Wisdom to Stand On
On a gray, rainy October Monday in central Iowa, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher came to town. And, friends, I got to spend a day with them (in an intimate ballroom at the Sheraton stuffed with many other teachers and coaches and administrators). Did I fangirl? Of course I did. But not for long. Their struggles with technology, their comedic timing, their gifts as storytellers–these transformed them. These giants in our field morphed into humans in front of me: mentors with experience, mentors with ideas about volume and choice and feedback–wisdom to stand on. Even now, nineteen years in, I still need that kind of mentorship. Perhaps that’s why one of Penny’s principles about feedback lingers, even now, weeks later: The first teacher interaction with writing should be love.
I’ve worked hard over the years to provide the kind of feedback that sets my students up in hope. Yet I wondered–have my first interactions been love? No. Not consistently. While conferring, my leading questions are “How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?”. These certainly help conferences stay focused and solutions-oriented in those precious few minutes. Love, though? No. When providing feedback on drafts and best drafts, I’m certainly identifying and encouraging strengths; and I’m taking the time to respond as a reader, too, with what I love and appreciate about the writing. Is that very first interaction, are those words in the first comment bubble, love, though? No. Not regularly. How does it feel if what’s first heard is or read is criticism?
In Tom Newkirks’ Embarrassment (pretty sure I’ve referenced this in each of my blog posts this school year. Like Penny’s words, the book lingers. Read it.), he mentions the “close association of writing and shame.” On some level, writing means rejection. Our ideas, our words, our rhythms–all can be rejected. For students, this feeling of rejection–linked with shame!–comes from us, especially, as Newkirk notes, because of the power dynamic in the classroom. But we can learn to look at the love-first interaction as a tool for more productive feedback.
My colleagues will remind me of the challenge, at times, of the love-first interaction. Indeed, it may be challenging to find what’s working in the piece, and there’s danger in seeming disingenuous. I tend to agree with Newkirk, though, who explains that in most writing, there is something to like: “a word choice, an image, a bit of humor, a good detail, a sharp verb, a telling fact or statistic, a fine bit of logic.” Still, there’s also danger in love that’s not balanced with constructive criticism, which is why we can use the love-first interaction to set the stage for that constructive criticism.
In the days following the conference, I tasked myself with love-first interactions, while conferring and while scripting feedback. To do so, I prioritized strategies already in my repertoire.
Ways to Interact with Love
- When a student shares a concern, I scan the paper and look for a place where the student successfully handles the skill. Then I say, “Look what you did here! More like this!”. Following this approach in a recent conference, the student commented she worked hard on the section I pointed out, and if she just needed to do more of that, then she could. That conference ended with smiles.
- Sometimes it’s about giving love through curiosity. When I read a student’s paper and realize a deficit of details, I re-frame it with something like this: “Wow. I really want more of this. I’m so curious about …”. This reinforces that what’s written has value and then showing where they can build more value.
- Other times, it’s about saying YES! I’ll say, “YES–I notice that you recognize the need for justification here and use the “this shows that because” strategy. Now the next step is to . . .”. The love first interaction allows me to set the student up in hope through the small victory.
- Occasionally, I focus love to the idea or topic. I confess–sometimes I might even squeal. “Ohh. I really like this idea of comparing grief to a pinball machine. There’s a level of unexpectedness there that will engage the reader.” I’m loving and reinforcing what good writing does for audiences.
- And, finally, my new favorite: asking my students what they love. Some students still don’t believe in my genuine praise; I get the side-eye, the nervous giggle. So, encouraging them to share what they’re loving allows me to affirm their observations and shift the power dynamic.
Why Prioritizing Love First Matters
We all need the shoulders of giants to stand on: as I need the steadying wisdom of Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Newkirk, Peter Elbow, Don Murray, and so many others, our students need our strong shoulders to hold them–no, LIFT THEM–higher. Love first interactions set up our students to persist. Love first interactions set up our students to take risks. Love first interactions set up our students to silence their own inner critics. Love first interactions set up our students to hope.
Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep English in Waukee, Iowa. She’ll need to remember the love-first mentality as she helps her nine year old practice cello and her six year old practice violin. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.