Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Keeping Elbow Close at Hand

Slice of Life Challenge, Day 25 

Pic from Bernard L. Swartz Comm. Inst.
I first encounted Peter Elbow's work in my undergraduate writing methods course. His writing has served as inspiration both for how I write as well as how I teach writing. Today I had the opportunity to revisit his piece from the College English journal published in 1993, "Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement." I've been doing some research on feedback, so it makes sense to return to my mentor, Mr. Elbow.

We are a culture obsessed with feedback. Just take a cursory scan of the books listed in Amazon's search list when you type in "feedback" as a search term. Over 100,000 items pop onto the screen, everything from books on neuropsychological assessment to a children's picture book. And recently, a number of news outlets have been featuring the recent work Harvard's Negotiation Project, a book titled Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. So even though Elbow's essay is over twenty years old, feedback is clearly a topic with which we continue to grapple.

Elbow's argument against ranking and grades, so closely linked to the writings of Alfie Kohn, Sir Ken Robinson, and many others, highlights what we have known to be true about student writers for a long time: grades kill writing. As Elbow points out, "Ranking leads students to get so hung up on these oversimple quantitative verdicts that they care more about scores than about learning - more about the grade we put on the paper than about the comment we have written on it." Any teacher of writing knows this. How many times have we complained that when we return their essays, after spending hours making careful comments and questions, students take a cursory look at the grade and toss the paper into the trash. Why is this? Elbow argues in part this happens because we have conditioned our student writers to be concerned with their rank. We have made them grade addicts.

And yet, we know this will not grow their writing skills. Elbow argues that students need thoughtful, evaluative comments that move their thinking forward, but which is mostly free of the ranking that can hinder their growth. I agree. We want our students to become reflective, confident, motivated writers. However, the threat of the red pen, whether in the form of a grade or in the form of over evaluating, can shut down the reflection and risk-taking that we need to encourage in our practicing writers to engage in. Elbow writes that "constant evaluation by someone in authority makes students reluctant to take the risks that are needed for good learning -- to try out hunches and trust their own judgement." We do not want students simply writing for us. What good is that? Elbow states that the worst influence of grading and over-evaluation of our student writers can be seen when students make changes to their writing “for the sake of the grade; not really taking the time to make up their own minds about whether they think my judgments or suggestions really make sense to them."

Instead, student writers grow when given opportunities to write for supportive readers. Students do need opportunities to write for both evaluation and (unfortunately) ranking, but we can lessen the negative impact these practices by carefully considering how to motivate student writers to reflect and revise through careful use of our feedback. As teachers, we need to be their supportive and not just critical readers.  We know this from our own experiences as writers.  I bet that most of us can recall that one teacher (or perhaps a few) who encouraged us to write more, who believed in our writing endeavors.  Elbow highlights this, too: "...the way writers learn to like their writing is by the grace of having a reader or two who likes it -- even though it's not good.  Having at least a few appreciative readers is probably indispensable to getting better." We help our writers grow when we put down the red pen and put on our reading lens. When we respond to our students' writing as invested readers, our feedback helps to support their endeavors. We highlight that connection between writer and audience, between writing and reading. And when we give feedback from this position, we help our emerging writers understand both the purpose and audience for their writing. This is where writing grows -- not in circling grammar mistakes or slashing out redundancies, but in highlighting our connections to the writer and the writing.
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