Does anyone teach this?

Blessed are those who are able to help someone learn without destroying his confidence.  Blessed are those who show new teachers, supervisors and mentors how to do that.
I was not born with a talent for encouraging, and had no formal training in it, not so much as a discussion, though I trained to be a teacher.  I learned a few things on my own, but not before I’d smeared many student papers with red ink.  I still feel bad about that, though I have a dozen excuses, starting with the restrictions of a grading system and my misguided zeal to do a good job by pointing out everything that might be corrected.
I always thought I was good at taking criticism, but maybe because for the most part it has been kindly given.  As for the harshest criticism I received, I decided the teacher just didn’t understand what I was doing.  Then I had a student say something similar to me.  Conclusion:  when the judgment is too negative, some learners survive only by rejecting it.
I believe seeds of better things are present in the poorest work, and that any learner can grow through evaluation kindly and carefully given.  What helps:  emphasizing the good things, whether the learner is a child or a new employee. 
Take the critique process on critiquecircle.com.  Writers of all ages and levels of expertise submit stories and novels there.  Most critiques I’ve read point out what readers judge to be the best features of the work, and offer suggestions for improvement.  But I think people often disappear from the site when the reaction to their writing is not what they expected.  It’s difficult to discover that what you believed in didn’t work for others, and worse for it to be cut to shreds.  Hopefully, disappointed writers regain confidence and return.
Some writers on the critique site advertise themselves as  “a member of the thick skin club.”  We might all like to have bullets bounce off us, but if we’re too thick-skinned, can we absorb advice of any kind?  Does anyone teach how to develop a thick skin and remain sensitive to others?  I can imagine role-playing situations.  That would be cool.
False praise does no good.  There’s a difference between “This is great,” suggesting the child’s drawing is great in the eyes of the world, and “I think this is great.”  That’s why I give a disclaimer in a lot of my critiquing.  Some think a disclaimer is a wimpy way to give a negative opinion.  To me the disclaimer acknowledges that my statements are one opinion—not the judgment of the world. 
Pointing to the best parts of a project gives the learner something to strive for, sometimes a handhold out of a pit of negativity.  Sometimes a good feature is hard to find.  A first grade teacher scans a child’s feeble handwriting and says, “This is your best letter.  Make more like this one.”  Learners at any age can be helped by the same technique.
Unfortunately, supervisors, teachers, parents, and other mentors are often too stressed by their work and lives to be patient and thoughtful with learners, and sometimes they plain don’t know enough to get it right.  Even worse, quite a few are sure they’re right and the learner’s reaction is his own problem.

If you are the target of a harsh critic, hopefully someone else will show you the promise in your work.

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1 Comment

Filed under Critiquing, Writing

One response to “Does anyone teach this?

  1. Carol, You are so right about critiquing without discouragement being the biggest challenge of teaching writing, especially creative writing. Like you, in my early years of teaching I was zealous about pointing out every error; now I try to help students focus on persistent major problems, letting the minor flaws go until later. In terms of responding specifically to creative writing, in the creative writing classes I teach–a 1-credit workshop course every semester and a 3-credit course every 3 years–students bring their work for group peer critiquing, and I am one of the peers. In such a setting, everyone is kind and polite–they all know their turns are coming!–but also often very insightful. I see my role as reinforcing the comments from other students that I see as helpful, and of course making comments of my own. I always start off by describing the strength and potential of the work; then I suggest improvements that the other students have not already suggested. All of this seems to make students more receptive to suggestions. However, I also tell creative writing students that the final decision about accepting or rejecting suggestions is entirely their own. And I will acknowledge there are times when students reject my suggestions!

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