“Can you read my story?” one of my eighth graders asked me this morning.  It was an innocent enough question. I was excited about the work all the students were doing and started reading her story right there without giving it much thought.  The stories are already several pages typed, so reading one takes some time… Very soon, I realized I had fallen into an old habit–the habit where students ask me if I can look at their work with no particular focus or reason, and I do.

The reason I don’t usually respond to this question by reading students’ work is that it sets me up to be the decider of what is good and what is not.  Some students will even say, “Can you read this and tell me if it’s good?”  It’s sometimes hard not to respond to a well-meaning student’s request like this, but I pretty much never do.  I want students to develop the skills and confidence to assess the strength of their own work. That doesn’t mean I’m not available to help, though. In fact, I want students to learn to advocate for themselves and ask for help when they need it.

The solution is simple: I generally require students to tell me what they’re doing and what they’d like me to look for or help them with when they ask me to look at their work during class. This helps start a conversation between the students and me about the work. I may ask what steps the student has already taken to solve the problem on his or her own, before I attempt to help directly myself. I may direct the student to look back at the directions and then look back at his or her work. This teaches students one method for assessing one’s own work.  If the student explains that she’s tried several things and is still having trouble with X, then I’ve helped the student learn to articulate a problem and a need, which is more important than my own judgment on their work. The important thing is that when I look at the work I have some information about what the student needs or wants from me. You’d be surprised how easy it is to fall into the trap of reading a student’s work because the student wants our judgment as to whether it’s “good” or “bad.”

Back to my student today. After I read for a little while, I said, “Wait a minute, you want me to just read your whole story right now?” It was five pages typed already.  “That’s going to take me a long time and I’ve got a whole class of students! I don;t know if I can do that” I said.

“Well, can you just read this part here?” she quickly asked, scrolling down to a section a few pages later.

“Sure,” I said, still without a clear focus.  When I read the section I saw that she had done something really cool.  She’d taken a pretty straigthforward plot driven narrative and added a paragraph in which her protagonist stares out the window and remembers an event from her past.  It was quite creative and compelling.  “Wow, that is very cool what you did with the interior monologue there,” I said. “You brought the moment to another level.”

She smiled wide. “Yeah, I thought so,” she said. In this case, she had taken a risk. She felt proud of the results, and she wanted some approval and deserved credit for it.  I know that feeling. I’ve done that as a writer as well.  This moment, where I unwittingly fell into an old habit, reminded me that teaching students how to ask for the help they need is an important skill–but I also need to allow space for students to share and celebrate intellectual risktaking and small victories, with each other and also with me.

[image credit: http://www.istockphoto.com/stock-photo-20776498-high-school-teacher-helping-his-student-during-class.php]



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