A few years ago, after writing my eleventy-billionth letter of recommendation, I realized that the kids owed me. Perhaps not the most gracious response, but I had agonized over letters for a large group of past students, and I decided it was time for them to pony up. My current students were sweating buckets over revisions of their first essays and the line at my door for extra writing conferences was starting as early as 6:15am! I needed all hands on deck. In a moment of desperation (inspiration?) I dashed off a quick email to 20 former students:
Hey guys! Any interest in coming to Academic Advisory on Wednesday to help out my current AP Lang kids with their first essays? By the way, all of your letters of rec are finished and submitted.
Luckily, the thinly veiled guilt trip worked quite nicely and they all showed–some even brought friends. The next Academic Advisory, my room was packed with current and former students, paired up, perched on tables, huddled in corners, editing and discussing the younger students’ essays.
Three years later, that email sent on a whim has proven to be one of my favorite traditions of fall in my class. Seniors pop by to ask, “Are you going to need us to come in and help like the seniors did last year?” And after one go-around with the seniors, my juniors start asking, “When are they coming back??”
Every year I’m surprised by how successful the mentoring is, but in the crush of fall and the holidays, I’ve honestly never thought that much about why it works so well. So tonight I’m thinking through some possible answers to this question:
What is it about peer to peer mentoring that makes it so successful?
The seniors are writing the juniors’ essays? No.
After that first email was sent, my immediate fear was that I’d just opened the cheating floodgates. Wasn’t I encouraging the older students to just swoop in and rewrite for their younger friends? Luckily, that’s never been an issue. The seniors remember the struggle and know they learned from it. They’re eager to share their wisdom, but they don’t want to make things too easy on the juniors. When I asked them to share why they like helping the students, they replied:
“I like being able to prevent them from making the same mistakes I made. It helps me become a better writer.”
“I like trying to help people who were in the same position as me.”
And my favorite:
Don’t get me wrong, the juniors definitely want the seniors to write their essay. One even left me this comment: “Why won’t they just write them for us? Why??!!” but I’m confident that that’s just not happening. The seniors are pushing the juniors to think harder, revise and improve their writing. And the juniors are pushing the seniors to give good advice, model productive revision and improve their writing, too.
The juniors admire the seniors? Maybe.
I think this is a part of the success. Some kids came in waiting to be paired with seniors they knew from sports or student council or after school jobs. Others, though, were hesitant and waited for me to pair them up. Regardless of whether they knew their partners or not, the juniors realized that the seniors knew what they were talking about:
“I really like how the seniors just dive in head first to our papers.”
“I like how they really read your essay and comment on the good but help you fix the bad.”
My former students have tons of credibility with the current ones. They took the AP exam, and they did well. They also remember what it was like to struggle through their early essays and they’re eager to share their war stories–the essay that kept them up all night, the time Mean ol’ Maguire gave them bad grades. One Junior said it best: “I can’t believe that I’ll know as much as they know by the end of this class.” What an empowering feeling!! AP Language is a challenging class, but working with students who have just completed it shows the current students that they’re on the right path, too. And, they’re not scary:
“It’s more comfortable to talk to someone your own age because they can explain things in a language you’re used to. They’re less intimidating.”
I’ll admit, that one bums me out a little. I’m old and scary and I speak the language of the elderly?!! Realistically, though, I get it. I can work all day long on a positive, supportive classroom community, but sometimes asking your teacher to give you feedback is a little scary.
The seniors can break down the writing because they just did it? Yup.
Ultimately, this is the key to the success of this work. We dedicate a lot of time to revision in my classes so the seniors spent a whole year with me digging into their work. Early in the year we read Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” , and I explain that they need to be water buffaloes with their writing. They need to “strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward.” I even have a water buffalo hanging on my wall to remind them daily!
When the seniors return to work with my current students, they are ready to jump back into the muck and the mud and show them how it’s done. It’s not a quick read with a cursory check for some evidence. They dig in line by line and show their partners how to consider the power of the words they’re choosing. They help them weigh the positives and negatives of including different types of evidence, and they examine counterarguments carefully to make sure the writer is taking a nuanced position. The juniors aren’t quite there yet. They have a toe in the mud. This time spent working with the seniors shows them what it means to dive in.
The seniors also have lots of practice with giving good, honest feedback. “Oh wow! This is great! You’re a great writer!” isn’t incredibly helpful feedback, but students often default to such comments when they don’t have good models of how to speak to one another about their writing. How can you be critical and still be kind? How can you ask tough questions without sounding like a jerk?
Today my room was buzzing with conversations about writing. I saw former students who had struggled as juniors confidently giving feedback–a proud mama moment–and hesitant current students finally reaching out for help. Kids were engaging in real revision and pushing each other to be better. Teaching our students to work together and behave like real writers is one of the best skills we can give them, and now I’m curious about how I can make this a more regular feature of my classroom and my school. I know there are great models of student-run writing centers out there. What do you do to connect your writers and get them working together? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments or connect with you on Twitter @TeacherHattie.