A few weeks ago, I wrote about how highlighting my students’ areas for improvement in their writing helped them to lose a little bit of their fear by validating their mistakes and giving them the ability to correct them.
The technique has worked so well this semester that I decided to encourage my students to build on these skills try it again, this time by using it to help tackle something that has always caused a little bit of trouble in English I: peer editing.
Perhaps I should explain that peer editing and I have a little bit of an arduous past that dates back a few years, to my first year at my current school, which was my second year as a teacher. My school has a subscription to Turnitin, an online platform to which students can submit their essays. Among other things, teachers can set up the classroom to allow students to provide peer feedback to each other. Excited with this new possibility (my old school didn’t have the money for a subscription to that kind of site), I eagerly set up my English I class for peer review.
And, then I ran headlong into a whole host of problems. For one, not everyone submitted essays for feedback; Also, sometimes online platforms just don’t work the right way. Some students spent the entire class period editing peers’ essays only to have their work lost when their changes didn’t save.
Perhaps the largest issue, though, was that fourteen-year-old boys can be very (very!) immature. Needless to say, the feedback that they provided each other was less than stellar. In fact, much of it wasn’t even terribly appropriate.
Immediately, I received a few emails from parents concerned about how their student didn’t get fair feedback, or that someone left an inappropriate comment on their student’s essay. I was frustrated and upset. It wasn’t supposed to work like that — how could I make them take it seriously?
My solution was to shy away from peer feedback and give them my own feedback instead. After all, I’m the teacher, right? It’s better coming from me. So, that’s what I did. Feedback, feedback. I honed my own feedback skills, finding the positive and the room for improvement in each essay. It was a lot of grading, but I was satisfied that they were getting appropriate and constructive comments, which was what they needed to improve as writers.
It was a rookie mistake, of course. If I want them to give good feedback, I have to teach them how to give it. Sure, I can demonstrate it in the feedback I give them, but it doesn’t do much good unless they have the chance to do it themselves.
Since that first experience, I’ve cautiously waded in the peer feedback waters, experimenting with different methods: giving them sentence stems or guided questions to use, peer feedback rubrics to fill out, or conducting editing workshops where I teach them to edit for specific elements. While all have provided some degree of success, it wasn’t until last week that I finally hit upon a method that worked: combining the highlighting method with guided questions in a mini-editing workshop.
It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. In fact, I didn’t do a whole heck of a lot. Mostly, I just watched.
My students had spent the previous class period drafting their Informational Narrative podcasts about culturally significant people, places, or events. The assignment required them to inform while telling a story, combining elements of informational and narrative writing, which they then recorded as a podcast.
I asked them to bring a copy of their draft in some capacity (digital or paper) to our editing class. We started revising these drafts by teaching MLA citation format, which is a 9th grade requirement. While they knew the basics of MLA formatting, we had not gone over citations in class — I had just asked them to become familiar with the format on their own. I demonstrated citations first by creating them for one of the paragraphs of the class example podcast we had created the previous week. Then, I had my students go through and edit their own essays to include citations. I walked around answering their questions, but encouraged them to share and work with each other as they worked to insert citations.
This was an important first step, I think, because it got them into the mindset of editing — realizing that their essay was fluid and not final; that they could change it if they needed to.
After 10 minutes of citation editing (just to give them some practice) we got down to the real purpose of the class: peer editing.
Then I gave them the following instructions, to “highlight” (either physically or by writing them on notebook paper) and number three specific things:
- 1. Your “claim” (i.e. why this is important for your listeners)
- 2. One sentence or paragraph that you are most proud of. This might be one that includes great sensory details, or that just represents your best writing.
- 3. One sentence or paragraph that is troubling you or that you think needs some work. (yes, you do have one)
Some of them realized a few things immediately. Like, “oh…I don’t really have a claim. Oops.” Or, “Ew, this paragraph needs work!” Their reactions were great, because they were taking an honest look at their own writing and pulling out specific pieces rather than becoming bogged down by the whole thing.
The last step I asked them to take was to find five different classmates to trade highlights and share feedback with. They were not to read each others’ entire essays — just the highlights. They were given these specific instructions, the numbers of which corresponded to their highlights :
Offer the following CONSTRUCTIVE feedback to FIVE of your peers:
- 1. Is their claim clear? If not, how can they improve it? Does it make you want to listen to their podcast?
- 2. What do you like most about this sentence/paragraph? Is there anything they can do to improve it, or is it perfect the way it is?
- 3. What can they do to improve this sentence or paragraph? Offer suggestions.
I crossed my fingers and held my breath here, because I really didn’t know how it would go.
Then, I had “the moment.”
The moment occurred when “Carrie,” one of my top students, and “Fatima,” an ESL student, partnered themselves to give feedback on their informational narratives. It was a great pairing, actually. Carrie is quiet, but thoughtful. She doesn’t speak often, but when she does, it’s profound and intelligent, and shows how deeply she thinks about things. Fatima is quiet, too, probably because her limited English skills make her a little bit shy to speak in front of others. But, she works hard to maintain a low-B average, and she actively seeks out ways to improve herself.
Intrigued by the fact that they decided to pair themselves, I stood back and watched as they offered each other feedback on their chosen selections from their essays. Carrie looked at Fatima directly in her eyes. She spoke slowly and carefully, used gestures and pointing when necessary. And she told her point blank how to make her essay better. And, Fatima? She got it. Her eyes got wide. She nodded and smiled. She picked up her pencil and scribbled out a few words and painstakingly reworked them. And Carrie patiently helped her. When it was Fatima’s turn, she pointed and smiled, told Carrie what she liked, and offered solid suggestions for improvement.
They weren’t the only ones. The vast majority of my students were actually, genuinely helping each other, and genuinely offering good feedback.
Success. And relief.
Asking my students to highlight their own good writing helped them, I think, to see that they are capable of good writing that they should be proud to share. And, sharing it along with an area that they need to improve provides a bit of a confidence boost for having someone else look at their writing, almost as if they are saying, “this is how good I can be, this other part just needs work to get there.” Specific questions helped target their feedback so that they actually had something to say. And, feedback coming from peers always seems to have a little (or a lot) more influence than feedback coming from a teacher. They work hard to impress each other.
Overall, I’m proud of how this method worked, and I’ll definitely attempt it again with our next essay, which they will be writing in class next week.
There’s always room for improvement with writing. I hope that by giving them the method and the language to engage in offering feedback to their peers that I’m helping to create a classroom culture that fosters positive, constructive feedback. Even from freshmen.