It takes a lot to surprise a veteran teacher. But every once in awhile, a student does just that. And sometimes you have to illustrate the absurd with the absurd. A teacher has to plan her attack of criticism and correction very carefully.
I had been teaching Ayn Rand's novel Anthem about freeing oneself from the chains of society, discovering one's identity, and celebrating that individuality. As part of students' overall grade for the unit, I required them to keep a reading journal while following specific guidelines for their entries.
The day came for me to collect their journals. Students passed up their notebooks and I placed them on my work table next to my desk. As we prepared to discuss the novel for its themes, one particular student rushed up to the front of the classroom with his notebook. He (let's call him J) slid it in-between the others, rather than on top, apologizing for not having it ready for collection. I paid no mind as I had to get the lesson started.
And then I came to J's journal.
There, on the front cover, were penises he had drawn all over it. Penises. Really? Not only did they grace the cover, but they were drawn throughout his entire reading journal.
At first I was surprised and disappointed. Never would I have expected this from J.
And then I found myself laughing so hard that I spilled red wine all over his words and art. Oops. One of the hazards of grading papers at home.
I read through his journal, commenting on his thoughts that I found quite engaging, insightful, and eloquently stated, as penises in all shapes and sizes danced throughout the pages. This boy absolutely connected with the novel's message in ways that I had never seen students connect. He had tied in other novels by Ayn Rand that I had mentioned in class but never assigned; he read them on his own at my suggestion. I was impressed with his intellect and initiative.
But that didn't excuse him from his display of phalluses all over his work. I knew I had to address this.
So, when I handed back everyone's journals near the end of class, J approached me, asking why he didn't get his.
"Well, J, that's something we need to discuss," I said. "Your unique display of artwork, while very realistic and lifelike...I've never seen so many different depictions of penises...is not appropriate in an English class," as I flipped through his journal in front of him. J stood there, mouth agape.
"Y-You...said...penis," he stuttered.
"Well, I do know what they are and what they are intended for, and so do you apparently, but they have no place in class, unless, of course, you are in health class. Maybe I'll show this to your health teacher," I continued, knowing that his health teacher, who was also his coach, would take severe action.
"No! Please don't, Ms. McD! He will kill me and make me run suicides in practice today! And then he'll suspend me for a few games!" J pleaded.
To drive the point home, I said, "You know, studies show that men who obsess over penises are really overcompensating for their own small equipment. I'd be more careful if I were you."
J's eyes grew wide with concern. "Really?" he asked. "I guess I better stop! I don't want to send the wrong message to people. I'm sorry Ms. McDaniel. It'll never happen again! Thanks for enlightening me."
"I'm just looking out for you, J," I closed.
J extended his hand, and we shook on it.
Situation resolved. Dignity intact. Lesson learned. Even though I made up that study.
But the lessons of criticism extend beyond the walls of a classroom. Anyone can be a critic, but to do it effectively takes skill. Effective criticism should be positively intended, specific, objective, and constructive, not destructive, with the goal of improving a situation. Here are some tips:
1. Identify the behavior so you can develop your strategy around it.
2. Be specific, not general in your criticism. Rather than say, "You're always late with your work," say, "You didn't turn in yesterday's work."
3. Make sure the behavior that you are criticizing is changeable. If not, you may have to get help from an outside source.
4. Use "I" and "We" statements that are non-threatening. This shows that you want to work out the problem together.
5. Don't belabor the point. Keep it short and to the point. Address it quickly.
6. Don't set a tone of anger or sarcasm. This puts the other person on the defensive. Tempers will flare and make things counterproductive. Avoid personal attacks and blaming. Using insulting and hostile language will only inflame the situation.
7. Use the "sandwich" approach. Say something affirming and redeeming before sharing your criticism, and then reaffirm your support and confidence in that person.
Effective criticism can change what people think and do when done with respect. The next time I collected reading journals, J came forward and personally handed his to me. "No penises, McD. I saw the light," he said, beaming a smile. "But I did draw these for you." With those words, he turned and bounced back to his seat.
When I glanced at his journal, I couldn't help but crack a smile. Wine glasses.
Your comments are always welcome! What experiences can you share about handling criticism?