Saturday, April 7, 2012

But Words Will Never Hurt Me....

The first comment that my father-in-law Lynn received on his very first college English writing assignment, which was about what he had done over the summer, was...

"You are a very immature writer."

Lynn, the very proud farm boy, read this comment, tore up his paper, and never returned to class.

I myself have had my own woes over teacher comments on my papers. In high school I always received wonderful and glowing comments. I would read them and smile happily--proud of my paper and the grade A that I had received.

College rolled around, and for the most part my comments were good. However, junior year my luck seemed to run out.

I remember like it was yesterday: Psychology of Old Age (seriously the title of the course), write a five page paper on one topic we had discussed that unit. I worked hard on this paper. Psychology is interesting, but is not my main field of study, so I found myself working harder than usual.

I handed that paper in, beaming with pride.

I got it back two days later and was shattered.

The top of the paper had a big C on it. A letter grade C! My first college C.


How could this have happened? What went wrong?

I was so mad that I crumpled my paper up, threw it in the garbage, and moved on--just a teeny bit bitterly.

The next week a friend of mine from the class emailed me and asked how I had done on the paper. I replied to her about my horrible and terribly wrong grade, and she responded that she had also received a C.

Then she told me, "But, the comments were really helpful, and she also wrote me a note saying that I could revise my paper for a better grade. I went and talked to her about it because I didn't understand her comments. Now I totally see where I need to go with this paper."

Uh, Oh.

If I could have slunk away from an email, it would have been then.

Why hadn't I read the comments? WHY???????

In fact, it took me years to start reading teachers comments. Truth.

For me and probably you too, writing is an incredibly personal activity. All those thousand words that you labored so intensely over came from YOU. From your mind and from your thoughts, your ideas, your hard work. After YOU have created this piece of writing, it is almost like you have given birth.

Graphic metaphor. Sorry.

That is how I have always thought of it though. When I am done with a paper, I am exhausted and need a break.

*Something you don't get after you give birth, so maybe I need to adjust this*


I took the lesson I learned from my friend to heart, that I should read teachers comments. My teacher does not want to hurt me. My teacher wants to help me.

Just like the basketball coach who makes a player spend all day doing free throws, an activity that might seem awful to the player and could actually be some sort of sick punishment, you can bet that free throws will be a bit easier for the player afterwards.

Another thing to remember is that comments are very hard to write. Having graded my fist set of papers this spring, I can testify to that fact.

I wanted to make sure my students knew what I was attempting to tell them to improve upon. There were a couple times I wanted to write the dreaded "awk" (awkward) but stopped myself because if the student wrote it ... then it did not appear awkward to her. So, she might not understand my comment.

This all went round and round in my head. I was attempting to find the way to write the correct comment, one that my student could understand and use to improve her paper. And the whole time I was thinking, "She is just going to crumble this up...."

Well, she did not. Maybe it was because I included a lot of positive notes on her paper as well. I'm not sure. Much to my delight, the student sent me an email about her paper and seemed to be positive about the direction it needed to be going.

She had read my comments and came out UNSCATHED.


Then there are the students who get immensely upset over comments.

More upset than my "crumble up, throw away, and move on bitterly" type of behavior.

I met one of these students recently and served as a sounding board. She needed to get it all out before she could move on. And that is okay too.

The important part is that she moved on and was attempting to understand the comments and improve her paper.

The bottom-line here is that your teacher does not have a vendetta against you.

Really, that is the truth.

Teachers want you to succeed, and those comments are their way at nudging you toward that promised land of paper success.

The long and short of it is that the old saying is true:

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones,
But Words Will Never Hurt Me

Something to take to heart when reading comments: Shake off that pride and do not take comments as personal affronts.

Instead, think of comments as words from a teacher who is trying to help you create your best work.

Yes they may sting, but the end result is worth the hurt.

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