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Near the very top of the Things That Disheartens English Teachers list are the comments we leave on students’ papers that aren’t considered, aren’t heeded, and — if we’re honest — often aren’t even read. I hear it from secondary teachers constantly; even in the best case scenario, it seems that students work hard on a piece of writing, the teacher works hard making thoughtful comments to move the writer forward, and then … nothing.
Sure, there are measures we can take to ensure that students are reading and thinking about our comments. In the past, I have required students to respond to every comment I left to demonstrate their understanding. At NCTE15, Jeff Scheur (@jscheur) shared that he has students write a paraphrase of the feedback they have received before they dive into the revision process. I love that idea. But while these mechanisms work and are absolutely a step in the right direction, they don’t drill down into why this happens, why students glance at the grade and then ignore the feedback.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking: students don’t read our feedback because it’s boring, it’s small, and it isn’t meaningful to them.
As a teacher, regardless of my best intentions, I find myself getting sucked into minutiae when I read students’ best drafts. We’ve had writing conferences about the big ideas, the structure, how the ideas flow and work together. When I get to that finished piece, more often than not, my feedback has much more to do with missing punctuation and craft techniques that I don’t yet see
As a writer, the best feedback I’ve ever received was from our editor, Katie Ray (@katiewoodray). I checked my email every ten minutes for days after sending Katie a chunk or chapter of Writing With Mentors, excited to see what she would say. I treasured my editor’s feedback — not because it was always glowing, but because her feedback taught me something about my writing, taught me something about myself as a writer. Katie could see the work from the 30,000-foot view — she saw how the pieces fit together (and when they didn’t), she often understood what we were trying to say better than we did.
A great editor doesn’t start out looking for the deficits in a piece of writing; a great editor holds a mirror up to the writer so that she can move forward.
Here are some moves that an editor makes when giving feedback on a piece of writing:
An editor honors what has been achieved
Editors don’t give cheap and easy compliments (like, “I really like your formatting. The bullet points are so nice and easy to read.” – an actual piece of feedback I have been given.) An editor honors the work that has been done and what is going well. An editor also pushes at the edges of those promising bits — deepening, complicating, expanding them.
An editor sees the bigger picture
One of the chief beauties of an editor is that they can see what the writer herself is too close to see. An editor sees when a writer is veering off course or when the writer is actually moving in a different direction altogether. This bird’s-eye view of the work can refocus a writer, build connections within the text and outside the text, or help them pull together disparate ideas into a more cohesive whole.
An editor removes the “audience fantasy”
Brian Sweeney (@MrSweeneyNYC) spoke at NCTE about the “audience fantasy” — an imaginary game we play with our students whereby we pretend that a real audience beyond the teacher is clambering to read their writing. We write things like, “This is unclear for your reader”, when, in reality, the only reader is the teacher. An editor’s job is to make a piece of writing its best before it goes to publication. Katie Ray’s feedback aimed at making our book useful and readable for a real audience, and this real audience motivated our writing. If we are helping our student move toward real publication rather than pretend publication, our feedback might also prove more meaningful for our young writers.
An editor uses the language of possibility
Katie always charged her feedback with what if? and maybe? Editors make suggestions, bring forth new ideas,see potential and use language that reflects that hopeful sense of possibility. Editors dwell in what could be — with some tweaking, restructuring, revising — and help their authors see the same potential in their own work.
An editor gives the writer agency
By using this language of potential and possibility, an editor gives the writer the final say over their creation. So often, when we leave feedback and put a grade on a piece of writing, we are taking the final say over the creation. We say, “This is an A” or “This is a C”. And though we hope our students will choose to revise, the verdict has already come down.
Ralph Fletcher (@fletcherralph) says that there is always tension in the editor-author relationship because while the editor suggests, the author has the creative authority to say, “No, I would really prefer it the other way.” As teachers, we encourage our students to make author’s choices — we need to gives students the authority to make all of the choices real writers make, even disagreeing with their editor.
I don’t want to leave small, irrelevant feedback for my students any more. They do need to improve their punctuation. They do need to incorporate the conventions of a given genre. And I will need to figure out how to help them do these things while refocusing to work as their editor — showing them what is possible in their writing, encouraging them to move forward, giving them feedback that is meaningful and inspiring.
For you, what’s the difference between a teacher’s feedback and an editor’s feedback? What are some moves you might make to become an editor for your students? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.