“Is This Good?” Building Self-Reliance in Student Writers

Please tell me I’m not the only one with this experience: 

Picture a writing workshop. Students hum along on various pieces. Inevitably, a student approaches to ask:

“Is this right?”
“Is this (poem, story, journal entry) good?”

Questions like these give me pause. Students often look to me for reassurance and validation. And of course they do. I’m their teacher, and they’re my students. The educational system trains and conditions us both to believe that the teacher’s opinion, grade, or rating is the final standard of quality, and I can’t forget the power differential between teachers and students in a classroom. 

You know what I say to that system? Phooey. Nonsense. Humbug.

Yes, my experience and wisdom matter as a teacher. Yes, my support and guidance are critical. Still, I’d hope that students’ sense of pride and accomplishment wouldn’t depend on what I think of their work.

I’ve discovered some conversational tools and classroom strategies that help me foster students’ sense of confidence and trust in themselves. I’m sharing them with you here.

Conversational Moves

As ingrained as systems and power structures are, I believe it’s possible to create an environment where kids develop their own sense of quality, where young writers trust their own judgment as much as (if not more!) than mine. 

Kids often come to me when they are feeling “stuck” in one way or another. Sometimes, my help is just what they need, and other times, it quickly becomes clear that I’m simply not giving my student what they’re asking for. To help with that disconnect, I use a conversational style I lovingly refer to as the “Jewish mother” style: answering questions with questions. Here are some of my favorites:

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Classroom Tool: Crowdsourcing

When it comes to fostering self-advocacy, I love crowdsourcing: the act of using the wisdom of the masses to develop ideas or answers. What’s great about crowdsourcing? 

  • Kids articulate for themselves what their writing needs. 
  • They don’t get advice or suggestions they’re not asking for. 
  • They’re the ones in control over the feedback. 

And let me tell you…classmates can be so thoughtful and generous. It might be a kid who creates a Google poll to pick a character name. Perhaps a writer just can’t get started on their story, and needs a push. 

Or perhaps there’s the student who, anxious that others would laugh, was unwilling to share writing at the beginning of the year. Their latest crowdsourcing request, which still reflects that hesitance, was: “Hi, I just wanted to know if you can really get a grip on the feeling and if you can understand. If you think it’s horrible, please by all means, tell me it’s horrible. In my opinion its not only the writers opinion, its the the readers opinion that matters.”

The support came through loud and clear, more forcefully and meaningfully than I’d be able to manage:

This, my friends. This is what it’s all about.

Classroom Tool: Continuum of Work Quality

Several years back, I worked with a group of fifth-graders who were stressed out. For them, the idea of “doing their best” on everything meant spending hours on assignments making sure that every assignment exceeded expectations. We talked about what our time and effort really meant, and this continuum came as a result. 

It’s been a go-to teaching resource ever since, both in my classroom and across my schools. I use this chart to help kids understand that work quality is the result of the time, effort, heart and skill we put into any task, and that they are the best judge of their own work. Click here for a copy you can use and adapt.


When it comes to fostering student independence and confidence, I’m still a work-in-progress. I don’t think there will ever be some magical moment when I look up at my student writers and think, “Yes! We’ve arrived!” Still, I can only hope that the culture my students and I build together moves us solidly in that direction.

And you? What are the words you say, the things you do, the tools you use to help your writers gain self-reliance? Put your ideas in the comments below, and share with the community!

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