Readerly Comments - Part II

I have been very busy lately ... I have been pushing myself as a teacher and have not had as much time to devote to my blog. But I'm back. I needed some time to challenge myself and to apply some new findings in my classroom. Working on my thesis and keeping this blog has had a strong impact on who I am as an educator. But I do not want to operate in the realm of theory all the time. I needed to test myself. It hasn't been easy - I've been very busy writing and reading with my students but I think I can now say that I have undergone some important changes as an educator and I intend to devote the next couple of entries to these new developments. These changes emerged naturally from blogging as a teacher, as a resesarcher, and as a reader. In my last entry, I wrote about my new approach to teaching essay writing. I said that "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)."

Below is a sample individual comment that I wrote to one of my grade eight students in response to his essay on Animal Farm. I'm sharing it here because I am still learning how to comment on student work and this comment constitutes an important step in my professional development.

This is probably one of your best essays, if not, in fact, your best ever. As soon as I saw the title I knew that this would be a great read. It was! I was thoroughly engaged in your work and often felt as if I were discovering this novel for the very first time.

Let's start by looking at the technical side of your work. The introduction flows very well, as does the rest of your work. There is a clear thesis and clear topic sentences that lead the reader into paragraphs that clearly explain and support your arguments. There are some arguments that could have used more detailed evidence in the form of direct quotes from the novel but this is not a major drawback. Most of your ideas are supported by specific examples. This shows that you have gained an excellent grasp of the novel’s key themes, characters, and conflicts. You have clearly given this topic a lot of thought and it shows in your work.

In other words, your essay shows that you have become very capable of developing a strong argument and following the essay format. Those characteristics of your work certainly make it easy to read and follow. What makes it truly enjoyable to read is your voice that comes booming through the writing. You are not afraid to state your opinion even when it is very unique and controversial. You seem confident that, as a reader, you can find the necessary evidence and use it to support your ideas. You know that the reader will have to acknowledge your point of view. Reading your essay is like following you along on your journey through the text. I can almost hear you saying "I've been thinking about this text for a while now and I have some ideas I want to share with you. Come along and I'll show you what I think." When this happens, the reader feels drawn into your essay and wants to read more, wants to find out more about your point of view ...

When I returned their work in class, I was very pleased to discover that many students shared the comments they received with their friends. I heard them whisper things like "Did he mention that in your comment? No? He did in mine;" or "He liked the introduction ... I thought it sucked..."

When I gave my students complete freedom to develop their own topics, their own ways of entering the text, I had no idea that the end result would be as inspiring as it turned out to be. My students taught me many new things about Animal Farm. They took me where I did not expect to be taken. They wrote about the Soviet Union, they focused on social engineering, propaganda, dictatorships around the world, and the need to foster critical thinking. Whenever necessary, they did their own research - they educated themselves on whatever they needed to write their essay. I gave them an oppotunity to choose their own direction, to let their voice take over and, for the most part, it worked. They wrote outstanding pieces and seemed to take more ownership.

This process gave my students the confidence they need to see themselves as writers. It makes it very clear to them that writing is about developing a voice. I'm beginning to hear more and more voices around me (including my own new voice of the teacher-as-reader) and that is the most motivating feeling I have ever felt as an educator.