by Lise Gaston, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019
My course “Introduction to the Writing of Verse” had a twofold aim: for students to cultivate a variety of poetic techniques and to develop the art of constructive criticism. While every student had experience writing poetry (they had to submit a portfolio for entry into the class), most had no practice with formal workshop critique. Their initial attempts to offer in-class assessments of their peers’ work were tentative. This was not mere early-semester shyness: the students identified their own reticence, saying that they did not feel qualified to pass judgment. They did not feel that their opinions were adequately sophisticated or valid.
While they would learn tools that they could apply to their workshop critiques over the course of the semester, such as technical vocabulary and formal analysis, that knowledge would take time to develop, and the class structure required a discussion-based workshop format from the beginning. I had provided a handout of workshopping guidelines; students knew they had to arrive to each class having prepared at least two written remarks for every poem under discussion that day: one comment that identified something the poem was doing well, and one area in which the poem could improve. But this theoretical model did not address the problem of confidence, the lack of which created an impasse that threatened to become a real block in the everyday design of the class. More importantly, I wanted these students to feel that their opinions as readers were already valid, without any technical terms: I wanted them to recognize the innate intelligence they had been exercising for years.
So at the beginning of the next class, rather than work on readings from the course-pack or peer writing, I gave each student a copy of an anonymous poem. The poem was an early draft of my own work, but I did not identify myself as the author, either before or after the exercise. I gave them twenty minutes to read it and to mark up—underline, circle, list—elements of the piece they did or did not like; then I asked them to think about why they had these reactions. I encouraged them not to worry about terminology, but rather to examine their own affective response to the words. As a group, we then discussed their reactions and recommendations. I facilitated the conversation, making sure each of the ten students offered an opinion on at least one aspect of the poem, and pushing them to clarify or back up their assessment with an example from the work when needed. I was careful to provide positive reinforcement, either during or after the exercise. The results were striking. Working with an anonymous author—neither identifiable as a peer nor as a published poet—freed up the discussion, permitting students to give feedback, or even to disagree with one another, without fear of either offending or appearing unqualified.
The evidence of their shift in confidence was visible in the exercise itself; moreover, students carried over that experience when we returned to critiquing their own work. I assessed this continued shift in their critiques through classroom observation and by collecting their written responses on one poem in each class. I could thereby see how this improved quality and confidence was not a singular occurrence, but kept progressing as the weeks went by, and I could also give them ongoing feedback without interrupting workshop discussions. Finally, the students helped me assess their own critiques: for the last round of poems, I had each student privately submit to me the names of three classmates whose workshop critiques they had found the most helpful throughout the course. It was gratifying to see that every student was listed at least once—illustrating that critique is a creative art in itself, where each voice is distinct and valuable, even when in need of a little confidence.