Readerly Comments

Last week, I observed an interesting phenomenon which confirmed some of my key beliefs about the kind of transformation that we have to undergo as teachers. I returned a test that my students had written on the novel we are currently discussing. Usually, the students only look at the mark and then put the test in their binders. Occasionally, their work ends up in the garbage bin where they deposit it on their way out. Not this time. As soon as I handed out their work, there was silence. I stood in the middle of the classroom and all around me my students were reading. Of course they all looked at the mark first, but then every single student in that classroom fell silent and continued to read.

They were reading my comments. I have always believed that written work deserves comments and not merely checkmarks or, worse still, the kind of nit-picking criticism that I discussed on this blog a couple of months ago. I have been writing comments ever since I started teaching but no one ever seemed as interested in them as my students were last week.

Why? Why were they reading my comments? Why were they so involved? Well, after years of teaching and, what's even more important, after two years of teaching within a classroom blogging community, I have finally learned to write comments. I stopped writing as someone who dispenses knowledge. I stopped writing as someone who cares only about syntax and organization and who has forgotten what it means to get lost in a good piece of writing. I stopped writing as someone who is reading to assign a grade. Instead, I started reading as someone who wants to learn, as someone who cares about ideas, as someone who wants to join a conversation.

Yes. This approach requires that we give students opportunities to use their own voices. But once we do, we cannot stifle them by focusing on shortcomings or ignore them by drowning their ideas in a sea of meaningless checkmarks. Personally, I have never learned anything from my teachers' checkmarks or their efforts to summarize my work in one banal phrase, such as "Excellent," "Well done!," or "Keep up the good work!" I do not expect my students to take my comments seriously if they suggest to them that their work can be summed up in "Great effort!"

So, I have learned how to respond to student work by unlearning how to respond to student work. I have learned to abandon my teacher voice and started responding as a reader. (I should post an entry just listing some of the comments I made).

I discovered that when you comment on student writing as a reader, the students read your comments because they do not remind them of what they did wrong, or what they should have done, or what they need to do next time. Instead, they see comments that focus on ideas, that recognize the voice of the writer and the effort behind that voice.

So, when I stood in that classroom surrounded by students who wanted to read what I thought, I realized that if you want to teach writing you need to become a reader. Sounds simple, I know ... but it took me years to learn.