Here’s a statement that doesn’t need stating: teaching is good, important, pressure-filled work.
All the teachers I know got into the work because they wanted to promote the long-term flourishing of young people by way of helping them master the disciplines. Writing teachers like you and me are no different — when we were new, we hoped that, through helping our students master the written word, we’d unleash their potential and open up a whole new means for accessing the power of their hearts and minds. We aimed at nothing less than emancipation — after all, writing had this kind of effect on us.
And boy oh boy, were we wise to endeavor toward that. Our hearts were noble and beautiful because teaching is good and important work.
But then we got into our first teaching gigs, and we taught our students to write those first essays or stories or poems, and all of a sudden a new character entered our personal stories: a stack of papers. Our students had poured themselves into these things. And we thought, “Oh. Well, I guess it’s time to give feedback on these.”
This was fine at first! After all, we had signed up for this. The only problem was that this feedback took so much time. Before we knew it, that stack of papers followed us everywhere. It developed its own little indent in our teacher bags. And it had this weird and disturbing tendency toward growing. No matter how many papers we gave feedback on, this thing just seemed to keep getting bigger.
And we heard, for the first time, that question we had once asked some of our own writing teachers. “Hey, Mr. Stuart. Have you had a chance to read our papers yet?”
Oh no, we realized. That stack of papers isn’t just any character in our lives.
It’s a monster.
What on earth had we gotten ourselves into?
As Matt Johnson quickly points out in the pages of Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out, the indomitable feedback monster is an old beast for writing teachers. I love that Matt finds, in the earliest edition of the English Journal, an article lamenting the weight of the writing teacher’s paper load. This was in 1912. Talk about confirmation that today’s pressing problems are often the pressing problems of our predecessors. Over a century later, it looks like Solomon was right: there’s nothing new under the sun.
When I first met Matt, we were at a pub in Cedar Springs, Michigan, eating lunch and enjoying authentic, German microbrews. Matt had emailed me months before, asking if he might drive across the state to discuss some questions he had about the teacher-writer life. Lunch was on him, he said — and so, I delightedly agreed. By the time the tab arrived, I had given Matt a daunting list of recommendations regarding how I would start a blog for teachers if I was starting one today, what my long-term vision for that blog might be, and what the publishing landscape was like in teacher books, from my perspective.
Within a year, Matt’s blog was being read by thousands of readers each month, his work was being featured on Edutopia, and he was in talks with Corwin Literacy for a book contract. That book is Flash Feedback — and wow does it help.
Matt Johnson is that good, I thought at the time. But now, having read this book, I see it differently: his sense of urgency is that strong. His desire to help.
So here’s the good news for every teacher I know: teaching is an incredible way to promote the long-term flourishing of lots of young people. I can’t think of a better way, actually. It is beautiful and important and reverberating work, even in 2020, even amidst quarantines that have closed our schools.
And for us teachers of writing: we weren’t crazy. Teaching our students to write well does unleash their potential, and it does open up a whole new means for accessing the power of their hearts and minds. Writing is that important. It is emancipatory.
And as Matt shares, there’s a way to do this work that doesn’t require us to make peace with the paper monster. There’s a way to do feedback well, and to do it efficiently, and to do it humanely.
For Matt Johnson — and for all of us now, thanks to Matt’s book — flash feedback isn’t just a theory. It’s a reality.
Note: The above is a modified version of the foreword I was grateful to write for Matt Johnson's important new book, Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out. Now, when I say important, I say it earnestly. Occupational burnout, after all, is a genuine malady, and it's root cause is chronic work-related stress — (i.e., carrying a constant stack of papers with you that need marking). What Matt's well-researched book helps us do is think well about things like efficiency (Chapter 1), effectiveness (Chapters 2 and 3), motivation (Chapter 4), and student ownership (Chapter 5). Within a few pages, I realized, “Wow. This took years of research and thinking and practice.” And so it did.
The book came out in March — almost exactly when COVID closures started. It was unfortunate timing for such a brilliant book, so if I may ask a favor: if you're an English teacher or an English department chair or anyone else seeking to think deep and well on giving feedback to student writing without driving ourselves nuts, see if your school might get you a copy of Matt's book for summer. I, for one, would be happy to discuss it with you as I continue to seek to bring its wisdom to bear on my work.