“Miss …Is this right?”
After all of my time teaching high school English, you would think I’d be accustomed to this question. But it still catches me off-guard. High school students who write a sentence, or paragraph and then come running to me for approval: enabled learning at its worst.
I have tried many ways to get students to understand that writing is neither “right” nor “wrong.” Writing is about what works, what touches the reader, and what is authentic to the writer’s experience. But for Kuwaiti students like mine, who are competing for extremely lucrative government scholarships, who must endure intense parental pressure for high grades, writing is just another way students could potentially lose out on a scholarship to an international university.
So, what can an idealistic English teacher do to promote a love of reading and writing in a country where a Starbucks is on every city block, but bookstores are few and far between? It is no easy task to cultivate a love for the written word in any country. But, I have a found a few effective ways of giving feedback that appears to motivate students and take away some of the obsession with grades.
I have tried many ways of peer editing. I’ve tried very structured formats, and the more loosey-goosey of “just find a partner to peer edit.” While with certain students and certain classes, it is more challenging, what I’ve found in general, taking the time to teach peer editing pays greater dividends. First of all, I bring students into the mysterious and ambiguous world of teacher grading. I tell my students that as a teacher, I try to ask the writer questions such as “What are you trying to say?” “How did this part happen? I must have missed something.” As our school uses Turnitin.com, I always have a steady supply of past student essays from which to draw. We practice giving feedback on those essays–and using the rubric. When I haven’t had any past essays from which to draw, I’ve also been known to write a few “student essays” in my time (shhh…don’t tell them!).
I also let students know what helpful and not-so-helpful comments look like. Instead of the platitude of “great job,” I tell them to note appealing words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs. I encourage them to ask their peer-specific questions about the text: “Who is speaking here? Why do you think the narrator is crazy? How does this idea support your central argument?” Every writer will have problems in some parts, so instead of telling your peer how or specifically what to change (only the writer can ultimately make that decision), tell them about your reaction as the reader. This makes the peer not an expert in your writing, but an expert in reading your writing, and surely nobody can argue that he or she is entitled to have reactions as the reader.
To make sure that the peer editing process does not devolve into social chat time, I also have students do a reflection: one reflection upon their peer’s papers (strengths, weaknesses, areas to focus on) and one upon the feedback they received. The metacognition of the reflection allows them to think about the writing process and make a plan for where the revision will lead them.
While I’ve worked with teachers who insist that peer editing is a waste of time (indeed, I used to think that too), I have polled enough students who have convinced me otherwise. They have told me they feel they learn when peer editing someone else’s paper, and that their peers also give valuable feedback. Not to mention, by the time I get the papers for final grading, the heavy lifting is already completed.
Screencast Videos: Teacher in My Ear
Without a doubt, screencast videos take first prize in my teacher bag of tricks. These videos have allowed me to flip my classroom, and change the whole purpose of homework. Now, I assign videos (some made by me, some on Youtube) for homework and make students take notes on the videos. For the past four years, I have been gradually increasing the use of the videos. I’ve even created audiobooks where I read excerpts of books and lead them through the elements I want them to notice. For my second-language learners, these videos have been invaluable, especially for the weaker readers. But, it never occurred to me until last year that I could use this for writing feedback.
Now, after students peer edit a piece, I have them submit electronically. Then, I make a screencast video using Screencastify (a free Google App). I do a “walk through” of their writing and comment on what I see. Then, I email them the video. Perhaps the most important part of this process is that I do not give a grade. At first, students asked me if I were grading it, what grade would I give it?” But, I don’t fall into that trap anymore: I tell them to be grateful they aren’t be grading on this one!
The first time I made the videos, students were visibly delighted and amazed. One student exclaimed, “I don’t know how you did this for the entire class!” Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure how I had done it, and if I would ever do it again. But, I started to give myself a time limit of five minutes or less. Now, I read through their piece once and make a few notes on the screen. Then, I start “walking through” their essay and showing them the reactions that I have as a reader. Many of my students do not read their work aloud, and so there is great value in them hearing me read and react to their work.
Does it take longer than writing comments? Yes, somewhat. Do I do this every single time? No, maybe twice a semester. But, this also pays greater dividends than writing comments. I knew, without a doubt, many were not reading my comments. But, they are watching the videos….most of them. While some listen to the videos multiple times, there are those who don’t bother at all. After realizing a few students were simply handing in the exact same piece with no revision, (and you just know that those were the ones with the most problems, and thus the ones I spent the most time on!) I started making students do a quick reflection on my feedback and a revision plan.
Here is a revision assignment that I recently gave to students to complete after the peer/teaching editing process.
Write a thorough and complete paragraph for each of the following:
- Take a paragraph where you are largely telling instead of showing. Rewrite it so that you are now showing. What is the difference? What effect does it now have compared to before? How will this enhance the reader’s experience?
- What is the epiphany that you are trying to explain in this piece? How effectively do you think you capture it? By making specific reference to your own words, explain your thoughts about your work.
- Discuss the style of your piece. What stylistic choices are you making? Give examples from your work and explain the intended effect on your audience.
- What feedback did your peer and/or teacher give you? Do you agree or disagree? How did this change your work? How did this change or shape their writing?
I tell my students that people do not improve without recognizing their own weaknesses, and this comes through reflection. For literary discussions, I ask my students to reflect on their performance. So instead of grading the actual discussion, I ask students to self-evaluate and determine how their thinking may have changed as a result of the discussion. Here is a rubric from the University of Toronto that I use to grade reflections:
While none of these strategies are magic bullets for encouraging revision, they are techniques that I’ve had the most success with so far. While I don’t have hard data to support this success, I can see the significant changes between student’s first draft and the final. And when I looked back at work class from two years ago with whom I did none of these strategies, and I can see this year’s work is stronger. Here is a student’s reflection upon a piece of writing that had both teacher and peer feedback:
“My teacher told me my story appeared to have unnecessary details that didn’t add to the story… It also focused more on unimportant events rather than my epiphany. I changed my work by removing the excess parts of the story and replacing their space with intriguing detail…I was able to get my point across without adding extra “fluff” to my essay.”
Here is the reflection this same student wrote about the advice she gave to her peer:
“When reading her essay. I found myself getting distracted…the essay wasn’t as captivating as it could have been. I advised my partner to switch up her writing style by adding a variety of sentence lengths to her essay. I also advised her to replace some of the more boring sentences with fascinating and meaningful descriptions. For example, her essay mentioned the very last traditional meal she ate in Kuwait before moving to Edinburgh. I advised her to expand on the description of the meal as it shows her love for her country. More descriptive writing makes the audience feel as though they are living the experience rather than reading a story.”
Yes, these strategies are messy, but learning is a messy process, and it does not always meet strict time school deadlines. And the reflection process is invaluable. For without reflection, there can be no revision and without revision, there can be no growth as a writer.
Do I still have students ask, “Is this right?” Sure, and I probably always will. But now, I ask them to give me specific questions about their piece. And, I try to get them to take ownership of their work, to see themselves as a writer.