Ron Berger Critique Essay

Guest Author: Tracy Williams – Follow her on Twitter: @trawill14

She’s an elementary teacher who has a passion for developing student writers, and empowering their voice through quality feedback. She has developed a related resource to help other teachers in their thinking to support their students: Feedback Screencast. Here is what she has to say, inspired by an important education thinker, Ron Berger:

Review of Beautiful Work

In the article Beautiful Work, author and educator Ron Berger paints the picture of his classroom where beautiful, quality work is expected. Berger gives readers many examples of how he encourages his students to create important, aesthetic work for real audiences.  Regardless of subject area, his students learn they must strive for quality and beauty through class culture, crafting, and authentic critiquing. No matter how simple the assignment, the quest for valuable work is the goal.

Right away, Berger confronts the main perceived obstacle of teachers when they envision a classroom such as his. “The new national focus on ‘standards’ seems to be less about high standards than about covering required material, and there is little time left in most schools for the quest for real quality.” Today’s teachers face rigorous curriculums where they feel little time for elements such as aesthetics.  They are foregoing quality for the sake of quantity. One consequence of this is students feel more and more like there isn’t time for mistakes or revisions, or editing.  They are often in a rush to complete assignments and they aremissing the value of the work. And when one doesn’t understand the value of the work, maintaining true pride in successes and a growth mindset in failures are difficult to own.

In order to experience real growth, students must know what it feels like to recognize their own mistakes, and want to improve upon them.  This implies that a growth mindset should be fostered within the classroom and through the work.  One cannot achieve real beauty without struggle, or quality without mistakes. So students must be made to believe that these things are not only accepted, but valued.  In the past, one of my struggles as a writing teacher was trying to get kids to revise and edit.  They much prefer the idea of one and done.  I can now see that my challenge – my job –  is to help students see the value in the process, as well as the work itself.  This means assigning less work, but more valuable pieces. It also means providing positive yet authentic goals and feedback, which allow student room improve and grow.  In addition, creating a classroom culture is critical. Berger refers to working with professionals, daily discussions, multiple drafts, a classroom gallery, as well as formal and informal critique sessions.  All of these ideas would be excellent implementations to help students understand and value high expectations.

Berger touched on another important piece in regards to creating valuable work. He presents his students with models of the type of work he wants them to create. “We use models of excellence to set the standards for our work – models from former students in our school or other schools, and models from the professional world.  What in many schools might be called cheating is considered wise practice in our classroom: studying great work to learn what we can borrow and what strategies we can learn.”  This really struck a chord with me.  Several years ago, I started following Study Driven (2006) by Katie Wood Ray.  In this writing program, one of the first steps of writing meaningful pieces involved immersing children with models of the kind of work we wanted them to emulate. Students were then able to analyze the elements of those pieces and then put them to practice.  I saw growth in my student writers using this program, and I strongly believe in the value of modeling. This is a practice that I plan to continue.  Presenting students with several high-quality models is key.

In conclusion, Beautiful Work is a reminder of the expectations we should hold students and ourselves accountable.  It is a reminder to keep the work we assign meaningful, so that students can set meaningful goals.  It is a reminder to strive for quality, instead of quantity. It is a reminder to create the classroom culture you envision. And finally, it is a reminder to both teachers and students to value the thinking and the process, as well as the work itself.



Berger, R. (Date Unknown). Beautiful Work. Buck Institute for Education. Retrieved from

Ray, K.W. (2006). Study driven: A framework for planning units of study in the writing workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann








To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion…”

― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

In recent months, I have been considering the importance of modelling writing – I’ve even written a couple of blog posts about it (here and here). Yet despite my fervour for modelling, in the back of my mind a nagging doubt has continued to haunt me. Could my use of models be denying students a chance to become free writers, to find their own voices, to find their own way? In the words of the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie, is my modelling an unnecessary ‘intrusion’ when I should be ‘leading out’ the latent creativity of my students?

Whether true, pure creativity exists is a philosophical question this pragmatic teacher would like to avoid for today. It is certainly true that many English teachers, myself included, have been inspired by the idea that reading and writing can set us on the path to self-expression; for a teacher to constrain this freedom is  tantamount to tyranny, we might argue. Room for thinking has been paramount to my own development as a writer – why deny it to others?

Unfortunately, however, the blunt reality presented by the literacy capabilities of many of my students has dulled some of this idealism. It has been further dented by my reading of Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn, with its persuasive emphasis on the importance of modelling and the use of worked-examples.

You see, the purposeful and explicit use of models in the classroom, whether through exemplars or ‘live’ writing, is absolutely vital, especially when our students have had deficient literacy input at home. Models provide the opportunity for our students to see how tone, structure, grammar and ideas can become knitted together in a cohesive whole beyond the sum of the parts. How can you ‘lead out’ something when these seeds have yet to be sewn?

Be that as it may, all is not lost. I believe that creativity is not inspired by sticking our heads in the sand and hoping; it can be taught, and the way to do this is simple. We model more frequently, not less, and, like Ron Berger, we immerse our students in a multiplicity of exemplars. There are three obvious types: the teacher model, the student model and the outside expert model (written by the professional writer from past or present). All should be treated with equal importance.

Before I share some ideas, let me tell you the wonderful tale of how, with a gap of several years, I witnessed one student’s writing inspire another’s. Five years ago, I taught Lucy, an incredibly gifted writer. She wrote a wonderful piece from the perspective of an aged Beatrix Potter whose thoughts and imaginings, now blighted by dementia, had become consumed by the nostalgic memories of her literary creations. Three years later, I read and discussed this piece with another class. One boy, Simon, significantly less talented than Lucy, produced a remarkable echo of her work. It told the tale of a parish vicar looking back over his life and, word by word, renouncing his faith in God. Simon had been brought up in a strictly Christian family. Writing this remarkably restrained piece, inspired in tone, content and structure by a girl he had never met, was of profound importance to a young man who may have been questioning his own faith.

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So how can we use written models in the classroom in such a manner that teaches our students the technicalities of writing, yet does not unduly constrain?

Use more than one model. Time and resourcing constraints mean that, more often than not, our students are introduced to only one exemplar. This can be dogmatic. Instead, we need to show them that there are many possible paths to successful writing. Providing three or more very good but very different exemplars (perhaps just as paragraphs), and asking students to select their favourite can lead to a rich discussion that triggers inspiration in different ways.

Use teacher models in conjunction with student models as often as possible. Only two weeks ago I asked my mixed-ability Y9 class to write a letter from Much Ado About Nothings Benedick to an agony aunt. I figured that the task would be tough and so they needed to see an example first – a letter I wrote from an agony aunt, this time from Beatrice. This was great for the weaker students, who captured the tone and style better than I could have imagined in their Benedick letters. Unfortunately, a few too many strong writers took the safe option by parroting my model. Luckily, not all of them did, and when I repeat the task I have a number of interesting – and better – exemplars to share and critique alongside mine.

Make sure we are constantly sniffing out new models. Like Ron Berger with his portfolios of excellence, I know I must now adopt a consistent strategy for identifying and storing models. Every time I mark a set of books, my aim is to scan at least two pieces of good quality work using the CamScanner app on my iPhone, which is then send to my Dropbox folders. Too often in the past, I have not done this and great work has been lost. If I leave it until the end of the year to collate, it never happens.  My aim now is to extend this approach across my department; as teachers we can gain fresh insights from regularly reading the great work of our colleagues’ students and, more importantly, so can our classes.

Consider the sequencing of models. The order we present models to our classes can lead to constraint or freedom. Even though we must seek to create a common conception of excellence, it is important to avoid creating a power structure where the teacher’s ideas are made to seem more valid than others. I find that more freedom is created when my ‘teacher model’– a precise teaching tool often designed around the key grammatical concepts I am trying to introduce or key weaknesses that need to be addressed – is shared before student models. Implicit in this sequence is the idea that my expectation can be achieved in a variety of ways

Use anthologies of student examples creatively. Each year in my English department we create an anthology of the best KS3 writing, which leads to a presentation evening. I keep sets of these anthologies as a teaching resource that can be used in a multitude of ways both in class and as homework before students complete their own writing.

Create degrees of separation between the model and the students’ work.Take a great example (established author/teacher/student) and then ask students to ‘plan backwards’ – write the plan we imagine the original writer designed. After this, students plan their own piece of work. This creates a greater degree of separation from the original exemplar, giving students more room to move.

Build in different entry points in mixed-ability classes. Modelling for freedom can be tricky with a mixed-ability class. In general, the more able the writer, the less we want to constrain. Here’s one simple strategy for using a  model that works well.

1.Share a first paragraph (preferably ‘live’ with the help of the class).

2.As a whole-class shared exercise, structure a plan for the next few paragraphs (maybe six in length.)

3.Ask stronger writers to write their own plans – using the shared one as a model – and let weaker writers (if they need to) copy out the shared plan as their own.

4.If necessary, the very weak (or very uninspired) can copy out the first paragraph and carry on from there. All others will use their own plans – either the class plan or their own.

Model a chain of influence. Demonstrate how good writers are inspired by one another by showing how one student has taken the flavour of another’s writing and made it their own – like Lucy and Simon. Both pieces of work are shown side-by-side so that the class can consider the workings of influence and inspiration.

Plan before models are introduced. This way students can ‘own’ their ideas and structures, but we can have more say over the technicalities and grammatical constructs they employ.


As the father of a two year old boy, I am now in a front row seat as his language bursts forth. It has taken time, patience, and plenty of modelling from many people to get to this stage. Over time, over years, over key stages, is it wishful thinking to imagine that a multiplicity of models might encourage written language, in all its freedom, to burst forth in our classrooms?

Related posts:

Tom Sherrington – Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to set the Standards

David Fawcett – Can I be a little better at knowing what high quality work looks like

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Posted in Writing / Tagged English Teaching, Modelling, Ron Berger, Teaching writing /

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