I recall a writing assignment from my eighth-grade year. We were to write a modern-day version of one of Jesus’ parables. My story included two ranchers who both needed to build a corral. The first was more concerned about having the nicest looking corral so he chose vinyl fencing. The second was more concerned about strength and integrity so he chose to build with thick oak planks. Of course, the day soon arrived to sort cattle in the new corrals and no reader was surprised to find that the first rancher soon owned a broken corral and escaping cattle. The second rancher suffered no losses for his efforts. I had worked hard on this one and felt rather good about my story. As we had been told, these stories were hung on the wall, because parent-teacher’s meeting was that evening. The next day we all read each other’s stories and to my dismay I had misspelled “vinyl” at every use. My great story had been shaded by a whole lot of distracting marks and I thought the parents would not appreciate my hard work. That morning, I gained a new appreciation for the feelings my first rancher must have been experiencing at the end of my story. One can write ever so well, but a few missing edits can majorly change the first impression.
Young writers can easily miss the details that take a piece from “okay” to “great.” They need helpful feedback from their teachers to become successful. Feedback is a gift you can give to your young writers and it even includes a gift for you. I will share some of the things I have learned in my experience in giving feedback to students.
Helpful feedback, a gift for the student. This helpful feedback gives direction, shows appreciation, or generates inspiration. There is unhelpful feedback. In fact, the most unhelpful feedback in my mind is exactly what we put at the top of the page when we don’t have anything else to say -“great job”. That is a commendation, but it doesn’t give any direction. Your eighth grader will say, “Great! I don’t need to redo it,” and he never gives the assignment another thought. It does show appreciation you may say. Right, but don’t you feel more appreciation in the thoughtful scrawled note from your student than the attached gift card. Your thoughts and time create the gift of helpful feedback. Jot in the margin where you feel the student did well. Suggest better verb choices so he can see how it could pop. Those little notes show you care about him and his writing. Yes, this takes time but read the next paragraph before you click out. One more thing, don’t be afraid give feedback just because you don’t consider yourself the writer or editor type. What makes good reading makes good writing so let them know your opinion. It’s what they care about most anyway.
Quick feedback, a gift for the teacher. Feedback doesn’t always need to be wordy to be helpful. I like a light approach, especially on simple, creative assignments such as lists, sentences, and short descriptions. Draw a smiley face beside items in the list that make you smile or maybe it’s a thumbs up by a good word choice or alliteration. A frown for the one he was sure you wouldn’t like but wrote anyway. Students enjoy these marks. For more formal pieces, another time saver is having a well explained set of edit and comment marks. An underline can mean “great phrase” while a circle around a set of words can mean “weak or poor usage”. A circle with a pigtail means “omit”. Brackets in the margin can indicate the section of the paragraph you are making comments on. Establish your own code with your students or consult an English handbook for official editing marks. The important part is to have a system that communicates the intended praise or correction in a speedy manner.
Directed feedback, a gift for the budding writer. There are times I look over a paper and see oodles of passive sentences. I circle a few and make a comment in the margin to check over the piece for passive sentences such as the ones I circled and to change them to active. This works for a few students but nine times out of ten the paper will be returned with the circled sentences fixed nicely but the rest of the paper untouched. After sighing internally, I’m reminded that students don’t know what they are looking for when they try to revise a paper. In fact, we all have struggles seeing the glitches in our own work. Your young writers need direction to learn how to find the weak spots in their work. One helpful discovery I’ve made is to give specific little editing assignments that are adjusted for the skill level of the student. For a lesson on using active sentences the directed feedback might be to circle every being verb. In a lesson on specific verbs, it may be to slash every adverb. An article writer may be asked to make a star beside every passive voice sentence. After that is complete, I say, “Now change three-fourths of the being verbs to action” or “find a verb that will work with out the adverb for ninety percent of those adverbs.” The article writer gets to change half of those passive sentences to active voice. This approach helps him to hunt and find because he has a better idea of what he is looking for. It also gives the student the freedom to revise the parts he wants to. For example, if he likes the wording of a particular passive sentence, he can leave it and change others. This still brings the desired effect and gives the student a greater feeling of satisfaction. Furthermore, you’ve doubled the teaching power of the lesson because he learns how to improve his own writing in that particular discipline.
Encouraging feedback, a gift shared. I teach by the mantra that if mediocracy is expected, excellence is killed. While that is a good vantage point, I need to recognize that I can easily overwhelm students with calls to excellence. I need to make sure that my feedback is encouraging, valuable, and achievable for the student. Before zealously marking up a student’s work with ambitious ideas I may need to consider other factors as well. This student is behind in math or maybe he just failed a science test. Factors outside of school can also affect the point of overwhelm and crossing that line is like adding taller blocks to the downside of the Tower of Pisa. On the other hand, we live in a time of growing entitlement attitudes and saying, “I’m sorry, but this part of your work is poor” is becoming increasingly unpopular. Teachers face pressure from parents even to make all students feel good about their work regardless of its quality. Knowing how to balance these factors is a tricky act but both teacher and student share a gift when we consider our feedback for the moment.
Negative feedback, the gift of a friend. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. (Pro 27:6) Feedback that points out errors is not bad if we don’t frame it as such. According to Proverbs we are actually being a faithful friend by pointing out areas that need improved. We all know that a beginning volleyball player will need help with technique and practice. The most helpful coach will point out weak areas and suggest methods of improvement, helpful tips, and encouragement. Yes, students may complain for a time or say they never can do it right. After a while, they understand that lots of red ink means teacher spent a lot of time on this. If he spent that much time, he must care how I do. Honest students like help and so do the dishonest ones. They just don’t say so out loud. Go ahead, be the faithful friend for your student.
Valuable feedback gives much more direction to students than they will ever get from a quick “OK” or “Good Job.” Go the extra mile to make a few comments on how they did. Students really do appreciate the feedback you work so hard to give them. As they churn out better pieces the more they want to continue writing. I’ve had more experienced students come to me asking for additional comments on how to fix a part they feel is too weak. That desire for excellence stems from you first investing the time to give them feedback. They realize you are helping them avoid feeling like a certain rancher with escaping cattle. They will thank you and someday you will read their published work. That’s a gift.
PS. This essay explains why we direct teachers to give regular feedback instead of grading each lesson in our curriculum.