Education, Essays

Criticism: How to be constructive rather than destructive

English: Students working with a teacher at Al...
How do you provide criticism to a student without destroying his or her sense of self-worth? | English: Students working with a teacher at Albany Senior High School, New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most important – and most difficult – parts of teaching is providing constructive criticism without destroying a students’ belief that he or she is capable of succeeding in school.

I recently started reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity and am working through some of the exercises she presents in her 12-week course. This morning’s task was to write about three old enemies of my creative self-worth.

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of encouragement of my writing endeavors throughout most of my life, so it was hard for me to think of three. Then I remembered my high school Rhetoric teacher.

Mrs. K was known as a screaming harridan about the school, and only the most valiant writers and “I’m definitely going to college because my parents can afford it, so I’d better take this course” students would brave Mrs. K’s Rhetoric class. I had always been a writer, so I thought I could handle Mrs. K. Was I ever wrong.

At the start of the semester, I was hopeful that I would learn something new that would improve my writing. But I was quickly discouraged when I received one D after another on my essays, which I had thought were really good. Mrs. K wanted us to use this five-paragraph essay structure, which I am now a big fan of using as a teaching tool. However, at the time, I felt like I had moved beyond using such a simplistic organizational tool to structure my essays.

I did eventually grow tired of getting bad grades and finally wrote an essay that was structured exactly like Mrs. K wanted it. It was a sickly-sweet essay about a volunteer project I had worked on, and I wrote mostly about how I learned what was important in life from this project. I didn’t believe a word of what I wrote, but simply wrote what I knew she wanted to read.

My thesis statement was exactly where she said it should be and used the exact words she said it should. It read something like this: “I enjoyed this volunteer project because main point #1, main point #2, and main point #3” (with each of my main points covered in one of the three following body paragraphs.)

It was probably the worst essay I have ever written in my entire life. And I got an A.

While I proved I could follow this basic essay structure, I learned nothing that improved my writing. I mostly just learned what it took to please this particular teacher.

What I really needed to learn in this course was how to structure a research paper. I’ve always been able to write beautiful essays without giving much thought to organization. They seem to organize themselves in my mind, and I’m open to moving paragraphs around to make the essay flow as it should. But research papers were completely foreign to me.

I struggled through the research paper we had to write in that Rhetoric course. There was no mention of the fact that the five-paragraph essay structure we’d been using all semester could be expanded and used for a longer research paper. When I received my grade, a D, I was just happy I passed. I thought for sure I would fail the research paper, and I knew I deserved to fail because I didn’t have the slightest clue how to write a research paper.

Because of that one research paper, I left high school believing I would never be able to succeed in college. I knew research papers were a big part of college life, and I thought I would never be able to pass a single course due to my inability to write one. This created a major block for me, as my fear of research papers was one of the main reasons why I put off college as long as I did.

What I have learned from this experience as a teacher is the necessity of assessing individual student’s needs and beliefs and adjusting your teaching strategies accordingly. It is also essential to connect what is learned at the beginning of the semester to what is learned at the end of the semester. Finally, a teacher should not insist that a student learn a concept without making sure the student understands why she needs to learn it.

As a senior in high school, I did not understand the value of learning the five-paragraph essay structure, so I fought it. It is the teacher’s job to teach the student why the material is important. Every teacher should know exactly how to answer that age-old question, “When will I ever use this in real life?” Sometimes, the simple act of connecting a concept to the real world is all the motivation a student needs.

It is sometimes difficult to know exactly how to motivate each individual student without destroying his or her sense of self-worth. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that your motivational strategies should focus on encouraging students to believe they CAN succeed despite the fact that they may have failed one assignment or test. In short, you should educate your students on the value of failure rather than using it to destroy their belief that they can do better.

Who in your life has hindered your belief that you could succeed as a writer? Please share your stories in the comments below. Please also share your stories of how you have overcome this negativity.

~Mandy Webster

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5 thoughts on “Criticism: How to be constructive rather than destructive”

  1. You wrote: “There was no mention of the fact that the five-paragraph essay structure we’d been using all semester could be expanded and used for a longer research paper.”

    This is an excellent reminder to English teachers!

    1. Thanks for the feedback!

      It’s interesting that so many Composition I students spend most of the semester writing 5-paragraph essays and then make the leap to an enormous research paper for the final project. That’s a big leap for students to make at this level, and it helps to relate what they’ve been working on all semester to the final paper. After all, the final paper should incorporate concepts learned over the course of the entire semester.

      Have a great day!

  2. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you design this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?
    Plz answer back as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to know where u got this from. thank you

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