Today, as we practiced writing our weekend webs, the students had to focus on writing a catchy first sentence. It all ties in with our major writing goals of better word choice and yet was still met with groans and eye rolls. “But that’s hard, Mrs. Ripp” was expressed repeatedly. “Absolutely,” I said, “And that is why we have to practice it.”
After the 15 minutes of writing were up, I had students share just their opening sentence with the rest of the class. As we went through each sentence, I stayed quiet beside the occasional “Nice” that slipped out. These sentences were not created equal by any means. Some were catchy, exciting, inviting and others were just ho-hum. In the past, I would have given my honest opinion at each sentence, and yet today I held my tongue. Instead of sharing my opinion to each individual, I asked the students whether they heard a difference in sentence quality. All of them agreed and some even ventured that there were certain stories they would love to read right away. A discussion then broke out as to the purpose of that first sentence. Was it to explain everything such as “This Saturday, I went to the carnival” or was it to entice the reader? This discussion would not have happened had I greeted each sentence with a comment. Instead, I would have had some deflated students, unsure of what their next step should be.
Public criticism disguised as feedback is always something I avoid. Not because I feel students should not be aware of what their goals are, in fact, we discuss this quite often in my classroom, but rather the public part of it. Of course, there are times when public discussion does happen such as addressing inappropriate behaviors, or when the whole class is trying to learn from each other in a more deliberate way. Just stating though that student’s work isn’t their best, is simply not doing them any good. In this instance, I would not have had time to properly discuss ways to change their sentence, and I knew that some students would figure out theirs was not as strong if they simply heard the other ones that were. So I am learning to be quiet, to be more deliberate in my delivery of learning, and to sometimes forgo it all together.
Feedback is one of our strongest tools but can also be one of our more damaging ones if handled inappropriately. While you can easily build a child up by publicly praising their work, one misplaced comment can undo months of confidence as a writer, reader or student. This goes for disingenuous praise as well; children will see right through it if you don’t mean it. So as I continue to grow alongside my students I try to keep it simple, earnest, and meaningful. Saying “good job” might work at that specific moment in time but the students learn nothing from it. Just as saying “That wasn’t a great sentence” delivers no learning opportunity, we must be willful and deliberate in our words. How do you handle feedback in your classroom? What are you stopping doing? Am I the only one on this word choice journey?