Tag Archives: feedback

The wall has ears. When your students get it and start talking from the heart.

Just when you think you’ve been talking to the wall, you realise unexpectedly that some of your students have been listening when they suddenly start speaking from the heart to their peers and you realise that they get it.

I coordinate the co-curricular group, Competition Writing. I’ve blogged before about this group I inherited along with the title that didn’t sit right for me from the outset. Three and a half years later and the title remains but the philosophy of the group is changing before my eyes. I’ve been talking to my students about the passion for writing and learning community which is what I hope will become the focus of the group despite the title, but talking at students and becoming as a group are two different things.

The co-curricular groups are designed as an opportunity for students to take on leadership roles, and this is one of the reasons why it’s taken so long to get to this point – the start of a more democratic learning community. Students stepping up to the role of captain must have some sort of idea of what behaviour a leader exhibits, and the leaders in my time have been an assortment of personalities but with one thing in common: taking up all or most of the hour-long session with talking AT the students. They feel that they have to step up as experts and relay their ‘expertise’ to the students in a lecture style. Some have used the screen for powerpoint and occasionally videos (spoken poetry) but it’s interesting what their perception of teaching is – and how this implies that their experience as students has been as passive listeners, being taught to.

My library roster has not always allowed me to be present at these meetings (yeah, right? but this year is different) but occasionally I have snuck in and attempted to have a word to the group.  My main objective has initially been to encourage students to share their writing in our blog, Unicorn Express, and I’ve spoken to them about the authentic reading audience – the fact that their writing is published and read by a global audience, not only read by their teacher; the opening up of constructive feedback and response by any reader – all the things that I think transform the act of writing from a prescribed thing to a real thing and which must affect the way writers feel. Yes, students write to improve writing skills and for a good mark, but more than that, everyone surely wants some kind of confirmation, something that affirms their ‘soul’ (and I feel entitled to use this word after reading bell hooks).  All learning surely exists in a space where our whole person relates to others in a holistic way, not just the intellectual side of ourselves, not just the grammatical or stylistic side of ourselves  as writers.

Last year our Writing Competition (always feel I use this word facetiously) leader did a great job running regular fortnightly meetings, with the energy of a confident extrovert. I’m grateful for that, but still I noticed that the students were sitting silently and listening for most of the session. Writing mainly took place outside the meeting. We also have a Facebook group which I created for communication but also in the hope of creating a space for sharing articles and interesting bits of information, ie. learning outside the meeting time.  It’s been a place where I do all the sharing but at least I can see how many students ‘read’ the posts. Despite my constant encouragement, none of the students have inhabited this space as their own, and I’ve been stuck between thinking I should stop posting and thinking that if I did the space would die.

Anyway, back to what I was saying before. Last year, as I read the wonderful writing students posted to the blog, the same students who remained silent in the meetings and gave nothing of themselves away – and weren’t put in a position where they were challenged to – I started thinking that it might be interesting to encourage an introverted student to take the leading role. Yes, that was a risk, and last year’s leader was concerned about this, but it was a risk I really, really wanted to take. Leadership is not always extroverted, and can come from quieter, less confident students. Isn’t the leadership role an opportunity for all students to learn about how they can also be leaders and for the group to see all the many faces of leadership?

So this year we have a very different leadership – one student as captain and two co-captains. I know how talented they are,  but I also know how challenging it is for them to stand up in front of the whole group (which is quite large) and win the attention and respect of the students. Having nominated them I have to trust them, and I do, but I also have to discipline myself not to step in too much and to let them run with it.

Last Friday the new captains ran their first meeting.  They did a spectacular job, and my heart melted listening to how they talked about the purpose and philosophy of the group. They had been listening all the time! They completely understood what I had been talking about and trying to model with the blog and Facebook group. In about ten minutes (because they wanted to spend most of the meeting writing together) they said that, although members would have the opportunity to earn diploma points (all co-curricular groups did) and to enter writing competitions, they hoped that the group would be more about sharing the passion of writing and becoming a writing community (I’m paraphrasing). They encouraged students to post drafts to the blog, and talked about the writing process as the most important part of writing, and how feedback during this process was invaluable. They encouraged frequent writing and posting without worrying about imperfection or incompleteness. In the same way, they encouraged students to make themselves at home in the Facebook group (MHS Competition Writing) as a space to share whatever they found interesting or were passionate about. I was so proud; I was exhilarated!

And then they gave a writing prompt (‘A man walks into a bar and sees’) with a short time limit, and everybody wrote, and then brave people read their writing out. It wasn’t brilliant but it wasn’t expected to be. I felt the satisfaction in the group of being given the opportunity to write together, and then to share. I asked if students were comfortable to leave their writing (a short paragraph) with me, that I would post everything to the blog.

Speaking to the captains at the end of the meeting once everyone had left, they told me how nervous they were before the meeting, and I told them how fantastic they were, how they so naturally and beautifully responded with generosity to those students who read out their pieces, and how well they had prepared by thinking carefully about what they wanted to achieve in the session. Everyone had been involved in writing activity, and the expectations of the group had escaped the traditional confines beyond diploma points into the realm of joyful sharing of writing passion.

I’m excited about this group and look forward to see how it develops, and to documenting the progress of the writing community.

The wall has ears. Just when you think you’ve been talking to the wall, you realise unexpectedly that some of your students have been listening and that’s when learning happens.

Because #MOOCMOOC and Connected Courses have been about community building above everything (at least in my opinion), I am passionate about assisting my students to feel the joy of connected learning even as they learn within a program.

Writing – audience optional

For a very, very long time we have accepted the fact that teaching writing to students takes place without an authentic audience. Students’ writing is the property of one subject teacher, and if the students are lucky, they’re permitted to read their piece to the class. Generally it’s considered that learning takes place once the student has received a mark and feedback from the teacher.

There is a much better way, and students are often finding this independently, outside school. This is why, as moderator of my school’s Competition Writing Group, I’ve created a blog and a Facebook Group so that students can share their writing, receive feedback and feel like part of a like-minded, community. It’s taken a while for the conversation to develop as students gradually embrace ownership of the group, and that’s when I can pull back to allow peer learning to take over.

I’d like to post something written by a student who has experienced the benefits of a global writers’ community. Best to hear it from the source.

As a young writer looking to develop my skills, I started writing many short stories, and novellas and the like. After having written a large amount of stuff over the course of a year, I was faced with another problem. I was in need of feedback, but wary of going outside of my immediate circle of friends to find it.

One option was suggested to me, and that was to submit some things to competitions for students. I thought about doing this for a long time, before I realised I had a problem with that as well. Friends of mine had submitted things only to get a reply email saying they hadn’t made the shortlist, and that that was the end of that.

This was something I didn’t want. I wanted somebody who was good at writing themselves to look at my work and maybe leave me some constructive feedback, and the seemingly faceless judges of these competitions didn’t seem to be too willing to do that.

So it was by pure chance that I discovered another medium to gather feedback for my various writings, one that I still participate in today, and one that has led me on a literary journey of amazing experiences and wonderful creations. I discovered two websites, fanfiction.net and fictionpress.com, from a friend of mine.

Fictionpress.com was more relevant to me to begin with, because it is a site where authors can effectively post any kind of original material, and the wide variety of reviewers and other authors on the site can respond. I found the society there to be highly constructive, and highly informative. These days, some three years later since I began that journey, many things have changed. I now give tips more than I take them, but that is a perfect example of how the site has affected me. It breeds a community, where new people get help, become experienced people and cycle goes on and on. With many friendly people, the experience has been brilliant to be engaged in, and while it is also a faceless medium, it is certainly far more constructive than entering competitions.

Fanfiction.net wasn’t something that I got involved with until later, when I became more confident in my writing skills. Ironically, most people step the other way, and begin with fanfiction.net and move to fictionpress.com. One of the reasons for this is that fanfiction.net provides writers who want to improve their writing without spending enormous amounts of time creating a world and creating characters. On fanfiction.net, the worlds and characters have already been created for you, which is sometimes really useful. All the writer has to do is invent a plot and write.

The site is also particularly good because the community is very friendly and very informative. When I first began to work on this site, people critiqued my writing effectively, and in return I critiqued theirs, and since, I have had some amazing opportunities through the community. I have had the opportunity to review works by some truly outstanding writers, and the opportunity to work on things collaboratively with up to as many as five authors from all over the world. The experience is amazing, and the friendliness of all involved has been outstanding.

Overall, I like the online community because of its productive kindness, as opposed to judges for a writing competition who are mostly nameless, faceless and not really helpful at all.

Cheers, Leon 

Thanks, Leon.

Students speak about success of global project

As part of the evaluation of this project, I interviewed a few students to get their feedback. You have no idea how long it took me to convert the interviews to film and embed them in this blog. Sorry about background noise. We will also ask all students in the global cohort to give feedback in a survey. Stay tuned!