Monday is the first day back at school after March break and my grade 9 students are reading descriptive feedback on their memoirs or personal essays. I had commented on the story, the organization, the use of language, imagery, dialogue, and the craft of their writing. They read quietly, raised hands, asked questions, and there were short moments which made the many long one reading and writing comments feel, in part, worthwhile.
One student wrote a powerful memory of the first day of kindergarten. Weight and water imagery connected with fears and tears, but then there was the banana.
“was I the browning banana left in the lunchbag?”
I posted a comment on the Google document: “This imagery broke the trance for me. You had me feeling the tension until this image which created humour instead of sadness. Was that your intent?”
Another essay about returning to school after the pandemic.
“Everyone was unwilling to touch another person. My brain pictured everyone and everything like they were infected. The air felt thick, I imagined that skin cells and virus particles were contaminating the fresh, rainy air.“
I was there in the moment, following the tension, but then there were the dog treats.
“We slowly shimmied into a tiny stairwell and we were made to wait until the morning bell rang, like dogs awaiting a treat.“
I posted a comment on the Google document: “does this image capture the tone you want to convey? When my dog wants a treat, he is beyond excited. Was this the mood you wanted to convey?”
We sat together looking at the writing and I suggested searching the document for the similes to examine the comparisons (she hit ctrl F, typed in “like”).
“Oh, wow. I didn’t even realize I was using that, but now I see the pattern and know exactly what to do.”
Giving useful feedback is complicated and it feels like a relationship.
Another student calls me over to ask why I posted a comment highlighting “my” as repetitive. I read it out loud without the repetition, then with the repetition.
“But, I like both. I like the repetition.”
I didn’t agree. It’s only style, I thought. And sometimes people in a relationship disagree.
In an article for Edutopia Joel Garza, among others, made a series of suggestions for positive feedback on student writing. In particular, I appreciate his decision to avoid the “I” statements and this young student’s response to my style comment reminds me that they are writing and finding their own style so “I”, the one with more power, should be silent in the relationship.
I move to my writing desk to make notes, realizing each interaction with a student is feedback for me.