Hey evaluation, you can’t fool teachers who understand assessment; we know you are not feedback.
You won’t find this sentence anywhere in Hacking the Writing Workshop, by Angela Stockman, but in the Hack about creating a writer-centered workshop, Angela clearly expresses that writer- or student-centered learning environments are founded on the kind of feedback that does not behave like a grade or an evaluation.
In one of her most thoughtful sections, Angela shares a powerful anecdote that underscores the value of meaningful feedback for all learners.
I remember the first time one of my writers found herself grappling with what I’ve come to recognize as a sort of culture shock. This is common when kids who have been coached to become interdependent find themselves inside of a classroom whose leader is decidedly authoritarian.
We’d been writing together throughout the morning when she came to me and quietly asked if we could chat after all the other kids had gone home. I noticed that she seemed nervous, and it wasn’t characteristic of her.
“What’s up?” I asked, closing the door behind the last writer to leave.
“Do you remember how I set a goal last summer to finish writing an entire novel?” she asked, and of course I remembered. I smiled brightly and said, “That was quite an accomplishment.”
Here’s the thing, though—it’s not uncommon for people to confuse feedback with evaluation.
Learn how to hack your writing workshop
“Yeah,” she bit her lip, taking a long look out the window. “About that.” As she tried to continue, tears began to form in her eyes. “So, I was really excited to take creative writing at school this year,” she told me. “I know the teacher is well-respected. He’s a very talented writer himself. In fact, he really intimidates me.”
I nodded. “Go on.”
“Well, I asked him to give me feedback on my manuscript, and he kept it for a while. Then, when we finally met, he told me that maybe if I stayed after school every day for this entire year and spent even more time revising it, I might be able to publish it. He said it didn’t show much promise.”
My heart broke. The writers that I support are trained to provide quality feedback to one another. This is hard learning. It takes time. It also takes a great deal of empathy. Many of the kids that I write with provide better feedback than the adults I know.
This writer was one of the best. I was hurt for her, because she spent so much time improving her writing and serving other kids in our community who always wanted her feedback.
I was also furious with her teacher, who I knew fairly well. I wanted to tell her that truly talented writers never tear others down. I wanted to tell her that he was wrong and that she could publish her writing that very day if she wanted to. I wanted to tell her to complain to her principal and to ask her mother to call the guidance department to switch her out of his class.
I wanted to say so many, many things in that moment, but instead I nodded and quietly asked, “How did you advocate for yourself?”
She looked confused.
“I’m serious,” I said sternly, looking her dead in the eyes. “How did you advocate for yourself?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” she stammered, scanning the floor and the walls, as if the answer was waiting there.
“Well, as I understand it, you asked your teacher to provide you feedback,” I told her. “Did you ask for his evaluation? Did you ask his opinion on whether your work was ready for publication?”
She shook her head. “No.”
In fact, it’s better than okay if this provides our students opportunities to practice strength spotting and self-advocacy.
“You did not. Here’s the thing, though—it’s not uncommon for people to confuse feedback with evaluation. Maybe you should try again. Maybe if you’re clearer about what you need, he’ll be able to help you better.”
“Maybe,” she wiped her cheek.
“How will you do it?” I asked, inviting her to rehearse the exchange.
“Well, I could give him our peer review protocol and ask him to use that instead of his own opinions,” she offered, and I told her this was a great idea. I asked her how she would request this from her teacher in a way that wouldn’t offend him.
“I’ll just tell him that we use it here, in our writing studio, and it helps me a lot,” she told me. “I’ll ask him if he minds using it when he talks with me about my writing.” This seemed respectful.
She would ask if he might use the protocol that helped her, and she would also make it clear that she respected his right to refuse.
“What if he says no?” she asked, horror washing over her face again.
“Then, you need to find someone who is better able to provide you the feedback you need,” I smiled. “It’s your work. You’re responsible for making these choices. It’s hard to find good people to review our writing. We get better at knowing who to ask—and when—over time.”
When we met again a few weeks later, she was glowing. “He really liked the protocol,” she told me. “In fact, he started using it with all of us in class.”
This didn’t surprise me at all. “It’s how you handled yourself,” I told her, and then I said that her courage and willingness to own and share her expertise made me proud.
When we create learning cultures that are vastly different from the ones our colleagues maintain, it’s likely that some may not handle things so well, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay if this provides our students opportunities to practice strength spotting and self-advocacy.
These are important life skills. Finding the words for what we’re good at can be challenging, though, and without those words, strength-spotting is almost impossible. This is why it’s so important to create or adopt a framework that makes character strengths explicit.