Classrooms Chalk Talk: Critiquing prose leads teens to connect

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The debate rages among the researchers about whether adolescents are sophisticated enough to critique each other’s writing; whether or not they possess the literary chops to articulate useful feedback about fellow students’ work; whether it is prudent to require vulnerability in an assessed activity.

I can say, with roughly 360 poets standing behind me, that high school students are substantially more capable of emotionally responsible critique than most researchers give them credit for. Since 2005, I have been teaching an 11th and 12th grade course called Poetic Voice, and one routine exercise remains the most important: the weekly Workshop.

The struggle, as my students say, is the engine driving the bus of their lives. Teenagers need connection more than any other age group, and working on their verse in public is a content-rich way to build real connection.

Over the course of a semester, students play with the Tetris structures of closed form poetry and the wide horizons of free verse poetry—and one day a week of class is dedicated to Workshop. The first step to setting up for this delicate project is the Full Value Contract. In this activity, students get a chance to articulate some of their hopes and fears about sharing and commenting on each other’s poems. Clarifying class rules for how they will and will not talk and write about one another’s work is crucial to cultivating the trust and risk-taking requisite for Workshop.

Shy kids are often petrified to read aloud and then listen to a whole room of peers discuss their work. Bold kids are regularly delighted to go first. And the rest of the class likely feels anywhere from ambivalent to cautiously curious to straight up unwilling. Making oneself vulnerable by publicly sharing work and commenting on the work of others is, ultimately, an exercise in building connection.

I, too, must participate in this process. Every year I have brought a poem in to be Workshopped. To center a class around shared leadership is scary for educators, yet modeling vulnerability is one of the most vital strategies for teachers to employ, and what better way than to join students in the risk. This is a requirement for everybody, which includes me too.

Making revision after Workshop mandatory gives kids an organized map to navigate beyond telling into showing. It teaches people how to listen to the suggestions of their classmates, and requires them to figure out how to incorporate others’ ideas into their work. I’ve witnessed teenagers make the kind of poetry that shames the corrupted, soothes the suffering, or otherwise betters the world.

Maybe by opening our hearts to fill a page, and by opening our hearts to respond to what others fill their pages with, we will remember that we are much more alike than we thought (despite how isolated or invisible many of us feel in our lives). Maybe we will learn that the concrete activity of reading and responding to one another’s written words leads us to unexpected insights about ourselves.

I’ve come to understand that teaching English content is only the surface of what an indelible writing course aims at. When kids practice using their voice with compassion and also directness about a classmate’s poem, the hope is that this communication habit follows them into the rest of their lives.

The next time students from Poetic Voice encounter an opportunity where delicate but brave communication is called for, they will have already practiced. Thus we sweep the way clean of tyranny and spite, and hopefully make room for previously unimaginable worlds all through studying poetry.

erin feldman, a native Louisianian exiled in western Massachusetts since she was a college kid, writes poems and stories in between teaching at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley. She is a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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