As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.
But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead? As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk.
I try to confer as much as possible with students, but the building block of those writing conferences are the notes that I keep about each of my students as writers. Each fall, I dedicate a separate notebook for each of my classes and dedicate a two-page spread (sometimes I need more) for each student. On these pages, I write down notes about each piece of writing that that student has written. I note the student’s strengths and challenges, yes, but at the beginning of the year, the most important data I can collect is what interests and passions they have. I also have students complete a separate student-interest survey—what clubs or sports take up their time, what subjects do they like, what do they read, and so on—and I add details from this survey to my notebook.
The value of having this notes—and starting them early—has never ceased to amaze me. I remember having a conversation with one student, Michael, who was having a hard time deciding on a topic for his next piece of writing. “I just stare at the screen and don’t know what to write,” he shared.
“Do you go back to your writer’s notebook?” I asked, knowing he had a lot of rich material already in there.
“Sometimes, but then it’s too overwhelming.”
I glanced at my page of notes for Michael. Because I’m trying to capture the big ideas and patterns I’m seeing with students, I noticed that many of his earlier writing has focused on every family member except his brother. When I asked Michael about that, he was surprised. He was close to his brother and his brother’s absence from his writing hadn’t stood out to him and now he started to wonder why. As we talked, I could see that there was a question there behind his eyes. He left our conference with something to think about, an idea that needed to be explored.
PEER RESPONSE GROUPS
If I had to list the most transformative changes in my teaching in the last few years, cultivating authentic peer response groups would be near the top of the list. I know that in the months ahead that I will simply not be able to get to all of them in time to get them the feedback they need. So I need to give them practice in learning to lean on each other and give one another effective, constructive feedback.
That said, we’ve all been in situations when peer response groups simply don’t work (“It’s the blind leading the blind,” skeptical teachers insist). But students need to feel comfortable and safe enough to share their writing. I sometimes think we forget how vulnerable we’re asking students to be when we put them into peer response groups and let them loose. Effective peer response demands thoughtful scaffolding. And the first few months of the school are critical.
Before we can ask or expect students to share and receive meaningful feedback, we need to find ways to build their levels of confidence in themselves and trust in each other. Here are two essential guidelines I try to remember, especially as I organize instruction in the beginning of the year: 1) Give students opportunities to get to know each other; and 2) Build their discussion skills through intentional strategies.
Give students opportunities to get to know each other.
About 90% of the notebook work we do in the beginning of the year is focused on identity. I want students reflecting on who they are as individuals and unearthing all of the rich and multiple identities they possess. We list what others see, demographic information, hobbies, lists, groups, likes, dislikes, and on and on. Just yesterday, our writing prompt was simply to complete the line “I am a person who…” as many different ways as possible. Then we shared.
Sharing is key. We whipped around the room, with each student choosing one thing to share. Their responses were telling. Among them:
- I am a person who wants to know more about world issues but I’m overwhelmed by the news.
- I am a person who loves to swim and hates it at the same time.
- I am a person who doesn’t understand why there are people in the world who could hate others without knowing them.
- I am a person who lives with her grandparents.
Almost every notebook write we do in class is followed by a quick—and safe—opportunity to share. We whip around the room, like yesterday, or we talk to our table partner, or we share clockwise in our small groups (seating has been pre-arranged to make sure that such groups are easily accessible at any time).
One of our first assignments of the year was for students to write an essay of introduction and read it aloud to the class. They are always so wonderful to hear—and not just read—because it allows each individual students’ voices to be heard. This year, I also added a blank seating chart and asked students to write down every student’s name and at least one piece of information they learned about that their classmates from their essays. I have a blank duplicate seating chart on the reverse side that we can use for similar sharing later this year.
In another class, I asked students to interview each other. Each student received a list of 30 questions and was assigned one question from the list to ask every member of the class. Students gathered their “data,” and were able to draw conclusions about us as a class based on the information they collected. Better yet, this activity had kids moving, talking to one another, and it forced them to know each other’s names. Small, regular activities like this build the foundation of the relationships they’ll need in a few weeks when I ask them to work in peer response groups.
Build discussion skills through intentional strategies.
The longer I teach, the more I realize that I haven’t paid attention to scaffolding discussion skills the same way I scaffold reading and writing. And yet “speaking and listening” are key areas of the Common Core and all state standards—and I’d argue, of civic engagement and civil discourse. In the past, I’ve relied heavily on nurturing a sense of community in my classroom. The logic went like this: If students feel safe, they will share their ideas and thoughts.
But while a sense of community is critical, it’s also limited. Establishing community is the first step, but students need intentional and regular practice in talking with one another—and varied ways to do so. Like most teachers, turn-and-talk has been my go-to strategy for years. And it’s a powerful one. But while turn-and-talk gives students excellent practice in talking to one other person, it doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the complexities of group conversations where they have to share the floor and listen actively.
Once I realized this, I decided to be more much deliberate in organizing our classroom discussions to give kids varied and consistent practice at talking. This summer, I read Stephen Brookfield’s The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking and I’m currently reading Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question their Assumptions. Here are three new strategies I’ve already used—some developed from Brookfield’s work—to get my kids talking.
- Circular Response – We were discussing a recent article students had read. They came to class with their annotations ready to discuss. Instead of allowing them to simply turn-and-talk, I introduced them to this circular response protocol. I randomly assigned one student in each group to go first (for example, the student with the closest upcoming birthday). That student starts and then the discussion moves clockwise. Student 1 shares an observation about the text. Student 2 goes next, but must build upon what the first student has shared. Student 3 goes next and must do the same, so that every student must actively listen to the person before and build versus change the subject. I modeled with a whole close discussion first where every student goes, and then the class was divided into smaller groups of 6-8 students. This strategy, like the They Say, I Say one I share below, gives students practice in effective listening.
- Just One Line – I ask students to share a small piece of writing they had prepared for class (this was on a meaningful memory) and let them know they would be sharing in small groups the next day. When students got into their groups, I asked them read their writing to their groups. The other students are instructed to listen for “just one line” that stands out to them above the others and write the line at the top of an index card (they can the student writer to repeat lines when they are finished if needed). Then each student takes 3-5 minutes to write a reaction to “just one line.” They then share how they responded to that line in their group debrief and then give the index card to the original writer. This can be adapted into Just One Question, too. My hope is that these types of smaller sharing and feedback protocols will get students into the habit of being specific in their feedback to one another when they move into peer response groups.
- They Say, I Say – I adapted this activity from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book of the same name. While their work focuses on teaching students how to integrate the words and voices of others into academic writing, I turned it into a discussion protocol as well. Below, you can see how I ask students to listen carefully to what the student says before them, to summarize what that student has said, and then to agree or disagree thoughtfully as they share their own view. When I did this activity with my 9th graders a few weeks ago, some remarked that it was difficult in that it didn’t “feel” like a natural conversation. Notably, the students who made this observation were students who are already clearly comfortable talking (and sometimes dominating) group discussions. On the other hand, other students shared that what made the protocol work was that they felt like each person was really being listened to. My hope is that when students work in their peer response group later that they will have internalized some of the moves of active listening and agreeing/disagreeing thoughtfully.
With September almost over—I can’t believe how fast the year has already gone!—I feel good about the new structures I’ve put into place regarding discussion. If you have any other ideas for organizing instruction to promote peer response, I’d love to hear about them. Please share in the comments below. 🙂