Feedback Sets the Bar for Talk in our Workshops

Writers will rise to the level of talk around them.

When I heard Katie Wood Ray say this (at a conference long ago), I remember feeling this tremendous kinship with her. It was affirmation of a shared faith in the capacity of our youngest writers.

Over time, conferring with writers of all ages, I have found this to be consistently true. The first time a writer hears, “So how’s it going?” or “What are you working on as a writer today?” her instinct might be to slide what she’s working on across the desk in my direction.

When I don’t take the bait, when I counter with some version of, “What would you like me to read for?” or “What kind of feedback might help you most today?” the writer realizes that more will be expected of her than to passively ingest whatever my opinion of her writing might be. This will be a conversation, not an evaluation.

The next time I confer with that writer, she’s not surprised by my questions. She might not (yet) be entirely confident in how to take on all that agency, but she’s getting closer. She understands that I’m not going to direct the conference—I want to hear what her plans are for the writing, and we’ll go from there.

Eventually, after multiple conferences, she’ll jump right in when approached: “Hey, so I’m trying to. . . and I’m wondering if you can please read here and let me know if this part. . . .”

She will rise to the level of talk expected of writers in the workshop.

So. . . what happens when the “workshop” is a virtual Google Classroom?

We’re two weeks into the Slice of Life Challenge (from the Two Writing Teachers Blog), where students are striving to craft a narrative piece of writing (in any form) every day during the month of April. Because part of the challenge is for writers to share their writing and to give feedback to others, Google Classroom seemed like an ideal place to house all this writing energy.

We have about 80 students in grades 3-5 who have opted in to the challenge. Audience and efficiency were the primary drivers in the Google Classroom decision, since I’m a building level Instructional Coach organizing this challenge for multiple classrooms. Community and safety were highest on my list in terms of priorities as we got rolling.

I wanted to be able to coach into their writing, to share the kind of feedback that not only encourages kids to keep writing but that also has the potential to move writers. I have to admit, I was nervous about how feedback might be received when it wasn’t shared side by side in the workshop. Body language and affect are an important part of building rapport while conferring. I also had some worries about the kinds of feedback kids might leave for each other.

The first few days of April, I made sure to leave feedback on as many student slices as possible. I was intentional about making it descriptive feedback: name what the writer does, then describe the impact of that action/choice on the reader. Leave it to the writer to decide if that was his or her intended effect. (Clearly, my feedback mentors include Peter Johnston and Mark Overmeyer.)

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SOL feedback 1

When I fell behind, it was Regie Routman in my ear: “If you have time to read everything your students are writing, then they’re not writing enough!” I stopped feeling guilty and continued giving feedback. My goal was for students to start giving each other feedback anyway. I didn’t want it all to come from me. If we were going to collaborate as a community of writers, then we all needed to be sharing feedback and cheering each other on.

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I did wonder about the impact of this feedback. I couldn’t possibly be in writing workshop with all these kids across classes and grade levels every day. Besides, most of the writing was happening outside of workshop anyway. I wondered: Would the feedback in Google Classroom make a difference? Would kids keep writing? Could I coach them as writers virtually?

I should have known better than to worry.

Two magical things happened. And almost right away.

One, I saw evidence of student writers taking feedback and integrating it into their next slices of life.

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A couple of days later, this same student posted:

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Because kids were writing so much (a slice a day every day in the month of April is the goal), they had a chance to apply feedback immediately. Then they received more feedback. And right back to writing. Super motivating (and not at all a surprise, based on the research around feedback).

Even more incredibly, I saw evidence of students beginning to give each other feedback that was modeled on the feedback they were receiving. They were noticing the impact of comments in Google Classroom that moved them as writers versus comments that were simply affirming or evaluative (e.g. Good job! I liked this!).

Student writers do want affirmation. . . and they also want to grow. They left feedback for each other that addressed both of these needs: 

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Due to the sheer volume of slices and comments in our Google Classroom–so many mentors–we began to see more and more student feedback that looked like this: 

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I should have known that writers would rise to the level of “talk” around them. With strong models of the kind of feedback that makes a difference to writers, of course they began to craft that same level of feedback for each other.

We know this is true in our writing workshops, which means it is possible to build this same type of community–a community that values and expects a high level of talk–in digital spaces. 

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