be wearing it.
Despite the heat, my six-year-old finally had a hit (yea!), but unfortunately, he saw the throw to first hit the baseman’s glove, so he turned to run back to the dugout thinking he was out. However, the first baseman dropped the ball. If my son had kept running and ran through first as he was taught to, he would have been safe. Most fans were encouraging albeit disappointed in his rookie move. But, one older gentleman, decided to yell and bark his feelings about the mistake and then about how he could correct it.
According to my sister, I was a subdued Momma Bear. I gave my mean look, which if we are being honest still looks fairly nice, and I quietly responded from a safe distance that “He is six. This is not the Majors.” I don’t think there was any damage done…at least my non-confrontational self hopes there wasn’t!
Although it is summer break, my teacher mind is still churning, and this episode caused me to think about how we give students feedback. I came to the realization that I need to be more of a Momma Bear for my students. I think I generally orchestrate feedback fairly well, but there is always room for improvement. Here are some guidelines or some points to ponder for being a “Momma Bear” for our students.
- Constructive Feedback Doesn’t Need to be Public
Whether I’m redirecting a behavior or providing a student with writing feedback, I DO NOT need to broadcast this to the whole field…err, I mean classroom. This is probably a no-brainer, but we’ve all had that student at some point when gentle nudges and private hallway or after class chats don’t seem to be working. We are frustrated and just want to do our jobs. As our temperatures rise and our patience levels fall, we slip up. Little good will come from this. And just think, how would this student’s momma bear handle hearing your feedback broadcasted from across the classroom? Let’s keep exploring other avenues other than public embarrassment to redirect our students’ behavior or to provide writing feedback (see number 4 below).
- Feedback Overload Doesn’t Work
The gentleman from the baseball game had all the best intentions I’m sure just as we, as teachers, do. He wanted to help my kid understand, make him a better player, and win a close game. In his mind, barking out five different suggestions to my guy seemed like a helpful and sensible idea. However, there was no way my son was going to process all that! He just learned you can run through first base this year!
I’m guilty as a teacher of what this man did. I want to help my students so much, so I’m often tempted to point out mistakes and improvement suggestions all over their papers. But, we need to put ourselves in our “players'” and “Momma Bear” shoes. My son was not going to remember all five things he yelled at him; he was only going to head back to the dugout discouraged and confused. We need to purposefully provide a reasonable amount of constructive feedback that focuses on improvement and growth. A student can tackle a few changes at a time. Then, we can add new skills to work on once they reach mastery.
- Praise Goes a Long Way
I knew I would need to talk to my son about the incident in the game, but I tried to approach the topic in a kind and nurturing manner as any Momma Bear would. After the game as we walked back to the car, we stopped and looked down first base line. I shared with my son how proud I was of his hits during the game and how he scored his first run on a close play. As we reminisced, I brought up how cool it is that he can run through first base in baseball so that he doesn’t have to lose any of his speed. We discussed what he should have done instead when he was out at first, and I made sure he understood. He walked away from the game laughing and happy but determined to do better next time.
Isn’t this what we want for our students? When giving feedback to our students, we have to look for the positives. Our brains aren’t always trained for this; I know that my default setting is correction mode. Maybe this is because that is the way many of us were taught by most of our language arts teachers, or maybe it is because of the stress we all feel from above to raise student standardized test scores. Regardless, we need to take a breath and consider the awesome writerly moves our kids are making.
Ralph Fletcher wrote, “Even with a “bad” piece of writing, a good teacher will reach into the chaos, find a place where the writing works, pull it from the wreckage, name it, and make the writer aware of his or her emerging skill with words.” With a growth mindset philosophy, no writing is “bad” as students work toward improving their craft. Furthermore, we can’t just say “good job,” but we need to give specific praise. When we honor what our students are doing well, they are more receptive to what we want them to improve. We need to retrain our brains to look for the positives. Maybe we make ourselves a cheat sheet of different writing moves we can praise, maybe we look for the most recent mini-lesson skills we’ve worked on and appreciate how the student attempted to incorporate them, or maybe we notice the effort our student put into a new piece.
- Relationships, Relationships, Relationships!
My son didn’t know this older man. All he knew was that he was someone’s grandpa and came to most of our games. Momma Bear brain was screaming, “Let his coach explain it to him. He doesn’t even know you!”
The same goes for our students. We can’t be that well-meaning, grumpy old man on the sidelines to them. If we want them to take our feedback to heart and mind, we have to be someone to them. In Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle describes a time she received feedback on a piece of writing from a stranger and how upsetting it was because that person didn’t even know her. She later reflects on this incident, “You just can’t develop a relationship with a writer by trying to fix everything.”
We have to build that trust and show students that we care about them and their writing from day one in our classrooms, and we have to foster these relationships every day all year long. Students have to know that once they step foot in our classrooms we have taken on Momma Bear responsibility and will do whatever we can to make them a better person and learner!
Are these four reminders earth-shattering? Probably not. But do we all fail at these from time to time? I know I do. Come August I plan to arrive at school ready to be a protector, a guide, a cheerleader, and a full-out Momma Bear for my students.
Lindsey Cary is an ELA teacher of 12 years, a graduate of the Indiana Writing Program Summer Institute, and an Apple Teacher working to make reading and writing relevant for all learners. Connect with Lindsey on Twitter at @lindseyacary.