Harsh feedback not needed for contest entries

Teaching Your Child

Teaching Your Child


My students recently competed in a creative writing festival. The entries varied from short story to essay/narrative to rhymed or free verse poetry. All of the work was student-driven and teacher-guided.

We worked on each step of the process together -- from generating story ideas to writing, editing and submitting the final product.

Overall, it was a worthwhile experience.

We had to follow specific guidelines for word count and content. We made sure that each entry was within the parameters for its category. (Or at least, we thought we did.)

We completed each entry form and submitted the work before the deadline.

Then we waited for the judges' response.

In the meantime, we received a packet of entries from other schools. Several teachers at our school served as judges for those entries.


I enjoyed reading the work of students from schools throughout Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area. It was encouraging to see the talent displayed in a variety of categories.

When I judged the entries from other students, my main focus was on content. If the content was strong, the rating was high. I deducted points for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, but that wasn't my primary focus.

This approach comes from my background in working for newspapers.

As an editor, I can fix a few errors here and there, but I probably won't have time to rewrite an entire story.

Some English teachers, however, seemed to come from a different perspective.

One run-on sentence? Throw out the piece.

A misspelled word? How could you?

Commas in the wrong place? Tsk, tsk.

Sometimes I think students shy away from writing because they think it has to be perfect. They have good ideas, but are afraid to experiment with them from fear of making a mistake.

Don't we all make mistakes? Isn't that how we learn?

Our school received many awards in the festival, but I cringed at some of the comments other teachers wrote on my students' work:

"Very poor job on punctuation!" (Poor was underlined three times.) The student put punctuation outside of the quotes: ". instead of ." (Periods and commas should go inside quotes.)

I had marked this on her rough draft, but perhaps she didn't notice it or maybe she didn't know what the proofreading mark meant. At any rate, the teacher could have said, "Punctuation goes inside quotes." Instruction can be given without making a student feel like a failure.

In another case, a teacher wrote that a story was well written but that the ending "was disappointing."

This was a 13-year-old's first attempt at a short story. I wasn't disappointed. I saw great potential.

But the kicker was this comment: "Work should never be submitted in a point size larger than 12, and choose a more readable text, such as Times New Roman."

The point size on the poem probably was 14. The font wasn't Times, but it was a basic, clean choice that was not difficult to read.

There were many positive comments among the negative ones, but the negative ones seemed to linger.

We discussed those comments, and I told my students that they need to be prepared for people who choose a harsh approach. Look for the element of truth and be like a duck -- let the rest of it roll off your back.

OK, I admit it. I'm a little protective of my students and I want to approach them in a way that doesn't discourage their efforts or penalize their progress.

When we enter the contest next year, I will make sure each entry is in Times New Roman, preferably 12 point or smaller.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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