For the past few semesters, influenced by Kittle & Gallagher, most of my English classes have started either with short memoir or flash fiction. One of the minor miracles about doing this type of writing at the beginning of the semester is that students often invest in their stories in ways that elude them if we start with expository or analytical writing. Short pieces allow us to get into the nitty gritty of craft without getting overwhelmed by, as one student said, “all the things.”
These assignments also allow plenty of time for feedback and revision. Students begin to ask for feedback from peers and, in turn, to offer comments beyond, “it’s good” and “I think this is a run-on?” As they tweak their imagery, diction, rhythm and structure, I can offer plenty of feedback via quick conferences, voice notes, and written comments on drafts in progress. In the end, the best part is that these stories emphatically theirs. Most students finish with a well-written narrative that they actually like.
Once I had this assignment as part of my repertoire, I started to focus on improving my feedback because feedback is part of what creates the magic of these assignments. (I wrote about commenting on student work once here. More recently, Melanie and Heidi (and Joel in the comments), have addressed feedback in their posts.) If we just grade for grammar or comment on what is not working, our students will stop writing. Growth happens when we highlight what is working in a piece. So I’ve learned to share my reactions as a reader, explain what I see students doing, and ask a lot of questions.
This semester, one student used identical phrasing at the beginning and the end of a short memoir. I didn’t love it, so in my comments I asked what effect they were hoping to create. I was thinking of this essay on picturing narrative structure, and particularly of the visual about coming full circle, where the author writes, “For… (the) conclusion to feel truly satisfying, however, it must mimic life, which is never completely complete… So the best conclusions open up a bit at the end, suggesting the presence of the future.” I thought the story would be better if it were a little more open.
Then, the most amazing thing happened. In the classroom, the student called me over and told me that they didn’t agree with me. They liked their closed loop. As soon as they finished speaking, they took a deep breath and looked away, astonished, I think, at their own boldness. Are students allowed to tell teachers no?
Disagreeing with teachers isn’t an everyday occurrence in schools. Too often, even when teachers try to demonstrate openness or give effective feedback, students just nod and do what we ask. After all, we have all the power. If we don’t like what they write, they get lower grades. For kids who’ve learned to play the game of school, disagreement about how to do an assignment can be nearly unthinkable. After all, they explain, being right doesn’t get you into university; doing what the teacher tells you to does.
When this student told me she didn’t want to change her work, she was telling me that her story mattered more than the grade. THAT IS INCREDIBLE. So I told her the truth,
“Look, I’m only one reader. I’m not your only audience, and I might not even be your target audience.”
She looked dubious. I told more truth: I admitted that I sometimes don’t like books that have won awards. I told her about reading Jonathan Franzen’s much-admired novel The Corrections and hating it so much that my spouse begged me to stop. (I read to the last word so no one could ever say, “Oh, but the ending was so good” thus making me go back and reread.) It won the National Book Award, so obviously lots of people really liked it; just not me.
I asked who the student imagined enjoying this story. “My friends.”
“So, show it to your friends. Shop it around. Tell them that you like this and that I would change it. Ask what they think and why. Come back and tell me about the effect it has on your audience.”
It took them a few minutes to turn to a peer and share their story, but once they started, they gathered opinions from around the classroom. They made some changes based on what they heard, but they kept that circular structure exactly as written.
I still don’t like it, but they earned an A.