If we don’t water the rocks …

In spring 2005, Death Valley, California, experienced unprecedented rainfall. This resulted in an explosion of colour as dormant wildflower seeds burst to life across the normally barren landscape.

In addition to my duties as Vice Principal, I teach the Writer’s Workshop to Grade 8 students at W. Erskine Johnston PS.  The sole guideline directing my approach is my belief that feedback establishes my relationship with the students and moves them forward in their writing.  For the first several weeks, the only feedback I provided to students was written comments – no rubric, no mark assigned — always identifying several things that worked and one area of focus for improvement next time.  Click on the thumbnail below to view a sample of the feedback:

Feedback to Julia WW Week 2 click to enlarge

Feedback on WW Week 2 click to enlarge

My goal was only to establish trust and an environment where students would feel safe to take greater risks in their writing.  It is now December and I have yet to correct or comment on spelling or grammar errors, other than to encourage students to read their work out loud or into a voice recorder to listen for fluidity, voice and word choice.  This feedback requires a great deal of time and I feel fortunate that I have the time to give. And, it has worked for most of the students.  The writing they submit is on or above grade level, according to the rubrics we have developed together over the past few weeks.

However, there are a couple of students who consistently submit their work late and one student who was not submitting anything unless I sat with her at recess to make up for what she hadn’t handed in on time.  Over the weeks, that one student submitted nothing on her own.  She just wasn’t engaged and the forced writing sessions were not producing the quality of work I had a hunch she was capable of writing.  And, man, was it frustrating!

She was a rock.  And, while I watered the students all around her with individualized, precise feedback, she was steadfast.

One week, while other students wrote diligently in their notebooks, I looked over at her and thought, “I’m going to lose my mind with this one”.  I felt frustrated that, despite the effort that I was putting into providing feedback and crafting lessons that were engaging enough to hook the rest of the students, she refused to join in. It was time to have a serious chat about her “writer’s block”.

I asked what types of activities give her enjoyment and her answers revealed to me that she is a very creative individual who enjoys playing a variety of instruments, including the trombone and the piano.  I also learned that she loves to read, especially fiction — bildungsroman to be precise.  I told her that I had a hunch she would be a fantastic writer and I promised to provide only positive and instructive feedback — no marks for the next little while.  I asked her to devote 20 minutes that night to writing and told her I would find her the next morning to see what she produced.  She wrote one page and it was excellent — original and interesting.  I genuinely enjoyed reading it, provided encouraging feedback and asked her to do the same thing the following night.  She did and again it was great.  Then the third night.

Each week students are responsible for submitting 3 pages of writing.  On the due date, she handed me her folder with five pages of writing.


Yes, it is sometimes difficult and frustrating, but if we don’t “water the rocks”, what potential will be missed?

image:  Desert Gold cc by ChuckThePhotographer on flickr