Friday Workshop Share: Negotiating Constructive Criticism

Another idea I’ve adapted over the years is one I found in Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. She describes how to get students to share their work. Essentially, students read their work and students have to respond with compliments for the writer. The writer runs the feedback session, and feedback is directed to the writer rather than to the teacher.

Every Friday, 3-4 students share their work in Friday share. It’s usually whatever paper we’ve been working on during that week. When I first started doing this three years ago, we just did compliments. Over the last year or so, though, students have asked for compliments and Areas of Growth. I took the middle ground: a writer could determine the kind of feedback he/she needed: thus, if he/she only wanted compliments, then that was fine. If the writer also wanted areas of growth, then what happens is that the writer tells us before he/she begins reading his/her draft aloud (i.e., can you see if my paper flows, if it makes sense, if you see any grammatical errors, etc.?) and we comment specifically on those areas.

As the teacher, I respond as a person hearing and reading the work. I have no additional authority in the situation. I often don’t even talk, just write notes that get passed down to the writer with all the others.

A quick look at Workshop Share in motion: A student makes enough copies of their paper for everyone in the class (usually 19, including myself and the TAs). Prior to distributing the paper, students have small scraps of paper they use to write notes for the writer. The writer tells us what they want from the workshop (compliments, areas of growth, a combination of both) and exactly what they want feedback on, and then begins reading his/her draft aloud to us. We follow along, marking up the copy. Once the writer is finished, we clap and then spend a few minutes jotting down compliments on one side of the scrap paper and, if requested, areas of growth on the other side. The writer then calls on classmates for their thoughts.

Here’s what I know: Kids find it very easy to be harsh, exceedingly so. I have no problem butting in and asking students to rephrase their comments. I always tell them that the goal of these sessions, beyond sharing our work, is to help the writer improve. Thus, blanket criticism has no place. Lead with the good, I say (and MODEL), and then, when giving areas of growth, end with a suggestion that the writer might incorporate to improve his/her revision. I noticed yesterday that some students were being a bit ruthless in their criticism. Not okay. So I told them about my own experiences with writing, that the first time my advisor sent my dissertation back (and I had mistakenly fallen in love, or at least strong like with my draft), she had written so much criticism on the first chapter that I was paralyzed and couldn’t write for at least a year (maybe it wasn’t quite a year, but it was long enough to be significant). I also reminded them that it is difficult to share our work and that we needed to thank people for being brave. If you can’t find any nice way to deliver constructive criticism, I finally said, stick to compliments. We are all on our own writing journeys, and I expressly forbid any of them to derail someone else’s journey.

Funny thing is, the kids who tend to be the harshest are the weakest writers. Amazing, or perhaps not. We tend to critique what we most dislike in ourselves, perhaps?

I don’t anticipate having to give this speech again, and I won’t let it diminish the overall effectiveness of the workshop. Students have said this is one of the most useful parts of the class, largely because they get to hear what their peers are writing, get new ideas, and generally feel part of a community of writers. And while I guess I probably couldn’t articulate those explicit goals of the workshop when I first adopted it, the kids, as usual, say it perfectly.

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