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Friday, March 6, 2015

A "Do Over" Moment (with Thanks to Alisa)


Probably all teachers have those "do over" moments, those times when we wish we could roll back the clock and do that lesson completely over.

One of my many "do over" moments was when I was early in  learning about writers workshop. I knew going public was important and so was getting feedback, so I circled my students up and naively asked who wanted to share a piece they had been working on.

It was so long ago that I don't remember her name, but I do remember that she was rather shy and had long black hair. "I have a poem I'd like to share."

And so with a blush she read it, and we gave her feedback. Rather, I gave her feedback. The rest of the students listened. Of course, I intended my feedback to be gentle and supportive and loving and would grow her as a poet.

I was wrong.

Her mother called during lunch. "Why did you tear my daughter's poem to shreds in front of the whole class? She's in tears and doesn't want to come back to your class."

Speechless doesn't describe my reaction. Stunned doesn't come close. Maybe mortified and embarrassed and guilt-ridden about what I had done to my student.

Had I spent time in Alisa Wills-Keely's class I might have known better. I might have learned how going for the good in what students do pays back big bucks and doesn't leave a student in tears.

Today I saw Alisa pull strong work from her students, display it on the doc camera, and concretely name what the students did well. I saw Alisa compliment a student by saying, "You nailed it, girl, you named the claim and got that evidence. Look at how you've grown since January." I heard Alisa tell a student that she needed to give a  mini-lesson on insights she had that would serve the class well. Not once did I hear Alisa publicly name and shame a student.

And that's what I did. I named and shamed my young poet.

With the best of intentions.

But they weren't good enough.

Alisa knows that students will do more of what they do well when it's noticed and named. She knows that students shy away from public display of errors but are attracted to public display of strengths. She knows that the growth mindset comes into play when students see what is possible, not what is wrong.

Yet Alisa doesn't shy away from pointing out needs. That's what conferences are for: those private moments when she kneels next to the student, listens hard to what he's saying, and then adds a teaching point to move him forward. But publicly she bathes him in specific, authentic praise that becomes a model for all to emulate.

Oh, yeah, if I could it over, I would. I would have provided my young poet with more models. I would have shown her and the other students how I wrestled with images in a poem, agonized over line breaks, and experimented with white space. I'd show them attempts that didn't work and ones that eventually worked. I would have knelt down beside them and listened harder long before I offered a suggestion or made that cogent teaching point. And I would have waited till they had poems to celebrate. That's when we would have gone public.

If only there were "do overs."