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A Cure for the Fear of Your Writing Students

A little girl scared to readShe tiptoes to the edge of the cliff, breathing heavily.  Her friends watch in horror, shaking with the thought that they’ll be next.  Then she reads, words coming haltingly at first, but rushing out in torrents by the time she finishes.  She looks at the red-haired instructor, expecting his disapproval…


Every writing workshop I teach shares this moment in common.  Whether it’s a boy, girl, or grown adult, the first to read his or her writing in front of the class takes a huge risk.  It’s critical to find something positive in what they’ve just exposed.


“…many teachers now realize that in order to learn something well, students have to use it for a while on their own without the fear of being negatively criticized,” says Steve Peha in his curriculum guide, Welcome to Writer’s Workshop, put out by TTMS.org


It’s so easy to correct mistakes, to point out where they do it wrong.  But I watch the sighs of relief from the rest of the class when I let the student know exactly what they did amazingly well in their writing.  This isn’t general praise, like, “Good job, Rachel,” or “Way to go, Cassandra.”  It’s specific affirmation like, “I loved the image you created when the mockingbird zoomed through the clouds.”  Then, when I point out how they can make it even better by taking out “being” verbs, or crossing out their first sentence, because the second one creates more imagery, they get excited, rather than defeated. “Who wants to read theirs next?” I ask.  Hands pop up all over the room.


Specific, positive feedback eliminates the “fear of being negatively criticized” and opens a student’s mind to receive instruction that they trust will help them improve.  Once a student gains the confidence that wrote something interesting and had fun doing it, new ideas begin forming about the next thing that they can write.  They naturally dream of doing it better, bigger, faster.  The door swings wide for feedback and tips.  You begin to build trust.  With enough repetitions of specific, positive feedback, students will begin asking for your input so that they can improve.


Research backs up the need for specific, positive feedback.  In this Carnegie Mellon article for faculty on giving feedback, the author cites several research studies indicating that experienced writing teachers read to understand, while novice teachers read to find fault.  “Students can be easily overwhelmed by too many comments…” they advise.  Instead teachers should “…address one or two substantive issues in the piece of writing.”  A 1997 study by D.R. Ferris in TESOL Quarterly states that “Student writers will not be able to benefit from feedback that they do not understand.”


Eliminating the fear of being negatively criticized doesn’t begin with the first, brave student that raises their hand to read their writing.  Teachers begin building (or losing) trust from the moment they walk into the room.  In my workshops, my first questions to the class have no right or wrong answers.  “Who thinks it was poetry?”  “Who thinks it wasn’t poetry?”  “Who liked it?”  “What did you like about it?”  Affirming their answers and encouraging their opinions gives them confidence that I listen.  As I continue asking questions, their engagement grows, with students essentially teaching the class what makes good writing with each answer.  By the time I ask them to write, they can’t wait to try it out.


If I’ve done a good job building trust, multiple hands spring up once I ask who wants to read theirs first.  Sometimes it’s just one.  Either way, I pay attention and listen as their reading.  I usually pick the most vivid line they’ve written and tell them specifically how it demonstrates the lesson I’ve just taught them.  In the line, “the mockingbird zoomed through the clouds,” I would point out how “zoom” is such a great action verb that connects the powerful imagery of a “mockingbird” with “cloud.”


Occasionally a student’s writing doesn’t exhibit any of the lessons you’ve just taught.  That’s when it’s critical to listen for the best aspect of their writing and point it out.  If you don’t understand what they’re communicating, ask them to explain it.  As long as you’re genuinely asking, they’ll feel comforted knowing that you want an explanation.  Try to affirm their idea and then show them how to make it work.  Often their attempt to write means more than them doing exactly what you want.  Giving them something solid and positive that they can remember and grab onto will make a huge change in their attitude, which will pay off later on.


Patience is what a teacher needs most to build student trust in your writing feedback.  Give your instruction and teaching a chance to work.  Celebrate the success of your students with genuine enthusiasm.  Let them know that they’re being prepared to succeed when the tests come.  Help them to dream of ways to use what they learn in class to write better outside of class.


Our education system, with its present-day emphasis on testing and results, often provides the opposite stimulus.  When the standard is perfect, praise gets neglected in favor of “what you can improve.”  Instead of focusing on students’ strengths we teach them to fix their weaknesses.  Rather than enabling the next generation to excel, we train them not to fail.  School has become a survival course, rather than an incubation house for big ideas.


It’s no different in the business world.  “Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative,” said William McKnight, former CEO of 3M.  New ideas and productivity flourish in an environment where creativity is encouraged without fear of punishment.  No wonder 3M devotes 15% of every employee’s time to creativity and play.


If you read this post and don’t put it into practice, don’t be surprised if you see responses to your writing instruction like Peppermint Patty’s below.  Much happier are the teachers, students, executives and employees who USE THIS WISDOM.



Avoid student boredom with Peter’s workshop for teachers…

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