There’s a lot of talk in teaching circles about feedback—how to give an appropriate amount that doesn’t overwhelm the student (or the teacher’s workload) and balances praise and constructive criticism. I was taught the sandwich model—open with an observation, provide criticism, and find something to praise. Finding praise was, of course, characterized by its very verb as the part where you have to strain yourself, what you include to soften the blow your critique. And in the situations of ever-increasing grading workload and external strain we commonly find ourselves in as teachers, it’s tempting to think: just let me mark everything that’s wrong with this so I can move on to the next piece. In our own time in higher education, especially as graduate students, we may have become used to going without praise and to dealing with brutal critiques. But my argument is that a tendency to include praise as an afterthought, if it is included at all—as easy as such a mindset is to slip into, especially in situations of stress—doesn’t serve our students’ work or our own mental fortitude as instructors. And I think that this holds especially true in the introductory creative writing classroom.
Finding something to praise is the part of teaching where we can provide something beautiful for both our students and ourselves. It’s far easier to go through a poem line-by-line, tearing apart each line break and adjective—since that is what we have been meticulously trained to do ourselves for years—than it is to hunt for the particular genius and weirdness in the piece and describe what about it is (or could be) wonderful. And if you’re thinking there’s not much wonderful in my intro students’ writing, that’s where you’re wrong. I think we have to train ourselves as teachers to look for the hidden gold, so that we can train our students to look for it themselves. Even it’s just a well-chosen or unusual modifier, or a peculiarly effective inversion of syntax—all of those moments count and can be encouraged to further development. I underline and star these moments and write “more of this!!” beside them (and the extra exclamation point is sincere, I promise). I also write out what is effective and interesting about what the student wrote. Very often, I will note the name of another author who is deploying a similar technique or subject matter.
A funny thing happens over time—my students do, indeed, produce more of the weird and wonderful technique I pointed out. Their work improves. They aren’t afraid to try out different strategies for fear of the poem being “bad,” because these past moments of experimenting with language have been recognized as productive. And this is the environment I hope to provide in my poetry classroom: one of creative growth, of risk-taking, of constant production of writing and introduction of new ideas. A draft is just a draft— a place where things can happen, I tell my students. There will always be more drafts. Everyone finds writing challenging, even (perhaps especially) the experts. The more I foster this attitude, the more the students enjoy our time together and so do I. No teacher (at least that I know) enjoys being in the position of the endless corrector. Nonstop, unmediated criticism of student work may get the job done more quickly, but it isn’t as effective in the long run, and it certainly, at least for me, leads to burnout. As teachers, we need to remember to find what is praiseworthy in students’ work for our own sake as well, to remind us of why it is we do what we do: the joy of facilitating a mind in development, the opportunity to recognize and nurture in another what has proven to be indispensable in our own lives.
I still provide all the criticism I think is needed for the piece, of course. However, I frame it in terms of possibility, of the student’s creative autonomy. For example, on a clichéd portrayal of a lawn, I might comment, “This is a familiar way of describing grass. What else could happen here?” or “What if you elaborated on the unique metaphor of _____ you have working so well in the first stanza and pulled it into this stanza’s description of the grass?” By posing criticism as questions and suggestions, and building off of what the student writer is already successfully doing we put the ball in the student’s court (to use an overly familiar metaphor myself). I find that when I use this tactic students are more likely to listen and respond constructively to my feedback because they can see how my critiques are coming from a place of careful attention and respect for them and their work.
Too many students come into my classes thinking that they can’t write, or that good poetry can only take one form—ideas often laid down by the misguided critiques of one teacher long ago. When I frame my feedback in terms of positive growth—of what the poet is already doing well, of what can be further developed into something surprising and unique to them—these students can recover agency and belief in their own work. This sense of agency can drive them toward a more productive and fun experience of art making, whether they continue writing creatively only for the rest of the semester or for years to come. And the joy I feel from facilitating this experience for my students has kept me sane through many a late-night session of commenting on student work, marking over and over again, “Great! I love how you’re using ______________. What if you did something similar over here….”