I’ve written a few draft posts lately about my misadventures giving feedback on essays. Unfortunately, I’m dissatisfied with all of the drafts I wrote about my dissatisfaction with essay feedback, so I haven’t published any.
My life just drips irony sometimes.
The point is that essay feedback is a part of teaching writing that I’m always trying to improve. I mean, academically, my feedback is great. It’s thorough and accurate, and if followed, would result in better writing.
Sadly, it only helps if it’s followed, and I have a deeply ingrained tendency to focus more on giving robust feedback than packaging it so that students might actually make use of it.
I’m not willing to let this tendency be the end of the story. And to this end, I had a small victory recently.
As an assistant teacher, I don’t grade essays. However, I do help students with their writing a lot. It’s most often in the form of circulating during class, but I also do some one-to-one conferences.
In the last couple of weeks, the advanced writing class had a conferencing day. The lead teacher and I both met with students individually to give them each 15 minutes of feedback.
And apparently, I sold it well at least once that day:
The paragraph in question is the 4th body paragraph of a student’s argument essay, which is supposed to contain a counter-argument, lukewarm concession, and strong rebuttal, in that order.
In the student’s draft, all three elements are present, but with significant problems. First, they don’t flow into each other 1, 2, 3. It’s more like, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2. Second, his concession is worded strongly enough to negate his whole essay. And third, the organization and wording also weaken a potentially compelling rebuttal. Overall, his weak structure undermines his intended arguments.
This student is extremely fluent in English, and came in as one of the stronger writers in the class. However, his skills are still not strong enough to serve him well in Freshman English, and they have not been improving as remarkably as so many others’ in the class. The kinds of errors he continues to make suggest that he has not been taking our feedback seriously.
Indeed, a few minutes into our 15-minute conference, he is politely pushing back about his paragraph being ineffective, since it has all three necessary elements.
So I ask as though in passing, “After you graduate college, you’re going to law school, right?” He looks at me in surprise. “You’re going to be a lawyer, right?” I say, deadpan matter-of-fact. I don’t know anything about his career plans, but I have his attention.
“People keep saying that to me!” he says.
“We can tell,” I reply. And I mean what I say; he’d be fantastic. “OK, so you’re the lawyer, you’ve got your suit on and your tie, you’re in the court room, and you’ve got to walk the jury step by step through your argument.”
We talk more about what this type of step-by-step argument looks like, about weaker concessions and stronger rebuttals. My 15-minute timer goes off, we smile and wish each other a great evening, and I welcome the next student.
Next class, as soon as I walk in, he grins at me and waves me over to read his revised paragraph. It is stunning in its clarity. It is strong, terse, and convincing. It should be framed and placed on the wall of every advanced academic ESL writing classroom, and perhaps the Freshman writing classes as well.
I am beyond thrilled: so happy for him to have stretched his skills to such a high level, excited for the lead teacher when she gets to give that paragraph full marks, and proud of myself for recognizing I could do better at giving feedback… and then doing better.