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Dedicated to Teachers

Katherine Bomer on Going From What’s Wrong to What’s Strong In Student Writing


To help writers make progress, teachers need to build off students’ strengths. Yet it’s so easy to focus on the swarms of errors, twisted syntax, shifting tenses, and underdeveloped ideas visible in kids’ writing. However, Katherine Bomer says that stepping back from what’s wrong and looking for what’s strong can make all the difference.

“You don’t get true fire-in-the-belly energy for writing because you fear a bad grade,” Katherine writes in Hidden Gems, “but because you have something to say and your own way to say it.” This seems intuitive enough, yet the inclination to focus on what’s wrong feels urgent and maybe even expected. Why?

Katherine suggests that this attitude comes from what teachers experienced as writers in school. In Hidden Gems, she shares this amazing, simple four-step exercise to help teachers step back and see what shaped the lenses they see writing instruction through. Try it yourself or with colleagues, and see whether you start to notice new, exciting positives in the student writing you read. Now, we’ll let Katherine lead you through it.
Download A Sample Chapter of Hidden Gems

I believe it is important to review our own histories as young writers receiving comments and grades on our nascent drafts. Here are the steps of this exercise:

  1. In your own middle school, high school, or college experience, what are some comments about your writing from family members, teachers, or professors that linger in your memory as being especially helpful or hurtful? Which comments felt like a warm hug or stung you and perhaps haunt you still? Comments may have come from casual assessments or formal grades, test scores, or evaluations. They may have been spoken or written. I trust that there is a reason the comments remain memorable, and so I invite you to take a full ten minutes to complete this list. You might make a double-column entry in your notebook (Helped or “hugged” on the left and Hurt or “stung” on the right side), or you might invent you own kind of graphic organizer to answer the questions. You might also try a quick timeline to help you focus your memory.
  2. Look back over the comments and note beside them any surprise. Notice patterns and themes. Do the comments often refer to the same kind of writing feature: organization, sentence structure, comma use, word choice, or content development? Note the conditions of the writing task itself: Did the writing happen at home or at school? Was the writing piece assigned or self-initiated?
  3. Write and reflect for a few minutes about how the experiences on your list could have shaped the writer (or non-writer) you are today.
  4. Now, talk with a colleague or a friend for another ten minutes about what you noticed. What commonalities arise in your experiences with writing response? Did either of you receive a response that made a difference in your lifelong feeling for writing, either positively or negatively? What was the nature of that standout response? What generalizations can you make about response to writing as you look at your timelines? What type of response—written or verbal—helped you feel powerful as a writer, and what kind of comments discouraged you?

If we had been collecting teachers’ timelines, two-column graphic organizers, and notebook reflections on those items, we would by now have a computer full of data supporting two truth claims: negative comments on writing result in lifelong anxiety about and avoidance of writing; positive comments result in lifelong ease and confidence in writing. Our responses to young people learning to write matter more than we can ever know.


For additional resources or to download a sample chapter, click the download button.

Download A Sample Chapter of Hidden GemsBomer_Smartbrief


Topics: Hidden Gems, Katherine Bomer, Teaching Writing

Date Published: 01/02/20

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