Monday, November 29, 2010

It's All in How You Say It

As some of you may have noticed, I have been lax in my blogging and for that I am really sorry.  My excuse?  I began a new (part time) job that, as is often the case, takes up more time than originally expected (I am working on it). 

The job:  Teaching an online course for Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth.  This course requires young gifted students to complete weekly readings from selected books, write a weekly blog and respond to at least three discussion questions weekly. My role is to monitor the discussions, tweak the questions when necessary and write weekly evaluations for each student enrolled in an effort to sharpen their writing and thinking skills.

The dilemma:  Providing written feedback to students you don't see (whose faces you cannot monitor), is a challenging chore. How do you get students to write more, develop their points and support them - while reinforcing the skills they have - all without really knowing these kids.

After 10 weeks, one parent nominated me for "Outstanding Teacher" because (as she wrote)  I was able to:
" responded to [the parent's] questions or comments with encourage [my student] to provide more information throughout the course. Her feedback ensured my [child] that she was fascinated with what [my child] had to say and simply wanted to hear more. This is a far different approach and far more effective than the typical classroom teacher method of writing “elaborate” or “more” and then the assignment is over."
My Point:  It is all in how you say it! 

Mary Poppins would comment that "a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down" and, while I do not believe anyone should sugar coat falsely, I believe there is a way to provide criticism that strengthens a student - or child's strengths while allowing them to notice, and with encouragement, to focus on the weaknesses. 

Example of Constructive Feedback:
The child above was reluctant to write. The need to write 100-250 words per response was daunting and this student's initial writing samples were sparse. This student's written responses contained little 'new' or original information and the few ideas presented were poorly developed or supported. In response, I made sure to find something I liked, something that added value and would comment upon that.  I would comment on why that particular snippet was so interesting, and that I would have liked to know more.  I then modeled questions, asking for information that would have made the responses more complete.

I did and continue to do this with all my students.  It takes time, but the results, to date, have been truly impressive.  I decided to write about this because so often in our haste to meet so many demands as teachers and parents, we let the art of skillful direction slip.

Final advice on feedback for Teachers and Parents:
  • Chose your words well.  
  • Begin with praise and ease into constructive shaping and modeling.
  • When you can, sit with your child/student and review (teacher) comments and feedback.  Make sure there is some sugar with the possible vinegar present in the evaluation.
  • Conference with your child/student and brainstorm about neat ways to address the comments.
All too frequently we don't realize or we forget how powerful our words and feedback can be.  Chose them wisely!

I'd love to hear some of your examples of feedback - I promise it will not be another month for my next post.

Hope you are all sated from Thanksgiving - wishing you all a happy holiday season - I look forward to hearing from you!


  1. Hi Meryl, thanks for coming on to my blog. I was actually thinking about you today and the fact that I have not been on your blog lately. You want to collaborate, but honestly, you're above my head -- in a great way. I can't imagine how I could be an equal member of your objectives. But if you can think of anything, I'm all ears!

    Do you have a subscribe button where I can put in my email address and then get your posts whenever they are published? Can't seem to find it, but you should get one. I'm submitting your post to a few networks, and then commenting on this again. Be right back.

  2. I'm back. Congratulations on the job. Very impressive. Since I began teaching on the HS level, we were trained to begin with the positive comments and then move to the negative...but constructive responses to student writing. I teach writing Composition now, and I still do a lot of this. The problem is that older students (ages 18-50)don't pay attention to the comments after their first read, so I end up repeating my notes and comments again and again. I'm sure you've been there. Teaching writing, I have to say, has been very enlightening for me as a teacher and as a writer. I pay more attention to mechanics in my own writing, and I have learned to slow down and explain/elaborate in my own teaching of writing. My comments have also become more constructive and precise, which helps them more than just seeing "great job" written on the top of their papers. I do find that I am not as good a teacher to my son as I am to my students, though. I wonder why. I am less patient with him.

    Anyway, this post is exemplary. I can't believe kids are doing this work; it's the kind of work I do with my students.

  3. Thanks for this great post. So timely. Having come off the holiday, I felt out of sync today. Suffice it to say, it was not my best day for teaching. This post provided me with a great reminder of how I want to be as a teacher and parent.

  4. Great post and advice for teachers. I wish more teachers would follow it. I attend a university online and can attest as to how professors can come across with their words if they do not choose them wisely! Good to have you back

  5. Hi Meryl, thanks for stopping by my blog. I am so glad to have found yours! I am not a teacher, but a parent who struggles with constructive criticism, especially with my 7-year-old. It really doesn't matter what I say, good or bad, he's defensive. If I praise him he shrugs it off, if I point out an error he accuses me of being mean. I can't win!

  6. Hi Kim, thanks for you comments. I know exactly what you're saying and having been there myself, know that even if he is shrugging it off, he still hears it! I look forward to future mutual visits!

  7. This is such a beautiful and remarkable post. It does take an extraordinary amount of time to offer this level of support in an online learning environment, but the results can be life changing for students when they 'get it'--so keep at it!
    I was reminded about The Inner Wealth Initiative (Nurtured Heart Approach) as I read your post. When I was in training as an online educator, I really made a focussed effort to comment in a positive, supportive, and genuine way with other students posts. It was so much fun to engage with other students who I didn't see, in this way.

  8. Thanks for this! My son's teachers are always trying to pull "more" out of him, but he's so reluctant to put anything down. Maybe this is a way I can help him.

  9. Hi Meryl. Thanks for your comment on my blog.
    I teach writing to Community College students and this same advice applies. I give them some praise, tell them what they're doing that can do more, and give them one thing to work on. It's important not to overwhelm them.
    Sounds like an interesting class you're teaching.

  10. I clued in on your statement to "begin with praise." I recently attended (as a parent) a presentation on the Responsive Classroom, in which the presenter spoke about changing the language used with students and, by which, teaching them to take pride in their own work instead of seeking external praise and gathering esteem from that. I think there is value in both approaches, but I was wondering if you were familiar with the Responsive Classroom and had any insights.

  11. I take and teach a lot of writing classes and have learned much about critiquing in the process. I think the word critique is helpful to keep in mind. Criticism, even when meant to be constructive, can sting or be misinterpreted, especially when done in writing.

    Here are a couple of things I have learned from good writing critics along the way.

    When you dwell on what shines in writing, you help the writer return in his or her mind to the place where the writing was going well. This sounds a little touchy-feely, I know, but it really works.

    To elicit more writing, ask good, open-ended questions or leading questions, like "I wonder what would happen if …"

    Leave the "constructive criticism" for very specific grammar, structure or organizational points.

    That's what I've learned. Hope it helps. I've done several distance learning tutoring blogs that have worked well. Let me know if you are interested.

  12. For Annie:
    Hi Annie. I just read your comment on my blog and am responding for two things:
    1. Thank you so much for your encouraging remarks. I know all about the kind of day you had and responses like yours make me want to get up and shout "hooray!!!! Someone gets it!"

    2. We all have difficult days. When I had an actual (as opposed to my current virtual) classroom, I only taught language arts classes, so unlike homeschooling where you have captive minds for the DAY - I only had them an hour...I kept books, games and activities for when I felt rotten, or couldn't think, or things just didn't work. Here are some of the things (off the top of my head) that worked for me:

    PICTIONARY (great vocabulary game)

    BOOKS to read aloud and for kids to just find a cozy cushion and read on (picture books, graphic novels, young adult novels, poetry)

    MUSE Magazine - published by the Smithsonian - great articles to feed off of.

    SET (great game for developing higher order cognitive skills).

    Hope you're having a better day today. Thanks for the support, I hope to have another post up in a day or two!

    All the best,

  13. Congratulations on what sounds like a fun, enriching job. Of course, I have nothing but praise for the idea of blogs being put out by students.

    I agree that starting out with the positive is important. It's the first thing that hits the reader in the face, and it sets the tone for the letter -- even if there are some points that need a bit of tweaking.

  14. Meryl,

    I like how you organized your post (the job, the dilemma, my point, and the “crown”—example of constructive feedback). My response is more anecdotal—I’m just newly back to teaching after a ten year hiatus…and I tend to put the grammar comments/corrections on one side of the paper and reserve the other half for the “content rich” responses where I try to mirror back what they’ve done well as well as suggesting where to dive deeper.

    I lost a student, probably 15 years ago now, to suicide--who has forever changed the way I look at my comments. She was an extremely bright student, interested in midwifery, but at the time also battling addiction. At her funeral, her mother put out her “A” papers, and I remember walking along the table, and seeing my “good point” etc, comments staring up at me in red ink, and though I made extensive comments to her given her high level of engagement, I remember wishing I’d said more.

    I carry that with me now, returning to the classroom—I do think what we say matters and I can’t agree with you more: do what it takes to find the core or heart of the student’s interest—that is your bridge. Cross that first with them, and I think they’ll go just about anywhere with you to improve the writing later. It is just like young children and artwork—we wouldn’t think of criticizing their early brushstrokes and color choice—you give them a canvas, you let them go…and then once they’re in love with where they’re headed, there remains time to follow them as they engage with their beloved imagery/idea/subject and help shape the skills/craft/wording.

    So for example in my class this semester I used the making of a “bucket list” (top ten things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket, etc) as a starting point for our research paper. It seemed a little far fetched to them at first, but I do my best to have my assignments anchor into something they’ll use in that future their heading towards. Papers came in on earth activism, family ancestry, how to film skateboarders, etc.

    Thanks for your post, and congratulations on reaching that student and that parent too; sounds like you’ve more than earned the recognition.

  15. Dr. Jaffe,

    I can't wait until my daughter is evaluated for CTY and can participate in one of your classes. She eats, breathes, and sleeps narrative. She's so hungry for more input and activity in writing.

  16. To Roseana: I look forward to the possibility of teaching your daughter!

    To Tania: What a powerful anecdote! I am sure you are a wonderful teacher and I visited your blog - your poetry is equally powerful.

    And to all who commented: Thank you for visiting - I look forward hearing your voices again here.

  17. I taught as an adjunct instructor at a small (2000 students) liberal arts college before "retiring" to educate our four children at home. I've been teaching online writing and language arts courses at Brave Writer ( for the past eight years.

    I've found that in "commenting" upon essays (I don't use the term "grading"), especially from students who may be halfway around the globe, it helps to build a rapport with them from the beginning of class by having them post "introductions" mentioning where they live, what they like to do in their spare time (which helps develop many an essay topic), etc. I jot down notes on each student and keep them beside me when I comment on essays so I can picture the individual whose work I am commenting upon.

    I try to phrase criticism as questions or as positive comments. "This is an intriguing point--what more can you show me about ______?" rather than "needs more development." Or "I really like the way you started to develop this point, and I'd love to see more!"

    At the end of each essay I try the "sandwich approach": Start with positive feedback, then state what needs improvement, then finish the comments with another positive remark on their effort, their writing style in general, etc.

    I'm working with mostly junior high and high school students in online courses, and part of what we do at Brave Writer is train home school educators to become writing coaches rather than grammatical nit-pickers with red pens in hand. Grammar is important, but it's the last step after insuring solid development of content.

    And using lots of emoticons helps with evaluating online class work as well--especially smilies. :)

  18. Dear Susanne,
    I loved your additions. Thank you!