Monday, June 13, 2011

On the "F"-Word: "Feedback"

My biggest mistake in homeschooling was reading and believing various books that suggest a parent should never evaluate a child's work.  It disrupts, even crushes, the creative spirit, they say.  Instead, a parent does better to affirm some aspect of the work in a neutral manner: "You used four different colors in this picture" instead of "I like all the different colors; it looks so cheerful"; or "I can really hear how you are trying to sound out each syllable" instead of letting the child know if they'd spelled the word correctly or not.

The thing is that kids seem to want some sort of feedback and, when they don't get it, they seek it elsewhere.  Certain authors, some whose books I gave as gifts when I was all aflutter in their philosophies, think that feedback makes kids do things specifically for the feedback.  What a terrible insult to kids.  What I have learned over the years is that people just want to be succesful in whatever they are attempting.  I know that I do.  Each time I have been in a non-English-speaking country, I have requested feedback on my mastery of the language spoken there.  I wanted to do it right, not because I thought anyone was going to give me a mark for it, but because I wanted to be able to communicate effectively.

For a long time, when my kids brought me something to view, I responded, a la previously mentioned authors, "Oh used three colors in the sky.  How did you decide to use this color green?"  And then I spent a lot of time wondering why my kids were constantly coming to me with the same picture, merely a few minutes further along,  and begging for some sort of response.  Because, dear authors, I was never giving them one.  Noting what they already knew in whatever they were sharing, that they had used several colors, jumped over the log or done three cartwheels in a row, was insulting to them.  They were very well aware of what they had done; they wanted to know what I thought of it and what they could do to improve upon their efforts.

Now, I tell them what I think.  Sometimes, I don't think it's the greatest piece of work.  I am not draconian about it.  I couch it in nice.  My son, for example, is writing some short stories.  He brought one to me that he had scribbled out and in which half of his words were spelled incorrectly (they were words I knew he could spell correctly).  There were even large rips and gouges in the paper.  It looked like he had written it in a fox hole during a war.

"So, which draft is this?  An initial draft?"

I always ask because I would never expect an early draft to be neat and include corect spelling and punctuation.  I encourage them to let their ideas flow and worry about the mechanics when they are typing it into the computer.

It was the final draft, he informed me.  He wanted to put it in the book of short stories he is writing.

"Hmmm," I stalled.  "You have created some wonderful stories for that book, with final drafts that are very enjoyable.  I always appreciate your creativity.  I have to tell you that I am distracted by the spelling, neatness, and holes in the paper of this story.  I can't really get to the story because of those issues.   It looks like you were distracted when you created this draft so it is impossible for me to see it as a final draft.  For it to be a final draft means that you have looked for and corrected mistakes, re-written parts that didn't seem to fit the story, and that it is neatly written or typed.  You've done that before with great success."

(I am guessing that I made it sound much more fluid for publication and that I was not nearly so eloquent during the actual exchange, but you get the idea.)

He thought a moment and then went to the couch, where he spent a good long time re-writing the story, neatly and with improved spelling and grammar. When he brought it back to show me, he said, "Can you tell me if I spelled the two underlined words correctly?  Also, let me know what you think of the third paragraph.  I tried to make it funny.  Do you think it's funny?  And can you do it soon so I can type it out?"

I did.

See, what he wanted when he came to me was an honest evaluation.  Had I not given him one, my guess is that the story would have been tossed somewhere, completely forgotten, and that he would have imagined I didn't care too much about it, or worse, that it was not worth my time.

Before you start labeling me a Tiger Mother (well, first you should read the book, as most of the critics apparently only read the book flap; I am not advocating her method of parenting, neither is she, but she has some provocative points), try to see it from the child's point of view.  If I were in Haiti, for example, and had asked one of the mademoiselles from the orphanage if what I had said was correct, and she responded, "You opened your mouth so wide when you said the name of each food", I would have wondered why she had given up on me so quickly.  Then, if in response to my inquiry about how I was really doing, she had said, "You are putting a lot of effort into this," I would have heard, "Mwen Bondye! You are so stupid you cannot even figure out this simple language and I have no hope you ever will."

What I would hope to hear is truth couched in nice: "You pick up languages quickly.  I think you'll be more understandable if you try and use less formal words; here, instead of using your dictionary, let me teach you some of the everyday words we use for a few items.  I know you'll get them down easily."

Basically, we are our kids' editors.  It is our job to help them move their creative and academic pursuits from first to final draft.  In fact, I tend to think this offers our children more freedom to be creative.  If my kids know that I will help them evaluate the mechanics of a story or monologue or violin piece after they've put in some initial work, then they are free to let their imaginations run wild during the creative part of the process.***

Despite what many books say, I suggest parents not be afraid of offering feedback.  It shows your kids you care about their creations and that you believe that they can do it well.

***This, of course, does not mean all projects require some sort of criticism.  I would be hard-pressed to find a drawing by a three-year-old that warrants constructive criticism.  At the same time, while a young child's spelling and grammar might require some editing, we do well to try and leave as much of the content alone as possible.  As they get older, we can help them out with story elements, for example, as they are ready.  And most critique of art should center around mechanics and technique, not content.

Feedback makes for a crisp kata!


Motherhood and More said...

Great post. And a good reminder that those oh-so-eloquent "experts" don't always know what they're talking about. :)

Julie Br said...

I totally agree. This reminds me of "invented spelling" and how two of my 3 kids responded in the same way, the other the opposite. The one wrote and wrote using invented spelling. Getting her thoughts out took priority. She didn't ask me if it was spelled right. The other 2 would ask(directly seeking the F word!)I would try to evade their questions because I didn't want them getting hung up on spelling when my priority was getting their thoughts on paper. Now the oldest I do focus on spelling but the 5 year old, I try not to, but she can be insistent. I don't know if that was right or wrong to avoid feedback on spelling when they first started writing. Maybe their priority WAS spelling it right.

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