Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I have a new series for younger boys, ages five to seven:

Product Details
Dinosaur Cove by Rex Stone.

There's excitement, there's danger. And there's information. It's like Magic Tree House, but not so obvious.

Now on to something else, because this can't wait until Monday.

Feedback. All learning is better when it is part of a conversation, right? When it's not part of an isolated vacuum. When it is part of a larger whole, and when you get to share what you've learned with others.

But so often, when we're helping our kids improve something—anything—the feedback we give them becomes criticism and all the child hears is—you stink. Or, you failed. Or, you can never do this up to my expectations.

But feedback MUST be given. So how to do it without these negative feelings?

We've all heard of the sandwich theory where you say one positive comment (something they've done right), stick in a negative comment (something they need to work on), and finish with another positive comment.

If you draw this analogy out further, however, it doesn't hold up so well. The guts of a sandwich are what give the sandwich it's taste. It's name. We rarely focus on the kind of bread we are going to use for our sandwich. Much more emphasis is put on what's in the middle.

I'm not so sure something like this works: "Calvin, the way you played that last song was really fun because you made it peppy. You missed half the notes, so you really need to work on getting it in tune, but I liked the way you closed your eyes at the end. That almost made up the difference."

If that were me, I would only hear the part about the notes. When I get a review back of my writing and I am complimented on my voice or my use of language, but there are serious issues with the story, I think, wow, that's great, but if my story stunk, my language couldn't have been that great. The compliments feel like the bread on a sandwich, a filler that always tastes basically the same. It feels like my friendly editor (they are always friendly) was trying to come up with some bread so they could feed me a critical sandwich, not a slam.

Lucy and Calvin have a fabulous cello teacher. Fabulous. And when they are finished playing a piece, he says, "Good, good. Nice playing. Lovely playing. Good, good." And then he says something like, "You know, when I think of this song, I think of angels, do you think of angels?" And he plays a bit of the song on his cello, making it sound completely angelic. "I'd like to hear you do that," he'll say. Or sometimes he says, "What do you hear when I play this?" And a conversation is had between the two of them where they try to nail down what my child is trying to accomplish while playing this song.

Then he will teach them specific techniques they can use to draw out that kind of sound. And he may be critical when he is teaching those techniques. He may say, "Sometimes when you play, I see your bow go downwards like this, and it slips off the string. But if you can keep it on the string—" and then he demonstrates the amazing sound that comes from that kind of focus. Then Lucy or Calvin will give the song another try with this new technique—abandoning what wasn't working—and I can honestly say that every single time, the song comes out at least better, if not angelic.

For some reason, with this kind of teaching, you don't ever hear the criticism. Even when their teacher specifically points out what they are doing wrong, it doesn't feel like a personal sting. He isn't saying, "You bad, dumb player." Instead, he is saying, "Your hands have not been taught what to do in order to give you the power and control you want. Let's teach them." And success and growth occur at every lesson.

I know we've gotten away from the idea of a "melting pot" in America. At least in college, I learned that we were trying to think of America's population as a mixed-salad, everybody of every shape and size and color chopped in together to make something delicious.

But I like thinking of real, critical teaching as a melting pot. You stir everything in, the good and the bad ingredients, because that's what you've got to work with, but you always, always cook with the intention of producing a delicious soup. A soup your student can taste and smell and hunger for. A soup your students can aim for.

Our children are our students. We need to give them something to aim for. We need to give them examples, mentors, people we want them to be like. People we want them to admire. (Hopefully some of those people are us!)

When they have a writing assignment for school and they ask you to look at it. Take the time to find a great passage from something, a book, an article, and show them an example of what you'd like them to aim for. Hug them, sit with them, tell them they can do it. They can reach for the stars. In my experience, there is always a moment when they will say, "I can't do that! I can't, I can't, I can't." But we must patiently tell them, you can, you can, you can, and when they do produce something better, even just a little bit better, you heap on the praise. You worked hard. You revised and revised until it was good. You are a writer. You can do this. You are a musician. You practiced and practiced and practiced until you got the sound you were looking for. You can do this.

You are a reader. You tried this book, and you didn't like it so much, but you did like this part, so then you worked to find something else a little like it but better. You loved that book, you laughed, you learned. You are an explorer. You are someone who searches for something great to love. You are a reader.

The most important part of this is the conversation. The dialogue. What is happening in the interactions. When they see stars in your eyes, they want to aim for those stars, and when they feel your arms around them, they know you believe in them. That you will stick by them patiently, patiently until those stars are found. That you will never give up and you will not get frustrated as they try and fail and try and fail.

I have worked for years and years on music with my kids. The oldest four play instruments: Mary, the violin/viola; Lucy and Calvin the cello; and Shaemus, the double bass. We've had so many stresses and fights and wanting to give up.

But I finally feel like I have figured out a way to teach and encourage my kids as they play. With the girls, who practice independently now, I try to occasionally go in and listen as they play. Just listen. Let them know I'm enjoying myself. That their playing is entertaining me. I still have to practice with the boys or they go way too far off track, but I try very hard to model my teaching after our fabulous cello teacher, and do you know what? It works. There are hardly ever tears. There is hardly ever contention, but I am constantly making suggestions, stopping them in the middle of their songs—and most of all showing them that after doing something ten times or more, it is better. Much, much better.

I'm attaching two movies of Mary's last fiddling recital. It's not perfect, and Sam broke it up into two movies when he emailed it to me, so the middle of the song is missing, but to me, it is an example of why patiently working with our kids, giving them feedback, having conversations, giving them something wonderful to aim for in everything in life is so very important. And worth it.

(Mary is in the green, my daughter, Lucy, is playing the cello, and Mary's teacher is in the middle. Mary and her teacher switch instruments partway through. Mary is on the viola first, playing the low part, and in the second video, she's playing the violin, the high part. They had a moment of panic when it took her teacher a little too long to switch instruments—that's the pause in the second video.)


  1. I'm not sure why, but reading this post then watching the videos made me cry! I think I was so amazed by how well the girls played! And then thinking on how I can improve the way I give my kids feedback and instruction. Thanks Linds!

  2. Loved watching Mary and Lucy play! And feedback is something I've thought of a lot lately. We all played our violins in church on Sunday and they practiced and practiced and then performed it worse than they ever practiced it. I'm sure everyone else thought it was great, but I was so disappointed. Somehow my feelings got tangled into things because I put so much of my time into helping them and that shouldn't happen. But I believe in honest feedback. I think kids need to know when they have done great and when they can improve so that they will trust us. This was wonderful for me. Thank you!

  3. Great post! Like Robyn, it really made me think a lot about the way I give feedback...I hope I can do better.
    ...and your girls playing is fabulous!