Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A rising tide

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"I get it! Now I'll leave comments! I read the comments they left me and I just..." With sparkling eyes, A. looks up from her blog and presses her hands over her heart.

"Seeeee? I tried to tell you!" I nudge her shoulder with my elbow. "But I know... it's hard to understand how powerful comments can be until you get a really meaningful comment, right? And it just gives you this incredible feeling... that's exactly what happened to me with my teacher blogging friends! This is what I've wanted for you guys!"

This little moment with A. is the culmination of several days of having my heart soar as I scrolled through the comment moderation feed on my class blog. Every year, I try to teach my students the power of commenting on others' writing. Every year, I dream of recreating for them the uplifting community of writers I experience every Tuesday through slicing. Every year, a few students buy in and craft some encouraging, thoughtful comments for others. But every year, the experience has fallen flat for most of them. Until this year.

A few weeks ago, I'd once again given a mini-lesson about how to construct a thoughtful comment. It was a darn good mini-lesson, complete with us working together as a class to craft a meaningful comment on one of the TWT author's OLW posts. Once again, I put up a chart on the SMARTboard of the components of a quality comment, with sentence starters, as I sent my students off to their Chromebooks. Once again, not enough kids put in enough effort to create a truly meaningful connection. Once again, their sighs and glazed eyes revealed that most of them viewed it as just another task to complete, and a rather onerous one at that. Once again, many of them scrolled through their classmates' OLW posts without commenting at all or left short, generic, superficial comments.

My muscles tensed as I circulated though the room with my laptop, approving the mostly-mediocre incoming comments and hurling gentle reminders over shoulders. "Remember to leave a thoughtful, 2-part comment!" "Don't forget to try out some of the sentence starters on the board!" "'I liked your writing. It was good.' is not a quality comment!" There was probably steam coming out of my ears by the end of that afternoon.

After class, I flopped into my desk chair, put my chin on my arms, and fumed. Why don't they ever get this?! It could be so awesome! Suddenly, I remembered a takeaway one of my colleagues had shared from Urban Meyer's book on coaching & leadership: "In the old days he got furious. Now, he gets curious: where did the breakdown occur?"

My mind cleared. Curious, not furious... Ok. This is a leadership breakdown. Ever since this particular colleague has brought Focus-3's R-Factor leadership training (the culture / leadership system OSU football uses) into our building, I've shifted to a new vision of my responsibilities as classroom leader. I knew I'd given them the skills they needed to write effective comments. They just weren't doing it. Ok. This is not a skill gap. This is a clarity-of-purpose gap. They weren't seeing the value, even though I'd tried to explain and model the power of commenting. Time to regroup.

The next day, I pulled my class into the meeting area with a blank page on the SMARTboard. With more than a little fire, asked them, "Why do you think I ask you to leave comments for other writers?" After 10 solid minutes of popcorn responses so fast I could barely scrawl them on the board, they'd hit everything I could have possibly wanted to lecture them on: Reading like writers to learn new writing strategies. Practicing good writing in their responses. Getting to know each other better. Building confidence and pride in their writing. Reflecting on the components of good writing... Everything. And they were ready to go.

I felt like we shouldn't have needed that conversation. We shouldn't have had to "waste time" backtracking to talk about why to leave comments when we'd done it several times this year. They should have known. But whether you "should have to" do something is another mindset shift my colleague has had me reflecting on. Regardless of what I thought should happen, there was some kind of disconnect between my vision and theirs, and that discussion transformed it. Maybe it was the days of foundation after break we'd just spent reflecting on first semester and setting goals, maybe they could see I was fired up, but I think the biggest difference was that they felt invested in creating the reasons themselves. 

And that day, enough of them got on board to turn the tide.
The next day, I pulled up some of the best comments and we analyzed them together, noticing the words and strategies that made them so powerful. My group leaders (more posts coming on that!) started really pushing themselves to make a difference in their comments to their group members. More momentum. 
Since then, it has been pure delight to scroll through that feed, clicking "approve" and getting goosebumps. Almost every comment has been crafted with specific, intentional thoughts to lift the writer and build a meaningful connection. 

And the more meaningful connections, the more reluctant writers like A. will see their power and RISE, wanting to pass that feeling on to others. Enough ripples make a wave. But the ripples start with me: curious, not furious.


  1. These are awesome comments, Jen. It's so hard for us as teachers to look ourselves when things don't go well in the classroom. It's hard to admit we may have missed something along the way. That phrase "curious, not furious" is such a wonderful reminder to look beyond...

  2. Your reflections create a sharp through-line to navigate these moments' tumultuous ups and downs. Thanks for sharing this glimpse of what's rising. Bravo to you and your students for demonstrating renewed effort!

  3. I remember well trying to persuade students to give 'meaningful' comments, and love that you empowered them this time, of course after teaching the foundation, but still, pushing the responsibility back to their shoulders is terrific, and it worked! The comments shared are wonderful, and guess who will really love them--the recipients! Thanks, Jennifer, fun to read!

  4. You have a gift for finding just the right way to get your meaning across. I love the break through that you had (furious/curious) and the way it transferred into your teaching. What a treat to read your blog every time.


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