Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part I

This week, we bring you a special treat — a three-part series from two new guest writers. Over the next few days, they will tell the story of their cross-school, cross-grade writing collaboration as they connected 9th and 12th grade writers. As you’ll see, this partnership grew beyond their expectations! 

Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School, and Robyn Corelitz teaches English at Hinsdale Central High School.  Both schools are located in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.  In addition to their work at school, they both work for the National Blogging Collaborative–Chris as co-director and Robyn as a writing coach.  They met first, digitally, through collaborative writing, and are passionate about connecting teachers and students through writing. You can connect with them on Twitter @MrBronke and @RobynCorelitz. 

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modern day pen pals- (1)

There was a palpable energy in the room; nervous, yet weirdly charming. It was a foreign experience for these seniors, but one to which they had been looking forward for a few months now. The room was set up to look and feel like a collegiate workspace – pods of desks and chairs arranged in friendly quads, a break table full of donuts, a tangle of power cords and adapters criss-crossing the floor.

The bus slowly rumbled its way over the final speed bump, and that is when it hit the freshmen: they were about to meet their senior writing partners.  The youthful laughter and playful sounds of the bus ride quickly turned into faces filled with consternation, a few quizzical smiles.  Finally, after working together for eight months, they were going to meet their partners.

They knew one another as writers, editors, readers, poets, presenters, and people; despite having never met, all of this was accomplished through the power of collaborative writing.  It started as an exercise aimed to improve peer feedback.  Robyn, a teacher at Hinsdale Central High School,  faced a problem: her seniors weren’t taking peer-editing as seriously as she would have liked (we can all relate to that). Chris, department chair at Downers Grove North High School, also faced a problem: he feared his freshmen did not have the discipline-specific vocabulary (yet) to give meaningful enough peer-feedback to truly improve writing.  So, a collaboration was born.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.07.25 PM.pngOver the course of eight months, these two groups of students from two different schools in two very different grade levels, came together virtually to learn from one another.  The collaboration started with an introduction letter, ninth grade students writing to their senior partners not only introduce themselves but to share their fears about being in high school as a person and as a learner/writer.  In return, the seniors wrote back, also introducing themselves, but then addressing the freshmen fears as as well as making a few book recommendations.

From there, we changed gears to the main purpose of this partnership: improving peer-to-peer feedback.  After finishing Fahrenheit 451, the freshmen wrote an analysis essay, and then  shared those with their senior partners.  Seniors then had a few days to give feedback.  The best part about this: none of it was graded.  Not the actual essay for the freshmen nor the feedback for the seniors.  This really was scholars, being scholarly for the sake of scholarship, and it was beautiful.  While not required, most pairings exchanged multiple drafts and received multiple iterations of feedback.  One fact became clear: this exchange, the power of having an authentic audience with which to share one’s writing and one’s feedback, created an intrinsic motivation within our students that neither of us had ever seen before.

This exchanged continued for two more rounds of papers. Chris’s students shared their drafts and Robyn’s students provided high-quality and meaningful feedback; however, we quickly realized, based on student feedback, we were missing the bigger point: this didn’t have to be a one-way street.  The seniors wanted to share their writing with the freshmen in order to get their feedback, too.  This serendipitous surprise truly blew our minds.  We never figured a senior Advanced Placement student would see any value in sharing a piece of his or her writing with a freshman honors student, and yet, they were clamoring for it.   As good fortune would have it, the seniors were currently working on their college admission essays, so not only were the freshmen able to see the seniors’ writing and give feedback, they were able to already start to think about college essays and learn from the seniors.  This step in the process was a highlight for Chris in particular as his earlier fear about his students not having the discipline-specific vocabulary to give meaningful feedback was quickly laid to rest; as a result of getting multiple rounds of great feedback from the seniors, his freshmen had developed the language needed to reciprocate that feedback.

It was at this point in the year that both sets of students began to ask for two things: can we meet our partners at some point this year and can we write WITH them?  Who were we to deny these requests? We quickly worked with our administrations to get a field trip scheduled, and began to create a collaborative writing experience based on the protocols used by the National Blogging Collaborative. Students were paired based on a common passion, given time to gush write, categorize their gushes, and eventually work to turn that into a single coherent piece of writing. After a few weeks on this project, we realized that in order to finish these well, we would need to have them work face-to-face at the field trip (which we will share more about in the second blog in this series).  So, we put this assignment on hold and turned our attention to reading and analyzing poetry.

Students, regardless of age, struggle with poetry; this much we know.  Because of this, we thought these partnerships might be the perfect way to attack poetry.  Turns out, we were right.  Over the course of a month or so, students, using Google Docs, collaboratively annotated/text-marked poems, learning from, questioning, and challenging one another.  This honest and open -yet safe- environment provided the perfect space for students to take risks when discussing poetry, something that is not normally easy for them to do.  Ultimately, this part of the project ended with a true and authentic They Say/I Say style writing piece in which the seniors selected a poem and did a written analysis.  The freshmen then had to read the poem and their partner’s paper and do a response back, working on their argumentative and analytical writing skills while being forced to authentically navigate a real counterclaim. Many of Robyn’s seniors claimed that the feedback from their freshman partners was one of the most valuable writing exercises of the year – many of the freshman really took them to task in their counter-analysis, which sharpened the seniors’ revision process and made them acutely aware of shortcomings in their analyses.

The reality is that we could go on and on about some of the other projects that the pairings went through, but the purpose of this first blog in the series is for you to get a sense of this project, the why, how, and what of this collaboration.  Stay tuned for part two in which we will discuss the actual field trip and what it was like to bring these classes together, face-to-face: to write, think and laugh – not as students, but as people.

 

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2 thoughts on “Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part I

  1. Good stuff here! We all learn in social groups and talking communities…writing communities are no different. Yet, it is tempting to isolate kids as writers and to shush the room (even though we know turning-and-talking can be one of the best ways to access our thinking). Looking forward to the next post.

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