Admiring Your Students’ Writing- The What, Why And How

What is the admiring lens?

Like most adults, when I read kids’ writing, I too am almost swallowed up in a sea of punctuation errors, twisted syntax, shifting tenses, and underdeveloped ideas. I have to take a step back and ask myself where this radar for error came from so that I can question and critique it. Then I have to fill my store of alternatives for reading kids’ writing. Because when I’m able to read past all those surface problems, what I find in young people’s writing is passionate, surprising, and endearing enough to convince me that I have the best job in the world.

(Bomer, 2010)

I first read about the importance of learning to see past secretarial issues in student writing when I read Katherine Bomer’s (2010) wonderful book, Hidden Gems. One of the messages that stood out for me in that book, was Bomer’s encouragement to view your students’ writing with ‘astonished, appreciative, awestruck eyes.’ She implored teachers to see the good in their students’ writing before they went looking for anything else. Gravity Goldberg (2016) refers to this as using the ‘admiring lens.’

Whereas the ‘deficit’ lens is all about hunting for the errors in student work, the admiring lens is about searching for the goodness.

It’s one of those low-investment, high-dividend teacher practices that needs to become the norm in every classroom.

Why use the admiring lens on student writing?

When you train your brain to reach for the admiring lens first, you can focus on what your students already know, rather than being overwhelmed by all the things they still have to learn.

You can looks for the smallest evidence of progress- the tiniest green shoots of growth- and celebrate those.

Importantly for planning, when you use the admiring lens on your students’ cold writes (the pieces of writing they do before you start teaching them about a new genre) you can identify all the things you don’t need to teach them in the upcoming unit. What a relief- to know there are a bunch of things you don’t have to worry about teaching!

What are the benefits of using the admiring lens with students?

In terms of student benefits, when you make a habit of reaching for the admiring lens first, you’re doing two things:

  1. Letting them know what they’re doing well as a writer (so they can do more of it) and
  2. Modelling to them the positive language you want them to use when they give feedback to their peers and to themselves.

Knowing their own strengths as a writer is vital for students, as it helps them build their all-important self-efficacy:

Knowing that you are being successful as you achieve your writing goals, that you have been successful in the past, and that your writing will continue to be successful creates positive feelings and also has a powerful influence on academic achievement in writing.

(Andrade and Brooke, Bruning et al., Collie et al., cited in Young and Ferguson, 2021).

When students aren’t aware of their strengths, all the deficit lens feedback they’ve received can overwhelm them when they sit down to write. They can start to cycle through the laundry list of problems that have been identified in all their previous attempts to write, and they can begin to question if it’s really even worth it: Why should I start writing when I know it’s just going to be wrong anyway?

When students can’t list their strengths as a writer, it negatively impacts their confidence, and this can have a damaging snowball effect as, ‘children with low self-confidence as writers generally dislike writing (Boscolo et al. 2012). They believe they cannot improve and therefore do not seek writing advice. They write the minimum required, have low aspirations, feel a sense of learned helplessness, and show little commitment to writing projects’ (Young and Ferguson, 2021).

The more you know about the qualities of good writing, the easier it will be to identify them in your students’ writing.

So is admiring the same as praising?

No. The admiring lens is not a synonym for praise.

Firstly, praise is unspecific:

  • “Well done! You’ve done a great job!”
  • “You’re such a great writer.”

In addition, it reinforces a fixed-mindset, where students fall into the trap of believing people are either born good writers or they aren’t…and it’s just dumb luck which camp you fall into. Praise doesn’t tell the writer what they should keep doing more of and it doesn’t reinforce their self-efficacy as writers (or, what some people refer to as self-belief).

The admiring lens, on the other hand, is focused on highlighting the specific skills and strategies your writers are using:

  • “Wow! You’ve shown great use of detail here; By adding the character’s thoughts you’ve helped to me imagine how they would be feeling in this situation.”
  • “I felt I could really hear your writer’s voice when you were explaining … your passion and knowledge here is clear and it made me want to keep reading.”

Admiring promotes a growth-mindset in your students; that is, the belief that they have control over their own development as a writer. This sense of agency is critically important to aspiring writers, as ‘students who believe they have more personal control of their own learning and behaviour are more likely to do well and achieve at a higher level than students who do not feel in control’ (Pintrich, 2003).

(FYI- If you struggle to name the specifics in student writing I recommended you consider signing up to the Writing Traits Masterclass).

Tips for using the admiring lens:

  • Be specific! If something’s working well in a student’s piece of writing, name exactly what it is (so they’ll know to do more of it when they go to write next time.)
  • The admiring lens isn’t just for student writing. You can (and should) use it in all areas of teaching. It’s about reminding yourself to search for the strengths, before you launch into problem solving mode.
    • What’s working well for this student?
    • What does this student already know?
    • What don’t I need to teach them?
  • Don’t forget to use the admiring lens on yourself! Search for your own strengths. When reflecting on a lesson or a change initiative or at the end of a long day of teaching, focus on what worked well (the wins) first! Don’t be tempted into heading straight for the deficit lens and wallowing in the losses. There’s a lot to be gained by examining the wins (no matter how small).

Do you use the admiring lens with students? How do you keep yourself from slipping into deficit lens mode? Share your ideas in the comments below or on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.

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References:

  • Bomer, K., 2010. Hidden gems. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
  • Goldberg, G., 2016. Mindsets & Moves. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
  • Pintrich, P., 2003. A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), pp.667-686.
  • Young, R. and Ferguson, F., 2021. Writing for Pleasure. Oxon: Routledge.
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