Getting out of the comfort zone

Yesterday I spoke about conferencing with students and how important a tool it is to know your students more deeply and understand them as writers. Today I’m continuing on with that thread and writing about how to give useful feedback to students in order to encourage them, as well as identifying areas they would benefit from focusing on.

Have you ever faced this situation? You’re conferencing with a student, you’ve noticed there are parts of the story that are less coherent; the audience would feel confused, and you discuss this with them. They look at you, listen, and repeat the words, ‘yep, yep, yep,’ to everything you say. You try to open the dialogue so it’s an actual conversation, you use all the open ended questions, but they still reply, ‘yep, yep, yep’. As though they already knew what you were telling them.

Sound familiar? It’s happened to me as well. For a while I beat myself up, thinking, ‘wow, I really mustn’t have given them enough opportunity to speak. Perhaps I was just ‘telling’ them what to change rather than discussing the passage with them’. But no, on reflection I had tried my utmost to make it a two-way conversation. Maybe then they just can’t take feedback? Perhaps they’re the kind of kid who always has to be right and gets their puss on even discussing the possibility that their writing has room for improvement? Again, no. They’re not like that in class usually, or out in the yard.

And then it dawned on me. Receiving feedback can be really hard. If you’ve put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then hear there’s an area where the audience might be confused, that can seem quite confronting. Of course, it’s all in the way it’s delivered but it is also a skill that needs practicing. Learning to take feedback in the spirit in which it’s offered, is as important as many other areas of learning.

I wonder how often most teachers receive feedback on their own writing? Sometimes? Never? It can be tricky to navigate and if you don’t have a lot of experience in it yourself you can leave a student feeling wounded, or, equally as harmful, as though their writing is perfect.

I am a big believer in being willing and able to participate in the same learning as your students, and the writer’s notebook is an excellent way to begin. Keeping your own shows an authenticity to the students. If their teacher uses a writer’s notebook to keep ideas in then it must be important to do.

Another, less comfortable avenue to take is to do some writing yourself and ask for some feedback. Ask your students for feedback, ask your colleagues or another trusted adult for feedback. Focus on the conversation that is had about your hard work and how it makes you feel and why? This experience can only serve to help you converse more thoroughly with your students during conferences.

The NYC Midnight competition is fabulous fun for any teachers (or anybody) who would like to have a go at writing a short story and receive feedback on it. It’s prompt-based, which may not suit everyone, but again, all our students have to sit the prompt-based NAPLAN writing test, so why shouldn’t teachers have a go at how that feels? NYC Midnight gives you 8 whole days to write a short story and all entries receive feedback, which is unusual for a writing contest.

The first time I entered I was deadset nervous. Would the judges think it was rubbish? Did it make sense? Who knew? But when I received the comments from the panel I was able to identify where my piece needed additional information and which parts had left them laughing. It was an illuminating experience which helped me understand how some students may feel when they engage in a writing conference.

The NYC Midnight contest starts again today. I’ve entered, and I know some of my colleagues have too. Wish us luck! But the process is always more important than the outcome. Until tomorrow friends, tea and writing xx