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Praise Better, or How to Like Student Writing Well

October 20, 2017


My daughter just turned one year old. As a part of the celebration/coping process, I packed away many of the baby items that we just won't need anymore, like bottles, cloth bibs, all the pajamas she's outgrown, and those jangly car seat toys. In the process, I also realized that even though I feel pretty confident now tending to a baby, I have no idea what you're supposed to do with a toddler. 


So I did what I do anytime I have questions: I bought a book. In this case, Nuture Shock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The premise of the book is that much of our common knowledge about child-rearing just does not stand up to science. 


The first chapter is actually an extended version of the authors' New York magazine article, "The Inverse Power of Praise." In it, they explain how praising a child for their intelligence can actually make them less persistent and beat themselves up if they don't get something immediately. The child reasons that if they are smart, they shouldn't have to try and if they have to try, then they must not be as smart as everyone thinks. To save face, they don't try, thus maintaining the facade of intelligence, but also missing out on important opportunities to grow. (Here, I couldn't help but flash back to my own childhood and the way I would just crumble after a dance class if I didn't pick up on the choreography right away. After all, I was supposed to be such a great dancer.) The key, according to Bronson and Merryman, is to praise better—to laud the child for their effort, their perseverance, their problem-solving ability. Basically, praise them for anything specific. 


While I do think this is an important lesson for me as a mom, I couldn't help but also think about what this meant for me as a teacher. In the article, Bronson and Merryman describe the work of the social scientist Dr. Roy Baumeister. They note, "He recently published an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem building praise causes their grades to sink further."


Recently, I've been doing some research myself, albeit not on praise exactly, but on feedback on student writing. Along with a few colleagues, I've been surveying students at the end of my writing classes, asking, "What was the most meaningful feedback you received on your work?" Notably, many of the responses to the survey cite praise as the most meaningful feedback. 


I have to wonder why. Are students addicted to bad praise? Are we reinforcing their beliefs that they are gifted, while robbing them of the chance to grow as writers? Or, do we praise well? Do we offer specific praise that helps them truly understand their strengths. 


While I can't speak for my colleagues who are also giving the survey, I think I'm probably doing some bad praising. I've known for a while that I kind of suck at the part of responding to student writing. It's not that I have nothing good to say. After all, I take Peter Elbow to heart when he says, "good writing teachers like student writing (and like students)." I do like student writing, but I like student revising (or, just revising) even more. I love thinking through how a text might change, morph, improve with revision. When I write my notes to students about their work, I tend to dive right in to what they might revise because I'm just excited about it. (Even worse, I'm a hypocrite on this, I always tell students they must start with the positive when they respond to each others' work.)


I'm making a concerted effort this quarter to praise better, or, in the Elbow sense, to like better. For every piece of student writing I read, I'm really taking the time to think about what in it I like. Already, this experiment is paying off. I'm noticing the cool thing that one student did with scientific nomenclature; I saw how another student nailed the image of a lonely first-year college student with a well-placed detail about kimchi; I loved the way another student used the rising of the moon as a way to talk about friendship. I liked it. 





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