That was awesome! Amazing! Great work! Excellent! Super! High five! Great job, buddy! You rock! Woot!
As you well know, we work in very affirming contexts. Our students need encouragement from us. Right?
We have just earned six graduate credits, and we weren’t graded on any of our work. We were told in the beginning that we all had “A’s” in the course. And yet, for many of us, this was some of the most exacting work we’ve ever done in an academic setting.
During our read-aloud sessions, we would simply say “Thank you” to each writer who shared, and then we’d move on to the next piece. Occasionally there were gasps of connection or shared smiles across the table, but that was it.
After each person’s demo lesson, we just moved on with the day’s program.
Even in our personal “feedback” sessions after these presentations, we were left squirming in the chair as we were prodded, with no input one way or another from our experienced leaders, to identify publicly what had gone well. “You are not done,” they would smile gently. “Tell us more about what went well.” This was excruciating for some of us–is it still the case that owning strength as a girl is perceived as “bragging?
The second part of the demo lesson feedback was also on us: “what would you do differently next time?” We had to think out loud in front of others. There were a few constructive criticisms from our leaders, but most of the work of “evaluation” was ours to do for ourselves.
In our writing groups, we offered one another frank suggestions for clarity, but we didn’t praise. We worked individually on our craft and then offered up our work in progress for comments from our peers. We didn’t tell one another if we liked a piece one way or another. No stickers, no gold stars. Moreover, there was never a sense that the work of improving our writing was really done, either. No one ever said, “I think that’s fantastic just the way it is. Great job!” Comments, posted or in person, just hung there for each writer to weigh, and pursue or not. Indefinitely.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like very much right now to change a couple of things in pieces of mine that were printed in our anthology. They still aren’t quite right. Will writing always feel like this, or is it because I’m a novice?
On occasion, perhaps walking slowly in the heat to the parking lot at the end of the day, one of us would say how much they liked another’s demo lesson or contribution in class. And, of course, we had our little appreciation buckets which some of us used as directed, that is, one note of appreciation per person per week = 30 different compliments or thank you’s offered and received on the last day. Our comments to each other on blog posts were occasionally appreciative, as well.
But this was it: we had only what reassurance and positive feedback we gave to one another. None was forthcoming from our director or co-director, our mentors, our teachers.
Beyond the little encouragements we occasionally offered one another privately, it was totally up to us as individuals to find our drive for excellence. This is what 100% pure intrinsic motivation feels like. How did this experience of self-motivation feel to you? And, did it work in terms of making you a (better) writer?
Most of us found we did not want to disappoint our peers. Writing for an audience, be it a blog post or a writing group meeting, proved a powerful taskmaster. I would argue that we probably spent far more time crafting our work for an audience than we would have if we’d just “turned it in” for a grade. So that’s one thing we could try with our own students.
I think that most of us found, as well, that our Morning Pages practice ended up feeling like coming home. We came to appreciate the feel of discerning our own voices, of discerning ourselves. Even if we wrote, as I sometimes did, grocery lists, or just lists of what we were hearing or seeing in an effort to calm the imprint digital zapping in our heads–the act of slowing down for 30-odd minutes each morning was primarily a vehicle for locating our voices amidst the fray. These faint voices then became what we would affirm in our subsequent writing efforts. The practice of “just writing” every single day, too, we could emulate in our classes.
As a diligent student, I was always that girl who wanted to please my teachers and professors. It was interesting to be reminded of this this summer. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the role of learner in a classroom. I’ll be honest: I wanted to hear from Sarah that she liked my work. It was strange and hard to have to generate my own approval. It was disorienting not to have some external marker of success on anything I produced. And yet, there is no question in my mind that it is precisely this, the quiet affirmation of intrinsic motivation, that is essential for growth in a creative field.
We were motivated adults embarking on new paths. Could the ISI approach of simply affirming individual challenges work as well with our younger students?
While I do think we could profitably eliminate the constant patter of effusive praise that our culture encourages (see Carol Dweck, “Mindset”), and I think that the two ISI practices I identified above (creating authentic audiences for our student work and developing writing rituals to help them find their writers’ voices) will help, I know that when my own daughter was asked to write self-evaluations of her work by well-intentioned teachers, she got really good at writing BS. Any navel gazing, it seemed, would satisfy her teachers, and she perfected the genre, growing cynical as she did so at how these teachers weren’t “teaching me anything.” Many of my strong high school students are the same. They are masters at figuring out what we want to hear and serving it up to us.
I would love your thoughts on how this might go otherwise.