Valuing Feedback Over Formula
Reflecting on a year of writing with a creative, highly capable group of year 4 children
This is a guest blog post from one of the best educators I know. I’ve been pestering Victoria Edwards for several years to let me publish some of her reflections, I’m thrilled to do so here— Abe.
Writing is an ongoing process and children need the time and space to be allowed to do this. It is not a script that needs to be followed nor a set of seven steps. Writing is about engaging the reader, having cohesion between the start and ending as well as interactions between the characters. This can only be achieved through practise and ongoing purposeful feedback.
Mem Fox didn’t write “Where is the Green Sheep” in one lesson. Instead, it took her 12 gruelling months and copious re-writes to produce a very popular book for young children of only 190 words. Jackie French has Dyslexia, is messy and has appalling spelling but through editing and rewriting has produced some of the most word-powerful children’s books I have read.
We need to think about what we’re assessing and what’s important. Is it their ability to quickly put something together expecting to remember all the things that good writers do? Is it neatness and correct spelling all the time or is it the children’s ability to write for an audience?
This term, my whole writing focus centred around allowing the children to have the opportunity and time to rewrite a story from either a writing assessment, which was done in 45 minutes on a stimulus, or anything they had done this year of their choice. There were no time constraints and they could opt to conference with me whenever they felt the need. Some children only did this a few times whereas others did it 8 or more times.
During the student-initiated learning conferences, I read their stories aloud to them, exactly how they were written, adding the necessary expression, punctuation and pauses, or lack thereof. The children could hear what sounded good and what needed to go or change. One child commented on her paragraph saying, “uhh, that’s all jumpy. It should say…”
I did the explicit teaching and modelling. The children and I discussed the use and importance of tense, vocabulary to create imagery or mood, dialogue to promote connection or relationships between characters. Students learnt what a paragraph was and how it worked and that it didn’t need to be a certain amount of lines.
We talked about how the main problem drives the story enabling the characters to experience situations, struggles and other possible problems that they have to resolve. The children realised that starting with an onomatopoeia was neither exciting nor necessary and actually hindered their writing. They came to realise how words created suspense which made the reader want to continue reading… They were now writing for an audience.
Following their conference, I gave them some feedback to work on. The children then checked in with me again when needed and the process continued. All 30 children happily and not prompted by me, chose to edit and reword parts of their story, some had 5 or more drafts before completing their final piece. The ability to do, get feedback and do better, paid off.
Once completed, the children had to design a front cover and write a blurb for their story. Some children even turned theirs into a book by laminating and binding it together.
The results have led to some exceptional pieces of writing that I can, and will now assess against criteria.
My students now know what they do well at as a writer and what they need to improve in. Here are some excerpts from their self-reflection focusing on the following questions.
1. What are your successes this year? What have you enjoyed?
- English /writing stories and just writing in general
- I have enjoyed english because you can make stories and i think it’s creative
- Writing in paragraphs
- writing an information text on an animal of my choice
- English: using describing words
- I like writing stories and making them into books but my favourite things were illustrating the book, making poems and editing my work with my teacher.
- I enjoyed and had success in story writing.
2. How do you see yourself as a writer? What is one thing that you have learnt to do this term or have improved in?
- use of language
- Writing a more complicated text
- To not add more writing that is not needed
- I have improved at setting out my paragraphs.
- The flow of my stories and the understanding
- I have improved on using speech marks.
- Using pronouns to replace the noun
- I have improved by using different words
- I’ve improved in the entertainment of my stories. I also started using more powerful words.
3. What are your goals for next year?
- Writing in paragraphs and vocabulary
- Structuring my writing
- To use more adjectives in my writing
- to work on where to start a new paragraph and use less commas.
- Use good words in writing
After completing their stories, the students participated in a circle of inquiry where they shared some of their work and discussed what they believed a good writer does. During this time, I didn’t intervene, instead listened and documented all of their comments. They were pleasantly surprised to see how much they had learned about themselves as a writer.
What we believe a good writer does — Yr 4
- Hooks in the people reading
- Writes about something they are passionate about
- Some technical words that brings meaning
- Introduce the people
- Describing words that bring a picture, good vocab
- Don’t put in all the little details because it can be boring
- Don’t keep doing and then, and then
- Make the story flow
- Good punctuation at the right time
- Know when to use a new paragraph
- Speech marks when someone is talking, talking between the characters
- Have a good / interesting problem
- Use words that mean the same but different / synonyms, Change words like big to large, adjectives
- Don’t keep adding time frames — 5 minutes later, 1 hour later etc
- Check in with the teacher for feedback and check out
- Set the scene
- Same tense
- Make it fluent, not muddled up
- Read through and edit
- Don’t repeat yourself, backtrack
Writing, especially narratives, requires creativity and imagination. They connect to our emotions and enable us to feel empathy for or towards a character, especially one that experiences hardship. We are led to feel suspense, humour, fear and sadness. Some stories have an underlying message that we can learn from. We draw on our life experiences, feelings, passions, interests or beliefs and they become part of our writing.
We need to immerse children in rich text and to let them see and hear authors through interactions either face to face or from video clips. We need to give them opportunities to make mistakes and to start again and finally, we need to give them the time and feedback to improve. Only then will they, and us as educators, be rewarded with the outcomes.