Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Better for Them, Easier for Me

Teaching my Winter Term Children's Book Writing course for the second time this year, I now know a number of things to do differently. I always want to find teaching strategies that lead to better results for my students.  I also want to find teaching strategies that require less effort from me. What I love best is when I get both of these at the same time: better for them AND easier for me.

Last time I tried to do critique sessions on manuscripts with the full class of 25 students. It took forever and felt awfully tedious to all of us by the time that 25th manuscript rolled around. Because I didn't want to dominate the discussion, leaping in instantly to pronounce my own assessment of a story and so preempting student comments, or else swooping in at the end with the "right" answer about the story's strengths and failings and so discrediting student comments already made, I stayed fairly quiet during the critiques - well, as quiet as I could! But as I also wanted the students to have MY feedback on their work, I wrote up a single-spaced page of typed comments for each manuscript - 25 picture books and then 25 middle-grade novel chapters. It takes a LONG time to write 50 pages of comments! And I knew all too well that in a number of cases, I had spent longer writing my comments than the students had spent writing their stories.

So this year, I made a number of changes:

1. No large-group manuscript critiques: too time-consuming and also too intimidating for beginning writers.

Instead, I devoted two classes to peer critique groups, with each student placed in a group of four to share their stories, using a printed-out worksheet prepared by me to make sure they addressed what I thought was important to consider for each one.

2. No written comments from me: too time-consuming and also somewhat daunting for the students. Even though I made sure to begin with positive comments, a detailed list of critical comments can be overwhelming.

Instead I sat and read all the manuscripts during the peer-critique sessions. I had each student meet with me for a mandatory ten-minute appointment for the picture book manuscript. In ten minutes I can give a LOT of helpful comments, and the sessions were more interactive and collaborative. I made a second one-on-one consultation on the novel chapter optional. Only five students opted to take it, making me even gladder that I had decided against written comments: if a student doesn't value my comments enough to spend ten minutes talking, why should I spend thirty minutes writing? With fewer students wanting comments, I was able to have longer meetings with the more motivated ones.

Actually, I ended up meeting for at least a few minutes on the book chapter with almost every student. As each critique group wound up its session, finishing at quite different times depending on how detailed they chose to make their own critiques, I invited students to linger for a quick consultation with me, and almost everyone did. So I was able to give what I considered to be extremely helpful big-picture comments to just about everybody.

Better for them! Easier for me! My hunch is that more often than not, these two goals can be realized simultaneously in teaching, in writing, and in life. But at least I realized these goals at the same time, in the same way, this year during Winter Term.


  1. Claudia, I always enjoy reading your blog, and I will remember this mantra: "Better for them! Easier for me!" And yes, it applies to lots of things in life as well as writing and teaching. Thank you!!

  2. Everyone learns a little bit differently. I happen to really value written comments. It gives me time to review and digest them. Then if I can go over the comments with the instructor, I usually walk away really knowing how I can improve my work.

  3. Sabrina, I love written comments, too, I have to admit. And when I do a workshop with serious writers, I write heaps and heaps of comments for them! But this course was a "lite" exposure to children's book writing in a different kind of setting. Maybe next time I'd give written comments to any student who wanted to meet with me one-on-one - but I still don't want to give extensive written comments for any student who doesn't think my comments aren't even worth ten minutes of his or her time. . . .