After you’ve been teaching a few years, it can sometimes feel like you’ve read every student essay and story before. When you’re tired and the list of jobs is getting longer and longer, a pile of Year 9 short stories doesn’t always inspire gratitude. Students are not all expert writers and they often haven’t read enough themselves to be confident sculptors of plot, argument or image. But it’s still important to be an engaged, amused and interested reader. If the only comments you make to these fledgling writers are about how their work matches up to the marking criteria, students are missing out on that delightful relationship with a reader that makes writing so addictive and satisfying.
I was reminded of this the other day when asking a student to read out a piece of work in class. It was a ‘PEA’ paragraph, a formulaic response to a poem, and according to the criteria for success, the student hadn’t done it very well. There was no terminology, he hadn’t zoomed in, and he’d failed to reflect on what the poet was trying to say. As he was reading, my mind was constructing the verbal feedback I would provide, mostly giving him targets to improve. Then, I became aware of smiling and laughter. Despite not meeting any of the criteria I’d set for the task, he was being successful in another way. He was offering a lively, irreverent personal response to the poem, and it was brilliant. When he’d finished reading it, he looked around at our smiling faces, and he glowed with pleasure. The kid’s a comedian. It was delightful.
Not all students are as naturally talented as him, but here are some ideas about how we can be good readers, as well as assessors, of our students’ work.
- Tell them how they make you feel. Say things like ‘It was so tense when the doorbell rang!’, or ‘I loved your image about your Dad being as angry as a hissing cat!’.
- Ham it up! We may be old hands at this, but these students are just starting out. They need to hear you laugh, see you shake your head in wonder, watch you smile with pleasure. Be a good audience for their work, and they’ll want to write more of it.
- Let them write for pleasure. The curriculum is packed full, I know, but maybe this summer term is a good chance for your classes to explore their own writing skills with a little more freedom than usual. It’s fine to give tips, but what your students need is genuine attention. Read patiently, and be generous with your response.
- Give them choice. Some students love writing stories, some poems. Some may never have enjoyed writing until you showed them a satirical editorial, and others may be delighted to write a non-fiction piece on their hobby or political viewpoint. Why not show them some different types of writing, send them off for homework to find their own examples, and then let them write whatever they want?
Just for once, let’s give our students no criteria except the most important one of all - to write something the reader wants to read. Ask them to make you feel something. Chances are, they will.
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Lupinamy is an English SLE in Somerset. Check out her resources on TES premium uploads.